Tragedy, Bravery, Royal Weddings and Queer Riders – why I can’t stop researching the nineteenth-century circus

At the Circus: Work in the Ring (1899) Toulouse-Lautrec
C/o Art Institute Chicago

Following on from essays for the Paris Review Daily about Selika Lazevski (here, with research notes here) and Sarah l’Africaine (here, with research notes here), I’ve written a third essay about my obsession with the horsewomen of the nineteenth-century Parisian circus who “lived at the center of public attention while simultaneously being marginal”. You can read it at the Paris Review‘s blog site here.

Here are some notes about the research and out-takes.



Countess Ugarte

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just an obsession with horses that forced Countess Ugarte into the circus ring, but I also couldn’t find anything about her performing, just this from a New York newspaper:


She Is to Make Her Debut in a Paris Circus

A Countess of ancient lineage, and who for many years has been one of the ornaments of the Austrian court, is about to make her debut as a circus-rider of “Haute Ecole” at the “Nouveau Cirque” at Paris. She is the daughter of the late Count Ugarte, Austrian Envoy to Wurtemberg, and is married to Hector Baltazzi, the uncle of the ill-fated Baroness Marie Vetzera, who perished, together with Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, at Meyerling [you can read about poor Marie here].
A few months ago Countess Ugarte obtained a legal separation from her husband, whose diminutive stature contrasts ridiculously with her tall, slender and handsome appearance. She is one of the most superb horsewomen with whom I have ever ridden, and at one time owned and managed a famous racing stable.
Knowing that her insane extravagance with regard to horseflesh often led to financial ruin, Renze, the celebrated circus proprietor, repeatedly made her magnificent offers to become the star equestrienne and school-rider of his circus, and now that she is separated from her husband, without sufficient resources, I suppose that she has cast to the winds her scruples concerning the adoption of a professional career.
Hector Baltazzi, her tiny husband, is just as enthusiastic about horses as she is herself. Indeed, I have always been of the opinion that this passion constituted the only bond of sympathy between them. For Hector Baltazzi is a Levantine, from Constantinople, who has merely been tolerated by the sporting section of Austrian society on account of his good riding and perfect knowledge of the turf, but who has never been permitted to penetrate the exclusive circles to which his wife belongs and in which she moves.
Indeed, she was invited everywhere, and used, when I knew her, to go to most places without him, her husband being pointedly ignored by both court and society, and not a day passing without her being made to feel that she has been guilty of a dreadful mesalliance. – N Y Recorder

The Morning Call, 3 August 1891, page 6.

According to this Chicago Tribune piece from 1912, Anna Ugarte always felt dogged by association with the Meyerling scandal. After leaving Austria she alternated between Paris and hunting in Leicestershire. She shot herself through the heart in Melton Mowbray in 1901.

Two Adèles

I mentioned one hippodrome horsewoman called Adèle who ended up as a conwoman and thief. Here’s an earlier blog post where I tell her story and that of Adèle Drouin, who performed with neither bridle nor saddle.

Antoinette LeJars on the Facade of the Cirque d’Hiver in Central Paris



Like actresses and dancers, these were public women. Racy novels and erotica elided the circus écuyères with famous demi-mondaine courtesans of the period, like Cora Pearl, who was said to treat horses better than her lovers, and “pretty little horsebreaker” Catherine “Skittles” Walters, who carved up the bridlepaths of the Bois de Boulogne in a skin-tight riding habit in the 1860s. Like these “soiled doves,” the circus horsewomen sometimes married into the aristocracy. Céleste Mogador, who graduated from sex worker to hippodrome rider to countess, and Clotilde Loisset, a circus child who married a prince, are just two examples. In the foreword to circus critic Baron de Vaux’s Écuyers et Écuyères, the playwright Meilhac offers a teasing “true” tale of a well-brought-up young girl whose mother wants her to have diamonds, houses and horses without losing her honor, and who is advised to send her into the ring on a sidesaddle as an écuyère. She can’t ride but nobody notices – she still bags a wealthy fiancé.

This paragraph came between “…faded down through the ranks” and “This combination of sex and sexism…”.

Contemporary Performers

An interview with Camilla Naprous of The Devil’s Horsemen.

Here’s Camille of Théâtre du Centaure


And Sabrina Sow of Equinoctis:


The Story of the “Black Gazelle” of the Paris Hippodrome: Sarah L’Africaine

A new essay on an equestrian stuntwoman who set Second Empire Paris alight: Sarah l’Africaine, following on from an earlier piece about the mystery horsewoman Selika Lazevski.

