There’s something about a circus, carnival or fair that both puts a smile on our face and just slightly turns our stomach. They are joyous occasions that are fun for the whole family and everybody seems to be having a good time, but even though nobody says it out loud, everybody is thinking the same thing. This could all go so horribly, horribly wrong.
Think about it: You’ve got a group of what are essentially gypsies bringing a bunch of sketchy animals and sketchy rides from town-to-town and state-to-state and we’re just supposed to believe that “authorities” are making sure everything is being regulated. Have you ever seen somebody working the Tilt-A-Whirl, running the ring toss game or guiding poodles through their beach ball balancing act and thought, “That person made solid career decisions.”
Of course not. While it seems like a fun idea to run away with with circus or travel the countryside with the clowns who visit every county fair, you know in the pit of your stomach these aren’t happy people. What do they have for entertainment? Watching normal people have horrible accidents. Not causing them, mind you, but just being there when the inevitable happens because, let’s be honest, you never feel completely safe at the carnival, do you?
Well, instead of dropping out of school or quitting your job, we’ve made things easy for you. No need to sell everything you own for a 1986 Winnebago. We’ve collected a ghastly assortment of bad days on the midway so you can continue on with your life. Here are 15 Horrifically Terrible Circus and Carnival Disasters
15 Grandma, it says you have to be under 45 to ride
If you’re a 47-year-old woman and you’re needing a county fair to bring a smile to your face, there have probably been a series of poor decisions in your life, but there comes a point where you just have to say no to getting on poorly constructed rides that travel from town to town and we think it’s before you’re able to be called Grandma. For this poor lady in Clear Brook, Virginia, in July 2016, as she was on the descent of the Super Shot ride at the Frederick County Fair, her seat became detached during its 120 foot freefall plummet. Witnesses say her seat flew off the tower-like ride about two-thirds down meaning she was traveling around 45 mph when she hit the ground several yards from the yards. Next time just put your grandkids on the ride and enjoy some cotton candy.
14 What happens when you’re a professional hair puller
So, do you blame the acrobats, who didn’t check the equipment they were using to make sure that it wasn’t overloaded, the circus that put them on the equipment or the makers of the equipment that was used when it comes to a visually jarring accident that sent eight acrobats plummeting to the ground in a 2014 accident in Providence, Rhode Island? The lawsuit is still making its way through the courts, but the acrobats opted to sue the equipment makers in this case saying the carabiner that was suspending them in midair by their hair failed and caused them to fall, landing on a ninth person during a stunt known as the human chandelier. The hitch for them may be that an investigation found the device was overloaded when the women fell 20 feet. Several suffered broken bones, spinal injuries and in the case of one, a lacerated liver, according to court documents.
13 Trust your instincts when judging the ride's safety
When you stand next to a ride at a carnival and think to yourself, “That doesn’t look safe,” it’s probably a good cue to not get on the ride. When we read about the description of the X-Scream ride from a carnival in Cambridgeshire, England, in May 2013, it just doesn’t sound like something fun. It sounds like a torture. On the best day, when things are working correctly, riders stand on a platform that tilts, is raised into the air and then starts spinning at high speeds. Keep in mind, this is a ride that travels from town to town, so it’s not like it’s built to last. On its unfortunate ride, when the platform was raised, the arm holding it bounced up and down, then failed, causing the entire rig to crash with 25 riders aboard. Eleven people were injured, the worst of which was a 13-year-old boy who suffered a fractured arm and ankle.
12 I wonder if she’s ever fallen off of that?
You’ve probably been to the circus and seen the beautiful ladies from faraway lands who can manipulate their bodies up and down a large scarf that hangs from the ceiling like it’s nothing, looking like they’re about to fall at any minute, much like this unidentified woman pictured above. When you do the math and realize how many shows they do, then how many stunts they do per routine, plus how much they practice, it’s amazing that they don’t eventually slip and crash the concrete floor of whatever second rate auditorium they’re performing in more often. Well, in the case of Bulgarian-American Dessi Espana, the odds caught up with the scarf-riding beauty and the irony is, it wasn’t her fault. The scarf she was using had a rigging failure and she collapsed 30 feet to the floor during a performance in 2004. She was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. At least she died doing what she loved: Riding fabric in front of barely interested children.
