Circus boy of Lititz

By on November 28, 2018

Ever dream of running away with the circus?

Conrad Tanner Jr. of Lititz did more than dream about it.

Tanner, who grew up surrounded by tragedy during the early 1900s, eventually found a new home among the clowns, animals, and sideshow acts of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
As a young boy, Conrad spent many wonderful childhood years in Lititz. But in 1891, tragedy struck as his mother became insane, and died in a local hospital.

After her death, all of her kids were placed in a children’s home in Lancaster. Fifteen years later, the father, a German immigrant, would commit suicide in 1906. Before his death, he had worked in several local pretzel factories, and then decided to try his hand in opening one such business in Ashland, Schuykill County. Sadly, the business would fail. With no job and no money, he would travel back to Lititz, and must have fell into depression and decided to end his life.

The big top comes to Lancaster. During the 1920s, Conrad Tanner Jr. of Lititz found a new home among the clowns, animals, and sideshow acts of the circus.

By 1905, Conrad was living in Tennessee and working on a coal barge; but by the time of his father’s death, he was living in California. Seems he wanted to get away from the painful memories he had back east. A short time later, he would get a job as an animal trainer with the circus, part of a larger crew of eight men who traveled with the show and cared for the animals.

In 1923 (95 years ago this month) the Lititz Record wrote a front page article on Conrad and his unique life. Although he was employed far from his hometown, he would visit Lititz once or twice a year, and share stories with friends about being on the road and working behind the scenes for the famous big top.

Throughout his career, he would come to be known as “Captain Tanner” while employed for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus. He lived among some 17 polar bears, 44 elephants, 30 tigers, 40 lions, 87 camels, and 600 horses. Tanner was also surrounded by snakes that weighed hundreds of pounds each. Aside from these full-grown beasts, there were also baby camels, tigers, and lions that he helped take care of. During that time in our history, the entire show required 100 railroad cars to travel from city to city and was made up of a total cast of 1,300 employees. This “family” was a community in and of itself complete with a doctor, blacksmith, and other skilled tradesmen all at the ready.

There’s a chance that Tanner took care of these tigers for the traveling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows. Both of these photos were snapped during the mid 1950s.

Over the years, Tanner would have the distinction of being the very first animal caretaker in the United States to raise a giraffe to maturity, nurturing it from the time it was a baby and feeding it cow’s milk from out of a bottle. But he would have at least one close call in his life ­ one day, he was at a wash bowl cleaning up, when he spotted three lions who came rampaging into the room and started to watch him. With no protection between man and beast, he held his ground and stared back at them, not uttering a word. Eventually, the tigers walked away.

The cast of characters which comprised the show came from every part of the world. One year at one of its many stops, Tanner would meet a man named James Malon, who said he had worked at Morgan Paper Mills in Lititz several years prior. Yet another patron, who struck up a conversation after the show discussing where they were both from, told Tanner that he was raised around Neffsville. During this era, the circus was receiving record crowds ­ about $5,000 was collected in admission prices each day for the sideshow acts alone.

By 1928, Conrad Tanner was not heard from much, but he’d still make his yearly appearances in Lititz to catch up with friends, and continue to share stories about his unique job. He would live most of his life traveling with the greatest show on earth, and despite having a sad childhood, as an adult, he got to see and do many exciting things that the average boy growing up in Lititz could only dream about.

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at or 717-721-4423. 

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