Thrilling Facts About Zazel, The First Human Cannonball

August 23, 2023 | Alicia B.

Thrilling Facts About Zazel, The First Human Cannonball

Most Victorians could only dream about flying, but Rossa Richter—best known as Zazel—made flying her full-time job. However, Zazel soon discovered that becoming the first human cannonball and a circus superstar came with a high price. Because once you go up—or get blasted into the air by a cannonball—the only place to go is down.

1. She Was A Nepo Baby

In 1860, Rossa Matilda Richter was born in London, and straight into the circus. Her mom, Suzanne Richter, was a dancer while her dad, Ernst Karl Richter, was a prominent talent agent. On top of that, they essentially groomed her for the circus. Following in their footsteps was a matter of when, not if. Rossa never stood a chance. 

She was destined to become the famous performer, Zazel...She just didn't know it yet.


2. She Was Groomed

While other kids learned the alphabet, Rossa learned how to perform aerial stunts, trapeze, ballet, and gymnastics. Her parents knew the dangers, but they never called it quits. Instead, they just taught her the best ways to fall, preparing her for her risky future. Rossa’s childhood only got even more dangerous.A portrait of Zazel, also known as Rossa Matilda RichterPublished in The New York Clipper without author credit, Wikimedia Commons

3. She Was In Danger

Children, dangerous stunts, and questionable safety practices is already a bad combination—but there’s more. To make matters worse, Rossa practiced these stunts in an abandoned church. While Rossa tried her best not to fall, the building itself was falling apart. Suzanne and Ernst were never parents of the year, but soon felt vindicated. portrait of Rossa Matilda RichterPublished in the New York Clipper without an author credit, Wikimedia Commons

4. She Stole The Show

One girl’s loss was this girl’s gain. After the actress who played one of Cinderella’s sisters became sick and couldn’t perform, Rossa filled in. It was supposed to be temporary, but audiences adored her. She continued performing and perfecting her skills. Rossa wasn’t even six-years-old, but she had long kissed her childhood goodbye.Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performer (when she was 14, in 1887).Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Had An Unconventional Childhood

Twelve-year-old Rossa left her family and everything she knew to literally leap into the unknown. Even though she was English, she joined a Japanese acrobatic troupe and toured across Europe. This changed everything. Rossa developed not only her skills, but her reputation as well. Audiences raved over her skill, bravery, and fearlessness. But Rossa wasn’t invincible—and she soon learned this the hard way.Japanese acrobat in Paris Expo 1867Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Had A Life-Changing Accident

Amazement turned into horror when Rossa fell during a trapeze performance. This was Rossa's first accident, but it was far from her last. This accident could’ve been the premature end of her career, but for unexpected reasons. Rossa eventually recovered. Her father, however, never got over it. The Richter family would never be the same.Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performerCredited to London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company; photographer unknown., Wikimedia Commons

7. Her Father Stood In The Way

Rossa didn’t perform for a while, and family drama may have been the cause. After the accident, Ernst forbade Rossa from performing. But Suzanne disagreed, and the battle was on. Suzanne was willing to do whatever it took to make their daughter into a star. The trapeze looked like child play’s compared to what life had in store for Rossa.Rossa Matilda Richter performing stunts on trapezeAlfred Concanen,  Wikimedia Commons

8. Her Life Was About to Change

William Leonard Hunt was "The Great Farini," a notorious daredevil, and the inventor of the human cannonball. It was a dangerous stunt where a performer climbed into a cannonball that shot them dozens of feet into the air. He had the idea and the machine, but still needed the star. It would have to be someone young, small, and light enough to squeeze into the cannon. Enter, Rossa. William Leonard Hunt in a suit, Wikimedia Commons

9. She Had A Protective Dad

Farini’s reputation preceded him. Ernst had already sworn years ago that Farini "should never have a dog of mine, much less a daughter, for his dangerous performances”. Ernst finally saw the light, but Suzanne still had dollar signs in her eyes. It turns out that Ernst and Suzanne were not on the same page. Or even the same book.Portrait of Zazel in top and jewelryMusée Carnavalet, W & D Downey, Look and Learn