11 Wait until the ride comes to a complete stop
Poor Michael Austin wasn’t even operating the ride that killed him at the Feast of the Mother Cabrini Festival in Brentwood, New York, in 2012. He was coming off of his break, working with the Zorlenzan Amusements company for only three weeks when the operator of the Scat ride motioned that they had dropped something. Austin went under the ride, which had two large metal baskets on a rotating arm, to get the ride operator’s property. On the way back, one of the baskets smacked him in the side of the head and knocked him several feet to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital where he died a few hours later. The ride was closed temporarily, but passed inspections and reopened when it was determined that the problem was that a person tried to navigate under a multi-ton carnival ride. Imagine telling people in your family your brother or cousin was killed by this ride because he stood up under it while it was going. The world probably didn't lose a brain surgeon that day.
10 Time for a new family business
Nik Wallenda has been re-making his family name into something special with tightrope walks over Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon in recent years, but in February 2017, his family continued its tradition of proving that nobody should be a high-wire circus performer when, during a practice of an eight-person pyramid stunt in Sarasota, Florida, things when bad and five people fell 25 feet, many being seriously injured. Nik and two others were able to grab the wire. Nobody died, but it wouldn’t have surprised anybody if they did. A similar stunt in 1962 killed two Wallenda family members and paralyzed one. A year later, another family member fell to her death and in 1978, in what many consider the biggest tightrope disaster in history the family’s patriarch, Karl, fell off the wire walking between two buildings in Puerto Rico among high winds. Some share with the Wallendas what the lesson is here.
9 Because a gasoline-soaked wax tent sounds completely flame retardant, doesn't it?
If you’re looking for the granddaddy of all circus fire disasters - the kind where you can just smell the burning the clown noses wafting through the air - look no further than the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Big Top fire of July 6, 1944. When you think about it, the big top was a perfect place for a disaster. Take a giant canvas tent that has been waterproofed with layer upon layer of paraffin wax and gasoline and it was just a matter of time until a fast spreading fire happened. In this case, 7,000 people were under the big top when the quickly-spreading blaze occurred. Unfortunately, many of the exits were blocked by animal chutes designed for performing animals to come in and out of their cages. Over 700 people were injured and 165 people died trying to escape, mostly from smoke inhalation or from being trampled to death.
8 They say the scorpion's bite is among the worst
The Calgary Stampede is probably the most well-known event in the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta, celebrating its heritage with a giant fair and rodeo every summer. Things turned bad in 2010 when an amusement ride known as The Scorpion broke apart. Although it doesn’t really resemble its animal counterpart, the thrill ride consisted of three long arms with each arm holding a wheel-like structuring carrying eight cars. As the arms whirl, the wheels tilt and cars swing. One of the wheels broke off its arm, crashing into a nearby barrier. This caused the cars on that particular arm to flip and fall onto the rides loading platform. Cars that were attached to other still-functional arms then whizzed by, smashing into the now-detached cars. Witnesses said three of the cars were seriously damaged. Nobody died as a result, but at the time, six of the riders were rushed to local hospitals while four more were treated for injuries at the scene.
7 When too many people without a brain live in one place
September 11 is known as a national day of tragedy in our country, but for Kingsport, Tennessee, it was a day of mourning long before any psychos drove their planes into the sides of buildings. It was on that day in 1916 during the Sparks World Famous Shows circus parade that one of the elephants trampled her trainer. Most accounts say that Mary the Elephant was simply reaching for a watermelon rind on the ground when Red Eldridge was poking and prodding the pachyderm to keep going, who wasn’t having any of it. Mary picked up her trainer 10 feet in the air and smashed him to the ground and trampled him. Yeah, that’s bad, but Tennessee being a Red State, they immediately wanted retribution, with parade goers chanting “Kill the elephant!” One onlooker, a local blacksmith, emptied his revolver into Mary, but to little effect. The next day, the elephant was hung from an industrial crane. That’s right. They lynched an elephant. Score one for Southern Justice.
