Historical Flea Circuses
The history of flea circuses is full of mystery and mis-information as the entrepreneurs
who ran these shows often hyped up or invented the missing facts. For this reason
it is very difficult to accurately determine some of the early origins.
Although the Aztecs had
statues of fleas made from stone, there are no records of them training
Dressed Fleas - pulgas vestidas
Perhaps because of the Aztec's curiousity in fleas the Mexican tradition of pulgas vestidas was created.
Fleas are dressed and painted to represent little people. One recurrant themes is
a wedding party which leads us to speculate as to if these are wedding gifts. There
have been reports that these dressed fleas were made by nuns, but whoever did it
they would have needed excellent eyesight and a steady hand.
Charles Rothchild once purchased some dressed fleas thinking that they were a scientifc
collection only to be surprised when they were delivered..
Some of these dressed fleas can still be seen in Tring Museum. Other possible locations
are the London
Natural History Museum, The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland,
Witte Museum in San Antonio,
Henriqueta M. Catharino Museum of Art in Salvador and Phoebe
A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology
Before the Circus
The first people to harness fleas were watch makers who were trying to demonstrate their skills in fine manipulation. Mark Scaliot is 1578 is credited with locking a flea to a chain with "a lock consisting of eleven different pieces of steel, iron, and brass which, together with the key belonging to it, weighed only one grain"24. The Doctor of Physik / Country Farmer Thomas Moffett who was reported to be the father of "Little Miss Muffett" was a renowm entomologist and wrote of chained fleas in his manuscript "Theatre of Insects"21 and in verse in the poem "The silkwormes and their flies" as early as 1599. In 1742 Mr Boverick, a watchmaker just of the Strand was reported in the London Advertiser to display a flea pulling a chaise and another pulling a landau. A few years later on Feb 29th 1764 John Henry Mauclerc reported seeing an "ivory chaise", wih four wheels, and all the proper apparatus belonging to them, turning readily on their axles together, with a man fitting in the chaise, all drawn along by a flea, without any seeming difficulty the chaise, man and flea, being barely equal to a single grain."7. In 1857 Charles Manby Smith, the social investigator describes a spectacle that could be seen for a penny, "a flea harnessed to a brass cannon on wheels, which it actually drags along"23
Possibly the most famous flea circus performer was
L. Bertolotto who I am researching in more details.
- "The Cambridge Guide to Theatre" reports of a Swiss man called Heinrich Degeller performing in Stuttgart in 1812. This was told to the author by a man who had talked to the Hecklers. Jay's Journal of Anomalies has an additional reference.7. Goldsmith Johann Heinrich Deggeller was also reported to be in Münich in 1821.
- Mimi Garneau was more famous for being a
sword swallower but
she was also flea circus trainer. Postcards of Mimi performing frequently appear
- There has long been a tradition of a Flea Circus at the Munich Oktoberfest and for
over 50 years this was run by the Mathes family who have been running traditional
Flea Circuses for over 150 years. Recent reports indicate that this is still running.
- British Pathe News reported
flea circuses in the 1950s. Monsieur Roberts tame flea circus in Paris and Trainer
Miss Jackson from Jeffries Flea Circus at Bingley Hall, Birmingham with her jugglers,
tightrope walkers, fencers and ballet dancers.
- In New York the Father and Son team Roy and William Heckler ran Hubert's Flea Circus in
Time Square for many years and even had an ex-baseball player working there at one
point. Ellen Witko writes about her Great Uncle Professor LeRoy Heckeler.
- George Jean Nathan, essayist and theatre critic stated that Professor Hupf (Professor
Hop) originated the flea circus in 1885 in Koblentz, Germany4.
- However John C. Ruhl is credited of bringing the flea circus from Germany to California.
Heckler claims that Ruhl "aquired the modus operandi from a Siberian exile whom
he helped escape to Paris, the prisoner having learned about fleas by studying their
behavior patterns during long, dreary years chained to a salt-mines' wheelbarrow".
This has yet to be rearched for factual accuracy4.
Professor Ruhl's flea circus performed in Winnipeg
Jun 9-14,1913 and then at the Hubert's museum before the arrival of Heckler.
- Coney Island had a flea circus as did Long Beach in California.
- Back in 1964, Tom Palmer aka Tony Andruzzi created his "The Famous Flea Act" which
he published in booklet form in 1975. This is a humbug or magical performance with no fleas. The booklet are available from some Magic stores.
