The circus is often called “The Greatest Show on Earth” after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey company billed itself so soon after it began its series of performances in 1919. However, the circus had been around long before that with Philip Astley, considered “the father of the modern circus”, opening his equestrian-based show in England in 1768. Since then, the circus has continued to awe audiences with its captivating mix of clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze artists, jugglers, and other thrill or comedy-based acts.
And of course, where there is thrill, there is likely to be danger, and circuses have unfortunately been the venue of various horrible accidents. Some of these mishaps have even resulted in performers’ deaths, and expectedly, authorities have always stepped in to investigate. Nevertheless, with the dangerous nature of circus acts, accidents have still continued to take place — and in all likelihood, will continue to occur.
Here’s a look at ten of the most horrible accidents that have taken place during circus performances:
10. Rossa Matilda Richter / Human Cannonball (1800s)
The human cannonball act is considered one of the most dangerous in the circus business with more than thirty such stuntmen and stuntwomen losing their lives during their performances. However, the case we’ve chosen to include here doesn’t involve a death. Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding the victim’s accident earns her a spot on this list.
Rossa Matilda Richter is widely believed to be the first human cannonball ever, her act beginning in 1877 when she was only fourteen years old. Touring with the P.T. Barnum Circus, she was known publicly as “Zazel” and would bravely slip herself into the spring-powered cannon to be launched onto a safety net. Sadly, during one performance, she missed the net and broke her back, making her unable to perform ever again.
9. Otto Kline / Horse Riding Acrobat (1915)
28-year-old Otto Kline had one of the most exciting acts in the Barnum & Bailey Circus during the 1910s. His stunt involved him circling the arena on his horse then swinging from side to side as his feet touched the ground while he held onto his saddle. Unfortunately, during one performance of the stunt at the Madison Square Garden in April of 1915, Kline lost his grip on the saddle and was flung against a box. As Kline’s head hit the wooden structure, his skull was badly fractured. The crowd of 5,000 people, at least half of them being children, were understandably shaken by what they had seen, and while personnel tried to revive the acrobat, they were unable to do so. Kline died at 7:40 p.m. later that night.
8. Fred Lazelle, Billy Millson (Trapeze Artists) and George North (Gymnast) / 1872
P.T. Barnum trapeze artists Fred Lazelle and Billy Millson had hurt themselves so many times while performing their daring feats that it was no longer a major event for them whenever they took a fall. However, in September of 1872, while performing at the hippodrome in front of a crowd of around 5,000 people, the trapeze mechanism they were using suddenly gave way and sent the men crashing to the ground. Gymnast George North, who was under the trapeze when the men fell, was hurt the most among the three as he suffered internal injuries.
7. Dessi España / Chiffon Acrobat (2004)
One Saturday afternoon in May of 2004, audiences were being treated to the aerial displays of chiffon acrobat Dessi España during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show in St. Paul. In one portion of her act, she was upside-down and hanging by her legs when a chiffon scarf suddenly loosened, causing her to crash to the arena floor. The audience members, many of them children, said that they saw España land head first, but others claimed that she had actually landed on her stomach or her back.
Immediately after the fall, clowns came out to try and distract the audience while medical personnel and circus officials worked on the injured aerialist. Sadly, later than night, España succumbed to the injuries she suffered. Surprisingly, the 7 p.m. show later that day still pushed through as scheduled with circus spokeswoman Alexis Copeland saying, “The show must go on.”
6. Eva Garcia / Aerial Acrobat (2003)
A crowd of 800 people were gathered at the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth, England in August of 2003 when Eva Garcia shockingly fell to her death after being suspended from the ceiling more than 20 feet up. According to members of the staff who witnessed the accident, Eva appeared to to lose her grip on the wire above her head, which caused her to plunge to the ground. The accident was completely unexpected as Eva had begun performing as an aerial acrobat almost daily ever since she was seven years old.
Christine Jay, one of the circus owners, revealed, “All the artists are very upset about it. It’s a very close-knit company.”
5. Human Chandelier Performers / Hair-hanging Acrobats (2014)
“My dream was to be a star performer. Now my dream is to get up and walk.” — Those are the pained words of Julissa Segrera, one of the eight acrobats who were seriously hurt last May 4, 2014 when the umbrella-shaped rigging from which their hair was hanging suddenly gave way. Not only did they crash to the ground of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, but they also landed on another acrobat. Worse, the contraption from which they were hanging fell on them, too, requiring the injured women to undergo dozens of surgeries for spinal cord injuries and open fractures.
