10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time

Alexa - January 7, 2018

If you have not been to a circus, chances are you still have imagery of the stereotypical circus scene: clowns in garish stage makeup, acrobatic trapeze artists, trained elephants, and a single courageous ringleader who tames the wild and ferocious lion. While all of these have taken place at circuses around the world during different points in history, you may be less familiar with some of the creepier attractions that brought the crowds rushing up to the box office to buy tickets just for a peek. Circuses of the past were not the cleaned up version of today’s circuses.

These headlining performances ranged from creepy to downright hazardous. Many of the “attractions” were really exploitative of different races and cultures. We like to imagine circuses as wholesome popcorn filled family fun, but the reality of the history of circuses is deeply drenched in corruption and exploitation. Human zoos and the showcasing of deformities was nothing short of dehumanizing. Sword swallowers and trapeze artists routinely died, often during their public performances.

Human rights eventually took a toll on the circus business, leaving the circus owners scrambling to clean up their acts and stay in business. While that is something we can all be grateful for, it does not stop our morbid fascination with the oddities of our nostalgic past. Our romanticized version of what circuses were moves to the forefront. Truthfully, most circuses were capitalizing on freak shows. Even the popular Ringling Bros. had their collection of self proclaimed freaks performing from town to town.

Here are the most famous, dangerous, and creepy attractions circuses of the past had to offer…

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Ringling Bros. “Congress of Freaks” circa 1924. Wikimedia Commons

Freak Shows and Specimen Jars of Deformed Humans and Animals

Even in our current era, freak shows have a romanticized touch to them. Proud freaks cashing in on what they were born with. No longer content being harassed or shunned, they were the underdogs who made people want to pay to see them. Pariahs no more, their fame cemented eternally. Who can argue with that? “Freak” could really mean anything today, but back then, it was a term with negative connotations denoting one’s extreme physical differences. At the very least, while the freak shows may have not normalized physical differences, it may have helped to build confidence and camaraderie to those afflicted by suffocating social norms.

We have never forgotten about bearded ladies, or Siamese twins, or strong men. They have continued to be popularized in fiction and non-fiction, through books, television, and film. “American Horror Story: Freak Show” humanized its freak show characters and terrorized us at the same time. Countless documentaries about the origins of the Siamese twins or the science behind why ladies grow beards have been created over the decades.

While many performers likely did join the circus to escape the constant harassment of those around them, there are many documented claims of others being tricked, coerced, and even abducted and forced into joining. This leads to a much less savory story for these underdogs, and a more realistic picture of deceit and selfish people using exploitative means for their own gain.

Living, breathing people with deformities were not the only oddities on display. Out of the ordinary medical specimens were shown for others to gawk at. What exactly was housed in these jars? Oftentimes, human fetuses. The fetuses were already a very unusual and unnerving sight to behold, but many circus owners obtained specimens with odd deformities or congenital disorders. Preserving the perverse in specimen jars is a practice first historically recorded in the 1500s. While preservation of such remains was common practice for medical reasons, the distribution of such disturbing material among traveling circuses and side shows led to legal repercussions during the 1950s and 1960s. These specimens proved to be far too lucrative to give up so circus owners took to purchasing replicas instead.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Africans were often the attractions at the horrific “Human Zoos”. Beautiful, Also, are the Souls of My Black Sisters

Repressive Human Zoos

The modern age can boast many advances. Technological, travel, conveniences, communication. All of these things are fascinating testaments to changing times. It is not just things that change with the passing decades. Attitudes and behavior change as well. We can agree racism is abhorrent, but if you were to take a trip back to the early 20th century, you would have found pattern of behavior that suggested racism was simply the norm. We are fortunate that so many inspirational people worked tirelessly to fight for equal rights.