10. She Signed A Deal With The Devil

Anyone who heard what Ernst said about Farini was shocked that he allowed one of his daughters to work for the daredevil. Turns out, he didn’t. Ernst signed the contract because Suzanne claimed that Rossa would work for a friend, not his enemy. On top of that, Suzanne swore that Rossa would only be singing and dancing. This soon turned out to be a dangerous lie.Zazel's Cannonball ActHulton Archive, Getty Images

11. She Risked Her Life

In April 1877, an audience knew they’d witness either history in the making, or tragedy. Rossa, who now performed under the stage name Zazel, stepped into the spotlight. The audience didn’t just notice her red and pink costume, they couldn’t help but also notice how young, small, and sweet she was. Farini prepared the cannonball. 

The teenager climbed into the machine and signaled her readiness. The audience didn’t dare blink or breathe.Zazel performing a stunt in a cannonAlfred Concanen, Wikimedia Commons

12. She Made History

The audience saw smoke, a flash of red, and Zazel lying motionless on the net dozens of feet away. The audience didn’t move until the teenager stood up and smiled. Zazel hadn’t just survived, she’d just made history, becoming recognized as the first human cannonball. This performance "hurled her from the jaws of death into the arms of fame”. But this was only the beginning.Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performer (when she was 14, in 1887)Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

13. She Had Even More Tricks Up Her Sleeve

She was many things, but a one trick pony, she was not. Along with her signature cannonball act, Zazel performed dangerous stunts like the high dive and tightrope walking. She even reached heights of nearly 100 feet (30 meters). Zazel bravely challenged physics, gravity, and death—and won. It was no wonder she had hoards of fans, including some familiar names. Rosa Maria Richter, billed as 'Zazel', the world's first female human cannonball at the start of her act at the Royal Aquarium, London, 1877Hulton Archive, Getty Images

14. She Became A Teenage Sensation

Thousands flocked to each performance, where Zazel took them on a journey of anxiety and amazement. Her many fans included Edward VII, who reportedly attended multiple shows. But not all of the attention was positive. Some of this attention—okay, a lot of it—was creepy and inappropriate. 

Becoming the first human cannonball came at an unexpected cost. Portrait of King Edward VII in suitW. & D. Downey, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Was Objectified

You see, Zazel had to take off most of her clothing to fit into the cannon. This was a big deal in Victorian England. From her earliest performances, many advertisements emphasized her clothing—or lack thereof. One writer even encouraged men to attend multiple performances just to see her “most perfect” body. It gets even creepier. Zazel performing her cannonball stuntNational Portrait Gallery London, Picryl

16. She Worked With Creeps

After painter George Frederic Watts complimented Zazel as “the bravest woman I ever saw," he could’ve—and should’ve—stopped right there. Of course, he went on to share that her “form was the most perfect he ever saw”. George then had the audacity to ask Zazel to sit for a portrait. It’s no wonder that her sister tagged along to prevent any shenanigans.George Frederic Watts in suitFrederick Hollyer, Wikimedia Commons

17. She Challenged Stereotypes

By the way, Zazel performed these stunts during a time when women exercising in private raised eyebrows. And here she was, displaying the peak of human athleticism to massive crowds. The very existence of Zazel challenged norms. The social conservatives didn’t take this very well. The lack of clothes added fuel to the fire. And her haters went on the attack.Rossa Maria Richter, billed as 'Zazel', the world's first female human cannonball  posing for a portraitHulton Archive, Getty Images

18. She Was Scandalous

It was a battle that Zazel could never win. These critics criticized her for not wearing enough clothes. Zazel found herself in the middle, with one side criticizing her for not covering up, while the other side objectified her for the same reason. The circus knew that female performers had to tread carefully and do damage control. Astley's Amphitheatre in London as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-11).Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Faced Conspiracy Theories

On top of the objectification and criticism, Zazel faced conspiracy theories. She couldn’t catch a break. Some doubters insisted that Zazel was actually a man pretending to be a woman. Their “proof” was just a little insulting. They thought there was no way a woman could be so muscular or athletic. They thought wrong—but the damage was done. Royal Acquarium 1876Unknown, Wikimedia Commons

