Barnum reportedly said, "There's a sucker born every minute." Elephants and other exotic animals have always been important features of the show as well, going back to the 1860s when James Anthony Bailey displayed Little Columbia, the first elephant ever born in a circus.
The nation's three largest circuses Barnum's, Bailey's, and the Ringling Brothers' gradually merged into one by 1919 and enjoyed growing popularity until entering into a period of decline during the Great Depression. That decline continued through the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, when more than 100 people died inside a Ringling Bros. tent, and into the 1950s, when television became popular.
But music promoter Irvin Feld began to turn the circus around in the late '50s, bringing in new acts and increasing the circus's profitability. In 1967 he bought the company and later passed control of the circus to his only son, Kenneth, who has prospered along with the show.
Kenneth Feld made Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans in 2004, with a reported net worth of $775 million. Feld Entertainment made the Forbes list of the nation's top companies in 2000, ranking 404th with a reported annual revenue of $675 million and profits of $100 million.
Feld also owns and operates such shows as Disney on Ice, Disney Live, High School: The Musical, and the Siegfried and Roy tiger-taming act.
But all is not well in the Feld empire.
When Feld had a falling out with his top lieutenant, Charles Smith, in 1998, Smith filed a wrongful termination lawsuit that exposed the nefarious inner dealings of "The Greatest Show on Earth," including alleged animal abuse, public health threats, and the use of a top former CIA official to spy on, infiltrate, and sabotage animal welfare activists and journalists.
Among other things, the case brought to light charges that some of the elephants have been exposed to or have contracted tuberculosis.
Joel Kaplan, a former private investigator who worked for Feld, alleged in a deposition in the Smith case that TB was a serious problem among the pachyderms. "I think it's immoral to have elephants traveling in every arena in the country with tuberculosis," noted Kaplan, who filed his own lawsuit and settled for $250,000. He stated that he had been told by a Ringling Bros. veterinarian that "about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis and that the tuberculosis was an easily transmitted disease to individuals, to human beings."
Also included in the case was a deposition by Clair George, the No. 3 person in the CIA until 1987, when he was convicted of lying to Congress about the Iran-contra scandal (he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992). George admitted to working for Feld and conveyed chilling tales of sabotage, including the case of freelance journalist Jan Pottker, who wrote a 1990 magazine profile of the Feld family which included allegations that Irvin Feld maintained a longstanding homosexual relationship outside his marriage.
To deter her from writing a book about the Feld family, George outlined a scheme to have one agent befriend her and another seduce her, spy on her progress, feed her conflicting information, and even get her a book deal on another project to divert her, with a $25,000 advance allegedly paid by Feld.
"I undertook a series of efforts to find out what Pottker was doing and reported on the results of my work to Mr. Feld," George wrote in a sworn affidavit. "I was paid for this work by Feld Entertainment or its affiliates. I prepared my reports in writing and presented them to Mr.