No better example of the racist hatred experienced by so many comes from human zoos. Human zoos are exactly what they sound like. Humans, often Africans and indigenous peoples displaying their cultural dress, were put in caged exhibits. Left standing there for others to gawk at, these people felt the true meaning of dehumanization. This represented the true feeling of superiority those who imprisoned these poor humans. This is very disturbing to us nowadays, but in the early to mid 1900s, it was a means of cruel entertainment. It was still in somewhat common practice by the 1950s. Indigenous peoples and Africans were often abducted or sold, presented to the public as humans who were more like animals, and were rarely compensated outside of being fed.

It was not just traveling circuses that were guilty of this disgusting practice. Even well established zoos had their own human exhibits, as well. Just prior to the 20th century, the Cincinnati Zoo kept one hundred Sioux Native Americans at the zoo for three months, all contained in a village the zoo had created that was supposed to mock the one the Native Americans originally came from.

In 1906, anthropologist Madison Grant, who was the head of the New York Zoological Society, put his own spin on the human zoo. Grant put Congolese pygmy Ota Benga, on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Ota did not have his own exhibit; rather, he was put into the primate exhibit where he was put to the task of carrying around chimps and other primates. He would often shoot his bow and weave baskets alongside the orangutans. Eugenicist and zoo director William Hornaday labeled Ota, “The Missing Link”, and although a few passersby mentioned the human and ape dwelling was not natural, most never objected and remained entertained by Ota’s entrapment.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
The first human cannonball was Rosa Richter – aka Zazel – in 1877. BBC.

Explosive Human Cannonballs

Perhaps one of the most daring acts a circus had to offer was the human cannonball. A blasting, aerodynamic feat that was equal parts bravery, recklessness, and skilled math. Some cannonball daredevils would solely use the cannonball and land safely in a net whose distance would be predetermined using the laws of physics. Others, if the venue were outdoor, would pad their boisterous landings with large bodies of water such as deep ponds or lakes. More skilled were those artists who utilized the cannon in their trapeze acts.

Contrary to what the amazing showmanship suggests, explosives are not used or required. Using explosives would have been even more deadly and dangerous than the stunt already was. Instead, the cannon acted more like a catapult rather than a cannon. The living cannon was stuffed inside the cylindrical opening, their weight would compress springs inside. Force from outside the cannon was provided, enabling the inhabitant inside to be hurled to their determined destination. Often, gunpowder or fireworks were used in conjunction to put on an even more spectacular show.

The first ever human cannonball may not be what you would expect. The first human cannonball was none other than a 14 year old girl. Rossa Matilda Richter, otherwise known as “Zazel”, was stuffed inside the metallic spring style cannon and launched into the air. An unfortunate accident causing a severely broken back led to Richter’s untimely retirement. The cannon Zazel first used was created by Canadian William Leonard Hunt, aka “The Great Farini”, who used rubber springs to launch those brave enough to become projectiles. Since the springs were made of rubber, it greatly reduced the distance a person could be launched, leading to eventual distance records being broken that were previously held by Hunt’s cannon.

Human cannonballs have produced mind blowing world records. One supposed world record comes from much more recent times. On March 10, 2011, David “The Bullet” Smith Jr. was launched over 193 ft 8.8 in (59.05 m) while working on the set of Lo Show dei Record in Milan, Italy. An estimation of “The Bullet’s” speed is a staggering 120 km/h (74.6 mph), and estimated maximum altitude of 23 m (75′ 6″). While this sounds incredible, it is contested by none other than David Smith Jr.’s father, David “Cannonball” Smith Sr. David Sr. supposedly set a record of 200 ft 4 in (61.06 m), on August 31, 2002, at The Steele County Free Fair, Owatonna, Minnesota in the United States.

The awe inspiring act is not all record breaking and shocking entertainment, though. Over 30 confirmed deaths have occurred from performing this daring feat. Most deaths and injuries do not occur from launching or mid air accidents, but instead from the landing process. The last human cannonball happened on April 25, 2011 in Kent, United Kingdom. The particular death was the result of the misuse of the safety net.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Vintage photograph of legendary knife thrower Sig G. Arcaris and his assistant. Knife Throwers.

