By: Patty Templeton
It can box, ride a carousel, tightrope walk, and lift 150 times its own weight. That’s right folks, step right up and look-see the human flea. Its scientific name is Pulex irritans, but it will be no irritant to you. Stop your scratching. These petite athletes can jump once a second for three days straight (259,200 leaps!), but they will not bound onto your being.
The legacy of the flea circus began in the 16th century, when Mark Scalliot, a London blacksmith, forged a lock and key made from iron, steel, and brass that weighed less than “but one grain of gold.” He created an equally delicate chain of 43 links to attach his lock to the neck of a flea, which the poor darling then dragged about with supposed ease. Two hundred years later, Sobieski Boverick, a London watchmaker, outdid Scalliot. Boverick fabricated an itsy-bitsy carriage drawn by six horses that featured a coachman, his dog, four passengers, and two footmen. All of which was attached to and drawn by a single flea. It was a mastery of the miniature that built buzz for Boverick’s watchmaking trade.
It’s said that the poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake thought that fleas contained the souls of blood thirsty men. With more than 2,000 species of fleas and well over a septillion of them roaming the earth, Blake’s is a dark vision. It’s no wonder his painting, “Ghost of a Flea,” appears so macabre.
The first recorded appearance of a flea circus was in the 1800s. The Italian showman Louis Bertolotto was credited with the earliest advertisement for an “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas.” His fleas could swordfight, juggle, and dance the waltz and polka. In 1835, Bertolotto brought his fleas to America where they also learned to mine for gold. Bertolotto’s 1876 chapbook, The Curious and Amusing Exhibition of the Educated Fleas, with Notes, Observations and Interesting Anecdotes, is excruciatingly hard to find.
A human flea can’t practice circus arts for the first six months of its life. Depending on its professor, it takes three weeks to three months to train a flea in skills like limiting its leaping, lifting weights, and high wire-walking. That leaves three to six months for its career.
The 1920s brought a new rage for the magnifying glass-spied feats of fleas. Professor William Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus opened at Hubert’s Museum in Times Square. Heckler, once a circus strongman, became the Barnum of Bugs with a show that lasted from 1923 until 1957. Professor Heckler said, “I will insist that each flea has a pronounced individuality. I can tell by watching a new candidate whether it will be adept at juggling or do better in a sparring match.”
The decline of flea circuses struck around 1960. Perchance, people became squeamish about performers that could lay eggs in their hair. Feasibly, it was because the proper fleas got harder to find. Or, maybe everyone got distracted by a new brand of shock and awe, good ol’ rock-n-roll.
“A Speck of Showmanship,” Furgurson, Ernest B. American Scholar. Summer, 2011, Vol. 80 Issue 3.
“The Flea Circus,” by Earl Chapin May. Popular Mechanics. February, 1928, Vol. 49 Issue No. 2.