Once World-Famous Performer Born and Bred in Little Egg Harbor

The Amazing Professor Risley

By STEVE DODSON | Jul 18, 2013
Courtesy of: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art These illustrations of Professor Risley, performing with his sons in the smaller pictures, circa 1843-1845, show him as a commanding presence at the height of his athletic abilities.

Most people know that the Little Egg Harbor area played a role in Revolutionary War history and gave birth to many a well-known bayman and decoy carver, but how many people have heard the story about a man born in this area who went on to become a world-famous traveling performer in the mid-1800s?

Richard Risley Carlisle, a.k.a. Professor Risley, a man of outstanding physical prowess, was born in Bass River, which was a section of Little Egg Harbor until 1863. He moved at age 7 from Bass River to Lower Bank, a few miles to the west. With the 2012 publication of his book, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, California author Frederik L. Schodt has resurrected the life and career of a once internationally famous, and now forgotten, man.

At a time when most New Jerseyans lived and died within 50 miles of their hometown, Risley became an entertainer on the world stage.

“Risley’s performing troupe traveled about Europe to great success, visiting Paris, Brussels, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Milan and Rome,” wrote Schodt in his book. “They were everywhere received with much acclaim. The highlight of the tour may have been the show before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.

“However, an event in London seems more important, as it throws light on Professor Risley’s character. When he returned to London in 1846, Risley was accorded a dinner by a number of distinguished gentlemen. At its close he rose to state that he was the best shot, the toughest wrestler, the longest jumper, the best billiard player, and the farthest thrower of the hammer of any man in London. It was thought that the wine was talking, but an appointment was made for the following day when it was found that Professor Risley meant business.

“He won the wager with the rifle, and after vanquishing his opponent, performed for the amusement of the guests some startling feats, such as throwing small articles in the air, and hitting them with a bullet. He defeated the wrestler, and in the jumping match made the longest standing jump to that time. He gave the hammer thrower ten feet odds, and then distanced him fifteen inches. At billiards, however he was defeated. That he was a consummate athlete cannot be doubted. In Russia in 1845 he entered and won a number of figure-skating contests and rifle matches.”

In the following Q & A, I asked Schodt about his fascinating although little-known subject.

How did you first hear about this person, Professor Risley?

I was browsing in a bookstore in Tokyo years ago and came across a little Japanese book, published in 1999, about the Imperial Japanese Troupe. It traced the movements of the troupe through America and Europe, largely based on the rediscovered diary of one of the members. This troupe was led by an American called “Professor Risley,” but I frankly had never heard of him or the troupe. I have always been fascinated by interesting characters, and the more I read, the more I was hooked. I also thought that this was an important but relatively unknown aspect of early Japanese and American history, and that I could perhaps make a contribution to the story.

It turned out to be one of the most fun projects I have ever worked on, and I learned so much, about a world of which I previously knew nothing. Both Risley and his troupe are part of a “lost history,” one might say, and I hope, in some small way, that my book will help shed light on what is a fascinating and early interchange between two very different popular cultures. I am on a bit of a crusade, you might say, to make Risley and his troupe better known.

Why exactly was he famous?

Professor Risley was famous for several reasons. He was born in Bass River in 1814, when the War of 1812 was still going on, and he grew up by the Mullica River. In fact, amazingly, the house built by his father, sea captain John Carlisle, still stands in the area. Risley appears in written records very early in life. He married and moved west, settling in newly-opened Indiana, where in 1835 he “platted,” or laid out, the town of New Carlisle.

Much of his early history is a bit fuzzy, but he also served as a bounty hunter, a merchant, ran for public office, and bought land in Michigan and Pennsylvania. And he had entertainment skills, for by 1841 he was already appearing in newspaper ads, among other things playing the flute and doing acrobatics. And he started performing with his little sons, doing acrobatic and balancing acts and posing in classical positions. These acts quickly caught people’s attention for their grace and skill, and Risley became so successful that in 1843 he showed up in London, with his boys doing what would become known as the “Risley Act.” This consisted of Risley juggling his sons, primarily while lying on his back. It is a circus act that today still bears his name.

This act formed the core of his early notoriety, but Risley was far more than an ordinary acrobat because he also became an impresario. Risley was active in the “panorama” business, which consisted of giant moving paintings, accompanied by narration and music, that people would pay to watch – rather like a predecessor to modern movies.

As an acrobat and troupe manager, he also toured both California and Oregon, as well as Australia, following their respective gold rushes. And in 1860, he plunged deep into Asia with a full circus, helping to pioneer the newly opened Asian entertainment circuit in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, and finally Japan. He was the first person to introduce Western circus to Japan, as well as a dairy business and ice cream. And after his circus performers deserted him in Yokohama, he put together a troupe of Japanese artists – the Imperial Japanese Troupe –and toured the United States and Europe for nearly two years, kicking off a boom in the West in Japanese acrobats and jugglers.

On the grand scale of things, how famous was he? (Is there anyone you could compare him to today, or in recent memory?)

It all depends to whom you are talking, I suppose. I like to think of him as someone akin to Michael Jackson, but for the younger set he might be closer to Justin Bieber. It’s hard to believe today, since Risley has been largely forgotten, but in his day he was seen by tens of thousands of people. He was a household word. Nearly everyone in America and Europe had heard of him.

His name was even used as a figure of speech, especially when people wanted to refer to someone as being particularly agile or adept. In British publications from the 1840s it is not uncommon to find the expression “à la Risley.” Sometimes this was used to describe other acrobats, but it was also used to describe politicians who were regarded as overly agile and flexible – flip-floppers who could change their positions overnight.

What was his greatest accomplishment? 

Other than popularizing the Risley Act, it was certainly his introduction of Japanese acrobatic troupes to the United States and to Europe. Risley’s Imperial Japanese Troupe triggered a boom in Japanese performers that lasted into the early 20th century, and his troupe members were some of the first ordinary Japanese that Westerns had ever seen. In fact, several of Risley’s troupe members received the first passports ever granted to ordinary citizens in Japan. This meeting of vastly different cultures contributed to a fascination with all things Japanese, and fanned the flames of the larger Japonisme movement in late 19th century arts.

How could such a great and interesting man be forgotten?

This is a great mystery, and something that I personally found fascinating. I suspect that it had to do with the fact that Risley was out of the United States for so long, at a time when Americans were preoccupied with the lead-up to, and the subsequent slaughter that occurred in, the Civil War. Risley was literate, but he appears to have left no personal writings and, oddly for such a public figure, although there are portraits of Risley, no photographs of him have yet been authenticated.

The circumstances of his death may also have contributed to his having been forgotten. He started to fade from view after the Imperial Japanese Troupe disbanded, and he died in an insane asylum in Philadelphia in 1874. At least one newspaper used his death as a sort of moral lesson, a warning to those who might be interested in pursuing a career in the demimonde of the circus.

What is your own background?

I grew up overseas, in Norway, Australia and Japan, and I have always been fascinated by eccentric characters with an early international vision, especially those who fall through the cracks of history. I make a living as a writer, translator and conference interpreter. I have never been a circus performer, but I wrote my book about 20 feet from the Circus Center in San Francisco, and daily watched aspiring young clowns, jugglers and trapeze artists come and go.

Steve Dodson is a Tuckerton historian.

 

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