Van Hare the Ultimate Showman of the 1800s

G. Van Hare was the ultimate showman of the 1800s and traveled to nearly every European country during his fifty-year career. In his travels he experienced an endless string of odd adventures and unusual experiences that included interesting incidences with not only people but also dogs, lions, and a gorilla.

G. Van Hare. Public domain.

One interesting story about Van Hare is after he purchased a nearly 1-year-old Newfoundland pup in 1857 It became known as Napoleon the Wizard Dog and eventually ended up in his show. Napoleon was said to be as smart as he was handsome, and the Illustrated Sporting Times and Theatrical and Music-Hall Review wrote an article about him on 20 September 1862 stating:

“Napoleon, the Wizard Dog is a beautiful jet black, has limbs like a lion, and is perfect in symmetry in every point. He stands thirty-four inches high, measures forty-one inches round the chest, eleven inches round the fore leg, and seventy-nine inches from the end of his nose to the tip of his tail. His head is noble and handsome, full of intelligence, such as a Landseer would paint.”[1]

Van Hare’s Napoleon, the Wizard Dog. Author’s collection.

According to Van Hare, Napoleon became his constant companion. The dog was also supposedly so smart he only needed to be shown a trick once to learn it, and people reported he did many tricks, including spelling his own name, playing cards, leaping over boards, spring-boarding across horses, and jumping through balloon hoops.

Unfortunately, when performing at Evan’s Music Hall in 1868, Napoleon injured himself. The stage was covered with oil cloth that made it slippery and when he leapt over a row of chairs he did not have a firm footing and fell when he landed. A highly respected veterinarian examined him, but it was useless. Inflammation set in, he died, and the heartbroken Van Hare later stated:

“This was the greatest bereavement I had ever experienced through life, he having been my constant and inseparable companion … I had beautiful mourning cards got up purposely for him … ‘In memory of Mr. Van Hare’s Celebrated Dog ‘Napoleon’ who died 24th April 1868, aged 12 years. He was the most noble, sagacious, and affectionate of animals, and a universal favourite in every country he visited. – ‘He was a dog, take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.’”[2]

The Dundee Advertiser mentioned Napoleon’s demise on 4 May 1868:

“Death of a Celebrated Four-Footed Artiste – Mr. Van Hare’s renowned dog, Napoleon, designated ‘The Wizard Dog,’ died on 24th ult., aged twelve years. He was a noble specimen of the Newfoundland breed (weighing near 200 lbs.) for which he took the prize at the first Agricultural Hall Dog Show. Besides his magnificent appearance and symmetry, he was the most extraordinary sagacious and highly-trained animal ever known. He is now being preserved and beautifully mounted by the celebrated naturalist, Mr. Edwin Ward.”[3]

The same year that Napoleon died Van Hare met an interesting woman named Julia Pastrana, a performer and singer billed as “The Nondescript.” At the time the famous American businessman and showman P.T. Barnum was in London and he accompanied Van Hare to see her. They met her at the Regent Gallery in a private room before she put on an exhibit. However, the 4-foot 6-inch woman would not remove the thick veil that covered her body until her husband and manager, Mr. Lent, arrived. When the veil came off this is what Van Hare and Barnum saw:

“[H]er nose, forehead, face, shoulders and arms were covered with thick black hair, and all her body was hairy except her bosom, hands, and feet; … no apparent pupil in the eye, no cartilage in the nose; possessed double gums in her jaws, but only a row of front teeth.”[4]

Julia Pastrana. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Julia was an anomaly born with a genetic condition, hypertrichosis terminalis, which caused an abnormal amount of hair to grow over her body. Her ears and nose were also unusually large and her teeth were irregular, caused by a rare disease that was undiagnosed in her lifetime called Gingival hyperplasia, which also thickened her lips and gums. A few years after Van Hare saw her, she died in March of 1860 during childbirth while visiting St. Petersburg. After her death, Lent contacted Professor Sukolov of Moscow University and had his wife and unborn son mummified for £500.

“[The doctor] embalmed her so naturally, that Mr. Lent thought that he could make a fortune by exhibiting her, and gave the doctor £800 for her back; but, to his surprise and disappointment, the authorities would not allow him to show her in Russia. He afterwards had her on exhibition at the Burlington Gallery, Piccadilly.”[5]

Around the 1860s, after searching for novelties for his show in Morocco, Van Hare went to London, and it was there he met Mr. E.T. Smith, the proprietor of Royal Alhambra Palace, Leicester Square. The meeting happened the first night after Van Hare’s circus performed. Smith came to him, shook his hand, and said, “Van, this is the best circus company I have seen. You can put my name on the bills.”[6] Thereafter, advertisements for Van Hove’s show, included Smith’s name.

