History Stories


Watch a 1950s Knife Thrower Use Her Daughters as 'Target Girls'

The dangerous feat of knife throwing was part of the larger tradition of "impalement arts" in the circus.

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

Today, this video may be considered a tutorial on how not to parent. But in the 1950s, it was just another day of family fun for Luella Gallagher, a knife thrower extraordinaire, who demonstrated her skills in a backyard in Austin, TX, using her two young daughters as her “target girls.”

Since the late 1800s, knife throwing has been considered one of the premiere impalement arts. At circuses around the country, performers demonstrated their skills with the blade as squeamish onlookers in the audience gasped. But no act was quite as nerve-racking as that of Mama Gallagher, who showed off her precision by putting children, five-year-old Connie Ann and two-and-a-half year-old Colleena Sue, in the hot seat.

Impalement Arts 101

It may sound like a course straight out of Harry Potter, but the impalement arts are actually the umbrella name for a group of acts that were often the most dangerous ones performed at the circus or Wild West shows. The first modern circus ever staged occurred 250 years ago in 1768 when an Englishman Philip Astley invited an audience to see his trick riding skills. But it wasn’t until a century later, in the late 1800s, that the impalement arts became a popular act in the lineup.

This category of feats includes knife throwing, archery competitions, sharpshooting, and bullwhip tricks. But the disparate skills are united by a very dangerous commonality — that of the threat to human life. That’s right, in order for an act to be properly leveled up to an “impalement art,” it must have a human target at its center. If there isn’t the danger that someone could get hurt, it isn’t considered a proper art of impalement.

Meet the Daredevil Family of Texas

Any family involved in the circus is one that’s a little bit renegade to begin with, but the Gallaghers took their unique act a step further. The typical knife throwing duo involves a male star using a woman — sometimes his wife in family acts — as his “target girl.” But in the Gallagher’s case, Luella took center stage as the expert knife thrower, and she used her young daughters as her human guides.

Luella and her daughters were known to tour sideshows, and, at least for a time, they managed their own line-up of acts. In the October 23, 1948 issue of Billboard, the Gallagher Side Show was reported to be appearing on H.B. Rosen’s Magic Midway. In addition to young Colleena Sue appearing in the impalement act, there was to be a magician, a human pin-cushion, illusionists, and a showcase for big snakes. The circus bug apparently ran in the family; “Mrs. Gallagher’s father operates the Animal Show on the Rosen midway,” Billboard reported.

It’s Not Just an Art of the Past

Circuses may be on the decline, but that doesn’t mean the acts which threaten human life have gone extinct. While they are increasingly rare, several of the remaining practitioners of the impalement arts continue to excel in their dangerous feats of knife throwing.

One man, in particular, has been breaking world records and entertaining fans with his nail-biting prowess with the blade. He is known as the Great Throwdini. Dr. David Adamovich was an exercise physiology professor who answered the calling of knife throwing at the age of 50. Clearly he was a natural because, since then, he has set dozens of world records and became the fourth person to ever perform the most difficult knife throwing stunt of all: the Veiled Wheel of Death.

In this insane feat, the Great Throwdini’s target girl is strapped to a wheel which is then covered with a piece of paper. The wheel, with its human cargo in tow, is then rolled across the stage while the knife thrower launches the tools of his trade at it…and hopes he misses. On behalf of Connie Ann and Colleena Sue, we can all be thankful this is one trick Luella Gallagher never tried.

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