An investigation by Providence revealed that a steel clip used to support the chandelier apparatus had failed. While seven of the acrobats planned to file a lawsuit to seek compensation for their injuries, another one, Samantha Pitard, has expressed that she would like to go back to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to perform again.
4. Roy Horn / Tiger Tamer (2003)
Theirs was a unique act combining magic and tiger stunts, which allowed Siegfried and Roy’s production to be regarded as “the most-visited show in Las Vegas, Nevada” during its 30-year run. Shockingly, on October 3, 2003, during a standard trick, a then 7-year-old white tiger named “Mantecore Fischbacher Horn” suddenly attacked Roy Horn. Horn appeared to have suffered from a convulsion caused by a seizure, which in turn startled Mantecore, who proceeded to lunge towards his trainer. The attack to the throat was described by animal experts as a clear “kill move”, but fortunately, Horn was able to survive the attack despite sustaining severe blood loss.
In February of 2009, Siegfried and Roy made a final appearance with Mantecore as a final goodbye to the public that had gifted them so much adulation.
3. Sarah Guyard-Guillot / Aerial Acrobat (2013)
“Cirque de Soleil” is a revolutionary Canadian-based entertainment company that combines traditional circus elements with modern artistry. One of its highly acclaimed shows, Kà, featured several floating platforms in lieu of a regular floor. This made for breathtaking visuals, especially during the final battle scene where the stage was vertically oriented and performers used harnesses attached to cables to act out the clash.
On June 29, 2013, 31-year-old Sarah Guyard-Guillot was hoisted up 90 feet to the side of the stage for this scene, when she suddenly plummeted to the ground due to a cable giving way. An eyewitness reported, “Initially, a lot of people in the audience thought it was part of the choreographed fight. But you could hear screaming, then groaning, and we could hear a female artist crying from the stage.”
The accident stopped the show with the audience being told refunds would be offered. Guyard-Guillot, a mother of two, expired on her way to the hospital.
2. The Flying Wallendas / Highwire Act (1962)
The Flying Wallendas interestingly got their monicker when during a highwire performance, all of the acrobats fell but did so in such a graceful manner that all of them were unhurt. Sadly, tragedy would follow the act in their performances. In 1944, as the group was performing in Hartford, Connecticut, a fire broke out at the circus, and over 168 were killed despite none of the Wallendas being hurt. That wasn’t the case in 1962, however, when during a performance at the Shrine Circus in Detroit, the lead man in their highwire pyramid act faltered and caused all seven of the Wallendas to fall to the ground. Richard Faughnan and Dieter Schepp were instantly killed, while Karl Wallenda injured his pelvis. Meanwhile, Karl’s adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down.
Surprisingly, the remaining Wallendas continued their act even after the horrible incident. Years later, Rietta Wallenda fell to her death and Richard Guzman lost his life after being electrocuted. In fact, Wallenda helmsman Karl lost his life while attempting to cross a wire when he was 73 years of age. Nevertheless, several Wallendas (descendants and relatives of the original Wallandas) still perform as a highwire act today.
1. Thomas Maccarte / Lion Tamer (1872)
He was professionally known as Massarti, a one-armed 1870s lion tamer. He had lost the limb to one of his beasts while performing in Liverpool with the Bell and Myers’ Circus, but Thomas Maccarte still dared to continue starring in his dangerous act. In fact, he actually grew more popular after the gruesome incident.
In 1872, Massarti had wrapped up his tour across the country with Manders’ Menagerie when an additional performance was requested due to the public’s clamor to see the act one last time. Maccarte obliged. Unfortunately, during that originally unscheduled performance, one of his lions, Tyrant, suddenly seized the tamer by the hip. Making matters worse, an African lion that was nearby suddenly bit into the stump of Massarti’s arm. The tamer tried to jab at the animals with his sword, and police fired blank rounds into the cage while several members of the panic-stricken crowd screamed. Unfazed by the human intervention, a third lion joined the attack, grabbing Massarti by the ribs, while a fourth one ripped open the man’s scalp. Eventually, circus attendants were able to drive away the lions with heated irons, but at that stage, Massarti’s body had been dragged to the other lions to be devoured. By the time his body was taken away from the lion’s cage, he was described as a “poor and almost pulseless piece of humanity”.
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