7 Unusual Forms of Victorian Era Entertainment

Media based on true crime was just as enthralling then as it is now.
Perhaps she’s reading the screenplay for ‘The Murder in the Red Barn.’
Perhaps she’s reading the screenplay for ‘The Murder in the Red Barn.’ / swim ink 2 llc/GettyImages

People tend to think of the Victorian Era as a straitlaced, prim and proper age. After all, many (perhaps inaccurately) attribute the popular line “We are not amused” to Queen Victoria. But the truth is somewhat different, as the variety of unusual amusements enjoyed in the 19th century reflect.

The Dog Orchestra

Louis Lavater, an entertainer who worked with a circus, spent years preparing his dog orchestra for its debut in Amsterdam. The group was composed of six “gorgeously dressed” dogs with specially made instruments that were attached to their paws with small bracelets [PDF]. There was Jack, the trombone player; Tim on bass; Patsey as 1st violin; Prince on the big drum; Bob on the little drum; and Peter playing cymbals. In an 1897 issue of The Strand Magazine, it states that Lavater “pays from 18 pence to 5 shillings for a dog (never more)” and earns between £50 and £100 a week. 

Preparing a dog orchestra certainly had its issues. Prince on drums was too excitable; Jack on trombone had to learn to stand on two legs for 30 minutes at a time, and it took him three months to learn to balance his instrument. There was also the occasional troublemaker taking a nip at his neighbor while Lavater wasn’t looking. 

The Animal Impersonator

The animal impersonator Charles Lauri Junior was well-known in the theaters of London and Paris. With a change of costume, Lauri became any of a number of animals: a monkey, cat, dog, parrot, or ibis, to name a few. He performed in pantomimes and ballets; one of his most famous productions was an “Indian pantomime ballet” he wrote called The Sioux in which he played a monkey. The Sunday Times of London called it “a rollicking and bustling kind of affair with a strong suggestion of Buffalo Bill’s show.”

In an 1894 issue of The Strand Magazine, Harry How wrote of Lauri “becoming” a monkey: “The mask is an important item. This is put on the lower part of the face, so as to obtain the heavy, protruding jaw of the animal. It is made of a chocolate-coloured leather, with small straps. The movement of the eyebrows is obtained by a thread concealed in his heavy dress. The actor has a spring in his own mouth, which works the mouth of the animal and shows the two rows of ivory teeth.”

The Human Ostrich

black and white photo of a group of ostriches
Not pictured: Henry Harrison. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

The Human Ostrich was a very peculiar type of 19th-century entertainment. Ostriches, although naturally omnivores, will eat sand, pebbles, and other types of grit to grind down the food in their stomachs and aid digestion. Henry (also known as Samuel or Harry) Harrison, of Syracuse, New York, was a prominent “human ostrich” known for consuming the blades of pocketknives, pins, nails, glass, and more [PDF]. At the age of 6, he swallowed a pin, noticed no ill effects, and kept on swallowing pins until it became his unusual career.

It was all rather alarming for his parents; he eventually ran away and joined a circus, where he was a popular attraction. Harrison also visited medical schools and allowed any curious surgeon to cut him open for a fee and examine his innards. At least nine took him up on his offer—one even sliced into his neck to examine his throat. Surprisingly, it was not these exploratory operations that wound up injuring the Human Ostrich: An x-ray of his stomach burned him so badly it left him incapacitated for more than a year and a half.

The Burlesque Bullfight

This “bullfight” attracted the attention of Queen Victoria, who, as The Strand Magazine reported in 1899, sent a telegram to the organizers [PDF]: “The Queen is inquiring about rumoured bull-fight. Please telegraph precisely what is proposed. Even if the intention is only burlesque with dogs, Queen is anxious there should be no cruelty.”

The entertainment in question was performed by dogs named Shutthatdor and Bangthatdor who were dressed in carefully padded bull costumes and faced a “matador.” As one source described it, the dog’s “bloodshot eyes roll from side to side even as balls of fire; he is cautiously followed by the very man deputed to spell his doom by means of the ghastly tin sword firmly gripped in his right hand.” The dog then charged until the matador finally placed the banderilleros into the horsehair costume, “killing” the bull. The dog would next feign death and be dragged from the arena on a sack pulled by a horse. 

Post-performance, in acknowledgment of being very good boys, each dog received many well-earned treats.

Richard Usher the Clown

Richard Usher was a clown and theater designer who began performing slightly before the Victorian era began. In July of 1818, in his most famous stunt, he sailed down the River Thames in a washtub pulled by four geese. Huge crowds cheered him on his way from Westminster to Waterloo Bridge, where he intended to proceed to the Coburg Theatre in a cart drawn by eight tomcats. 

That last part of his plan didn’t quite go as intended, as one source recounted: “The first part of this journey he performed in safety; but, although the mousers were regularly harnessed, so great was the crowd in the Waterloo-road that it was impossible to proceed; in consequence several ‘jolly young watermen’ shoulder[ed] Usher…, and bore them in triumph to the theatre.”

The Aztec Children

This is a sad but not unusual story for an era when people with physical differences were often part of circus exhibits. Maximo and Bartola were Salvadoran siblings born with microcephaly (a medical condition that causes a baby to have a small head) and developmental delays. Their mother was tricked into giving the children to a Spanish trader who said he would take them to either the Caribbean or America for a cure.

The trader instead sold Maximo and Bartola to an American promoter, who turned around and created an elaborate backstory that said the kids had been found in a temple in a lost city and were members of the extinct Aztec race. With the help of some convincing costuming, the duo attracted the attention of ethnologists, the general public, U.S. President Millard Fillmore, and even Napoleon and Queen Victoria. The siblings eventually became part of P.T. Barnum’s circus and were exhibited at his American Museum.

The Murder in the Red Barn

Illustration of the Red Barn
The Red Barn. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Victorians were fascinated with true crime. Stage shows depicting notorious murders were typical (think Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd), and one of them was the 1840 melodrama Maria Marten, also known as The Murder in the Red Barn. Marten lived in the village of Polestead, Suffolk, and was a mother of two when she met William Corder, who seduced her and persuaded her to elope with him in 1827. 

The couple planned to meet at a village landmark called the Red Barn. But Corder instead murdered Maria, through means of stabbing, shooting, and strangling, and buried her under the building. He wrote letters to her family pretending to be Maria; the murder wasn’t discovered for nearly a year, by which time Corder had married another woman. He was tried, and when he was sentenced to death by hanging, 5000 people lined up to see his dead body. The Victorian fascination with the case resulted in popular songs and theater plays. The village where Maria was murdered even became a tourist hotspot

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