Of those who could claim to have rested their head on a lion’s lower jaw, Isaac van Amburgh was the first. An intrepid animal trainer, Van Amburgh was said to have been unmatched in his feats of derring-do. He and his pride of tamed felines became something of an international sensation, commanding the attention of no less estimable a personage than Queen Victoria, who commissioned a portrait of him, so impressed was she by his talents. Others among the great and good stood equally astounded. The Duke of Wellington was reported to have asked Van Amburgh, “Were you ever afraid?,” to which the celebrated lion tamer responded, “The first time I am afraid, your grace, or that I fancy my pupils are no longer afraid of me, I shall retire from the wild beast line.”
Whether real or feigned, the fearlessness displayed by Van Amburgh remained a crucial element of his success. Doubters suspected, however, that more than courage lay behind the animal tamer’s art. Some suspected that Van Amburgh kept his cats in line by means of a crowbar. It’s likelier that he employed a method similar to that described by Thomas Frost in his 1875 book, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities. Frost reveals that a wise lion tamer procures his “beasts as young as he can” and wins their trust by feeding them with his own hands, first from the outside of their den, and then at closer quarters, all the while taking care to face them in order to keep in check a “dormant devil” residing in their breasts. Once a measure of trust has been won, the tamer essays a caress, stroking the cat “down the back, gradually working up to the head, which he begins to scratch.” The lion responds as all cats do by rubbing his head against the tamer’s hand. At this point, the tamer introduces a board and teaches the lion to jump over it.
Only once the tamer has won this trust can he attempt the showstopping feat of placing his head between the animal’s teeth. Gentle lashes on the back with “a small tickling whip” condition the lion to receive his mouthful. The tamer then “press[es] him down with one hand,” and with the other raises the lion’s head. Taking hold of its nostril with the right hand and the under lip with the left, he parts the creature’s jaws and places his head between. The perils attending his vulnerable position do not end with a possible bite; he must also ensure that the lion does not claw his face. How such an expert lion tamer as Van Amburgh achieves stardom is thus plain to see.
The marquee attractions of Victorian circuses, felines commanded the lion’s share of top-quality food. The menu du jour of Alexander Fairgrieve’s famous traveling menagerie offers some sense of the pecking order among the various animals. Elephants had to content themselves with “hay, cabbages, bread and boiled rice, sweetened with sugar” while the big cats feasted on “shins, hearts, and heads of bullocks.” So much meat did the lions and tigers of the great circuses consume, in fact, that their fellow carnivores the bears were forced to await the onset of “very cold weather” before they were similarly provisioned. Until such time, they subsisted on bread, sopped biscuits, and boiled rice.
To be an ursine understudy to feline stars was a sad fate, indeed. Should you wish to express dietary soliditary with the dancing bears of Victorian circuses, this recipe for boiled rice with cheese, which appears in The Helping Hand Cook Book (1912), will have you looking forward to winter’s chill.
Boiled Rice with Cheese
Boil a cupful of rice in plenty of boiling water. Two quarts is none too much and the water must be at a galloping boil when the rice goes in and continue at the same stage during the fifteen minutes or so required to cook it. Each grain of rice should be separate and soft, though not too soft. Drain and dry and turn into a heated vegetable dish. Have ready a cupful of white sauce, made by cooking together a tablespoonful, each, of butter and flour and a half pint of milk and seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Add to this a heaping tablespoonful of grated cheese and when this is melted and blended, stir it into the rice. Sprinkle another spoonful of grated cheese over the top of the rice and set the dish in the oven for five minutes before it goes to table.