Here’s some information about my sources:

Most of the firsthand material is combed from Gallica, the incredible, searchable digital collection of the French national library.

The quotations in this section:

Dumas’ journal, Le Mousquetaire, published a letter demanding to know how Menken, an artist and “beauty itself,” could be replaced by “a negress who is absolute ugliness everywhere except in Guinea or Senegambia, and who probably had no other teachers than the monkeys from whom she took courses in the Coconut trees?”

are quoted and translated by Kari Weil in the excellent “Purebreds and Amazons: saying things with horses in late-nineteenth-century France” differences, a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring 1999.

On the grotesque tradition of the “femme sauvage”:

Nichola A Haxell’s “‘Ces Dames du Cirque’: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Art” was invaluable. You can read it here.

Les Saltimbanques, leur vie, leurs moeurs (1875) by Gaston Escudier has drawings by P de Crauzat. Note the name of the femme sauvage in my rough translation here:

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“a wild woman who appears in an iron cage, surrounded by four gendarmes with a sabre in their fists, and near whom stands a man who reddens iron bars on a stove.
This savage, having executed the dance of her country, prays, emits the war cry of the desert and devours her pieces of glass as we crunch on nuts. – There it is, incidentally, her ordinary fare – The thing used is worth being recounted.
They present the savage a plate piled with slivers of bottles; she throws herself on them, grabs them in her hands, thrusts them into her mouth and breaks them between her teeth so she can swallow them with extraordinary voracity. What a gullet!
What the public does not see is that the so-called savage pretends to take the pieces of glass from the plate, while in reality she doesn’t pick up any. The noise heard is made in the wings by a compere, who strikes some pieces of glass against one another, or by some bonbons that the savage crunches (which replicates the sound of glass perfectly when you crunch them between your teeth) This scene has a fantastic effect, and the public lets itself be taken in.
The savage then talks in her “native tongue” with whoever wants to engage with her. An oddball, one day, engaged in conversation with her:
– Chi coic libi kerr?
– yes, very good (in English), replied the lad.
– kara birsoic keres ser maderas?
– Das ist ganz gut.
And the lad stepped into the theatre to talk to her more closely:
– Sarah! Sarah! Mahien tier?
– Si, si parla l’italiano, sauvago buono.
This conversation went on in this fashion for two minutes, and the public believed that it happened, when the lad, making a faux pas, opened the bars and fell, by accident, on the femme sauvage, who cried, ‘Oh! Monsieur, please, don’t do me any harm!’
You can imagine the amusement of the crowd. It required the intervention of the police to prevent the savage, the saltimbanque and all the material from being demolished.
That’s one anecdote among thousands”

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He also relates this anecdote:

“This little scene reminds me of another where the theatre was, at Versailles, the stage of a femme sauvage.
A monsieur entered the loge, saw the savage on her stage, listened closely to the sound of her voice, threw himself on her, seized her by the arms and cried,
– Ah! So this is how you left me, Thérèse, to become a femme sauvage! Right! Follow me!
–heavens, it’s my husband! She cried, and fainted.
It really was her husband, whom she had left. It seemed that she had one obsession, of performing as a femme sauvage, and one fine day, she something the home to install herself in a fairground stall. Inquiries made, I later learned that the poor Thérèse, whose husband so strongly denied her talents, donned the garb of the femme sauvage every night, and received her friends thus.
Voila, we agree, a singular obsession. And if, this winter, you encounter at a masked ball a grand woman disguised as a Hottentot, you can say:
– It’s Thérèse, the savage of Versailles.
If she managed to make her husband adopt the same costume, they would make a fine couple, all the more so if her husband blacked up like a negro.”

Le Figaro du Théâtre ran this story on 11 November 1866 at the height of Sarah’s fame:

“We read in the Vigie de Cherbourg:
Monday 29 October, one of the parades of many performers who were established at a fairground at Maladerie at Caen, was brightened up by an unexpected scene.
Among the remarkable subjects announced by the clown, as taking part in the show, was a femme sauvage, who, head crowned with feathers, face adorned by a magnificent black beard, warmed up for her performance by eating flaming oakum.
The femme sauvage should break rocks on her stomach, and, dressed in the guise of a crinoline, the kilos “of the coarsest kind” as the grand Bilboquet but it.
As the clown detailed all the marvels that, for the price of ten centimes, could unfurl beneath the astonished eyes of the spectators, a peasant did not lose sight of the femme sauvage.
– Jeanette! he cried.
At this name the femme sauvage turned in astonishment.
– Not a doubt! It’s her! replied the peasant.
And he threw himself on the stage, seized the beard that had shortly before drawn the admiration of the crowd, and pushed on the perfectly beardless cheek, the most vigorous slap that had ever rung out on the rock breaker.
The woman was none other than the peasant’s wife, who lived near Saint-Lô, and whom she had abandoned to follow her love, proving that she was evidently less savage than she appeared.”

