Return home

COLUMN: There was a time when the circus called Utica home

Lou Parrotta
Sentinel columnist
Posted 2/4/23

The Robinson brothers, natives of the Albany-Schenectady area, relocated with their parents to Utica in the early 1800s.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

COLUMN: There was a time when the circus called Utica home


The Robinson brothers, natives of the Albany-Schenectady area, relocated with their parents to Utica in the early 1800s. Their father worked as a blacksmith in Utica, and one brother, Alexander, followed in his footsteps but just for a short period.

After his brother John ran away, to join a circus in the southern part of the United States at a young age, Alexander forwent the blacksmith trade and entered the
circus world himself.

John, eventually called “Uncle John” by his fellow circus performers and business managers, became a megastar in the industry.

He was considered one of the “greatest circus proprietors of the world,” and was highly regarded for his “honest(y), fair-minded(ness), and shrewd(ness).”

He eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, and when died in August 1888, his estate was valued at approximately $3 million.

He earned a reputation as a real dare devil, expert horse rider, and as an unparalleled teacher of the inner workings of the trade to hundreds of the best performers to come after him. His brothers James and Boyd joined with his circus on-and-off over the years, and his sons and grandsons carried on his legacy until the first half of the 20th century.

Alexander decided to call Utica home when he entered the circus industry. He began in the trade by starting the Robinson, Toole & Lake’s Circus, and after its breakup, he joined with Levi J. North for a show playing along the eastern part of the United States.

When North called it quits, Alexander carried on without him and titled his show Alexander Robinson’s Great European Circus and Menagerie.

Together with his wife, Mary Jane Deery Robinson whom he wed in 1855, they made their home at 64 Whitesboro St. in west Utica, and their circus headquarters was on the corner of Eagle Street and Seymour Avenue. For more than 25 years, the show traveled the world but always returned to Utica in the winter for its offseason.

Mary Jane served as the de facto manager of the circus while Alexander operated the ticket-taking booth. Together the couple ably led their group of performers for nearly three decades.

Alexander’s circus performers included the noted clowns Hiram Day and Charles Corelli along with numerous contortionists, gymnasts, somersault equestrians, six-horse riders, dancing horses and pygmy trick ponies. The house band that traveled with the company was the Ludwig’s Cornet Band, and the “Master of the Circle“ (today’s ringmaster) was the well-known Oliver Dodge.

Some other noted performers that worked for the Robinson’s at one time or another were Leapers Burris and Kelly. Bareback rider Jimmie Robinson (relationship unknown), Expert Rider John Robinson (again, relationship unknown), and Henrietta Ripley. One other performer of note was James A. Bailey, the future business partner of P. T. Barnum.

The circus enjoyed a successful 27-year run until Alexander retired in 1878. Over the years, it endured several interesting (and sometimes scary) occurrences. An unexpected tornado in Canton, PA, almost cost Mary Jane her life. On October 14, 1875, a tiger escaped its confines at Eagle and Seymour in the middle of the night, and it took four workers to retrieve the beast who roamed the Cornhill section of the city.

Then, in 1876, an act of arson destroyed the circus’ barns, but luckily the troupe had not yet returned home and no animal or transport vehicle were hurt.

Alexander Robinson passed away at age 75 due to apoplexy on Feb. 17, 1885. Mary Jane survived him by nearly 16 years. Toward the end of her life, she moved to 51 Broad St. and became active in the Trinity Church congregation of Utica. She died on Feb. 3, 1903 at age 83. Surviving the Robinsons were children Boyd Robinson and Mrs. Helen Ripley, and two adopted children who were also former performers in the troupe Alexander and Hannah.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here