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July 19, 2016

The Circus: Antonio Migasi

Janesville_Daily_Gazette_Mon__Aug_26__1861_The Circus: Antonio Migasi

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

The circus used to be a big event in the county in summers past, and, surprisingly enough, we have had our share of resident circus performers. One of the most famous was Antonio Guilielmo Migasi (1820-1902), an acrobat who was part of an internationally famous pioneering circus family. The Antonio Brothers Circus was formed in the early nineteenth century and was one of the first real circuses in the United States.

The patriarch of the family, also called Antonio, was born in Turin, Italy, in 1795. He became skilled in acrobatics, feats of strength, and slack-rope performing. He premiered in England in 1816, and was known as “Il Diavolo Antonio”. As he started to become famous, he was in some sort of altercation in 1819 with John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth. Some sources claim that he was injured in duel between the two men and the scandal caused the Booth family to move to Virginia in America (which is unlikely because Booth didn’t actually move until 1821). Antonio was mentioned often in the 1820’s British theater news and worked with famous actors such as Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and Sheridan Knowles. He and his family were part of a grand production of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” staged by William MacReady in 1838.

He married an English woman, Christiana Crockford, in February of 1818 and had five children: his daughter Margaretta (b. May 31, 1818), and his sons Antonio (who performed under the name of Guilliame), Lorenzo (b.1823), Augustus (b. 1826), and Alphonso (b.1828). Il Diavolo Antonio first appeared in New York in 1833 and moved permanently to the United States not long after that. His sons took up the occupation of acrobats and formed a troupe that became the Antonio Brothers Circus. They would partner with other troupes to create a complete show involving animal acts and clowning. At one point, Guillaime did an act called the “Fire King” which involved performing acrobatics while standing in the middle of a pyrotechnic display called the “volcano”. They performed all over the US in the 1850’s, including states like Iowa and Minnesota where they were the first circus ever to visit the area.

The_Weekly_Pantagraph_Wed__Jun_6__1860_The father retired from performing in 1851, but continued to help manage the troupe. The brothers performed until 1862 when they sold the circus and took up regular careers in St. Louis. There apparently was a later troupe that called themselves the Antonio Brothers. Il Diavolo Antonio died in 1868 and is buried in the St Louis area. In 1871, Guilliame, now called Antonio, was running a livery stable in St. Louis and was quite successful. However, in September of that year, a horse he was driving became spooked, ran away with the carriage and crashed. Antonio was severely injured, and it was thought that there might be brain damage.

He moved to Hamilton County so that he could be cared for by his wife’s family. She was Catherine Sperry and her family had lived in the county for some time. Antonio and Catherine had met when his circus was wintering at the Hamblin Shepard farm near Strawtown. Shepard was known for breeding horses and sold many of them to the circuses. Antonio had other local acquaintances as well. At one point, the advance man for the Antonio Brothers Circus was John T. Justice from Noblesville. Antonio and Catherine’s two daughters eventually married local men. Although his injuries were permanent, Migasi lived for another 30 years. He was quiet and kept to himself, but was well liked in the community. He died in 1902, possibly from a stroke or ALS, and is buried in Strawtown Cemetery.