The Baudelaire poem is “La femme sauvage et la petite maîtresse”.

Revues and satires featuring Sarah:

Je me le demande, at the Théâtre Folies Saint-Germaine in December 1866. Sarah was played by Louise Berthal, whom you can see here.

Les Thugs à Paris was co-written by Albert Wolff (him again) and Eugene Grange and performed that November. Here Sarah was played by “Silly”.

Sarah in London:

Towards the end of my research I saw a brief note saying that Sarah was due to go to London to perform that winter. I couldn’t find any obvious trace of her and wonder how she would have been received, given that Black people had been attacked in London the previous year following a rebellion in Jamaica. But she would have just missed Sarah Redmond, an American anti-slavery activist who had been lecturing in the city.

I did find that the Agricultural Hall in Islington had hosted a show organised by John and George Sanger (of the circus dynasty) called Congress of the Monarchs, a spectacular featuring people impersonating kings and queens of many nations. It opened around Christmas in 1866 and closed at the end of February in 1867. Perhaps Sarah was in the cast, though I couldn’t find a detailed listing (The Marvellous Craggs have a better listing but say they can’t spot her either – they also caught my Sanger slip up).

On Adah Isaacs Menken‘s own adoption of blackface and her depiction as white, read Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. I’ve written a little about Adah in The Age of the Horse and in this essay on wild horses and Mazeppa, but haven’t included her in this écuyères series because much has already been written about her, and it’s as wild a ride as she took on that horse.

Who was Sarah Dow?

When I was trying to work out Sarah’s real name, another name floated up in close connection so I went on a bit of a hunt to check what was going on. Sarah Dow was another performing horsewoman who specialised in the “ride of Mazeppa” and stood in for Menken on many occasions. However, to the best of my research, she was a blonde “daughter of England” from Birmingham.

The specialist archives and libraries and their very helpful staff were:

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris – they have a surviving poster of Sarah in action, described in the essay.
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield
Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, where I was lucky enough to be a writer in residence this February.

London: Horses, Survivors and Architecture

W G Gordon’s The Horse World of London is a remarkable book. Published in 1893, it’s an attempt to document not just the numbers and logistics of the army of horse power that kept the capital city functioning, but also to give a reporter’s eye view of the stables, horses and people involved, from the names of the horses in different jobs to the doses of whisky given out to those horses. It has an immediacy that’s kept me returning to it as a source.

Today I undertook a fan’s pilgrimage to a stable that features heavily in the chapter on carriers’ horses. I’ve used material about this stable in, I think, both If Wishes Were Horses and The Age of the Horse. Miraculously, it still stands between South Wharf Road and Winsland Street, right next to Paddington station. Built in 1873, it once housed 600 horses for the Great Western Railways, from vanners to shunters. It is now the Mint Wing of St Mary’s hospital, rather shabby but grade II listed.

My guess is that those two expanses of concrete fill in large doors that once let carts in and out. The building was refurbished extensively in the 1920s. The horses lived on multiple floors when it was still a stable. Here are some more stable-y windows on the South Wharf Road:

According to Gordon, there were four floors of horses originally, plus an additional stable near the goods station for 140 horses and a further infirmary for the sick. The stables were high tech for the time, with electrical lighting and good ventilation. An old army man was in charge when Gordon visited in the 1890s, and the horses were filed by colour. The walls inside were white, with varnished pine ceilings and blue brick ramps kept immaculately clear of kit or obstacles. The partitions between the horses were hung from the ceiling, with quick release should a horse kick and get a leg stuck.

Veteran horses were semi-retired but still used as extra muscle for particular loads (given that the horses in the stable generally only had a full-time workspan of five years, this wasn’t too bad a fate). The first horses went out at 2am.

Inside the yard, it’s oddly maze-like, with three smaller crooks of space. You can still see the ramps the horses used and, at the top, the old open walkways where horses were groomed have been glassed in.

The building is clearly still in heavy use but needs a makeover – hopefully its listing will mean it’s preserved as a rare piece of industrial heritage. Maybe one day we will have horse museums in places like this and not just in palaces like Chantilly and Versailles.