Knife Throwers Would Throw Knives at Living Spinning Targets

Most of us can agree, if we are hurling projectiles towards a target, it is probably because we are playing a game of darts with friends. Getting hit by this bar staple might could leave some uncomfortably small puncture wounds, or, worse case scenario, “poke your eye out”; but the likelihood of you dying from a game of darts is virtually zero. Few of us raise the stakes outside of tiny darts and and the bullseye. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a throwing game with a lot more to lose than just your projectile throwing reputation. What if your target were no longer plastic or wood but rather a living, breathing human target and your tiny darts were traded with long, sharp knives?

Knife throwers were huge successes. They gathered attention and crowds. For the audience, it is not difficult to see why such a show would be fascinating. One minute, you could be watching amazing feats of skill and precision. The next minute, you may be watching a murder. The knife throwers could have used steady, inaminate objects to show off their precision throwing skills, but blocks of wood do not hold the same entertainment value as watching a knife thrower hurl his sharply bladed tools at beautiful assistants. It is not until a living being is introduced onto the scene before knife calling is called it’s more sinister sounding name: impalement arts.

One particular variation of this death defying act that gained popularity in the early 20th century was none other than “The Wheel of Death”. The ominously named device was a large wooden wheel affixed to a base. Attached to the wheel were cuffs, often leather or another sturdy fabric. The assistant, often blindfolded to increase the fear factor, would then be attached to the wheel by the cuffs. The knife thrower would give the wheel a good spin, and perform his knife throwing act, also sometimes blindfolded. It is said this particular spinning death wheel act originated in the United States in 1938 by a husband and wife team working for the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Balloon puncturing, assistant dodging, wooden targets were all under the mercy of the puncturing artist’s finely sharpened blade. Surprisingly, few accidents or even deaths can be blamed on impalement arts. While many injuries have occurred, most have been by amateur knife throwers who did not exhibit nearly as much skill as their more seasoned counterparts. Reducing the number of accidents or deaths relies entirely on the knife thrower and his relationship with his knives. Balanced knives that carry equal weight in both the blade and handle are necessary requirements for a successful non deadly act. Many amateur knife throwers are unable to differentiate a true balanced weight from a knife that may be more handle heavy or blade heavy.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Vintage Photo of an Indian Sword Swallower (1863-72). Sword Swallower Association.

Swordswallowers Who Swallow More Than Just Swords

Swallowing is perhaps a process we take for granted. Once our food has entered our mouths, our saliva begins to break down the food. You chew and then swallow, meaning the food has passed through your mouth, down your pharynx, and into your esophagus. We certainly do not give the process of swallowing much thought, likely because we are mostly passing food through our mouths and pharynges and esophagi. Yet, there are groups of people who put much thought into the process of swallowing because neglecting the step by step process could mean death.

Sword swallowers began their perilous acts around the 1st century AD. They spread first in parts of Greece and Rome, but soon found homes in India, Japan, and much of Europe. Sword swallowing has been an entertaining facet and testament to humanity’s odd fascination with grotesque bodily extremes. Even today, the sword swallowing community is flourishing and teaching newer and newer generations how to safely entertain the curious masses at modern day circuses, side shows, and festivals.

By the early 1900s, circuses and traveling side shows had their very own sword swallowers. These performers would often be billed alongside famous magicians of the time, including Harry Houdini. There was even a difference in how sword swallowers performed depending on what continent the circuses and sideshows were performing in. For example, Europeans were fascinated by the number of swords a swallower could swallow. The United States was fascinated with the bizarre and novel, such as swallowing objects like knives, snakes, or fire.

Injuries ranging from mild to severe often result from sword swallowing. Mild injuries such as sore throats or minor lacerations often occur, but such small pains and cuts can lead to major infections or larger wounds if the area is not rested and taken care of. A minor injury could potentially predispose the swallower to obtaining major injury, such as perforations of the esophagus, stomach, heart, lungs, and other organs, or intestinal bleeding. Since 1880, there is a record of 29 deaths from this strangely unique and fascinating piece of ancient entertainment.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Phillipe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Gold is Money.

