Z is for Zazel

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday is billed as The Farewell Tour so this may be my last trip through the alphabet of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten.

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.

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16 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 5th July 2017

    I’m vaguely sad about the circus, though I understand why, and I didn’t go very often


  • Samsun Cilingir 5th July 2017

    Evet cok guzel Bir konu admın Sırk cok guzeldır insanlar ordakı hareketleri Cok guzel yapıyorlar admin tenku

  • Melody Steenkamp 5th July 2017

    Don’t you sometimes wish to be able to travel back in time, just for a day or so… like I do? If only we could 😉

    About circusses…. there is much controvery, I get that but at the same time, I think it should be possible to keep this form of entertainment in another way…

    Wishing you a wonderful ABC-day / -week and hopefully till next week when I may welcome you in te new home of ABC-Wednesday on http://abcwednesday.com !

    Melody (abcw-team)

    • Mr Parrot 5th July 2017

      We still have a travelling circus that comes to our area once or twice a year but animals aren’t included as they used to be. I too am torn on the issue, yes it isn’t right that animals are used for entertainment but I have vivid memories of the days when they were and how much I enjoyed it as a child.

      • Trevor Rowley 9th July 2017

        I have vivid memories of two trips to the circus as a child. The first one, relates to the world famous Tower Circus at Blackpool where the stars of the show (for me at least) were the duo of Charlie Cairoli and Paul. Charlie (Carletto) was of French/Italian origin and came from a long established circus family in which their skills (mainly musical) had been handed down through the generations for a couple of hundred years. Paul Freedman (of Lithuanian origin) was born in Canada and eventually teamed up with Charlie to form their famous double act when Paul replaced Charlie’s father. Charlie, complete with red nose, bowler hat and baggy pants, was the funny man who clowned in the traditional sense of the word, whereas Paul played the white faced “auguste” who was seriously (and to me, as a child, frighteningly) dead pan in his facial expression. They were both exeptionally talented musicians who could switch from one instrument to another with ease but also able to incorporate precision-timed “slapstick” into their act.

        The act was so successful that they were permanent residents at Blackpool’s Tower Circus for over ten years and received every accolade that the circus world could bestow on them.

        Closely rivalling the Blackpool Tower Circus was the annual circus at the King’s Hall at Belle Vue in Manchester. A cousin and I were taken there in about 1954 by a favourite auntie. I remember the magician’s female assistant who was padlocked into a strong box which collapsed when the magician waved his hand. Of course, the assistant was nowhere to be seen but did appear (as if by magic) from the back of the hall. Whatever the trickery might have been, to a young boy this was still “magic”. The highlight of the evening was the second half of the show. A huge metal cage had been erected during the interval which meant that we were about to see the big cats, the lions and tigers. The atmosphere throughout this part of the show was totally spellbinding and mixed with a liberal dose of fear and apprehension.

        Perhaps this type of entertainment is now somewhat a thing of the past but, once experienced, it wouldn’t be forgotten.

        • Mr Parrot 10th July 2017

          Like you, my circus memories are from Belle Vue. There was an outing there every year from the Victoria Working Men’s Club where my granddad was very active. To me, it was the most glamorous thing I’d ever seen – the horse riding act, the trapeze artists, the lion tamer and, of course, the clowns.

  • Trevor Rowley 5th July 2017

    Even seeing animals in a “safari park” (eg. Knowsley, West Midlands etc) is “entertainment,” Mr P. I recently saw the sea lion display and the knowledgable reptile curator with his snakes draped over his shoulders – it’s all providing us with “entertainment,” but the people responsible for those creatures love them to bits. Perhaps the unforgivable extreme is dressing dogs and monkeys up in silly costumes – I just can’t see the need for that.

    • Mr Parrot 10th July 2017

      The only time I’ve visited a safari park was Edo in South Africa which was rather different to Knowsley etc if only in scale. We had to drives miles to find the elephants!

      • Trevor Rowley 10th July 2017

        During a recent family trip to the West Midlands Safari Park at Bewdley (a couple of miles out of Kidderminster) I was amazed that we were only a matter of feet away from a prowling tiger (albeit we were in a vehicle and the tiger was behind an electrified fence). It unnerved me to hear my son in law reveal later that he had observed a nearby section of electrified fencing which had become disconnected!

  • Ann 5th July 2017

    I do miss the Barnum and Bailey Circus, went several times over the years as a child and with my own children. Lots of times my eyes were closed for those on the high wire but the excitement was wonderful. She was a beautiful woman.

  • Joy 5th July 2017

    It is a particular type of imagination that dreams up a human cannonball, and a certainly courage to be the first one. Love that Shot from a canon poster.

  • Rajesh 7th July 2017

    Interesting personality.

  • leslie 8th July 2017

    I heard that Barnum & Bailey folded up their tents and quietly slunk away. Lots of people detest circuses because they believe the animals are cruelly treated, but if they were, how would the performers survive in the business? Great story about Zazel and may I say I hope you continue to write and post on the new ABCW beginning next week. I so enjoy your musings!

    abcw team

    • Mr Parrot 9th July 2017

      The way people feel about thew animals is understandable especially when we see so much wanton cruelty to them in the wild. However, we should remember that the circuses brought out wonder and appreciation of exotic creatures in the days before tv and the internet.

      And on your last point, I do intend to carry on with my SABC Wednesday postings – they keep me on my toes!

  • Trevor Rowley 8th July 2017

    Of course, the key to making a good appointment when interviewing applicants for the position of “human cannonball,” was to look out for someone of a high calibre.

  • Mr Parrot 9th July 2017

    ..or else they get fired 🙂


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