1. Isaac Van Amburgh—“The Great Lion Tamer”
From his humble origins as an assistant at a menagerie called the Zoological Institute of New York, the flamboyant Isaac Van Amburgh grew into the most famous lion tamer of the 19th century. His act was renowned for its extreme daring. After entering the cage clad in ancient Roman garb, Van Amburgh would taunt his collection of lions, tigers and leopards and force them to stand on his shoulders and let him ride on their backs. He would also act out scenes from the Bible by introducing a lamb and a young child into the mix and having them sit alongside his big cats as though they were its own cubs. For his big finish, the great tamer would soak his arm or his head in blood and fearlessly thrust it between a lion’s gaping jaws. Most of Van Amburgh’s tricks were achieved through sheer brutality—he subdued his animals by beating them with whips and crowbars—but they won him widespread acclaim in the United States and Europe. His most famous admirer was the British Queen Victoria, who attended his London show seven times in 1839 and later commissioned a painting of him reclining with his cats.
2. Dan Rice—“The King of American Clowns”
Dan Rice’s name isn’t well known today, but in the mid-19th century he was a world famous performer who counted the likes of Mark Twain and President Zachary Taylor as acquaintances and admirers. The New York native first stepped into the spotlight in the 1840s with a clowning act that mixed physical comedy and trick riding with homespun witticisms and musical numbers. Audiences ate it up, and he was soon raking in $1,000 a week as the star and owner of his own traveling circus. Part of Rice’s appeal lay in his ability to mix topical humor and political satire with feats of strength and other traditional circus stunts. He was one of Abraham Lincoln’s most outspoken critics during the Civil War, and he later launched a short-lived bid for the presidency in 1868. Rice’s popularity waned in the years before he finally hung up his clown shoes in the 1890s, but he’s since been hailed as one of the fathers of the modern circus.
3. Annie Oakley—“The Peerless Lady Wing-Shot”
Phoebe Anne Moses first honed her rifle skills while hunting wild game during her childhood in Ohio. After marrying vaudeville performer Frank Butler in the 1870s, she took the name “Annie Oakley” and toured with circuses as a professional sharpshooter. By the 1880s, the young deadeye had joined the frontier extravaganza “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” and become its highest paid performer. Her arsenal of tricks including hitting the edge of a playing card from 30 paces, snuffing out a candle with a bullet, blasting targets while riding a bike and even shooting a lit cigarette from her husband’s lips. Crowds were entranced by Oakley’s superhuman marksmanship and folksy personality, and she eventually spent some three decades touring the world with the Wild West and other shows. Before retiring in 1913, she performed for the likes of Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Thomas Edison, who once filmed one of her shooting exhibitions with a newly invented kinetoscope camera.
4. Jules Leotard—“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”
French-born acrobat Jules Leotard is remembered as the first man in history to attempt a flying trapeze act. The son of a gymnasium owner, he first practiced the high-flying stunt over his family’s swimming pool before unveiling it in 1859 at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris. He later took his act to London, where he captivated audiences by somersaulting between five different trapezes with only a pile of old mattresses to break his fall. Leotard’s death-defying deeds made him into something of a sensation during the 1860s, but his career was tragically cut short after he died of disease at the age of 28. By then, the intrepid aerialist had already been immortalized in the popular song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” He also became the namesake for the “leotard,” the snug, one-piece garment that he had designed to show off his physique during performances.
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5. Zazel—“The Human Projectile”
In 1877, the world’s first recorded human cannonball took flight when teenaged acrobat Rosa Richter—better known by her stage name “Zazel”—was shot into the air at the Royal Aquarium in London. The “cannon” that sent her airborne was invented by tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt and consisted of coiled springs attached to a foot platform. When the springs propelled Zazel out of the barrel and into a waiting safety net, a worker would set off a gunpowder charge to recreate the look and sound of a cannon shot. Word of Zazel’s death-defying stunt quickly spread, and it wasn’t long before crowds of up to 15,000 people were gathering to watch her soar over their heads. The young daredevil later toured with P.T. Barnum’s circus in the United States, but her luck finally ran out in 1891, when she overshot the net during a performance in New Mexico. While Zazel survived, a broken back forced her to retire from the circus for good.
6. Charles Blondin—“The Great Blondin”
French daredevil Charles Blondin made his first circus appearance as a young boy, when he performed somersaults and wire dancing under the name “The Little Wonder.” He was a skilled acrobat and athlete—he once leapt over two lines of soldiers holding fixed bayonets—but he was most famous for his heart-pounding exploits as a tightrope walker. In June 1859, a 35-year-old Blondin made history when he strung a 1,300-foot hemp rope between the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls and strolled across the chasm, pausing along the way to enjoy a few swigs from a bottle of wine. He later repeated the stunt on multiple occasions, each time with a new and seemingly suicidal twist. He conquered the falls on stilts, with a sack over his head, wearing chains, pushing a wheelbarrow and even while carrying his terrified manager on his back. Most famous of all was the time he crossed with a cooking stove and stopped halfway to prepare an omelet—all while balancing on a 2-inch-wide rope suspended some 160 feet above the water. “The Great Blondin” would later make a fortune displaying his high wire heroics across the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. He became world famous, so much so that several imposters and imitators used his name to get publicity for their own tightrope stunts.
7. May Wirth—“The World’s Greatest Bareback Rider”
Trick riding and equestrian stunts were a fixture under the big top from its early days in the 18th century, but few riders ever became as famous as Australia native May Wirth. Born into a circus family in 1894, she got her start as a child wirewalker and contortionist before hopping on horseback at age 10. She later joined Barnum and Bailey’s circus in America, where she dazzled audiences with an act that combined acrobatics with expert bareback riding. Wirth could perform a forward flip on horseback from a kneeling position—the first woman to do so—and perfected a trick where she did somersaults from one moving horse to another. The dainty, 4-foot-11-inch rider also showed off her physical strength by leaping from the ground onto the back of a galloping stallion, sometimes while blindfolded and wearing heavy baskets on her feet. Wirth’s good looks and daring stunts won her legions of admirers and frequent mentions in the gossip pages of newspapers. By the time she finally retired in 1937, she had spent 25 years as one of the circus’s top female performers.
8. Lillian Leitzel—“The Queen of Aerial Gymnasts”
During the golden age of the circus in the early 20th century, no star shone brighter than that of German-born aerialist Lillian Leitzel. She captivated audiences with an act that consisted of acrobatic tricks and poses performed while hanging from Roman rings suspended 50 feet above the ground—always without a safety net below. For her grand finale, she would grasp the ring with one hand and flip head over heels so rapidly that her arm would dislocate and then snap back into place with each turn. The spellbinding routine made Leitzel into an international diva. She was voted “the most beautiful and attractive woman in all the world” by American soldiers during World War I, and she became the first Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey star to receive a private train car while on tour. Leitzel continued her physically demanding act well into her 30s, but her career ended in tragedy in 1931, when a piece of metal on her rigging snapped during a performance in Copenhagen and sent her plummeting to the floor. She died from her injuries just two days later.