A short walk away, heading for Hyde Park, I saw a sign warning that horses used the nearby streets. We were yards away from the old Hyde Park Stables – a pony club centre and riding school in what must be one of the last mews used for its original purpose in London. I’d read that the stable had shut down a few months ago, but there was fresh horse poop on the road. So I went to look and got confused. It looks as though the Ross Nye stables closed but the Hyde Park stables are still open, although they seem to be on pretty much the same premises. [UPDATE: with thanks to Maria, I was wrong – Ross Nye is still open and Hyde Park closed] Anyhoo, here’s a short of Bathurst Mews, complete with horses:

I rounded off my horsey day in London by nearly being run over by this fine pair of police horses, who appeared from nowhere on the Southbank as I was resting on a bench:

London is still a little bit horse powered after all.

Got Mare’s Milk?

While the idea of sipping mare’s milk might sound unusual to Western readers, it’s been a traditional staple in Central Asia, where it is often fermented into “koumiss,” a mildly alcoholic drink that was adopted by Russian doctors in the mid-19th century as a treatment for tuberculosis. Patients no less illustrious than the writers Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy swore by its curative powers. In Europe today, mare’s milk remains a niche product, but its reputation as a health elixir is causing trouble for producers in a more regulated age.

Read my new piece for NPR’s The Salt on mare’s milk here. And enjoy a slideshow of the Lindenhof Stud, visited during my research:

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From Anarchy to Mare’s Milk: a year in horse stories

I didn’t publish any articles between 2014 and 2017 because I was busy working on The Age of the Horse, so I set myself a challenge to get pieces out there to new audiences for a twelve-month surge. I’ve now reached the end and am about to sequester myself in the Stabi to work on books three and four (maybe more like three-and-a-half), so here’s a roundup. People ask me why I write about horses, but who wouldn’t love a theme that’s global, intersectional, multi-disciplinary and ever-evolving?



“Hanging Up Our Spurs” – a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Literary Review.



“The Troubled History of Horsemeat in America” – for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog series.



“Liberating Diana” – on the Danish sculptor making an equestrian statue of Diana, Princess of Wales. On Medium.



An obituary for Paula Sykes, pioneering woman groom of 1950s showjumping and right-hand woman of Pat Smythe. For Medium.



“Athletes or Anarchists? how the misunderstanding between horses and humans makes their domestication possible” – for Zoomorphic.



“How Lord Byron invented the wild horse” – for Literary Hub.



“The Hidden History of Bathing in Soup Broth” – for Gastro Obscura.


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“Selika: Mystery of the Belle Epoque” – for Paris Review Daily.



“Just horse play? A review of Ex Anima by Théâtre Équestre Zingaro” for Culturised.


Another framed winner.

“Horse-race Politics” – an essay on Siena’s Palio for Nowhere Magazine‘s Fall 2017 Travel Writing contest.



“Mare’s Milk for Health? Europeans Look to Horses for Ancient Remedy” – for NPR’s The Salt.

Horse-Race Politics, The Palio August 2016

I looked up from the center of the small courtyard, above the hexagonal pillars, the Gothic arches and then higher, to the crenellations that framed a rectangle of deep-blue sky where a single planet or star shone. The building was made of stone and brick and the yard sealed by a thick, studded door, but it stank of herbivore life—a familiar, multi-noted fragrance of ammonia, digested hay, fresh sweat and the greasy powder that lives in short, silky coats. Underfoot, the flagstones were covered with yellow volcanic dust mixed with water to make a barely yielding surface. Intersecting crescents had been pressed into it by metal-shod hoofs. The courtyard had been empty for hours but the presence of the animals lingered, contained by the stone.

My long-read “Horse-Race Politics” on the great bareback race of Siena, the Palio, was a finalist in Nowhere Magazine‘s 2017 Fall Travel Writing Contest. You can read it here, but here are a few accompanying visuals.

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She-Wolf return triumphant with Preziosa Penelope after the tratta or lottery in which horses are assigned to districts:

And Doris Day in a film about the Palio:

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Footage of the race I saw:

I can recommend John Hunt and James Gay-Rees’ 2015 documentary, Palio, although the only admission that the horses might suffer comes from a lingering shot of the wounds suffered by one after a fall. The tie-in book is superb – full of history and imagery. I also dipped into Elizabeth Tobey’s excellent “The Palio Horse in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy” in The Culture of the Horse and The Palio in Italian Renaissance Art, Thought, and Culture.

