In The Beginning
I grew up in the circus; an art form that began in London, England in the late eighteenth century when Philip Astley first presented a show in circular form. Astley, a cavalryman, desired a continued relationship with horses and trick riding, prompting him to create a venue for presenting shows. The circular format enabled audiences to stay within sight of the action at all times. Astley later added jugglers, clowns, wire walkers, musicians, tumblers, and even a dancing dog; by 1770 he created the first circus. The phenomenal success that followed drew invitations; Astley responded by expanding across Great Britain, then to eighteen other cities on the continent of Europe. Perhaps this included Germany, the Wallenda homeland. By 1793, two of his protégé’s, Charles Hughes and Bill Ricketts, opened shows in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, independently. I grew up in this environment over a century and a half later, and this is the story of my family—The Wallendas.
Origins of the Wallenda family seem confusing to someone unfamiliar with the dynamics of a circus family riddled with multiple marriages, spanning nearly two centuries, two continents, and many descendants claiming authenticity, the possibility of illegitimacy beyond the rightful heirs, and endless family squabbles sacrificing historical accuracy to twist history in one’s own favor. Indeed confusion plays significantly into the understanding even for one that holds the family archives, and grew up saturated in the oral traditions from many ancestors intent on passing the heritage to another generation. I found that even when not making deliberate mental files, the family history infiltrated my thinking by virtue of constantly hearing the stories, and from many sources.
While living with my grandparents, Karl and Helen Wallenda, their private discussions, like background noise as my brother, Mario, and I played with toys on the living room floor of their Arlington Street home, permeated my sub consciousness. Uncles and aunts supporting these stories with their point of view, and ultimately given the family archives as supporting documentation for the stories. Now, as I decipher the information, an accurate and concise history can emerge so the average Wallenda fan can navigate through the lore, legends, hyperbole, and fabricated tales surrounding our famed family.
The difficulty lies not in explaining history, or even trying to make it interesting to the average reader, but where to start. Finding the starting point of the Wallendas in entertainment provides ample challenges even for me holding the authentic archives. Much documentation exists for multiple Wallenda ancestors in Germany over the decades prior to both wars. The endless search for connections between the various Wallenda families and ours provided little. We are all cousins so we must beware whom we seek as our mates.
Circus families are indelibly connected through marriages, and countless breached boundaries. The Italians are related to the Wallendas. The Czech highwire families resent the connection to the German Wallendas. The Irish, French, and even Germans enthusiastically either resent or attach to our family. The only ethnic connection that we cannot claim is to the Jewish people. Aunt Jenny proved, during Nazi occupation of Germany, that for four generations in her history, no Jewish connection existed. This was a necessity to sustain her life, not because of any anti-Semitic resentment. Also, it proved her maternal family, Schepp, was not of the Wallenda clan, obviously. In our maternal family the only evidence we see of non-Jewish ancestry is that my maternal great-grandmother, Sabine Kreis, endured the war years as a cook, her best skill, partly in the train station in Munich rather than a concentration camp.
In the search to prove non Jewish lineage, Aunt Jenny uncovered some interesting information. Not all of the ancestors of her father, Karl Wallenda, made the circus their choice of livelihood. One man, at least, dared to venture beyond the confines of “singing for dinner.” This Mr. Johannes Wallenda, born June 19, 1821, in Wolfsheim, Germany, decided to make umbrella’s rather than pass the hat around the town square for alms. His occupation listed in German reads “Regenschirmache.” Perhaps his need for a sort of political asylum demanded retreat from the circus ring, although the circus is a sanctuary for political dissidents.
The lore among artisans in every media is to refrain from politics and religion. My grandfather frequently recited this cliché, especially when I expressed my own explorations in those areas. Artists, he told me, rose above these terse constraints. To a certain extent he was right, but circus history in general records many that used the art form to publicize and expand ideas.
In Russia, the Durov brothers, Anatoly and Vladimir, supported by their mother, Teresa Stadler, German circus owner of the Bavarian Circus: Famed for animals in the circus ring, also used their platform for political satire. In his act, Vladimir frequently satirized the Czar or local political authorities with his trained pig. Routines included once painting the pig green, something PETA would object to today, insulting the governor, named Green (Зеленый). The audience roared in laughter; completely understanding the gesture. The pig was smarter than the local governing authority. Durov was eventually exiled back to Germany.