Tight Rope Walkers Without Adequately Safe Landing Nets

Tightrope walking, also called funambulism, has captivated people since the ancient Greeks first began this high wired show. Its long traditions have found their way to many other popular variations, such as slacklining and slack rope walking. However, neither are nearly as perilous as tightrope walking. The amount of skill required to walk the line of taut rope is accomplished only by innate balance and dedication. These acts have been accomplished by singular stuntman or by groups of people upping the ante in this daring act.

One of the most popular acts was by the Flying Wallendas. The Flying Wallendas were a tight knit family whose idea of bonding was group tight rope walking. This family of seven joined together to form a human pyramid atop the high anchored rope. Not only did the base of the pyramid need to have unparalleled balance, they also needed supreme strength.

Tight rope walkers are generally very thin, agile, and flexible. They accomplish their task by centering their mass directly over the rope; they can accomplish this by use of either a pole or by reaching their arms out perpendicular in the same manner a pole would be used. Flexible leather shoes were often worn by performers to aid in gripping, but amateur or hobbyist walkers would walk barefoot and grip with their bare toes. Their feet had to be parallel to one another in order to maintain balance.

Tightrope walking is no walk in the park. Many deaths have occurred from these performances. Most tightrope walking acts you see today are done so with the use of safety netting underneath. However, in the past and with more daredevil acts of today, nets were nonexistent. Even falls from very short heights could produce broken legs, arms, and spines, leaving the performer unable to return to their beloved highwire act again. More dangerous still, performers continue to entertain us with highwire acts involving excessive heights across sky scrapers and canyons. A fall from those heights would insure sudden death.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Divers in the East River. Photo by Arthur Leipzig, 1948.

Divers Diving Into Very Shallow Pools of Water

Diving is a sport all enjoy to watch. The perfect combination of acrobatics and water sport, diving is a sport that is regarded as a legitimately skillful act even recognized as an Olympic sport. We have likely all tried our hand at diving in some form. Even an accidental belly flop or cannonball, while still painful and messy, are fun and thrilling acts. We may not be capable of the flips and tricks professionals are accustomed to training for, but even amateur diving is a beloved pastime.

Walking along any swimming pool, you will see “No Diving” signs along the edges of the shallower ends, and with excellent reason. When diving, it is important adequate amounts of water separate you and the concrete bottom of the pool, otherwise, a collision is inevitable, leading to major injuries such as broken necks and spines. Both conditions can lead to coma, paralysis, and even death.

Shallow divers performing in traveling circuses, however, did not heed these important warnings. Their reckless, adrenaline packed performances were solely based around the danger of the shallow waters. Beginning their dive at staggering heights, crowds of people kept their eyes straight on these daring performers, waiting to see if they would emerge from the pool’s shallow surface alive or dead.

One diver who met a terrible fate was Samuel Gilbert Scott. Scott was already known as a daredevil performance artist, but his 1841 dive into the river Thames would prove to be his final shocking act. Scott hyped up his eager crowd by stating he would run to the Drury Lane pub to Waterloo Bridge. He would then dive 40 feet into the Thames, returning to Drury Lane Pub in the following hour. An excited audience watched Scott attempt to fulfill his challenge on the elected day, but were privy to more than they signed up for when Scott slipped a rope around his neck and fell mid air. Believing it was part of an act, the viewers were not able to save Scott in time.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Lessons on how to focus and concentrate from lion tamer Clyde Beatty. James Clear.

Animal Trainers who Trained Wild Beasts

Lion tamers have been frightening audiences for over 200 years, long before horror movies and best selling thrillers captivated us with adrenaline filled story lines. Circuses are synonymous with animal training, with the big tents being filled with elephants, lions, tigers, seals, and a myriad of other big and wild cats. Audiences would have found these animals very foreign, thus leading to the anticipation of something going awry. While most animal tamers were quite adept at training the animals, their proficiency was no match for the instinctual predatory nature of the world’s most fearsome beasts.