Andrea di Robilant’s long read on the Getty family and the Palio for Town and Country is super too – he really brings out the skullduggery and some of the dodgier veterinary issues. If you want to read a fantastic ethnomusicological study of the Palio, I quoted translations from Dr Anna Hersey’s paper, “L’anima nostra che sa le canzoni: Musical improvisation in theory and practice at Siena’s Palio.” It opens with a tourist getting slapped and goes on from there. Palio be crazy, people. Don’t get in the way of the Senesi.

The Beautiful Irony – An Afterword for The Age of the Horse, February 2018

Przewalski horse in Berlin Zoo.

On 23 February 2018 an international group of paleogeneticists and zooarchaeologists studying horse domestication published a report in the journal Science. They had recovered and sequenced DNA from the remains of horses found at the Botai site, hoping, as team-member Ludovico Orlando put it, “to catch evolution red-handed, when domestication first started.” Instead, they turned our understanding of domestication, of the wild and the feral, upside down.

The Botai horses did not appear to be the ancestors of today’s domestic horses. They were the ancestors of the Przewalski. Our sacred wild Takhi was, like the mustangs, the brumbies and the New Forest ponies, feral – an escapee from the Botai’s Copper Age corrals. Very like the wild horses on cave walls with their upright manes and dun coats, but taller and tamed. Either so many other wild horses had been added to the gene pool since the Botai vanished that the Przewalski DNA had been erased, or domestication had happened in other places, with other ghost horse herds. All two thousand of our last surviving wild horses disappeared overnight.

Thinking back to Hustai and everything that led to the rewilding of those 121,000 acres of steppe, to the airlifts, the complicated breeding programme, the conferences, studies, rangers, scientists, grants and zookeepers, I thought only what a beautiful irony we’d created. After all that the horse had done for humanity, we’d thrown the world’s resources into returning the earliest horse who’d known a bridle and a fence to a landscape with neither bridles nor fences. The Takhi was tamed, and we had insisted that he become wild once more.




“Ancient genomes revisit the ancestry of domestic and Przewalski’s horses” by C Gaunitz et al. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Ancient DNA upends the horse family tree” by Elizabeth Pennisi. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Surprising new study redraws family tree of domesticated and ‘wild’ horses” by University of Kansas., 22 February 2018.




Everything I Don’t Know About Selika Lazevski


UPDATE: The viral photographs of Sélika set me hunting through archives and circuses from St Petersburg to Paris to uncover the lives of elusive women who were celebrated artistes, survivors, and scapegoats of the nineteenth century. I’m telling their stories now in Amazons of Paris. You can sign up here for more information and read the original essays for Paris Review Daily here.

This blog post is about the research behind an essay I published on Paris Review Daily on 9 February 2018 (accessible here).

I first blogged about Selika when her image went viral in 2012. The best source of information was a commenter called Marie (her profile has since been deleted), who pointed out the source of the six images we have of Ms Lazevski: the French Ministry of Culture’s Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. I dug around a bit and found out about L’Africaine, the Meyerbeer opera that was likely the source of Selika’s first name. A book about photographer Félix Nadar was published in 2015, and I excitedly assumed that he had taken the images of Selika. First lesson of research: check your sources. I was wrong, but by the time I realised that, people had copied the error and it even turned up in the publicity material for a fictional short film about her, The Adventures of Selika (2017).

So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to research Selika properly. This is a pretty detailed account of where I looked. I had a tremendous amount of fun – for all the long boring slogs through identical newspaper small ads, there were sudden surges of adrenalin as I’d think I’d made a breakthrough. If you, too, want to have fun with archives, Selika and adrenalin, I’ve marked opportunities for further research. Here’s the Culture Ministry’s records and the photographs.

I was informed by an archivist that the information with the photographs of Selika in the dark habit is as follows:

date: 1891
Mlle Lavzeski (Selika), écuyère
Mlle Lavzeski, Nouveau Cirque
Mlle Lavezeski
Mlle Lavzeski

and in the light habit as:

date : 1891
Mlle Selika Larzewski, écuyère de Haute-Ecole
Mlle Selika Laszewski, écuyère
Mlle Lasvezski

And that’s it! So, on with the hunt.

Who photographed Selika?

So, not Félix Nadar but “Studio Nadar”. Félix was no longer working in the Paris studio in 1891. His son Paul was in charge. Dr Jillian Lerner of the University of British Columbia told me that it was likely that “Studio Nadar” meant the images were shot by an anonymous photographer working within the studio. I went to the Bibliothèque Nationale and ordered Paul Nadar’s visitor book, but although it was full of visiting cards featuring names like Monet, Dreyfus, Rothschild, Dumas, Zola and the Comtesse Greffulhe, it was too late for the photographs of Selika. I didn’t order the handwritten letters between Paul and Félix because I didn’t have the time nor the ability to decipher that much nineteenth-century French cursive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]
I wasn’t aware of any other collections of the Nadars’ paperwork but I did check Paul Nadar’s photographic journal, Paris-Photographe, first published in 1891, and there was no sign of Selika.

