“The circus allows one to be logical and unreal at the same time. In the circus, all is possible: there can be a man with two heads or a character with a green face.”—Fernando Botero
The early days of the circus were some crazy times. As the science and medical worlds were still developing, there were many mysterious conditions that people utilized for profit. But it was just physical conditions that people put on for display, as some people were just plain crazy and loved to perform wild stunts. Here are some of the most downright insane, and sometimes sad, circus performance acts performed throughout the years.
Craziest Circus Performers Facts
38. Camel Knees
Hailing from Tennessee, Ella Harper was known as “The Camel Girl.” This was because her knees could bend forward. She would utilize this condition by dropping down onto her hands and knees and walking around. Eventually, she joined the circus to make some money, before quitting and going back to school. That was her plan, but after one year on the road, she simply disappeared from the circus scene, with few traces of her to be found afterward.
37. Hot Air Tricks
The “iron jaw” of the 19th century was a woman by the name of Leona Dare. A true daredevil in every sense of the word, she was a sensation in her time, most notably for a strunt in which she climbed down to the bottom of a hot air balloon in mid-flight and dangled in the air, held up only by her teeth.
36. Airplane Games
Gladys Roy rose to circus performance fame for her insane stunts that involved her climbing onto the wings of airplanes that were in flight and playing around. She would sometimes mime a tennis match, walk across the entire wingspan, or parachute off. Tragically, Roy would die in an airplane accident at only 25 years old, when she became distracted during a publicity shoot and walked into a propeller.
35. Diving into the Abyss
Known for his diving skills, Samuel Gilbert Scott would dive from incredible heights wearing a noose tied loosely around his neck. As dangerous as that sounds…well, it was that dangerous. Scott would leap to his death during a stunt at the Waterloo Bridge in 1841 when the noose slipped during a jump, and he was hanged from the bridge. As spectators looked on, they assumed it was a part of his act, and didn’t take action in time to save his life.
34. A Dangerous Hang
Promoted as “the man who hangs himself and lives to tell the tale,” Aloys Peters would tie a bungee cord around his neck and jump through the air from a platform. Unfortunately, at only 45 years old, his last performance was done in front of 5,500 people, who watched him accidentally hang himself and die.
33. Safety First
Hanging from your neck while playing a drum attached to your waist is pretty crazy. Especially when you are a 10-year-old boy. Though he was an American born William Leonard Hunt, the young boy who climbed to fame performing the dangerous stunt was billed as El Niño Farini. Farini’s aerial drum show was also the first time a safety net was used in performance. Guess that was long before child labor laws and work safety laws existed.
32. Human Arrow
Before being rocketed out of cannons was a thing, the Zedora sisters practiced the human crossbow. Pansy was the one who could fly—she would be loaded and shot through a paper target, which she would accurately nail, and then be caught by her sister, who was swinging from a trapeze.
31. Flying Cars
Taking an early, and by early, I mean one of the very first, automobiles and using it to fly through the air in 1905 is truly insane. Octavie LaTour would dress up in full Edwardian attire and drive his car down a ramp and backflip it onto another ramp. Why would he do this? I’m going to guess money had something to do with it.
30. Painless Dentist
Born as Edgar Parker, he would legally change his name to Painless Parker after gaining success as a street dentist. You read that right, a street dentist. While he was despised by the American Dental Association, he was an advocate for patient rights and universal access to dental care. After struggling to gain patients, he took his practice on the road. He would perform a traveling medicine show in which he would give people some sort of cocaine/whiskey mixture he called “hydrocaine,” and pull their teeth.
29. Paying for Pain
Parker charged 50 cents per tooth, but if the hydrocaine didn’t work properly and the patient felt any pain, he would pay them $5. He would eventually grow his business so much that he earned over $3 million a year through 28 offices and had 70 dentists under him. He would sometimes wear a necklace made out of 357 teeth, which he claimed to have all pulled over the course of one day.
