Little Bits of History

Daring Young Man

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 12, 2013
Jules Léotard

Jules Léotard

November 12, 1859: The Cirque Napoleon presents a new and spectacular circus act. Jules Léotard was the son of a gymnasium instructor. His date of birth is unknown but is thought to have been in 1842. He had passed all his exams and was on the brink of entering into the Practice of Law. Instead, he began to play with trapeze bars, ropes, and rings while suspended over a swimming pool. He became adept at the moves and joined the circus. His opening night’s performance lasted for 12 minutes. He spun between three trapezes and ended by somersaulting onto a carpet-covered mat. The safety net wasn’t invented until 1871.

The act was unprecedented. His co-workers were so impressed they threw a lavish party and gave Jules a medal. He had to move freely between his swinging trapezes and so also invented a costume, the eponymous one-piece, skin-tight, long-sleeved garment was built for freedom of movement and to show off his muscled physique. He called the outfit a maillot, French for bathing suit. Today it is called a leotard in his honor. By 1861, Jules was flying over the heads of diners at the Alhambra Theatre in London and earning £180 per week, or about £5,000 in today’s economy. He died in Spain in 1870 of smallpox of cholera.

The modern circus was invented in London in 1768. Philip Astley combined horseback riding with acrobatic skills and entertained the masses. The first ring was created in 1779 and it measured 42.5 feet in diameter, a standard still used today. The term “circus” was coined by Charles Hughes in 1782. In 1793, Bill Ricketts moved to Philadelphia along with his troupe of entertainers, bringing the circus to America and by 1797 he was performing in Quebec as well.

By 1825, the circus was a worldwide phenomenon. It moved under the big top when Joshua Purdy Brown adapted a tent to the purpose. The Cirque Napoleon was established in 1852 and is now called the Cirque d’Hiver. Today, circuses are held in arenas. Even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey abandoned the Big Top in 1956. There are schools scattered around the world teaching the performers the necessary skills so they, too, can run away and join the circus.

“He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young man on the flying trapeze.” – George Leybourne

“Next to a circus there ain’t nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit.” – Kin Hubbard

“The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous will happen.” – Claude Debussy

“Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don’t take anything too seriously, it’ll all work out in the end.” – David Niven

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: A trapeze is simply a short horizontal bar hung between ropes or metal straps. The horizontal bar is parallel to the ground, but it is high in the air. Performances use various methods. A static trapeze act has the performer working on a bar that is not moving, hence the name. There are moves along the bar and suspension cords while the bar itself remains stable. A swinging trapeze has a performer executing tricks while a bar swings through the air. The performer can actually leave the trapeze, but instead of moving across space, lands back on the same bar from which he or she started. Doing a flying trapeze act means that the performer is flying between at least two different trapezes with or without secondary performers on the other bars. These acts often have the flyer, the person who goes between bars, and a catcher, the person responsible for plucking the flyer from the air as they move through space. These acts are often performed over a safety net.

Also on this day: Thar She Blows – In 1970, a rotting beached whale was removed from an Oregon beach, sorta.
Terrorist Attack – In 1997, Ramzi Yousef was found guilty of the WTC bombing of 1993.
Found – In 1912, Robert Scott’s frozen body was found.