James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): An Introduction – Writing Lives

James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): An Introduction



‘Strange Truth: Autobiography of a Circus Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’.


James H. McKenzie, born 1862. Died 1952.


Our names are Tawny Whitfield and Michelle Whittle, we are currently studying a BA Hons English degree at Liverpool John Moores University and we have chosen to research the life and memoir of James H. McKenzie. His handwritten autobiography is 55,000 words long, which is quite a task for two people, let alone one person. James McKenzie had no formal education but he is articulate and conveys his natural curiosity.

Our reason for studying James McKenzie’s life is quite simple: he lived his life as a circus showman. Circuses are extremely rare nowadays and travelling fairs are becoming less popular by the year. But before the arrival of film and television, the circus was one of the most popular sites of spectacle and pleasure and McKenzie’s life will allow us to explore changes in popular entertainment over more than seventy years.

Our author was a self-described ‘showman’ and he carried over that showmanship into his autobiography. McKenzie’s life, as conveyed by the title of his memoir, was full of excitement and strange freedom. He owned a menagerie of animals that he travelled around showing to the public. He describes in great detail how he comes to acquire his menagerie, which consisted of porcupines, horses and a baby kangaroo, amongst others. He was deeply fond of his collection and even describes the death of a much loved horse:

‘I went to the horse field to find “my curly” horse in a small pond, with his watery eye, dead, and other horses looking on a mourners.’ (142)



McKenzie’s animals and fellow travellers seem to have provided McKenzie with a surrogate family.  He was orphaned at a young age and raised for some time by his fortune-telling Grandmother. As a child, he was passed between different family members, and lack of a stable and secure family home seems to have inspired his ‘wanderlust’.   Yet despite feeling abandoned as a child, McKenzie appears to have left behind his own wife and daughter. Did he literally run away with the circus?

McKenzie died in 1952 at the ripe old age of 90, making many friends throughout his life. It will be interesting to delve into how much his myriad friends helped shape his character. However, during his later life he would have witnessed the development of two World Wars and it will be compelling to evaluate the world of stage and theatre during this time and how the World Wars affected business for travelling fairs.



McKenzie, H. James, Strange Truth: Autobiography of a Circus Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: Ann Annotated, Critical Bibliography 3 vols. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1997, 1989 (1:473)






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