8 Legendary Circus Performers

From Queen Victoria’s favorite predatory lion to a frightened aerialist, take a step to meet the eight most loved and powerful stars from the big top.

Isaac Van Amburgh–“The Great Lion Tamer”

From humble beginnings as an assistant in an animal sanctuary known as”the Zoological Institute of New York, The flamboyant Isaac Van Amburgh grew into the most well-known lion tamer in the late 19th century. The act was famous for its recklessness. After stepping into the cage in a regal Roman costume, Van Amburgh would taunt his group of lions, leopards, and tigers, forcing them to rest on his shoulders and letting him ride with them on his backs. Van Amburgh would also play some scenes of his favorite stories from the Bible by bringing a baby lamb and a child into the mix and having them join his large cats as if they were cubs of their own. In the final act, the tamer of legend would bathe his head or arm in blood before hurling it into a lion’s jaws. Van Amburgh’s most famous tricks were accomplished by brutality — he subdued their animals by beating them with crowbars and whips, but they gained him wide applause across his home country of the United States and Europe. His most famous fan was the British Queen Victoria, a patron of the London performance seven times between 1839 and 1839. Later, she asked for a painting of him sitting with his cats.

Dan Rice–“The King of American Clowns”

Dan Rice’s name may not be well recognized today, but during the late 19th century, Dan Rice was a world-renowned performer who was a fan of Mark Twain and President Zachary Taylor as friends and admirers. Dan Rice, a New York native, first stepped into the limelight in the 1840s when he performed a clowning show incorporating physical comedy and trick riding, as well as songs and witticisms that were more home-grown. People loved it, and soon he earned $1,000 per week as the show’s star and owner of his traveling circus. Rice was so famous for the way he could combine the satire of politics and topical humor with acts of strength as well as other circus-style stunts that are more traditional. Rice was among Abraham Lincoln’s most vocal opponents during his time in the Civil War, and he then launched a short-lived campaign to become president in 1868. Rice’s popularity diminished over the years before he hung up his clown hat in the mid-1890s. However, many have recognized Rice as among the founders of the contemporary circus.

Annie Oakley–“The Peerless Lady Wing-Shot”

Phoebe Anne Moses first honed her shooting skills by hunting wild game as a child in Ohio. After marrying vaudeville entertainer Frank Butler in the 1870s, she adopted the surname “Annie Oakley” and toured with circuses as a professional sharpshooter. In the 1880s, the teen deadeye had joined the frontier spectacle “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” and was the most lucrative entertainer. Her repertoire of tricks included striking an edge on a card at 30 yards, snuffing out candles by shooting a bullet, destroying targets while riding a bicycle, and firing a cigarette lit from her husband’s lips. The crowd was captivated by her fantastic marksmanship skills and charming personality. She eventually was a touring artist for nearly three decades around the globe with her show Wild West and other shows. In 1913, she retired. She entertained Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Thomas Edison, who once recorded one of her shooting exhibitions using a new Kinetoscope camera.

Jules Leotard–“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”

Acrobat born in France, Jules Leotard, is remembered as the first person in the history of humanity to attempt an aerial trapeze routine. The son of a gym owner, he began practicing the high-flying feat in his family’s swimming pool before revealing it in 1859 at Cirque the Napoleon show in Paris. He then took his show to London and wowed spectators by bouncing around on five trapezes using only the mattress of his old house to help him recover from his fall. Leotard’s defying death made him an international sensation in the 1850s. However, his fame was cut short when he died from the disease at 28. The daring aerialist was immortalized in the hit tune “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” The name was also adopted to”the “leotard,” the snug one-piece dress was his idea to display his physique in performances.

Zazel–“The Human Projectile”

It was in 1877 that the first human cannonball was recorded taking flight when an acrobat in the teen years of Rosa Richter, better known under the stage name “Zazel,”–was shot up into the sky at Royal Aquarium in London. This “cannon” that sent her up in the air was developed by a tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt and consisted of coiled springs attached to a platform for feet. As the springs pushed Zazel from the barrel into a safety net waiting to catch her and into the safety net, a worker would trigger an explosive charge of gunpowder to recreate the sound and look of a gunshot. The story of Zazel’s thrilling act quickly spread, and within a short time, large crowds of 15,000 people gathered to watch her fly over their heads. Zazel later performed with P.T. Barnum’s show throughout the United States, but her luck was over in 1891 when she hit the net too high during a show in New Mexico. Although Zazel did not suffer, a broken back forced her to withdraw from the circus.

Charles Blondin–“The Great Blondin”

French the daredevil Charles Blondin made his first circus appearance as a child, performing wire dancing and somersaults under the moniker “The Little Wonder.” He was a talented athlete and acrobat–he even jumped over two soldiers with fixed bayonets, but the most well-known thing about him was his heart-pounding feats as a tightrope walker. In June 1859, a 35-year-old Blondin created history by securing a 1,300-foot hemp rope across two of the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls and strolled across the chasm, stopping on the way to have the last of an alcoholic bottle. Blondin repeated the feat repeatedly, each one with a different and possibly suicide-inducing twist. He made it through falling on stilts carrying a sack of water over his head, securing himself with chains, pulling an unloaded wheelbarrow, and even carrying his terrified supervisor with him on the back of his head. The most famous moment was when he walked across using a stove for cooking and paused halfway to make an omelet while standing on a rope 2 inches wide and suspended about 160 feet above the water. “The Great Blondin” would be able to make a fortune by showcasing his feats of high-wire all over the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The world-renowned actor became famous in such a way that several imposters and imitations employed his name to gain fame for their personal tightrope feats.

May Wirth–“The World’s Greatest Bareback Rider”

Equestrian and trick riding have been popular in the big top since the 18th century. However, few performers were as famous as Australia May Wirth, a native of Australia. Born into a circus family around 1894, she made her start as a wirewalker and contortionist prior to jumping onto horses at the age of 10. She then became a member of Barnum and Bailey’s show in America, in which she amazed audiences with an act that entwined acrobatics with horseback riding. Wirth could do forward flips while riding from a kneeling position — the first woman to perform this feat–and developed a trick in which she performed somersaults from one horse to the next. The petite, 4’11-inch rider also displayed her strength and agility by leaping off the horse’s back onto a galloping horse, even with her eyes closed and large baskets on her legs. Her attractive looks and daring stunts drew many admirers and numerous interviews in the gossip sections of the newspapers. When she was able to retire in 1937, she had spent more than 25 years being one of the top circus female performers.

Lillian Leitzel–“The Queen of Aerial Gymnasts”

In the period of the circus’s golden age in the 20th century, none of the stars stood out more than the German-born aerialist Lillian Leitzel. Her captivating performances enthralled audiences with a show comprising acrobatic moves and poses that she performed by hanging from Roman rings suspended at 50 feet over the ground. She never had the safety net beneath. The final act was she would hold the ring in one hand and then turn her head-over-heels so quickly the arm of her broke before snapping back into position with each twist. The enthralling routine turned Leitzel into a global model. She was named “the most beautiful and attractive woman in all the world” by American soldiers during World War I, and she was an early Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey performer to be granted the luxury of a train during a tour. Leitzel continued to perform her physically demanding show into her 30s. However, her career ended in 1931 after the metal piece part of her rigging broke during a show in Copenhagen that, sent her falling to the ground. She passed away from her injuries only two days after.

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