28. No False Advertisements
Parker legally changed his name to “Painless” in order to avoid any false advertising laws.
27. What a Quack
Crazy in another sense of the word, Gus Visser was a performer of a different variety from the others on this list. His trick was to take the stage with his duck, who he had trained, and then sing together.
26. Fire Starter
Hadji-Ali was able to control his stomach like no one else. His special circus act was to first drink a great amount of water, then to drink a bunch of kerosene and spray a fire out of his mouth, before finally extinguishing the fire with the water.
25. Favorite Flame-Thrower
Ali was a vaudeville performer who gained a cult following. The favorite magician of both Judy Garland and David Blaine, he performed for many world leaders, including the Russian Empire’s Tsar Nicholas II.
24. Two Pelvises, Four Legs
Born with two pelvises side by side, Myrtle Corbin was billed as the “Four-Legged Girl from Texas,” because, well, she had four legs. Two of her legs functioned normally, but the other two were much smaller and weaker, though she was indeed able to move them.
23. Pregnancy Matters
Since she had two pelvises, Corbin had duplicate sex organs, both externally and internally. Everyone, including her to her doctors, were shocked to find out that she could become pregnant, and she would go on to birth five healthy children. Interestingly enough, her pregnancies were carried in the left uterus, even though she preferred to have intercourse on her right side.
22. Concrete Burial
After Corbin passed away just six days before her 60th birthday, her family decided to have her casket covered in concrete before being buried. This decision was made in order to prevent grave robbers from disturbing her peace, and family members took turns watching the casket until the concrete fully dried.
21. Conjoined Twins
Chang and Eng Bunker were dubbed “The Siamese Twins” by Robert Hunter, a Scottish merchant who was determined to make a profit after finding the brothers while traveling through Thailand in 1829, which was the Kingdom of Siam at that time. After touring and making some cash, the brothers decided that they wanted to live a better life than one on their road where they were presented as freaks, and settled in North Carolina.
20. Let’s Get It On
After The Bunker brothers settled, they married sisters, of course, and then got busy. They would go on to father a total of 21 children between the two of them. One day in 1874, Eng woke up to find that Chang was dead. He immediately called in a doctor, but by the time the doctor arrived, it would be too late for Eng.
19. Elephant Scare
One of the most well-known and tragic celebrities of the 19th century was Joseph Merrick, AKA “The Elephant Man.” Born with birth defects that to this day doctors are unsure of the cause of, his nickname came from his parents’ belief that he was born the way he was because while his mother was pregnant with him, she was frightened by an elephant.
18. Marvelous Mabel Stark
The most famous of all the Ringling Brothers animals acts throughout the first half of the 20th century, Mabel Stark was a tiger trainer who was smaller than most of the beasts that she tamed, standing at only five feet tall.
17. Stitch It Back
Mabel Stark was one tough woman. Once, after slipping in the arena during an act with her tigers, she was almost clawed to death. It took 378 stitches to put her body back together, but after only a few weeks she was ready to go and jumped back into the arena. Another time, she had her arm also completely unhinged, but it was saved by another 175 stitches.
16. Circus Life is Life
Enjoying an impressively long career, performing for 57 years, Mabel Stark called it quits after she was fired from her last job at a place called JungleLand. So distraught over being done with the circus life, she died by suicide after a self-administered drug overdose.
15. Cannon Family
The Zacchini family is one of the storied families of modern circus as the patriarch, Mario, created a family dynasty by being shot out of cannons. While the family never revealed their secret to flying through the air, they did reveal that the cannon blast noise was a sound effect produced by igniting half a cup of gunpowder as they were being shot from the cannon.
14. Houdini’s Start
Harry Houdini may not be known for his circus performances, but he actually began his storied career with the Welsh Brother Circus in Lancaster, Pennsylvania late in the 19th century. While he was still working on his craft, he and his wife created a show entitled “Metamorphosis” where they would lock themselves into a trunk and switch places.