While performing at the Alhambra, Van Hare drew together an extraordinary troupe, numbering over thirty artists. Because of their amazing abilities, Van Hare list them individually and began running the following advertisement:

“EVERY EVENING, the CHAMPION VAULTERS of the GLOBE – Europe, Asia, Africa, and America – The renowned Artistes the BROTHERS BERRI, the marvellous Gymnasts – CHRISTOA, the Phenomenon, the most extraordinary performer on the sue-le-corde in the world – … Mr. James Cooke, the Great English Horseman and Champion Vaulter; the only artist who ever attempted the feat of leaping over eleven horses – Mddle. Josephine the greatest bare-back Equestrienne in the world – Mddle. Clementine, the most fascinating Scene-Act Rider in Europe – Romeo, the wonderful Somersault Act-Rider; and Luigi, the great Bare-back Vaulter, &c. &c.”[7]

Soon after advertising them as the champion vaulters of the globe something happened that gave the show a big boost and drew in large crowds:

“One of the best horses in the stud was in the ring, and when the act was finished and the horse being led out by the groom, one of the clowns caught hold of his tail, pretending to pull him back, when the horse’s tail came off. This created quite a sensation in the house. The audience thought it was a most cruel thing, and would no doubt have caused a disturbance had it not been explained to them. The horse had the misfortune to be born with a rat-tail, and to improve his appearance they had a false tail made to fix on him before he had to appear in the arena; the clown, not being aware of the counterfeit tail, was tricked as well as the audience.”[8]

Fortunately, the clown’s mistake turned into a hit for Van Hare, and for several weeks after, he took advantage of the sensation it caused and received an increase in profits. He stated in his advertisements, “The Champion Vaulters of the Globe create an excitement with the audience equal to that of a Derby Day.”

Another interesting story that happened to Van Hare involves something that happened behind the scenes with E.T. Smith, who Van Hare described as always being a fellow of the “jocular sort.” One day as Van Hare was strolling around the circus he entered the refreshment room and found Smith and several other “waggish” gentlemen involved in an unorthodox fight that involved some newly patented siphon bottles from which they were squirting soda water at each other. Van Hare reported:

“E.T. let me have it hot right in the face, as if coming from a steam engine, which took all the starch out of my white vest, &c. I slammed the door … and left them to fight it out amongst themselves. After the circus was over I revisited the scene of conflict; the room was a sea of soda-water, and altogether looking the ruins of mischief … I ascertained that they had had five dozen of those … syphon bottles … which were all empty and several broken, and that all the gentlemen had to go home in closed cabs, like drowned rats, to change their clothes.”[9]

Van Hare also related tales of him once performing with lions. It happened while he was in Havana. He had made friends with the lion tamer, Herr Jounglar, who one day became ill with a fever. Each day his situation worsened until he died. His distraught wife sent for Van Hare and mustered up the courage to ask if he would perform with the lions as she had no money and knew no one else who would dare. He thought about it and realizing Jounglar’s wife predicament, agreed. He then spent several days outside the cages letting the lions get to know him. On the third day he decided that he had to enter the cages and reported:

“I rushed in with the heart of a lion, poor Jounglar’s whip in hand. The animals were at once struck with awe, and crouched into their usual corner. I felt at once I was their master; I placed the hoop against the iron bars for them to leap through; the first came up with a growl. I gave him a good cut with a whip, which he answered pretty quickly by flying through the hoop like lightning, and the others followed suit. I found I could do as I liked with them, and put them through their performance, and backed out of the cage.”[10]

Van Hare taming the lions. Public domain.

Van Hare them began advertising himself as Professor Van Hare, the “African Traveller.” News spread about him training the lions and curiosity seekers wanted to see if he would live or die, so, consequently, when the show advertised him as the lion tamer, there were more sightseers than the arena could hold. When Van Hare appeared, he received a 10-minute standing ovation and then took the animals through their performance without a hitch. He continued to perform as the lion tamer until he left Havana at the end of the season.