During the Nazi regime in Germany many artists were exiled including Berthold Brecht. Pleased to escape Brecht wrote plays that denounced authority. Others went to gas chambers. Brecht continued writing from Hollywood.
In America the circus also produced our own jester. Dan Rice moved his show primarily by river boat prior to and during the War Between the States. Rice studied local politics and introduced the arguments into his routine with his horse. Rice, a Southern sympathizer, agitated the issues provoking both sides. Frequently the constables were summoned to disperse the rowdy crowd—at the circus.
Perhaps umbrella making provided safety from the radical Wallendas in the circus for Johannes, and offered the solace of a bench full of tools and parasols. We can only speculate about this individual, and the reasons for the non-circus vocational decision of a person less adventurous than the rest of the family. His wife, Anna Messerschmidt, born April 25, 1825, in Mainz, Germany, is listed as housewife. A century later the Messerschmidt family provided aircraft for the Luftwaffe.
Anna and Johannes enjoyed a private life making and fixing umbrellas. As Mr. and Mrs. Wallenda they built a life probably in the city of Mainz where Anna was born. Wolfsheim, the city of birth for Johannes, was also a municipality within the Mainz/Bingen district. Mainz was a bustling military outpost at the time. Established during Roman expansion, but served as the most important fortress of the German Federation when the two settled there to make umbrellas. Mainz, a very crowded city guarding the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers created a great location for business.
The city of Mainz grew from a small Roman outpost at the edge of the Empire. Established in about 13 BC, Mainz remained a strategic military location until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Certainly circuses saw the potential for audiences with money. Other than smaller municipalities like Wolfsheim, the city did not sprawl, but the crowded population crammed within the fortifications creating extremely cramped quarters.
Overcrowding became a problem in the latter part of the century, forcing expansion efforts beyond the fortifications. During the time of Johannes and Anna Wallenda, the city attracted entrepreneurs in every facet of city life. Businesses and shows passed through Mainz seeking to garner the wealth of an important military city. At one point Mainz boasted the largest theater north of the Alps. Situated on two rivers, the city also became an important trade route since the first European books were printed there by Guttenberg in the mid fifteenth century. The city also served as a naval port, and supported a strong garrison of Austrian and Prussian troops. Johannes and Anna smelled money.
Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Wallenda settled in this city filled with horse-drawn wagons, dust and dirt in the air from traffic, sailors, soldiers, a few farmers from the surrounding area, (the sand dunes and steppe vegetation prevent significant agriculture). We can only speculate about their meeting in this unlikely place. Perhaps Zirkus Wallenda spent their down time in Wolfsheim, or presented shows in the town square. Maybe Anna witnessed a show, saw young Johannes display his skills, and he saw the young maiden in the audience. In an age of stringent separation of genders this meeting seems so unlikely, unless Anna too was an artisan in the circus.
Regardless of how it took place, the lives of these two melded together in this city of considerable population and historical significance. Plenty of military officers with money stationed there, their wives needing umbrellas, and my great-great-great-grandparents saw the opportunity, setting up shop on some crowded street in Mainz. Just imagine them discussing this opportunity for business.
“Anna, the people in Mainz have money. The circus is hard work. Let the other’s keep going. I can make umbrellas like I make tents.” She smiles at his logic.
“Johannes, I’ll stay there with you.” The young couple broke away from the rest of the family. “We can have children there and raise them where we were both born.”
It is never pleasant when we see someone walk away from the family traditions, but no one was ever forced into this trade. In all the years of my involvement with training, and touring with the Wallenda highwire troupe, never once was anyone placed in a position that excluded refusal, or tormented in any way to force continuance.
