During my inquiries concerning the exhibitors of animals, my informant in S— directed me to an obscure alley in the south-east of the borough, where, according to his statements, an increased number of such exhibitors set up camp, the constabulary not being very partial to the idea of patrolling said area due to the outrageous level of criminal misconduct. In this district all sorts of miscreants herded almost unchecked, thieves, burglars, fences and most provocatively dressed women not even waiting for nightfall but strutting about in the broad light of day. I was repeatedly warned and strongly advised of relinquishing my plan of visiting said area, as he feared for my safety, but my report would be incomplete and the reader surely most dissatisfied, potentially even putting forward the charge of cowardice against this reporter. If the press shall not venture into these places, exposing these nests of vice and depravity to the inquisitive eye, who shall do so then?
Thus, perceiving it as my duty to the general public, I ventured forth into the court said alley lead to and upon emerging from its narrow confines, I became aware of an old, rather shabby-looking ‘gentleman’ standing behind a ramshackle table in front of the row of houses facing the exit of the alley. His clothes must have once been of a more or less respectable quality, these times, however, were long past, his toes showing through his shoes and his moth-eaten tophat barely holding together, more resembling an old, crudely-opened tin can than a proper hat.
Upon drawing closer to the table, the ‘gentleman’ touched his hat, flashing a grin revealing teeth, which were in a state as desolate as the houses behind him, being marked by jagged and rotten holes for windows and unhinged doors. There were already several subjects frequenting the neighbourhood gathered around his exhibition table, yet, from afar I could not make out what their eyes were so intently focused upon. It is only when I arrived directly in front of the table, peering past the other onlookers, that I beheld a most curious sight.
The ‘gentleman’, describing himself as “a tamer of vile beasts” to me, was running a flea circus, brandishing a crooked stick in imitation of an orchestra conductor – if simply for its impact on the onlookers or for the fleas, I cannot conclusively say. The fleas, as I was able to observe, were made to pull tiny carriages across the table and perform a variety of circus acts, including the operation of a miniature Ferris Wheel, which amused particularly the boys present the most. At the end of each demonstration, lasting about ten minutes, the proprietor of the circus took off its hat, handing it round for a small remuneration, with the pennies mysteriously disappearing within its depths, not making any noise whatsoever, although the hat did not even sport a proper bottom any longer.
Sometimes, he would feign a flea or two escaping – in jest, he assured me – suddenly grabbing the air in front of his audience as if the fleas had jumped off the table into the direction of the observers, who, although reassured by the performer of the comic nature of his act, as had I, were starting to scratch their entire bodies vigorously, as if bitten by the tiny brutes. If the onlookers had laughed at the sight of the fleas some moments before, now some were beginning to feel uneasy, judging from the look on their faces. This circumstance was not alleviated by the fact that the ‘tamer’ continued in his roguish attitude, hollering out things such as “Don’t you worry your heads, ladies and gentlemen, scratch them!”, followed by a rather unpleasant kind of laughter emanating from the run-down row of houses in his mouth, and “Don’t be so itchy! This shall pass quickly, those fleas being proper rat fleas, ladies and gentlemen! Those who’re dead don’t need to scratch their pretty heads any longer!”.
The reader will surely agree with me, when I doubt that such practices of business would attract returning customers and indeed, if the London policemen were more present in this part of the city, such exhibitors would definitely be driven from the streets as soon as an appropriate number of people were to raise a complaint against the man in question. Yet, curiously, as I was able to witness myself, the man succeeded in attracting new visitors again and again, thus assuring his livelihood – as meagre as it may be.