Today clowns are viewed as children’s entertainment at best and absolutely terrifying at worst. Circus clowns were not always given these roles, though. In the 19th century, circuses were aimed at adults. They featured raunchy jokes, acts of violence, and biting political satire. And this led to the rise of Dan Rice, a true celebrity clown.

Rice was born in New York City in 1823 as Daniel McLaren. Trained in equestrian skills from a young age, he joined the circus when he was just seventeen. His act undertook several evolutions from a performance with a pig, to strongman shows, to 1844 when he found his true calling as a clown.

Rice didn't tie balloon animals or do anything like that. Instead, he was known as the “Great American Humorist,” a title that he gave himself but that others would know him by. Horses were still part of his show, but the comedy truly set Rice apart from other performers. He was known for Shakespearean parodies and political satire.

With this act, Rice became a true American celebrity. He toured the country, and he was making about $1,000 per week, a healthy paycheck in 2021 and an absolute bonkers paycheck in 1860.

Wiki Commons

“You think top hats and tights come cheap?”

In the 1860s, Rice had achieved his greatest level of popularity, and he sought to parlay this into a career in politics. As evidenced by his brand of comedy, Dan Rice was always a political man, and so this was a natural move. First, Rice attempted to run for the Pennsylvania State Senate in 1864. Despite being unsuccessful at securing the Democratic nomination, Rice continued on with greater dreams. In 1868, he attempted a run for President of the United States. This does not seem to simply be a celebrity publicity stunt either. 

His efforts were short-lived, though, as it became clear that even though the people loved a clown, they didn’t want him to be president. This might have been for the best, too. Rice seemed to be opposed to the abolition of slavery, so it might’ve been good that he didn’t get too far in that political career.

As with a majority of icons from the nineteenth century, Rice’s story had to end in tragedy. His final tour was held in 1885, and at this time, he struggled with severe alcoholism. He would never regain his fortune, and he died broke in 1900.

For a happier note to end on, there is a chance, albeit an unlikely one, that Dan Rice was the inspiration for Uncle Sam. Rice’s trademark beard and hat strongly resembled the patriotic propaganda icon, and it was hard to tell if he inspired the design, took from the design, or if this was all just coincidence. Whatever the answer, it’s more fun to talk about than a slavery-supporting clown.

Top Image: Dan Rice 3 Ring Circus

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