I am sure both sides reluctantly released the handle on entertainment, or as they described it in most cases on historical documents, “Artistin.” Johannes and Anna probably set-up shop in Mainz around 1840. She began to conceive children, but we don’t know how many or how many lived. On February 13, 1848, she bore a son named Karl Wallenda whose occupation is listed as “Artistin,” Artist—as in performance. He was born in Mainz at a time when the city was extremely crowded; still the sentinel guarding the gateway between France and Germany.
In another place in Germany at the same time that Johannes and Anna were born in Mainz, a different family circused for a living. Felix Wunderle was born, but no date or place of birth is recorded. Perhaps this information was unknown, or even preferred undisclosed. The political instability of the time certainly encouraged a level of secrecy as a protective barrier. French invasion and occupation ceased with the defeat of Napoleon, but proclaiming loyalty to the new German Federation might prove unsafe, or even deadly. Even among the German states united in this federation the Prussians and Austrians still struggled for supremacy. Under these conditions hiding information might prove prudent.
Regardless of the reasons, the Wunderle family did not record much about Felix. His occupation is listed as “Shaustellar.” This word carries many meanings from carnival operator, or even vendor, but most likely he was a nomadic showman in performance of some kind. His precise function in show-business remains a mystery, but it does establish one of the first links to circus in the Wallenda historical archives. Thanks to Aunt Jenny’s preservation of these particular articles we can see that Felix Wunderle, one of my great-great-great grandparents was a showman.
Like Johannes and Anna, Felix is listed as “Katholik.” The Holy Roman Empire helped in the establishment of the German Confederation after Napoleonic occupation. The Wurtburg Festival held in honor of Martin Luther, organized by political radicals to stimulate a religious revival of sorts linked to German Nationalism, failed for the time. Today German national faith is Lutheran. Johannes, Anna and Felix held to the Catholic confession. Johannes and Anna Wallenda survived in this unstable environment by making umbrellas, but Felix was a showman.
During this time of political transition, and changing economically from pre-industrial to modernized agriculture, food supplies increased, and socially couples began to select their own mates. Felix selected a woman by the name of Agathe Condi. Her birth place and date are also unknown, and even her confession of faith is left blank. We know less about Agathe than we do about Felix except that they did unite. Her occupation is listed as “hausfrau,” house wife, and all documented information about her ends except one significant piece of information—the birth of a daughter, Rosalie Wunderle, my great-great-grandmother.
Felix and Agathe gave birth to Rosalie Wunderle December 16, 1851, in Gehrweiler, Germany. This birth record is the only indicator for locating Felix and Agathe. Gehrweiler is in the Rhineland district, just southwest of the capital—Mainz. No doubt Felix and Agathe were running their show, selling their wares, operating a carnival, or in general passing the hat in the Mainz area when their own daughter, Rosalie, was born. Rosalie’s occupation is listed as “Artistin.” Felix, no doubt a showman in this area of Mainz, and perhaps his parents as well; no indication from any historical documents available to the Wallenda archives at this time whether ancestors prior to Felix ventured into show-business, but strong speculation is certainly appropriate. Felix and Agathe raised Rosalie in the show, and she too listed occupation in the family tradition that spanned at least two generations by the time these records appeared.
Across the continent, where circus began, in England before Rosalie was born, another ancestor of the Wallenda family established more tradition and lore, and raised even more speculation. In the early years of circus in London, Philip Astley enjoyed much fame, which brought him to the presence of many significant people. Royalty patronized his shows, and he began to expand from London during the off-season. Consequently he established his shows throughout Great Brittan, the first in Dublin, Ireland in 1773.
Dublin, a city on the rise since the eighteenth century, enjoyed expanding economic growth. This strong economic stability attracted Astley, who sought opportunities to further his growing wealth. Astley built a wooden amphitheater in Dublin in 1773, and began presenting his shows to the Irish, who indeed held the wealth of Ireland. Dublin at the time was the center of commerce for Ireland. Commercial expansion began in the early eighteenth century continuing until 1800 with the passing of the Acts of Union solidifying Ireland’s union with Great Britain. This great economic growth attracted business and entrepreneurs at such a rate that Dublin grew to the second largest city in Britain and the fifth largest in Europe.