Although the climate in England is not ideally suited to fleas there have historically been many shows here.
- Professor Len Tomlin in Manchester had to close down his Bellevue flea circus due
to lack of fleas in the late 1900s. His show was sold to a local museum and then
sold again when the museum closed down. Professor Tomlin also performed in Blackpool.
in Sussex, had a model theatre with performing fleas, the hoardings read 'Patrons
Itch for Encores' and 'Fat lady of Mars supported by Performing Fleas'
- London's Leicester Square also had a flea circus.
- Professor England's Royal Exhibition of Performing Fleas in 1892 visited Nottingham's Goose Fair.
- Blackpool had many different visting Professors with flea circuses8.
- Professor Likonti claimed to have found his fleas in the East End of London.
Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen Denmark
William Torp toured
the UK in the 1920s. After a period in Egypt in 1952 he went on to setup the
Flea Circus in Tivoliwith his wife Else Torp16.
The show closed in 1974.
His son John Torp followed in his fathers footsteps and performed with flea circuses in the USA and the Canary
Islands as well as appearing on What's my Line and the Johnny Carson Show.
Some postcards of the Tivoli Flea Circus
still remain and sometimes appear on Ebay.
When I visited Tivoli in 2005, I found the alley where the flea circus once had
been and talked to the printer there. He did remembered the show and pointed me
at a large tree behind which the Loppe Cirkus performances used to shown. Sadly, the printer no longer print posters or
postcards of the flea circus.
Although I missed it myself, I've captured a few people's memories of their trips to the Flea Circus at Tivoli
There have been many problems and disasters plaguing historical flea circuses.
There are several reference books with details of flea circuses
- East Side, West Side: Tales of New York Sporting Life 1910-1960 - mentions Hubert's
Museum and Flea Circus
- The Life that Lives on Man has detailed sections about fleas including how the breed,
how they jump and a section on circues.
- Fleas by Joanna Cole again has details of breeding and some of the best illustrations
of the different types of fleas I have seen.
- Wild Tigers & Tame Fleas Ballantine, Bill 1958 dedicates a whole chapter to Hubert's Flea Circus
- Dr Richard Wiseman's essay is a good general reference and is available on Walt Noon's website.
- The Compleat Flea by Brendan Lehane fits the description of the title quite well
and has a good section on Flea Circuses.
- Jay's Journal of Anomalies
is perhaps the most complete description of Flea Circus history and has 2 good sections
with many illustrations not found else where.
web site has some details of flea circuses throughout the ages.
- No People like Show People. Muller - Pete Collins 1957
- "Fireworks, Bonfires, Ballrooms and More:" New York's Palace Garden
by John Frick, Professor, Theatre History, University of Virginia History Department
- Cochran, By James Harding 1988, Methuen Publishing
- Household Words Vol Xiii Page 599
- New York Daily Tribune Jan 18 1859 clip supplied by
Headlines in History
- Annals of the New York Stage. By George C. D. Odell references many performances
in New York in the 1800s.
- Mimi and
Her Fleas by Ward Hall, edited by John Robinson from
- She Owns Flea
Circus by Bill Russell
- Historical Eloge of James Watt By François Arago Published 1839 J.Murray - "Read
at the public meeting of the Academy of sciences, on the 8th of December, 1834."
- Victorian London By Liza Picard is a good reference to the other activites and entertainments that were happening at the same time as Bertolotto's Flea Circus.
- The diary of a surgeon in the year 1751-1752 by John Knyveton. Edited and Transcribed
by Earnes Gray. Available from the Wellcome Trust Library.
- Lord William Russell and
his wife, 1815-1846 by Georgiana Blakiston Page 434. Publisher: London, J. Murray,
1972. ISBN: 0719522420 9780719522420 Also available from the London Library in St
- Moffett, Thomas - Theatre of Insects this can be accessed at the British Library via Early English Books Online, see also Moffett's poem, "The silkwormes and their flies" also to be found there.
- Humanism, machinery, and Renaissance literature / Jessica Wolfe.
- The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - A First Word - Amusements of the Moneyless
- The Bookworm. An Illustrated Treasury of Old-Time Literature. Elliot Stock, 62, Parernoster Row. 1893.
- The Times, Nov 26, 1833. Issue 15332
- Hallisches patriotsches wochenblatt, In commission der buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1836
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