The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

For occasional articles, snippets and announcements by the Resident Historians.These articles are presented in date order, but if you explore the back-catalogue, you may find much of interest. Historical information doesn't really go out of date! Any member of the F&DLHS may add an entry or make a comment to an existing entry once they have got their userID and password from the Webmaster.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Flea Circus

It is strange to see accounts of Flea circuses in the local papers. There was once a mention of their appearance at Long Melford Fair. I suspect that we will never recreate these spectaculars, and many people seem to doubt that they were anything more than an illusion (they remember Michael Bentine's hilarious 'Flea circus' sketch on the television). One of the best accounts I've come across is as follows.(from 'Magic no Mystery' by W H Cremer

Man has stooped to the infinitesimal, in order to win applause and money. Once in about every twenty years a devotee arises with a learned flea to amaze the public. Of old some cruel things were done not to quell the irrepressible, but to sever the Gordian knot; to make a flea subside into docility his hind legs were amputated! But, given the apparatus, a miniature Rarey strap, and this antiquated barbarity is needless.

In 1869 was the last London exhibition of the Industrious Fleas. The Orchestra gives us a long description of the fleas of all sizes, ages, and complexions drawing all manner of miniature vehicles : fleas running four-in-hand, fleas running tandem, fleas doing mail-cart service, fleas driving locomotives; one flea doing steam-tug work, and pulling a line-of-battle ship some thousand times larger and heavier than himself; and several fleas told off for artillery practice, dragging big guns to repel undefined invaders—probably the ladybirds. One flea (in the Army) fired from behind a bastion a cannon of such destructive proportions that it had killed several of his predecessors (and thus led to his own promotion), besides knocking silly other civilian fleas in the neighbourhood. Another flea (in the Navy) had so undying an enthusiasm to serve his country, that he kept towing the vessel under his command to the edge of the table, and had to be brought back to safer equatorial latitudes about its centre. Another flea (with a passion for hydraulic appliances to agriculture) was indefatigable in drawing nothing out of an imaginary well in a bucket attached to a pulley. There was also an acrobatic flea who swung backwards and forwards on a trapeze until he was stopped by main force; showing a tremendous amount of interest in his work which would have done credit to a Newton, a Franklin, or a Hamilton among fleas. There was a vaticinatory flea, whose hops were reduced to a system which gave wonderful results concerning the hair, eyes, complexion, and temper of your future spouse, be you wife or husband, bachelor or widow. There was also a tight-rope flea who walked along a stretched cord upside down, and drew a car after him; and there were two fleas who were so industrious in performing a see-saw at each end of a plank, as to prove that Margery Daw, the patron saint of this amusement, is not an ideal confined to the knowledge of the genus homo.

All these pulices have been trained by the dexterous fingers of Mr. Kitchingman, a professor of the craft. He feeds his pupils from his own left hand, on the back of which thirty-two hungry industriels sup every night. He knows each individual pulex by the peculiarity of nis bite ; and he affirms that each pulex knows him—to the extent of the pasture ground, but no further. The fleas are unharnessed at meal-time, because with the imbibing of blood the flea's body swells, and the confining hair would squeeze it inconveniently. This fixing of the hair harness is a most difficult process, especially when the young colt is restive; and considering that the hair is almost invisible to the naked eye, one may easily imagine what dexterous fingering is required. A flea's life numbers eleven months; but some die earlier, through overwork or through a proud spirit which will not brook captivity. Not a little creditable to the dexterity of Mr. Kitchingman is the neatness of the ivory vehicles, vessels, locomotives, and gymnastic apparatus which he has constructed with his own hand. Among these is a treadmill reserved for the punishment of the flea that lays his proboscis on a woman, save in the way of kindness. No conjuring is required to instruct an. academy of fleas: only unwearying patience and a delicacy of digits given perhaps to one man in fifty thousand.

When Mr. Kitchingman receives a flea (he does not catch them like common people; they are consigned to him through the post, and he often pays as much as sixpence for one), he shuts the captive in a little ivory box like the revolving cage in which white mice gyrate; and starves him. At first the flea is naturally wild; hops about; and bangs his head against the top of the box, which also turns with his efforts, and knocks him so about, that the spirit is taken out of him in a day or two. His trainer then feeds him on raw beef, attaches the finest possible hair to his body—much as you would place a girth round a horse—and chains him with a thin gold chain to a central point on a card. The spirited young colt can now hop to and fro, as far as the extremity of his chain; but the desire to hop soon goes, and then he is taken from the chain, tame and submissive, and harnessed to a cart, a carriage, or a field-piece.


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