Richard Risley Carlisle (1814-1874) – Circus Performer

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Born: 1814

Died: May 1874

Plot: Section 11, Lot 14

Richard Risley Carlisle, athlete, gymnast, postmaster and bounty hunter amongst other things was born in the Bass River area of New Jersey. At an early age he became a gymnast in a traveling circus passing through town. January of 1834 saw Carlisle appointed as the US Postmaster at Crosswicks, Burlington County, NJ. Around this time his son John H. was born.

In 1835 Carlisle traveled to St. Joseph’s Co., Indiana with his mother and family where he purchased 160 acres of land from a Potawatomi Indian named Lazarus Bourissa. Originally known as Bourissa Hills, Carlisle platted the area under the new name New Carlisle. He remained there for approximately 3 years working a brief stint as a bounty hunter. It was here his second son Henry R. was born.

Both sons would go on to travel the world with their father performing their circus acts. The trio became known as the “Risley Family”. Carlisle developed his trademark juggling routine in 1840-41, an act that would eventually be known in the circus world as the “Risley Act”, a circus acrobalance posture where the base is lying down on their back, supporting one or more flyers with their hands, feet or other parts of the body; spinning a person or object using only one’s feet. With his six-year-old apprentice John, Risley made a journey to the West Indies in early 1843 and was in Guadaloupe when an earthquake occurred. According to the New York Times, the pair barely made it out alive.

In 1845 they went abroad, performing at a Drury Lane theatre in London before the queen. In St. Petersburg he won sixteen prize rifles by his marksmanship. Returning to London, he wagered that he could beat anyone else in the City at shooting, wrestling, jumping, throwing the hammer, and playing billiards; and he made good on his boast the following day in everything except billiard-playing, in which he was defeated.

A wealthy Risley returned to America in 1847, appearing at the Broadway Theatre in New York, and at Rufus Welch’s National Circus in Philadelphia. An advertisement referred to them as “The truly electrifying display of acrobatic excellence, by Professor Risley and his sons”. In 1848 he brought the first troupe of Japanese acrobats to this country, at a cost of $100,000. In 1849, Risley returned to London and opened an American bar and bowling alley in Vauxhall Gardens.

In the early 1850’s, while still a young man, he decided to retire to a farm near Chester, Pa. The idle life was not for him though and he resumed touring. Risley’s last adventure was in bringing a variety troupe from Europe to New York; it proved to be a financial disaster. He set up as a variety agent in Philadelphia, and again failed. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized at the Blockley Almshouse where he died a pauper.

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