13. From Great Heights
The Flying Wallendas were a daredevil family that toured for years with various circuses, dangling, walking, and flying through the air. It shouldn’t be any surprise then that besides the many injuries the family suffered while performing, including one member who was paralyzed, the patriarch of the family, Karl, fell to his death in 1978. His was the third family death to occur during a performance. The Wallendas didn’t stop performing, though, and they still tour to this day.
12. First Crossings
Nikolas Wallenda, the great-grandchild of Karl Wallenda, is the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a high wire. If that isn’t impressively crazy enough, he is also the first person to cross the Little Colorado River Gorge at the Grand Canyon.
11. Riding in Cars With Lions
Owning a lion—though, it is hard to say anyone can actually “own” a lion—is crazy enough, but performing circus acts with a lion is another level. Ethel Purtle was famous for racing with her lion, named King, in a sidecar around a customized track while riding along “the wall of death,” defying gravity in their stunt.
10. Cannonball Gut
Frank “Cannonball” Richards was famous for taking a cannonball straight to the stomach. By now, you’re probably aware of this feat, as it has circulated and been parodied countless times, most notably on The Simpsons. But Richards didn’t just decide to shoot himself with a cannon one day. Instead, he worked his way up to the act, first beginning with punches, then to iron poles, before trying to cannon. At his prime, he was performing the act twice a day. Now that sounds like a proper use of the nickname “Frank the Tank.”
9. Kidnapping the Beard
Annie Jones was known as “The Bearded Lady.” While she’s well-known today, Jones had a wild ride in life. After first being featured at just one-year-old by P.T. Barnum, she lived her life in the circus. While a child, however, she was somehow kidnapped by a phrenologist who attempted to exhibit her himself. The phrenologist attempted to claim she was his own child, but when they went to court, the case was dismissed the moment that her real parents entered the courtroom.
8. No More Freaks
Annie Jones toured as a sideshow act during her career. However, she worked hard to humanize the circus and abolish the use of the word “freaks.”
7. Fart Life
The Moulin Rouge had many wild acts perform there over the years, and one of the stranger acts was Joseph Pujol, known as Le Petomane. So what did he do to gain his success? He farted on command in the club. So, yes, his name was Pujol, and he farted for a living. You can’t make this stuff up.
6. Queen of Fire Eaters
There is no doubt that Jo Girardelli was the true queen of fire, as she spent her life shocking audiences around the world. Apparently immune to heat, Girardelli would perform a variety of crazy performances to prove her abilities, including gargling nitric acid and spitting it onto iron bars, which would rapidly decay, and rolling boiling oil, after cooking an egg in it, in her mouth and spitting it into a fire, which would then burst into huge flames.
5. Sealed Mouth
These two tricks by Girardelli were impressive, but nothing compared to her grand finales, where she would dip her hands into molten lead and scoop it into her mouth; or would put melted sealing wax into her mouth and have a member of the audience create a wax seal on her tongue.
4. Shovel Licks
Girardelli was more than a fire-eater, though, and she would prove so by heating shovels up in a fire and then pressing them against her skin. She would be left unmarked by the hot steel and then punctuate the performance by licking the shovel, which would let off a sharp hiss.
3. Piercing Performances
The Invulnerable Man was a Dutchman who went by the name Mirin Dajo, though he was born as Arnold Gerrit Henskes. What made him so invulnerable, no one knows, but he was able to stick entire swords through his body, from one side to another. Doctors tried to evaluate him while metal objects ran through his body, but were absolutely stumped at how he managed to do it and survive.
2. Free Love
Instead of relegating himself to sideshows, Dajo put on a show by himself. He traveled around and used his talents as a platform to promote an immaterial spirituality. He denounced materialism and preached love among humans, making him a sort of proto-hippie.
1. Death by Needle
Dajo claimed that he heard voices, and in 1948 these voices told him that he should swallow an entire steel needle and go into surgery to have it removed. Crazy, yes—and it didn’t work. After having a successful removal operation, Dajo died just days later from an aortic rupture.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18