Scotland, already united with England, and a center for Enlightenment, industrialization, and exportation, sent curious eyes across the waters to Dublin. A mere seven years after Astley built his wooden amphitheater in Dublin, Ireland, John Jameson, a Scottish businessman, purchased a Dublin distillery. The modest still produced about 30,000 gallons annually. Jameson saw the potential for the rare spirit, and sought to expand the meager production into a global enterprise. By the early nineteenth century Jameson and his son, also named John, exported their spirits, Jameson Whiskey, internationally, increasing production to 1,000,000 gallons annually. This established world-wide prominence and contacts for further family enterprises.
With the fame of Astley, the performances attended by royalty, himself of considerable reputation, one wonders if perhaps the Jameson’s attended the circus with their children. At some point in the early nineteenth century Henry Jameson was born in Great Brittan without abundant fanfare. The oracles show he was born in London, but not precisely when, and this Jameson was not a whiskey maker.
For a descendant of a whiskey exporter, Henry’s occupation, listed on our German ancestry documents, is circusbesitzer, or circus owner. Wild speculation erupts when these two worlds collide like tectonic plates. How did these successful Jameson businessmen send one of their own into show-business? We have no definitive answers. Did Henry offend the family and suffer banishment? Or sample too much of the product thus incurring family wrath? Did he choose the path to show-business with family blessing? The Irish potato famine of 1846-1850 impacted Ireland, but doubtfully the London born Jamesons. Maybe Henry hailed from a poorer branch of the Whiskey magnates. Perhaps family invested in the venture after Astley passed away in 1814. It is indisputable that Astley established a show in Dublin, but not if or who continued with this venture, or the well-established show in London after he died. Perhaps Henry’s parents performed with Astley in London and Henry rose from the ring as a performer to the position of show owner in the London amphitheater established before the Dublin show. Perhaps it was a business adventure funded by John Jameson the second. We know very little, but oral tradition holds that Jameson was indeed from the Irish whiskey family, according to my great-grandmother Kunnegunde Jameson.
Rampant speculation leads in many directions; so few facts hold our story to the roadway. We do know Henry Jameson, on our German ancestry documentation, is listed as Heinrich Jameson, a good British subject, held an evangelical faith rather than Catholic. Only speculation promotes the idea that he abandoned the family tradition of brewing whiskey. He set out on an adventure to create, produce, and make circus his livelihood. Henry may have departed a successful family business; establishing his own venture as show owner is certain. One fact leads me to believe Henry may have headed across the channel to Holland at least briefly.
This one certainty is that Henry married someone with the surname of Von Hamilson, a seemingly Dutch or German name. The only other fact our document surrenders regarding Miss Von Hamilson is her faith as Evangelical. No first name is given. We know nothing more about her than the surname. Mystery surrounds this individual who is my great-great-great-grandmother; with Henry she formed a piece of the trunk of my family tree, but another fact gives us a clue to where these two lived. One of their offspring, Heinrich Jameson, was born in London March 22, 1844. This indicates that Miss Von Hamilson ventured across the channel to London, perhaps as a performer in the Jameson circus. This couple came together in the middle of the nineteenth century around the same time Johannes Wallenda married Anna, and Felix Wunderle united with Agathe.
Across the continent, in the far northeast corner of Germany, around this same time, but no exact date is known, in an industrial town near the Polish border, not far from the Baltic Sea, Northeast even of Berlin, August Kramer, made his home in Eberswalde, Germany. Eberswalde was an industrial center until German reunification in 1990. Eberswalde was established in 1254 by Johann I, and became a main trade route to Frankfurt. Huge metallurgy capacities grew here, and even today the ruins of this industrialization dot the landscape as the remnants slowly crumble and modernization rises.
The early nineteenth century saw factories rise and flourish along the banks of the Finow Canal, and Eberswalde grew to an industrial power. Almost two centuries before, the thirty year war, 1618-1648, reduced the population of the city to just twenty inhabitants! Immigration from 1743 to 1755 brought 120 families of metallurgic crafters and smithies from Rhineland and the Thuringia to Eberswalde and re-established the city as an industrialization center.