20. She Had Great PR 

Zazel had to tiptoe on more than a tightrope. After all, being seen as too revolutionary could end a woman’s career in an instant. In response, the circus promoted their female performers' purity and domesticity. And Zazel had one of the most angelic and pure reputations of them all. As a result, some juicy rumors surrounded her.tightrope walkerWiros from Barcelona, Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0 ,Wikimedia Commons

21. She Had Famous Suitors

One writer raved that Zazel’s "nature was as pure and sunshiny as her face and form were beautiful”. They went even further. This writer explained that even though princes pursued her, Zazel remained “the pure girl and woman that she is today”. They even claimed that Queen Victoria recognized this purity. Unfortunately, Zazel’s life was more complicated behind the scenes. Queen Victoria  portrait in dark dressHeinrich von Angeli, Wikimedia Commons

22. She Was Taken Advantage Of

Turns out, Zazel signed a deal with the devil—sorry, I meant Farini. A reporter revealed that whenever Zazel traveled to perform, he booked her economy train tickets. A first-class upgrade cost almost nothing, especially when we consider how wealthy she made him. Initially, Zazel had no idea how much he was taking advantage of her. But when she found out, things were never the same between them. Rossa Matilda Richter (Zazel) being shot out of a cannon.Royal collection of the United Kingdom, Picryl

23. She Found Out The Truth

The truth left Zazel horrified: Farini pocketed the majority of her earnings. She saw this as an injustice and a betrayal. After all, Farini took all the profits, but none of the risks. Understandably, Zazel developed a sassy attitude. The diva even threatened to walk out. In response, Farini secretly plotted against her.William Leonard Hunt and Krao Farini posing for a portraitW & D Downey, Wikimedia Commons

24. She Had A Possessive Boss

Poor Zazel never stood a chance. She should’ve been able to escape Farini and join a better-paying circus. Key word: should’ve. Instead, she was stuck with this exploitative situation and greedy boss. It turns out that Farini published declarations that he owned the Zazel act—and by extension, he owned her. Farini took it even further.Barnum & Bailey circusThe original uploader was Brian0918 at English Wikipedia.(Original text: Copyright by the Strobridge Litho. Co.), Wikimedia Commons

25. She Was Betrayed

Farini committed treachery after Zazel asked for more money. He secretly trained other women to perform the Zazel act. Basically, Farini assembled an army who were prepared to take her place at a moment’s notice. By the time she discovered the plot, it was too late. The damage was done. Zazel found herself battling other Zazels. The human canon ball posterLibrary of Congress, Picryl

26. She Was Imitated

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Zazel definitely didn’t agree. There were so many Zazel copycats, she had to refer to herself as “the original Zazel”. These wannabes included women and men. But she had something that could never be copied: skill. Many who attempted to copy her cannonball act learned this the hard way.girl performing the human cannonball stuntnot provided,  Wikimedia Commons

27. She Was Deceptively Skilled

Looks can be deceiving. To an uneducated eye, the cannonball act appeared to have nothing to do with skill, and everything to do with luck. The performer seemed always helpless and just along for the ride. In actuality, Zazel had more than luck on her side. She knew exactly how to hold her body and turn mid-air to land safely onto the net. 

But one day, Zazel had no choice to confront her mortality—and her copycats.cannon ball stunt equipmentKippelboy, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

28. She Saw Her Obituary

Zazel's human cannonball trend has claimed over thirty lives. It didn’t help that Zazel faced her mortality in the most eerie way. She came across an obituary dedicated to Zazel while reading a newspaper. It turns out that one of her copycats had passed. Zazel had to write to the newspaper to correct them. She was the real Zazel. She also happened to be alive—but many worried she wouldn’t be for much longer.Illusionist Ferry Forst with his cannon, carrying one of his assistants in the airHarry Pot / Anefo, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

29. She Concerned Audiences

From the very beginning, many had safety concerns, and even protested to ban human cannonballs. One of these protestors included Zazel’s father. After separating from an unconcerned Suzanne, he went on a mission. Ernst publicized the countless ways his daughter’s—and any other human cannonball’s—life could end. He was right. Human cannonball stuntKippelboy, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