Where does her name come from?

Selika is the name of the heroine of L’Africaine, an opera partially completed by Giacomo Meyerbeer (who is buried in a cemetery near my home in Berlin) at the time of his death in 1864. Meyerbeer had intended to call the finished work Vasco de Gama, and it tells the story of a Hindu princess who is first enslaved by Vasco da Gama and then becomes the mistress of his fate. She frees him to be with his love and kills herself nobly by inhaling poisonous blossom. Somehow the Hindu princess became an African princess when Meyerbeer’s friend, François-Joseph Fétis, repackaged the unfinished opera as L’Africaine for its first performance in Paris in 1865.

L’Africaine was a huge hit. I know this because I typed the name Selika into Gallica, the BNF’s digitised collection, and got 442 hits. I trawled through them all. Not one is a reference to Selika Lazevski, but they did testify to the popularity of Meyerbeer’s heroine. I found not just mentions of performances of L’Africaine, but also a dog, a ship, a horse, a scarf colour, some (white) anti-heroines (a lady lion tamer in 1890’s Papa la Vertu by Réné Maizeroy, Le Pays du Mal: Palotte by Emile de Molènes, and a character in Le Sphinx aux Perles by Gustave Haller), a camel in Aristide Bruant’s Les Bas-Fonds de Paris, and an ice cream bombe all named after her. In another book, L’Enfance de Georges Aymeris, a child has a black doll from America called Selika. I also learned that the first African-American soprano to perform in the White House, Marie Selika Williams, had adopted the name.

So I started to think of Selika as a stage name, chosen either for its exoticism or as resonant of a noble Black woman (depending on who chose the name). I used lots of different search terms to try to find this missing Black horsewoman, and nothing turned up. I also discovered that Félix Nadar photographed Meyerbeer, but this is just the sort of tantalising coincidence that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing and makes one long to write fiction.

(Selika is also a village near Lake Malawi, another name for Seleucia in Iraq and a Hebrew name for a woman; a bellydancer at the Jardin de Paris in 1893, and a few other things I managed to stop myself adding here).

Who were the Lazevskis?

At last count, I’d uncovered twelve different spellings of the name Lazewski: Lazevski, Lazevski, Lavzeski, Lavezewski, Larzewski, Laszewski, Lauzevski, Laszewski, Laschewsky, Lasjewski and Laczewski.

Imagine the fun! Well, there was a Lazewski associated with circus horsemanship. Better still, there were three. One was found for me by the Winkler Circus Archive in Berlin. He’s a gentleman amateur mentioned in Oskar Justinus’ Vom Cirkus (published 1888) riding a full-blood Arab from the empress’ stable. I’ve focused on the French circus scene in my research but, my goodness, the German scene is more than its equal. Who knows what I could have found if I’d expanded my research? I was very lucky that the Winklers looked this up for me. And that the librarian at the Spandau circus collection instantly located more information for me in “Signor Saltarino’s” lexicon of circus artistes:

“Laszewski, Lucian von, haute-école rider and trainer, born on 9 May 1864 in Riga, died young on 20 March 1888 in Riga from consumption.”

So he was dead three years before Selika was photographed.

Now, here’s where you realise that circus research is like the crack of research. So good, so tempting, but it will break you. Names change. People adopt new ones. Dates and places get tricky. Because it turns out there’s another Lazewski, and he’s a much better bet for us. Valli di Lazewski was working at the Nouveau Cirque in the same period that the Ministry of Culture notes said Selika was there.

Valli, I believe, can be found in a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. He’s spelled “Laschewsky”.


According to circus historian Paul Haynon’s notes, Valli was born in Poland on 29 August 1864 (a few months after Lucian so I guess they’re not brothers) and married on 16 February 1888 in Riga (a month before Lucian died). He was trained by E Wulff and made his Paris debut at a hippodrome in 1887. Were he and Lucian related? Were they, as Dominique Jando, the circus historian who runs Circopedia, suggested to me, the same person (the more work you do with nineteenth-century sources, the more you see how errors creep in and slip ups are made)? Again, the dates and locations are tantalisingly close, but I can’t afford to go to Riga to hunt for whatever records might have survived the twentieth century. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

I have more material on Valli though. He crops up in the papers at Olympia in London and tracking down a runaway horse on a Paris street. For Paul Haynon, he answered a brief questionnaire about his career, which I was enchanted to find in the Paris archives. Haynon also collected the notes of his wife, who was called Laure/Laura/Lara (forgive my bad reading of the handwriting). She was clearly not Selika although she was an écuyère of haute école. A librarian at Bibliothèque Nationale told me she had found a “Mlle Lazewski” in Gallica and I thought for one glorious moment that it was Selika. Then, mindful of my mistake with Félix, I cross-checked it. The Mademoiselle Lazewski was “Madame Lazewski” in other papers that day. It was perhaps Laure (I couldn’t read the hand writing), not Selika.

