Harvard Theatre Collection via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Lately, if you mention clowns, people think of creepy clown sightings or perhaps various political campaigns. But in the mid-1800s, if you said clown and politics in the same sentence, everyone who heard you would think of Dan Rice.
Rice was arguably the most famous entertainer in America in the latter half of the 19th century. Born in New York in 1823, he became a clown, a comedian, an acrobat, a strongman, an animal trainer, a singer, a dancer, an impresario, a political commentator, and an occasional political candidate during his lifetime. He was so famous that some think his trademark look—goatee, striped pants or formal suit with a top hat—may have been one of the models for Uncle Sam’s image (although some evidence also exists to show that Uncle Sam predates Rice).
In Rice’s day, the American circus was in its infancy. In the early 1800s the circus was frequently an animal show, usually centered on equestrian acts. When Rice started in show business in the 1840s, he presented trained animal acts, including "Sybil, the Learned Pig” (also known as Lord Byron) and later his trained horse Excelsior. At one point, he even presented a trained rhinoceros and an elephant who could walk across a tightrope. But Rice also expanded from the basic animal show to add more acrobats and the clowns that we expect in a circus today, helping to give the circus something of its modern form.
As Rice’s circuses became famous, they toured all over the country, by wagon in the East and by boat in the South. When winter came, he moved his shows into cities and indoors into theaters, sometimes drawing thousands. The circus of the 1800s was not for kids, and Rice’s shows were wild and wooly affairs. Performances featured lots of ladies in tight, skimpy clothes and double entendres (or even all-out dirty jokes) flying around the ring. If a fight didn’t break out during a performance or outside of the tent, it was notable. According to legend, the exclamation “Hey, Rube!”—a cry used for decades by circus roustabouts and carnies to call for help whenever a fight broke out—was based on the time a member of Dan Rice’s troupe was caught in a fight in New Orleans and yelled for help to his friend Reuben.
But it was his clowning and commentary that made Rice most famous; to a modern audience, Rice’s act would resemble a stand-up comedy show. He stood in the center ring—at first with one of his animals and later by himself—and emitted a constant stream of comic patter. (Think Robin Williams at his fastest and Jon Stewart at his most political.) He would comment on anything and everything, and exchanged rapid-fire quips with audience members.
As America’s middle class grew and started looking for respectability, Rice gradually began billing his productions more often as shows instead of circuses (by then, circuses were seen as lowbrow entertainment). He also began to call himself “the Great American Humorist.” One of his signature acts was to perform witty parodies of Shakespeare’s plays.
Rice was involved in politics during most of this life, mostly as a commentator, but also sometimes as a candidate. As the Civil War approached, Rice’s political leanings—and his commentary—moved toward the Democrats and away from abolition and the new Republican Party. This was a position that he continued to hold during the war. He ran for the state senate in Pennsylvania as a Democrat in 1864, but lost the election. In 1868, he made a serious run for president, but withdrew from the campaign when he realized that he was unlikely to win. After the Civil War, there were stories that Rice had gone to the White House during the conflict to tell jokes and cheer up Lincoln—but these are probably tales Rice himself spread around.
Rice’s personal fortunes took a variety of twists and turns. He got rich, then lost his money several times over. Later in life, he became an alcoholic and died broke in 1900 in Long Branch, New Jersey. But his memory lives on: The town of Girard, Pennsylvania, where Rice made his home and winter headquarters for many years, still holds Dan Rice Days every summer to honor his legacy.