30. Her Team Was Negligent 

Zazel did everything right during a performance. The circus on the other hand… not so much. As Zazel flew out of the cannonball, she expected the net to break her landing. It didn’t. She didn’t know that the net had rotted due to heavy use. Zazel fell through and suffered injuries that prevented her from performing. Sadly, her team didn’t learn their lesson—or they just didn’t care. The human cannonball Captain Muñoz and a safety netLeif Jørgensen, CC BY-SA 3.0 ,Wikimedia Commons

31. She Was In An Unsafe Workplace

That same year, disaster struck again. After Zazel fell off the trapeze, she expected the net to break her landing. Once again, she learned the hard way that it should’ve been replaced yesterday. After Zazel plummeted, she screamed, “I am killed, I am killed!” In order to reassure the disturbed audience, the circus owner forced her to do the unthinkable. David Dimitri during his human cannonball trickGeorgios Liakopoulos, CC BY-SA 2.0 , Wikimedia Commons

32. She Had To Go Back On

The show must go on, whether Zazel liked it or not. Within half an hour, the owner forced her to get back in the ring. On top of that, she had to complete her performance. She finished with bandaged hands and overwhelming anxiety. The audience ate it up. But others weren’t so entertained and criticized the owner. Sadly, heartlessness was par for the course when it came to Zazel.Woman in red skirt on a bulletDelcampe,

33. She Had A Cruel Boss

Zazel asked her manager an earnest question: She wondered whether she should give George Frederic Watts’s portrait of her to the National Portrait Gallery. He had the most devastating response. He began laughing and replied, “Whatever would they want in the National Gallery with a picture of you!” By the way, in 2018, the Gallery boasted three portraits of her. But the damage was done.Human Cannonballfir0002 flagstaffotos [at] gmail.comCanon 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8, GFDL 1.2 , Wikimedia Commons

34. She Wanted To Escape The Spotlight

The spotlight was once again on Zazel—but this time, she wanted nothing to do with it. The House of Commons debated a bill that aimed to ban dangerous acrobatics. In other words, they wanted to ban what made Zazel… well, Zazel. She raged at these “interfering men” because “I loved it. They'd just no right to take away me living if I loved it. I was ambitious. I wanted to be great. You see, it was me art”. 

Zazel now faced the loss of her livelihood and purpose. She knew what she had to do. The House of Commons at WestminsterThomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers), Wikimedia Commons

35. She Had To Get Out

According to the American circus mogul PT Barnum, Zazel begged him to take her away. She toured with his circus in Europe and across the United States. Unfortunately, she still wasn’t free from Farini. Most believe that she still had to give him a good chunk of her pay. While touring with Barnum, the unfairness of her situation became even clearer compared to her equally legendary costars.PT Barnum portrait in suitunattributed, Wikimedia Commons

36. She Had Famous Colleagues

Barnum’s show was a who’s who of the best and the brightest. Zazel was the world’s most famous human cannonball. Her co-star General Tom Thumb was the world's most famous little person. Both were superstars, yet, their financial situations and independence couldn’t have been more different, not to mention their love lives.General Tom Thumb portrait wearing a hat holding a swordUnknown source, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Got Married

Zazel mixed business and pleasure. She married George Oscar Starr, one of Barnum’s employees. She used her marriage to reinforce traditional gender roles, domesticity and marriage. This was great PR, especially for the old-fashioned people who remained wary of female circus performers defying gender norms. But there was a huge catch.diamond  engagement ringFOX, Pexels

38. She Wasn’t Actually Married

Turns out, Zazel and George weren’t officially married—and this wasn’t by choice. George was technically still married to his first wife. They had to wait until his first wife passed in order to make it official. But they’d be waiting for a long, long time. Not that Zazel and George let this hiccup stop them from enjoying their newlywed bliss. winter quarters of P.T. Barnum's (Barnum-London) circusUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

39. She Knew The Dangers

Everyone already knew that Zazel was talented, but they had no idea just how good she was. Even during Zazel and George’s break from the circus, performance still called out to her. For example, she started an opera company and even sang in some productions. But Zazel discovered her passion for something shocking and dangerous.Jenny Lind New York ConcertUnknown, Wikimedia Commons

