In 2016, Milner Library received one of its largest grants ever to collaborate with Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, to digitize circus route books in order to make their important history widely available. Work to digitize more than 300 route books was completed in the summer of 2020, although work continues as staff continue to improve the discoverability of the important historical information housed in the route books. Below, Digital Imaging Specialist Elizabeth Harman shares part of her experience working on this fascinating project.
When I was first hired onto the grant to work on the Circus Route Book collection as a digital imaging specialist in 2017, I could have never anticipated what my job would entail after three and a half years (and counting). The first phase of my job consisted of digitizing the 306 books that were to be published in the online collection. Once that was completed with the help of some amazing student workers, there was enough time in the original grant period to collect data on each of the books. The goal of this was to make the books easily researched and accessible and is where my journey really diving into the books began. I have now read each of the books multiple times through and have learned so much about the circus and its performers these past two years. Each book has its own unique charms and stories which made it difficult not to get lost within them. It is not hard to see how much the circus affected society and the world we see today: They were the ultimate celebrities and entertainers of their time. Though many performers led fantastic, and sometimes unbelievable lives, one in particular piqued my interest.
My journey in discovering Josie Demott began with an inability to find a name authority record of her in the Library of Congress while collecting data for the collection, despite being a prominent performer for Barnum and Bailey. It wasn’t until after the fifth book that I found a name authority record on her as Josephine Demott Robinson, which was connected only to the memoir she wrote on her own life, The Circus Lady, in 1926.
The 1889-1890 Barnum Review described her as “the most distinguished and versatile of all principal bareback equestriennes,” and there is a full-page spread of her with the quote, “Back to her first love,” in later books. This told me that there was more to her story than I had initially found and led to a personal discovery of just how extraordinary of a person she was.
Josephine was literally born to be in the circus, so it is no wonder that it was her first love. Both of her parents were performers, and Josie began performing herself at a very young age as an equestrienne. She performed until she got married, when she left to become a housewife. After a move across the United States to Alaska in a failed search for gold, they eventually made their way back to Josie’s home state of New York. She rejoined the circus in 1906 at nearly 40 years old. Her love for the circus carried her through many tough years and through to retirement. She turned the farm in New York into a place to train horses, and it eventually became a training school for other young female riders and where women could come to recover from various anxieties and illnesses.
An article published just this past April delved into her affiliation with the women’s suffrage movement. This was a very fitting time to highlight her efforts, considering the U.S. has recently celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She helped lead the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society along with other female circus performers, who marched together in support of the suffrage movement.
A few years later, Josephine adopted the daughter of Slivers Oakley, a fellow performer who had passed away. She then sold the farm and taught classes in Manhattan until her death in 1948. She did one final show in 1935 at the age of 67, and was still able to still do shoulder stands on a moving horse.
The life of Josephine Demott was an exciting one to say the least, and I am very grateful that the route books brought me a glimpse into her world. Her first love carried her through all the adventures of life, and I hope her story can encourage others in the discovery of their own passions and all they can accomplish through them.
Additional information on Josie Demott Robinson