On 21st May this year, Ringling Bros and Barnum Bailey said a final sad farewell after almost a century of The Greatest Show on Earth, bringing to an end many of the acts unique to the circus world.
And of those acts, perhaps the bravest is the human cannonball, but who was the first person to be shot into the air? Step forward Rosa Matilda Richter, better known as Zazel.
Zazel was born into a family of acrobats in Lambeth, London, in 1860 and was a seasoned high-wire performer at an early age. She became the protegé of William Leonard Hunt, the first man to cross the Niagara Falls on a high-wire and it was his idea to create the human cannonball act with Zazel in the leading role.
It was on the 2nd April 1877 at the Royal London Aquarium that the sixteen-year-old Zazel slid inside the cannon and was shot seventy feet above the audience to land in a carefully placed safety net. Despite the accompanying explosion and smoke, the act actually relied on springs and a great deal of luck because the mechanism was temperamental and Zazel had no way of controlling her flight or where she landed.
She became a celebrity overnight and earned £200 a week playing to audiences of up to 20,000 as her death-defying act toured England and then America where she became one of P T Barnum’s favourite performers.
Given that she performed in skimpy clothing, much was made of her physical beauty, one writer observing that ‘her most perfect figure warrants repeated viewings’ and photographs of her in various poses were popular souvenirs.
She married Barnum’s manager, George Oscar Starr, and all was well with her act until 1891 when it went tragically wrong.
Zazel was performing in New Mexico when the safety net was either badly placed or simply failed to break her fall. In any event, she hit the ground and broke her back.
She spent several months suspended in a full body cast. When Zazel recovered, she wisely decided to retire from the circus and faded into history, dying in Camberwell, Surrey, in 1937 aged 77.