Jim Harrigan was born James Horrigan in Corry, Pennsylvania in 1866. He was part of a large family, having four brothers and two sisters. He may not have been a great juggler, but he is famous for inventing or popularizing two common elements of a juggling act that have endured ever since. Harrigan began as a typical performing juggler in 1887, when he debuted at the West Side Museum in Chicago, Illinois (USA). On the vaudeville circuit, he would perform his act up to 22 times a day.
He accidentally developed the “tramp juggler” character when his normal costume wasn’t available. He explained the circumstances this way:
“I was getting a small salary, doing an ordinary juggling act. One day I received an invitation from the Baltimore Press Club to spend a day at their camp on the Ohio river. I was greatly troubled in mind, as to how I could raise a little money for a contribution of fruit, cigars or some other gift that was customary for visitors to offer. An appeal to the manager of my company for salary in advance did not meet with success so I pawned my stage dress suit to get a little money. When I returned at night, the situation was decidedly awkward. The manager stormed and I hastily borrowed odd garments from the other performers, mussed my smooth hair into a tangle, put on a half-inch beard with a handful of burnt paper and rushed on the stage as a tramp. My turn made such a hit that I was greeted with the emphatic words of the manager “If you ever get that dress suit out of pawn, I’ll shoot you!” So I remained a tramp behind the footlights ever after.”
He also was the first known talking comedy juggler on the vaudeville circuit, although Edwin George and Fred Pelot also made a similar claim.
Harrigan juggled with balls, everyday objects such as bottles, plates, and paper, and was one of the earliest performers to use cigar boxes. Even though Harrigan was the first tramp juggler, and even copyrighted the character, other performers such as W.C Fields became more popular with it. Harrigan was so upset at Fields’ theft of his act that Harrigan attended several of Field’s shows and tried to speak to him afterward. However, Fields always managed to slip away without having to face his accuser. Many years later, the two became good friends and Harrigan forgave Fields for copying him. Fields would later give Harrigan the credit for the creation of the tramp character and for his juggling act, in general.
We have a copy of the script of Harrigan’s act, which you can read below.
Open of Act, Enter Harrigan.
“Hallo! Fellows, well I blowed my job again, I was out with a troop, may be you heard about it, it was called a cold day when we get left. Well I woke up one morning, out in St. Paul, Minn., and it was 45 degrees below zero. That was the day.
The manager of this troop, he shook everybody, and now he is trying to shake me, well I’ll tell you right now, he can’t lose me now (Business of striking match on whiskers).
I have an idea, now I know what I’ll do, I will just chase out a few tricks here, and I’ll do them, then I will pass my hat and I might chase up a few pennies, and, 0h! well lem[on] and seltzer for a chaser. (Business tricks with plug hat, throwing hat, one, two, and three revolutions, and catching it on head, then throwing hat up and catching it on stick, on the rim of the hat.) Remarks made while doing trick:-“0h! I dont know” “Oh! pretty fair,” “Don’t you think it is a shame to take money for doing this.”
2nd. trick:- With box and bottle, with lid on box:- Trick is throwing bottle in and out of box, making the lid open and shut, as the bottle passes in and out. Remarks at finish of trick:-“0h! there are others.”
3rd. trick:- Balancing long strip of paper on nose, and letting it fall to chest, and balancing on chest; and remark as it drops to chest:- “On the chest.”
4th. trick:- Juggling three balls, have plug hat on the head with hole in the top of hat and one in front of the hat with the flap on, throw one ball up, it goes through hole in top of the hat, and comes out hole in front, the flap going back to place after ball coming out. Remark:- “You have all heard of people talking through their hat, but you have never seen anyone that could juggle through his hat.”
5th. trick:- Have eight (8), ten (10), or twelve (12), cigar boxes on table, grabbing them one at a time and putting them all together, and working them up in a pyramid, then sliding them down again, knocking them off one at a time; Remark. “Oh! pretty fair.”
6th. trick:- Three cigar boxes juggling and catching them while keeping time with the music; Remark:- “What is the use of working when you can do this for a living.”
7th. trick:- Putting lighted lamps on eight, ten, or twelve, cigar boxes, knocking boxes out, one at a time, and catching lamp on back of hand.
8th. trick:- Scene second. Putting lamps on top of pyramid of boxes on table, pushing pyramid over until it is about to fall, then catch on stick, balance all of them, then let the whole thing drop, and catch lamp on the stick; Remark:- “Well, so long fellows.”
Jim Harrigan’s creative ideas revolutionized performing juggling in ways that continue to this day. He retired from the stage after 20 years and became the president of a lumber company in Buffalo, New York. He passed away in Buffalo in 1923, leaving a wife (Mabel) and son (James).