Professor Van Hare also once tamed a gorilla. He christened the beast “Hanssan, the Gorilla Chief” because, according to Van Hare, his eyes resembled those of “a clever Arab, who was the chief of an Arab troupe I formerly had.”[11] The gorilla was said to have “gladiatorial strength” and when he began to perform one London newspaper provided the following:

“We have had besides performing dogs, monkeys, and goats, but the most startling, greatest, and latest novelty is a performing gorilla. Hassan … was captured in West Africa, when only two years old, by Mr. Van Hare. He is now between eight and nine years of age, and although only half-grown, stands between four and five feet high, and is said to be the finest specimen of his kind ever captured. For the first twelve months he continued so wild that Mr. Van Hare almost despaired of ever taming him; but by kindness, and being constantly with him, he at length became docile. For three years he practised six hours a day, and the result is that Hassan is now an accomplished artist on the tight-rope. He ascends the pole, takes the seat prepared for him, assumes the balancing pole or flags in his hands, and executes several dances in perfect time to the music, jumps through hoops while on the rope both backward and forward, walks upright, sits on a chair, and executes an acrobatic performance with an agility which no human gymnast could equal.”[12]

Hassan, the Gorilla Chief. Public domain.

After acquiring Hassan, Van Hare developed routines with him. Every morning the gorilla received a cold bath and two or three times a week he was shampooed. At night before putting him to bed, Van Hare always gave him a glass of rum and water sweetened with honey. Besides feeding him all sorts of fruits, rice, eggs, and oatmeal, Hassan took a liking to English strawberries. He also supped on what was termed gorilla soup, a very strong soup made from leg of beef that guests who tried it, praised highly.

People reported that Hassan was extremely docile and that he was greatly attached to Van Hare. In fact, after his dog Napoleon died, Van Hare spent a great deal of time with Hassan. Despite, their close relationship, Van Hare reported that the gorilla caused mischief and provided the following example of his naughty nature:

“If I was sitting in my easy-chair he would come slyly on to my lap, where he would sit quietly watching and skimming over the newspaper … if it was a book I was reading he would show his appreciation of the novel, if he perceived my attention taken from it, by biting a piece of the corner off it, and in a moment he would be at the other end of the room looking perfectly satisfied that he had accomplished something clever.”[13]

Another time when Hassan was left alone he decided to “ornament himself” and rubbed a packet of plaster of Paris, a jar of black paint, and another jar of red paint all over himself. He had also created a mixture that included a sack of sawdust, a bag of sand, a bottle of cod liver oil, and a packet of flower of brimstone in Van Hare’s room. Van Hare was so upset when he saw the colorful Hassan and the mess, he said he broke every whip for fear that he might chastise him too harshly.

In 1869, Van Hare sent a note to The Era editor about Hassan’s abilities and after the editor had claimed that monkeys had short memories:

“I have one now, at least, a specie of baboon (papio maimon), who would make half-a-dozen of Boss. He has been my travelling companion six years. I have taken great trouble in teaching him, not with the idea of making an exhibition of him, but to ascertain to what extent their capacities might be developed; and can assure you that Hassan (that is his christened name) has proved himself in every way an apt scholar, and an accomplished artiste, and as to his memory, it is superior to many bipeds. I have known him to be six months without practising his leaping and somersaults through papered hoops, and not make the least demur in going through this special performance, the same as if he had executed the feat every day.”[14]

Even though Van Hare may not have been training Hassan to perform, he was persuaded to show him and his first performance was given at Astley’s on Saturday 27 November 1869. News of the gorilla’s appearance was published in the Times:

“E.T. Smith informs his patrons that he has received a communication for Hassan, the celebrated Chief of the tribe of Gorillas, that in consequence of his having read an article in the Standard newspaper ‘that distinguished naturalists have decided that the performances of extraordinary animals of the monkey race are without a parallel in the history of Zoology,’ and marvels that they should have been so perfectly trained, & c., he applied to and obtained permission of Mr. Van Hare … and Mr. Van Hare having consented … the public will have an opportunity of witnessing for the first time in London, the Great and Marvellous Performance à la Blondin on the tight-rope, by Hassan , the Gorilla Chief. … His performances must be seen to be believed. Remember Astley’s, Saturday, Nov. 27th.[15]

Hassan and Van Hare even once got a royal invitation to visit. It happened when the Russian Czar invited them to his palace. Never having seen a gorilla before, those present were astonished at what a fine specimen Hassan was and were greatly surprised he so resembled human beings. During the visit, Van Hare called for a glass of wine, which was brought to him on a gold salver, and then he handed the glass to Hassan and told him to drink to the Imperial Majesty’s health. Van Hare provided the details:

“He rose from his chair, kissed his hand to the audience, drank off the wine, and placed the glass on the salver, kissed his hand again, then sat down in his chair … the Czar laughed heartily … but Master Hassan made a hole in his manners, for the Emperor asked for the golden salver, with which the gorilla had been served and rose to present him (the gorilla) with it for his future service.

But as he approached … Hassan’s hair rose on end; he opened his mouth with a loud bark, as if he was going to swallow his Imperial Majesty. And the Emperor in his fright dropped the salver on the floor. This created great consternation amongst the Royal party, who crowded round the Czar; and I stood trembling in fear that poor Hassan would be ordered to immediate execution, or we should be sent to Siberia for life.”[16]

Fortunately for Van Hare and Hassan, the Emperor had a good sense of humor. He smiled and then without either reproach or compliment left the room. Van Hare stated that as Hassan did not want the golden salver, he retrieved it from the floor and “took it away with the greatest of care.”[17]

There was another time that a scare happened with Hassan. It occurred in Vienna when an insistent and drunken man appeared at one of Van Hare’s evening performances. The man boldly came on stage and declared that he would fight both Van Hare and his gorilla. Van Hare explains what happened next:

“I stood before the man to hinder him from going near Hassan, when he attempted to push me out of his way. At that Hassan sprang from his seat, giving a loud roar; the fellow turning to run off, and just as he was going to jump from the platform Hassan caught him by the tail of his coat. The fellow leaped with much force, falling head-first on the floor leaving his coat-tail in Hassan’s hand. I had then caught hold of Hassan’s lunge … and I had the greatest difficulty in controlling him.”[18]

Hassan attacking the drunken man. Public domain.

The audience saw the whole affair and scared for their own safety, they stampeded. In the meantime, Van Hare got Hassan back into his cage with some difficulty. About that time the police appeared asking for Van Hare. Worried that he was going to jail, he explained the whole affair and tried to point out the man who had caused the commotion, but he had already fled.

The police gathered up numerous articles that had been lost by the audience in the stampede and then gave Van Hare a strict warning that he was not allowed to show Hassan any more. Van Hare was unhappy because he needed money, and, so, he eventually had a friend introduce him to the local burgomaster. He listened to the whole sorted story and finally agreed that Hassan could be exhibited but only in his cage. Van Hare agreed to this and stated:

“I then opened the show, but was not troubled with an overflow of visitors; a few people straggled in, either from curiosity or ignorance of the previous night’s disturbance. The attendance increased daily; but it took a week before the people became reassured of their safety in visiting the exhibition.”[19]

In the late 1870s, Van Hare left Hassan in the care of his manager in Munich and travelled to Yorkshire, England, on business. During his absence he received a letter from his manager that some of the animals had died. A couple of weeks later he received another letter that more animals had been lost. Although it is unclear if Hassan was one of the animals that died, it is presumed he died at this time. As to Van Hare, he eventually wrote an autobiography, Fifty Years of a Showman’s Life, Or, The Life and Travels of Van Hare, that was published by W. H. Allen in 1888. The book detailed many of the interesting aspects of his life as the ultimate showman. Years later, one twentieth century newspaper stated of him:

“It is not exaggeration to say that Van Hare was in the very first flight of the successful showmen of his day, and that he illustrates to the full a too often forgotten truth — that the Showman World is constantly being refreshed, invigorated, and inspired by the genius of men attracted from other walks in life by the compelling power of Showland.”[20]  


  • [1] G. Van Hare, Fifty Years of a Showman’s Life, Or, The Life and Travels of Van Hare (London: W.H. Allen, 1888), p. 88.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 285–86.
  • [3] Dundee Advertiser, “Death of a Celebrated Four-Footed Artiste,” May 4, 1868, p. 3.
  • [4] F. Boase, Modern English Biography: I-Q (Truro: Netherton and Worth, 1897), p. 1377.
  • [5] G. van Hare, p. 46.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 60.
  • [7] Morning Advertiser, “Royal Alhambra Palace,” August 15, 1860, p. 1.
  • [8] G. van Hare, p. 62.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 63.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 242.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 284.
  • [12] The Era, “The Gorilla Chief,” June 11, 1871, p. 16.
  • [13] G. van Hare, p. 284.
  • [14] The Era, “Mr. Frank Buckland and the Performing Monkies,” November 14, 1869, p. 10.
  • [15] G. van Hare, p. 291–92.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ibid., p. 369.
  • [18] Ibid., p. 374.
  • [19] Ibid., p. 376.
  • [20] The Era, “Some Showman Worthies,” March 31, 1906, p. 26.

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