She is also in a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. She’s spelled “Lasjewski”.

I wildly wondered whether Selika could have been adopted by them, but there’s a strike through the query about them having children in Paul Haynon’s notes. But there was something: Dominique Jando told me that it was common for performers to take the surname of their teacher – so perhaps Valli taught Selika.

Much of this could have been answered if I had been able to find an article called “Valli de Laszewski et son Epoque” by Paul Haynon from 6 March 1937 in L’Inter-Forain. There should be a copy in the Fonds Paul Haynon in the Paris Archives, but after spending a couple of days checking every dusty box in the collection on two separate trips to Paris, I couldn’t find it. I contacted the current publishers of L’Inter-Forain and they don’t have it, and neither do the Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty or the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield. I would love to get my mitts on it. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

Did Selika perform at the Nouveau Cirque?

The Nouveau Cirque opened in February 1886 at 251 rue St Honoré in the heart of Paris. It was originally intended to have a dual purpose: from October to May it would be a very grand circus indeed. From May to October it would be a swimming pool. The ring sat on top of the 25m-diameter pool, and sometimes the carpet was peeled back and the cover removed so that circus performers could frolic about in the pool as part of their act or the pantomimes that made up the last half of each show. Here’s a poster for the Nouveau Cirque in its summer incarnation:

Selika swimming at the Nouveau Cirque

Yes, as you can see, it mainly seems to be about white men getting massages from Black men. So here’s a thing: there does seem to be a theme of sorts connecting the Nouveau Cirque to Black performers. Joseph Oller, who founded the circus, was an early adopter: in the 1870s he ran a café-concert venue that featured a series of Black animal tamers, starting with a man called Delmonico. In 1891, three years after Oller departed, one of the Nouveau Cirque’s stars was Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat, a Black clown. Padilla was probably born into slavery in Cuba and travelled with his “owner” to Spain where he was freed, later working for a clown who brought him to Paris and the Nouveau Cirque, where he teamed up with the English clown George Foottit as a hit double act. He also starred in Nouveau Cirque pantomimes which seem to have been written as vehicles for him, albeit massively racist vehicles. If you want to know more about Chocolat, the French historian Gérard Noiriel has written a biography which was adapted into a film (see trailer here). Here’s some footage of the real Chocolat and Footit in action:

In the Fonds Paul Haynon I found a hand-drawn plan of the circus at this time, with a note made even of the horses’ names in some of the individual stables. I went through all the advertisements for the circus in Gallica in 1891 and found no trace of Selika. Both the Fonds Paul Haynon and the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Département des Arts du Spectacle have handwritten lists of some performers in the shows, but I couldn’t find Selika, unless she was there under another name. Nor does she appear on a poster, although I did see an advert for a horse-riding seal at the Nouveau Cirque which was worth the trip in itself.

Maybe Selika performed there under another name? I couldn’t find any references to Black women performing there until the twentieth century, and then as dancers. I made some lists of the names of the Nouveau Cirque’s “clownesses” but there are few pictures and none of them look like Selika.

Selected sources

Chocolat: La véritable histoire d’un homme sans nom (Gérard Noiriel)
Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 (Ghislaine Bouchet)
“Le Reve de Chocolat” (Sylvia Chalaye) in Africultures, 2013/2 (n° 92-93)
“‘Race’ As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture” (James Smalls) in French Historical Studies 26.2 (2003)

Was Selika a haute-école écuyère?