40. She Served The Public

Zazel became obsessed with safety nets, not that anyone could blame her. She truly believed they could save lives even beyond the circus ring. She made it her life’s mission to convince everyone. Zazel didn’t just write about the potential of safety nets, she showed everyone—by casually throwing herself out of tall buildings. It’s no wonder she couldn’t resist the call of the circus.Under the safety netJohn M / Under the safety net, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Returned To The Circus

The couple dove back into the circus after George got a promotion—and it may have been the biggest mistake of their life. At this point, Zazel had performed her dangerous stunts thousands of times to millions of fans. Sure she’d had a few accidents, but she always came out on top. Always. Little did Zazel know, her luck was about to run out. The Barnum and Bailey greatest show on earthLibrary of Congress, Picryl

42. Her Accident Was Preventable

Zazel’s human cannonball act went perfectly, but she also performed on the tightwire. During one of her performances—balancing at around 40 feet in the air—Zazel tried communicating with her team. They misinterpreted her signal and adjusted the poles holding the wire up. This caused the wire to fall apart and sent her plummeting to the ground.The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth circus and strange human exhibitLibrary of Congress, Picryl

43. Her Injuries Were Gruesome

Zazel landed on her hands and knees. To make matters worse, one of the poles smashed onto her back. Ouch. After moving the poles, they could finally pick Zazel up. They made a gruesome discovery: Her body could not straighten. So they had the bright idea of yanking on her shoulders and legs to do it themselves. It gets even worse.The Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth, Humans on trapezeBoston Public Library, Picryl

44. Her Injuries Weren’t Treatable

The horrified crowd could only watch as they carried a screaming Zazel away. One witness described it as "the most horrible accident I ever witnessed ... and I have seen a good many accidents in my day”. The local doctors could only provide temporary relief for her broken back. She had to travel from New Mexico to New York for treatment, which was just as excruciating. The Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earthBoston Public Library, Picryl

45. Her Recovery Was A Nightmare

Was the cure worse than the disease? In order to treat her back injury, Zazel spent over a year in a full body cast suspended from the ceiling. This would’ve been a living nightmare for anyone, but especially for someone as active as Zazel. Somehow, Zazel remained sweet and patient. But she had to face a devastating reality.Rossa Matilda Richter  Zazel sitting on the floorUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

46. Her Career Was Over

After sacrificing her childhood and everything in between for her career, this was the end. Against her will, Zazel retired due to an entirely preventable accident. She was only 31-years-old. She was looking at a long, but uncertain future. While Zazel put on a brave face during her recovery, she could no longer hide her devastation—and people noticed. The Barnum & Bailey circus, people watching a performanceBoston Public Library, Picryl

47. She Was Never The Same

Zazel brought the circus to new heights, so her downfall was nothing short of a tragedy. After the accident, she was never the same, physically or mentally. One person even lamented that while they were glad that she could still walk, they couldn’t help but notice that she'd become “a pale, weak image of this once splendid circus queen”. ELLA ZUILA, HEROINE OF THE LOFTY WIREParis Museum, Picryl

48. She Finally Married For Real

The silver lining came a little too late. In 1912, George’s first wife passed. Rest in peace to her, but this meant that George and Zazel could finally marry after decades of waiting. They officially tied the knot at 63 and 52. Better late than never, but never late is better. You see, time was running out for this couple.Wedding cake on the tableCarsten Vollrath, Pexels

49. She Lived A Quiet Life

Zazel and George moved back to England, where they lived a lowkey life until tragedy struck. Sadly, he made her a widow after only three years of official marriage. She survived George by 22 years. Her later life couldn’t have been further from the excitement of the circus ring. But by the time Zazel left the world, everyone remembered her as the first human cannonball. Well, almost everyone.An Edwardian view of High Street in Broadstairs, Kent, EnglandUnknown, Picryl

50. Her Legacy Faces Doubt

Most sources recognize Zazel as the first human cannonball. Most. Others insist that Ella Zuila and George Loyal, “The Australian Marvels”, beat her to it by years. While no one can agree on who the first human cannonball was, we can all agree that Zazel was a legend and icon of the circus. Nothing and noone can take that away from her.

Ella Zuila, the Australian tightrope walker posterMetropolitan Litho. Studio. Jackson, J. E., Picryl

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