Interestingly, Eberswalde is now home for a large carnival society, hosting two distinct festivals simultaneously—Karneval and Fasching. The carnival society migrated to the area from Bavaria and the Rhineland. Our speculation can venture to suspect that perhaps August Kramer’s family arrived during the earlier migration period bringing their wares and talents along. August’s occupation is listed on our documents as “Artist.” We can strongly suggest that the Kramer family were not among the last twenty individuals remaining in Eberswalde, but migrated there, perhaps as “Shaustellar,” or carnies. August is listed as an artist, meaning circus artist, but certainly this city made a name as an entertainment center in the area. August Kramer, and his family, may have been involved in entertainment in Bavaria or Rhineland prior to migrating to Eberswalde.
Perhaps the Kramer family knew of the Wunderle family in the Rhineland. Anything may have caused this migration; economical-conditions in Rhineland worsened, opportunities in Eberswalde beckoned; threat of war from France, or political motivation. We don’t know, but we do know the facts previously discussed. In this environment August Kramer arrived, and made his sustenance as an artist in the mid-nineteenth century.
In a village south and west of Eberswalde, but still east and north of Rhineland and Bavaria where most of our previous ancestors were born, lived, and some died, lays Rosendorf. The distance between the two cities is a staggering 214 miles, a short drive on the Autoban, but at that time the two cities lay weeks apart for families with little means. Insignificant impact culturally and politically on the rest of Germany, Rosendorf provided something important to the Wallenda family ancestry, someone by the name of Wassi Blassing was born in the early nineteenth century.
Miss Blassing’s date of birth is not recorded, but her faith confession appears to be Catholic. Her occupation barely visible, but readable is “Artistin.” As a circus artist, Wassi probably toured with the Blassing family in the immediate area. Reaching as far away as Eberswalde is unlikely, but not impossible.
Coincidentally, another account of our family history claims the Wallendas hailed from Bohemia. Only slim speculation places the family origin in Bohemia. Rosendorf is the closest in proximity to Bohemia among all the cities on our oracles. Over centuries the boundaries of Bohemia extended beyond the current borders placing Rosendorf and even Eberswalde and other parts of Germany in the Slavic colony. This absurd reasoning should also claim that the ancestors in Rhineland were French since Napoleon conquered and ruled the Rhine.
Whether Austro-Hungarian rule, Prussian, Bohemian, or German, Rosendorf is a German town with a German name, and no Bohemian connection exists to confirm this fictional origin for the Wallendas. Wassi Blassing was born German.
Perhaps Wassi ventured into neighboring Bohemia before linking with the Kramer family in Eberswalde. The territory certainly attracted artists and appeared a prosperous business venture later in our oral traditions.
The only historical evidence implying probable connected between the Blassings and Kramers is that during the immigration of craftsmen in the mid-nineteenth century perhaps some of the Blassing family moved north. Under these peculiar conditions perhaps the Blassing family divided, and this drew Wassi from Rosendorf to Eberswalde. Perhaps the migration continued beyond the eighteenth century and the Blassing family circused their way to Eberswalde where Wassi and August met.
Indeed August and Wassi appear in our growing family tree-trunk as a circus couple from northeast Germany by the middle of the nineteenth century. August of the “Katholich” faith; the two united in spite of differing faith platforms, and produced another of my ancestors—Kunnegunde Kramer, born on November 21, 1846.
These four couples are my great-great-great-grandparents. I’m proud of them and enjoyed getting to know them in the research for these pages. These couples form the beginning of our family, the trunk of our family tree, sending roots deep, upholding the many branches sailing upward, higher and further than they ever expected, walking on the sky, and swaying on poles, reaching for the stars, far above the heads of spectators; demonstrating that ordinary people can accomplish the extraordinary, and passing these same skills, and love for this vocation from one generation to the next until reaching me—no less than six documented generations later—still passing the hat for dinner, and the next generation on the same path already.
Did our fore-parents even dream that almost two-hundred years later their heirs would still possess these skills and love of entertaining? These four couples, along with others that we are not yet acquainted with, form the vast foundation from which all the branches that the twenty-first century knows. The genesis of the Wallenda family lies with these people, and grows from here.