A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there really such a thing as a flea circus?

May 21, 1982

Dear Cecil:

Is there really such a thing as a flea circus? What do circus fleas do? And how does one train a flea? Surely not with a rolled-up newspaper and a choke chain?

Dear Joyce:

There most certainly is such a thing as a flea circus, Joyce. However (joke coming), there ain't no such thing as a (joke imminent) flea lunch! (Pause for big laughs.)

Now then. The intimate association of fleas and humankind down through the ages has given rise to many strange and wonderful things, of which the flea circus is by no means the most bizarre — ask me about erotic flea art sometime. Flea circuses appear to have originated in England in the 16th century, but entered their golden age in the 1830s through the efforts of an entrepreneur named L. Bertolotto, who ran flea exhibitions in London.

The P.T. Barnum of his day, Bertolotto had flea orchestras playing audible flea music, flea foursomes in games of flea whist, and flea dancing companies complete with dresses and frock coats for a flea ball. Other fleas drew miniature coaches or warships, and still others portrayed Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. By way of finale, the fleas were often allowed to sup on the arm of their manager, clearly a man dedicated to his art.

Flea circuses were a fixture of carnivals and circus sideshows in the U.S. for decades; as late as the mid-1950s there was a flea circus near Times Square in New York. As one might suppose, given the scale of the performers, the size of the potential audience at a given showing was limited. The typical flea colosseum consisted of a small table surrounded by a few chairs. Supposedly, though, a determined promoter could squeeze in as many as 50 ten-minute shows a day.

Training the fleas consisted in the main of rigging them up with wire harnesses so they could only move in a particular way. If necessary — say, in a flea orchestra — the fleas might also be glued to their seats. And what did the anticruelty people have to say about these unseemly practices? Not a thing. We're surrounded by hypocrites. Changing tastes and a scarcity of human-fed fleas (the only kind with enough stamina for the job) eventually doomed the flea circus. American theater has been but a pale shadow ever since.

He's bugged

Dear Cecil:

There's something bittersweet about seeing a once great ball player try to take the field one more time. Once in a great while we are heralded a glimpse of former glory. More often we have to hide our eyes with embarrassment, or stifle a deprecatory chuckle. Why can't Pops retire gracefully? It's painful to watch.

Such were my emotions as I read this column. There is one major factual error and one major conceptual error in the column. First the factual error:

Changing tastes and a scarcity of human-fed fleas (the only kind with enough stamina for the job) eventually doomed the flea circus.

Pulex irritans, the human flea, aren't the only member of the order of Siphonaptera with stamina enough to perform. In fact, they are not the preferred species.  The fact is, any old flea will do, but amongst us flea circus aficionados, the common cat flea is usually an excellent choice.  Rodent fleas are another good choice, specifically those found on hedgehogs and beavers. This choice is strictly founded on the size of the flea. The bigger the flea, the easier it is to glue it in place or attach a harness. Hystrichopsilla schefferi is an excellent choice as members of that species have been reported to reach 8mm in size.

"Stamina?" I mean really. Are you that gullible, Cece? I can easily guess where you got the idea. You read up on Bertolotto, and took an instance of his patter as gospel fact. Did you also believe the part where he says his fleas are as smart as dogs, or that they take six months to train, or that they recognize his voice? A little skepticism is in order here. It also allows the classic "Feed the fleas on the trainer's arm after the performance" shtick without which no flea circus is complete.  The "only human fleas will do" is a classic line of patter of the fleamaster. It raises the ick factor quite a bit, and gets people nervous to think that the performers may decide to take a break and snack on the audience. But, it's just patter.

The statement is also wrong in that it was not the lack of human flea availability which doomed the flea circus but rather the advent of radio and television which left such pedestrian forms of entertainment as the flea circus, as well as a host of other great and classical pastimes, starving for attention. That's all.

The "human flea only" error that was passed on is truly inexcusable in that the flea circus has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. The rather famous "Cardoso Flea Circus" uses cat fleas. This particular circus is most memorable not for the performance but rather for its proprietor, the elegant and exotically beautiful Maria Fernanda Cardoso of Colombia. Please note that she is not an entomologist, but classifies herself as a performance artist.

This leads to your conceptual error, dear Cecil. You got the whole thing wrong.

Fleas are only incidental to flea circuses. In fact the majority of flea circuses present and past didn't even use fleas.  Flea circuses are simply stage magic. A little illusion, a little misdirection, some clever mechanical ability and some slight of hand are the key ingredients. In short, they're putting you on, pulling your leg.

The best flea circuses, in my opinion (and seeing as I've been a lifelong amateur magician, have a special interest in classical magic, and a particular interest in flea circuses I think my opinion qualifies as an expert one), don't have any fleas. The charm and appeal of the flea circus is imagining the fleas.

In your basic performance, "fleas" will climb a wire ladder (visibly depressing each rung as they go), visibly make a diving board bounce and then create a splash in the little saucer of water they dive into (wetting the audience). You never see the "fleas," just the evidence of their passing. You may also see little bicycles putter in a circle, you may see a merry-go-round spin, you may see a little bar hover a minute fraction of an inch above a high wire as the "flea" walks across.