6 The good news is at least it was mostly people dying this time
The next time somebody tells you the government gets too involved in our lives, just have them look at the amount of circus disasters prior to organizations like OSHA and after. Most of your terrific circus disasters that happened before the government made sure working and travel conditions were safe. They almost always involved a fire in a tent or a train accident. One of the more magnificent train accidents was when two trains from the same circus crashed into each other in 1903. As two trains belonging to the Wallace Brothers circus reached a rail yard in Michigan, they saw they were on a collision course but couldn’t do anything about it. Thirty people and five animals, including three camels and an elephant died in the head-on collision.
5 Why you stay off county fair ferris wheels
You know that sneaking suspicion you have that it would totally suck to be caught with your sister on a Ferris Wheel only to have the basket detach while you were at the top and plummet to your likely death? It turns out that you are completely correct, and thankfully, a couple of girls went through the experience for in Tennessee (where a lot of circus and carnival/fair disasters seem to historically happen) so you don’t have to in August 2016. Two sisters and an older teenager fell about 40 feet after their basket overturned at the crest of their ferris wheel ride at the Greene County Fair. Considering the distance of the fall, it’s amazing none of the girls were killed with the youngest, a six-year-old, suffering a head injury with the worst of it. The ride was inspected a few hours earlier, and passed, but was shut down immediately after the accident. Later, it was said a mechanical error was to blame, but further details were never released.
4 Lions and tigers and BBQ, oh my!
You know when you have a crazy dream that feels real but then you wake up and start to analyze the individual pieces and recognize that those things would never happen individually, much less collectively, so the whole thing just comes off as a spectacular farce when recounted to friends? The 1942 Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus fire in Cleveland reminds us of one of these dreams. It’s ludicrous in its horrible details, but it actually happened. A fire broke out in one of the adjoining tents to the big top where most of the animals were kept. People were able to escape unharmed, but over 100 animals - including lions, zebras and tigers - became trapped in their cages, with many badly burned and dying. Several of the animals broke loose, causing a panic. Trying to keep the peace and hold the animals at bay, police opened fired with machine guns, severely injuring or killing 26 of the animals. Just another day at the circus.
3 Houston, we’ve got a problem
They say the circus is a dying artform and thankfully in this case, it may be true since almost nobody was in attendance to watch this performance of Circo Hermanos Vasquez in Houston at the end of May in 2015. Only a few dozen people had to watch the botched trapeze act where a man, dangling from a rotating model rocket is holding onto a woman and accidentally let go of her. Like many NASA disasters before her, she fell to the Earth, but thankfully wasn’t seriously injured although it’s a pretty scary looking fall on the YouTube video of the incident. The video shows the few people who were in attendance freaking out and screaming as EMT crews attend to the fallen performer. Circus owners quickly told the media the whole thing was the performers’ faults and not their own because, of course, the show must go on.
2 A sweet circus bedtime story for Junior
The lion tamer is always one of the more popular acts as the circus - or at least it was until animal rights activists started to make everybody feel bad by pointing out the animals don’t have exactly the greatest living conditions. It makes you wonder if they were so bad why the lions and tigers didn’t fight back more often. In the oldest entry on the list is the story of Thomas “Massarti” MacCarte who was a one-armed lion tamer at the time of this disaster. Years earlier he was a two-armed lion tamer, but there was another disaster we’re not mentioning. Anyway, an aptly-named lion called Tyrant attacked him at a show in 1872 in England, and three other lions thought it looked like fun, so they joined in. A crowd of hundreds watched several big cats rip off Massarti’s other arm, followed by his legs, and then his head.
1 Tragedy comes at every kind of circus
There’s some debate whether Cirque du Soleil is a real circus, but since the traditional circus is probably going to be dead in the next couple of decades, we’re going to count whatever we can, including the fatal accident that claimed the life of 31-year-old aerial acrobat Sarah Guyard-Guillot in 2013 as part of the Ka show that was being performed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Guyard-Guillot, pictured above, was supposed to rapidly ascend on a motorized safety harness, appearing to fly into the air, but went too fast, hitting a catwalk on her way up. This caused the cable to jump out of pulley wheel and get cut by a sharp edge, and the young woman fell 90 feet into an open pit just below the stage. She died on the way to the hospital. The stunt was removed from the show, but returned about 18 months later after a new pulley system was installed to lift performers at a slower speed.