Lions and tigers were often the biggest victims of circus captivity and exploitation. These animals, captured of bred, were made for a life of roaming and hunting. Their capture and confinement in ill equipped, small cages only increased the aggression of these already ace predators. Irritable, poorly fed carnivores led to risky shows, but viewing an overly aggressive and abused animal added fodder as more and more people paid to see man overpower beast.

The “Man vs. Beast” act was highly popularized 1920s until the early 1960s. Famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty would put on a captivating show, where Beatty would use a bullwhip and chair to distract the lion from his own body as they danced around one another. Beatty always kept a pistol by his side in the event a lion made an unpredictable turn. Beatty is certainly the epitome of the persona of courageous lion tamer we know so well today.

Thankfully today in most countries, there are strict laws regarding animals in show business. They must be properly cared for and trained in ways that are not deemed intrusive or abusive. Many continue to protest circuses who used live animals in their shows, unhappy with the idea that animals would be exploited and mistreated simply for entertainment value. Such protest has left many circuses, including well known ones, with no other option than to close down.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Trapeze artists, in lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co., 1890. Wikipedia.

Flying Trapeze Artists

Just how did the circus staple of flying trapeze artists start? It is all thanks to a man named Jules Leotard. It began when Leotard first hung trapeze bars over a swimming pool in his father’s gymnasium. Leotard performed as many aerial somersaults and gravity defying leaps as he wanted; he felt assured that if any mishap were to occur, safety would be found simply by landing in the water. After testing out the strength of the trapeze bars and nailing down a routine, Leotard introduced his 12-minute “flying trapeze” routine at Cirque Napoleon. It proved to be an excellent endeavor, as his show was completely sold out.

Unfortunately, Leotard was not able to be a long lasting performer on his beloved trapeze bars. He passed away in 1870 not long after his creation of the flying trapeze, likely from cholera or typhoid. Although his untimely death prevented him from being reigning swing king, he did leave behind a lasting legacy. Not only did he provide a new crowd approving circus act, he also is the namesake for the skin tight leotards many acrobats and performance artists wear today. He was also the inspiration for the 1867 song, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

These death defying leaps usually involve a standard single or double somersault. While the skill required for such an act is still impressive, it is no where near as dangerous as a triple somersault. The triple somersault is such a difficult task, the Italians named it solto mortale, or “The Deadly Leap.” What makes this particular somersault so dangerous is due to the fact that the body must spin and move at such high speeds, the brain is not able to keep up with the actions required to make a proper connection to the next trapeze bar, or a safe landing below. In order to prevent accidents from such heights, the trapeze artist needs exceptional skill and concentration. Broken backs and necks were common occurrences before nets were commonly placed below the trapeze bars.

10 of the Most Dangerous and Bizarre Circus Attractions of All Time
Classic Vaudeville style circus poster for Eugen Sandow, shown lifting human dumbell. Wikipedia.

Strong Men and Their Lifting Accidents

Very tight unitards, bulging muscles, and impeccable mustaches, the strong man is a staple in nostalgic memories of circuses past. While most of us struggle to open a jar of pickles, the strongman appeared to pick up hundreds of pounds with total ease. Of course, it was not just men who got the notoriety for their superhuman strength. There were also strongwomen, equally as compelling as strong as their male counterparts.

It was said strongmen and strongwomen could lift over a thousand pounds. Lifting such heavy objects could cause stress and serious strain. Dropping such objects at odd angles could have led to the man or woman being completely crushed to death. Lifting the objects off of the man or women’s bodies would prove to be difficult, with many people required in order to lift it.

It was not just weight lifting that drew in the crowds. All sorts of objects and beings were used to show off the strength of this muscled mammoth men and women. Often, baskets conjoined by a long bar and filled with people would be used, otherwise known as the human dumbell. One act, created by Signor Lawanda, the Iron-Jawed Man, involved him clenching a harness in his mouth in order to lift a 1400 pound horse. His horse lifting act drew the attention of P.T. Barnum, who eventually hired him as the strongman for Barnum’s circus.