For the finale, fleas may load themselves into a cannon and be fired through a paper hoop held by an audience member. A tiny hole appears in the hoop as if the "flea" had actually flown that trajectory.

Of course, there are no fleas in that scenario. It's all stage magic. The wonder of pulling off a good flea circus is that the illusion is so complete that some people may tell you they actually saw the "fleas."  The tricks are clever, but they are purely mechanical or magnetic in nature, with a good bit of showmanship thrown in. No fleas necessary.

This was the original form of the flea circus, and on those rare occasions when some antique apparatus (as ornate as clockwork and often hundreds of years old,) comes to auction, it is sure to command an astronomical price among aficionados.

They started off as simple tricks, but as audiences grew more jaded, they demanded more verisimilitude in performances. Actual fleas began to be used. The funny thing is that usually they were dead. Fleas don't live all that long and trying to put a harness or a dress on a live flea is a pretty difficult task. They tend not to cooperate. Once dead however, they don't put up such a fight. They're just as good dead as alive. Better really. You just can't train a flea to do anything when it's alive, but when it's dead it's easy to manipulate. For example, you can hook a dead flea up to a tiny carriage like a horse and when you use a magnet underneath the circus to move the carriage around it looks just like the flea is pulling it. A dead flea is good for years as a performer, and it saves lots of effort trying to harness live fleas every few days when your "performers" expire.

I've seen Ms. Cardoso's performance on tape and she uses an ingenious mix of live and dead fleas to create her little illusion. (The one walking on the high wire is dead.)

While you can't train a flea, there are a few flea behaviors you can use. Fleas will learn if there is a ceiling over their heads and will limit their jumps to the height of their cage if you put a top on it. They do this so they don't bump their heads.

Additionally, there are certain chemical compounds that fleas don't like. Put some on a piece of cotton, paint it like a rainbow and put it with a bunch of fleas in a shoebox painted to resemble a beach scene, and the fleas will jump away from the ball. Since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, when the jump away from the ball they'll push it in the other direction. Do this and you have the illusion of fleas playing beach ball or soccer.

Fleas are also adept at sensing heat through an organ in their butts and react predictably depending on its presence and intensity. They also act predictably towards light. One can use these instinctual behaviors to create the appearance of "trained performers," but it's strictly illusory.

But, as I said, the use of fleas in a flea circus is really superfluous. As recently as the 60s people still knew that the flea circus was basically a put-on. As one who "knows everything" I find this basic lapse on this important topic disturbing.

To summarize:

1. Any fleas will do. Human fleas only is a myth.

2. Flea circuses really aren't about fleas, though they may contain them (living, dead, or even flea facsimile). A flea circus is about stage magic.

I know that thirty years of this kind of stuff has got to have to taken its toll on you, Cece, but let's not just phone it in anymore. If you want the Straight Dope, you gotta make the effort.

Cecil replies:

Yow. Let's take this one step at a time.

1. The original column appeared in 1982. So if it demonstrated that I'd lost it, I lost it pretty early on.

2. My correspondent wanted to know three things. First, were there really such things as flea circuses? I said yes. This doesn't seem to be in dispute. Second, what do circus fleas do? I gave examples. With one possible exception, which I'll return to in a moment, you don't appear to be disputing these either. Finally, how does one train fleas? I said, "Training the fleas consisted in the main of rigging them up with wire harnesses so that they could only move in a particular way. If necessary — say, in a flea orchestra — the fleas might also be glued to their seats." In other words, I was reasonably clear that artifice was involved. In retrospect I should have added, "Many of the 'acts' in a flea circus were simply illusions." So you're right that my answer was incomplete.

3. However, your point seems to be that I missed the nut of the thing — that flea circuses, originally anyway, were an illusion from top to bottom, like magic shows. In other words, that the whole point of the show is to convince you that you're seeing performing fleas, whereas in fact you're seeing nothing of the kind, certainly not fleas, just tricks.

But that's not so. A magic show doesn't feature real magic. In contrast, a flea circus, as you concede, generally features some real fleas — some living, some dead. Did the original flea circuses have no fleas at all? Who knows? Flea circuses are hundreds of years old; the literature on them is hardly abundant. But in any case real fleas have been used for a long time.

4. I did mess up on some of the details. I believed some fleamasters concluded a performance by allowing their little pets to suck on their arms. I'll concede this may have been malarkey. The only flea circus of which I had definite knowledge had closed some 25 years earlier; I was relying on published accounts, and evidently was taken in.

5. On the question of whether only human-fed fleas had enough stamina for the job — please. Even in 1982 that seemed dubious. But it made for a cute ending to what was basically a light-hearted column, so I figured I'd play along. I should have realized that 20 years later I'd be skewered by some literalist who thinks I should have exposed this seamy enterprise once and for all.

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