If Selika ever did ride haute école in the circus, she had no impact on critics, writers or artists. Several other Black circus performers of the nineteenth century did, and I had some wonderful sidetracks into their life stories. There was the strongwoman Miss Lala (dizzyingly painted by Edgar Degas), British horseman Pablo Fanque, horseback acrobat Sarah l’Africaine (whom I’m currently writing about), Chocolat, and Delmonico to name a handful. But there’s nothing in the press or in the books I’ve checked about Selika.
This doesn’t mean she didn’t ride in the ring, however, as plenty of écuyères performed in quadrilles of twelve or more riders where they were as good as nameless – again, I have a small collections of names that appear once and never again. Perhaps Selika did this, but the surviving lists of performers at the Nouveau Cirque are scant and she’s not mentioned – by that name – on any of them. She didn’t need to be especially talented for this. While some écuyères trained their own horses, others with less riding skill were simply bundled onto a very highly prepared horse and had to do little more than stay on board and give their mounts the right cues.
I did find one reference to a Sélika riding haute école, but it’s fiction and she’s described as Basque, blonde and blue-eyed. It’s a story or extract called “Les Baisers” by J H Rosny, published on 11 January 1908 in Comoedia.

Was Selika American?

Miss Lala and, very possibly, Sara L’Africaine were from America. A careful combing of circus records in the USA might reveal some results. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE] [thank you to Calvin for correcting me on Miss Lala – she wasn’t American but European. More here].

Was Selika an artist’s model?

Nigel Gosling’s Nadar (1976) captioned Selika as “Mlle Lauzeski, model” (she appears on the same page as another Nouveau Cirque écuyère of the period, about whom I’m also currently writing). This suggests she was posed as a circus écuyère rather than actually being one – something I think is a very real possibility given the nature of her “nom d’écuyère”. I did some digging into the world of artists’ models and found nothing, although I’m sure someone with more familiarity with the terrain could perform a better search [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]. Félix Nadar and Paul both photographed a Black woman known as Maria “l’Antillaise”, a servant in their household from the Antilles. Félix photographed her bare breasted, and I’ve seen some claim she was his mistress. For Paul, she posed fully dressed. But she is not Selika.

Selected sources

Dictionary of Artists’ Models (Jill Berk Jiminez)
The Black Female Body: a Photographic History (Deborah Willis)

Selika Dahomey Amazons rifle drill

Selika Dahomey behind the scenes

What about the Dahomey “Amazons” and Paris’ human zoos?

There is absolutely nothing to link Selika as an individual to what was going on in the Jardin d’Acclimatation but the contrast between her image and the portrayal of the Dahomey women just struck me. There were in fact troupes of Black women performing in European and Russian circuses as Dahomey Amazons (whether they actually were or not I don’t know). I didn’t manage to fit them in the essay, but you can read about them in Irina Novikova’s article, listed here.

Selected sources

La France Noire (Pascal Blanchard)
“Imagining Africa and blackness in the Russian empire: from extra-textual arapka and distant cannibals to Dahmoey amazon shows – live in Moscow and Riga” (Irina Novikova) in Social Identities, September 2013, vol 19, issue 5
Guerrières et guerriers du Dahomey au Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation (Fulbert Dumonteil) February 1891
Le Monde Illustré, 21 February 1891
Le Voleur Illustré, 26 February 1891
Le Figaro, 8 February 1891
Dances with Darwin 1875-1910, Vernacular Modernity in France (Rae Beth Gordon)


Well, there are still many threads to pursue. Selika was real. She existed. I’ve flagged opportunities for further research. If I can pursue them (time and finances willing) I will, but meanwhile, if you are able to research any of these leads, please do get in touch with me. Perhaps she never performed, either because she lost interest, couldn’t ride well enough or met some other mishap or better adventure. Perhaps the circus owners lost their nerve – it was one thing to have a Black clown, acrobat-strongwoman or animal tamer, but another to have a Black woman dressed in the ultra-respectable riding habit, performing the highest equestrian art and wearing a Jockey Club top hat not, like Chocolat, as a joke, but with dignity and aplomb.

Archives and Records Considered

I received incredible kindness and help from archivists on this quest. They let me walk in off the streets and into their stacks, rolled out trolleys full of goodies and searched collections to give me armsful of print outs. They were peerless. So huge thanks to:

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3
Zirkusarchiv Winkler, Berlin
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield

One small boo to the Archives de la Préfecture de Paris, whose receptionist told me emphatically that they had no circus records. I was back in Berlin before I realised that they housed part of Tristan Rémy’s archive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY].

Thank you also to circus historians alive and dead, from Paul Haynon to Tristan Rémy and Dominique Jando. You’re a unique and dogged breed of scholars. My (top) hat goes off to you.

Quotations in the Paris Review Daily piece:

– “two great seductions, woman and the horse,” is Baron d’Etreillis but I’ve temporarily lost my notes re the source and translator.
– “the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing” is Hugues le Roux in Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine (1889) translated by Hilda Nelson in The Écuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus.