A clown ran for public office – and no, that’s not the beginning of a joke.
On Sept. 15, 1864, America’s most famous circus clown, Dan Rice, accepted the Democratic nomination for the Pennsylvania State Senate.
And it was just his first foray into politics: Even while continuing his career as a clown, a state convention later considered him as a candidate for Congress, and, in 1867, he made a brief but legitimate run for president.
While the idea of a clown running for office sounds like a gimmick, in the 1860s it was taken seriously — because circus itself was taken seriously, as adult fare.
Long before it was relegated to children’s entertainment, early circus in this country combined what appealed to grown-up tastes: sex, violence, political commentary and, in a horse-based culture, top-notch horsemanship.
George Washington attended the first circus in 1793 in Philadelphia not for family-friendly amusement — a notion that didn’t emerge until the 1880s — but as a horseman keen to see animals and humans working together at a peak level.
Sex and violence enhanced the appeal. Like later burlesque comedians, talking clowns told dirty jokes in a titillating whirl of the scantily clad: Circus acrobats and riders showed more skin — or flesh-colored fabric that seemed to be skin — than could be seen anywhere else in public life.