Weird History
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11 Horrifying & Extremely Dangerous Circus Attractions From History

Updated April 30, 2019 258.1k views11 items

There is a reason that circuses and sideshows make their appearance every Halloween, and star in everything from horror movies to a season of American Horror Story: circuses are creepy. Old-fashioned circuses were also often dangerous, even dehumanizing, places to work. Acrobats, trapeze artists, sword swallowers, and others sometimes died during performances, while other creepy old circus attractions, like displays of oddities and human zoos, are considered to be completely unethical today. Read through this list of some of most deadly and disturbing circus acts from history.

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  • Tight-Rope Walking Could Be A Deadly Endeavor

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    First devised by the ancient Greeks, tight-rope walking became common in circus shows and included such mayhem as the Flying Wallendas, a family whose act revolved around a seven-person pyramid on a tightrope, and was performed without a safety net. Tragically, during one performance of this stunt, a fall caused two performers to die and a third to become paralyzed. Several other members of the Walenda family have also died in falls, including in 1978, when Karl Wallenda fell to his death while walking a cable strung between two high rises.

    These daring tasks of balance and endurance later became popular outside of the circus, as daredevils found new heights and locations to demonstrate their skill. Freddy Nock underwent one such challenge by walking more than a mile on a cable-car wire, almost 10,000 feet above sea level, without any safety measures aside from sheer will and balance (assisted by a trusty balance stick, as was common for this type of insanity).

  • Acrobats Performed Intricate And Dangerous Tricks 50 Feet Above The Ground

    In the early 20th century, acrobats performed astounding aerial stunts. The reported “Queen of Aerial Gymnasts,” Lillian Leitzel, performed feats 50 feet above the ground. "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." She performed this stunt for years, but in 1931, a piece of her equipment failed and she fell, dying from her injuries two days later.

  • Trapeze Artists Could Still Die Even If The Net Caught Their Fall

    Photo: Abby Norling-Ruggles / via Wikimedia Commons

    Circus-goers thrilled to watch trapeze artists shoot through the air with the mere hope of hitting their target, whether the next trapeze bar or the outstretched hands of their partner. While these acts were often equipped with nets below the performers, even this safety precaution was known to cause horrific injuries if the performer did not land in the net properly.

    In 1897, 18-year-old Lena Jordan performed the first triple somersault on a trapeze, a feat so dangerous that Italian trapeze artists dubbed it solto mortale, "the deadly leap."

  • Knife-Throwers Hurled Knives At Targets Fastened To A Spinning Wheel Of Death

    An old-fashioned circus knife thrower does exactly that: throws knives, either at targets surrounding a stationary person, or on the more common and far creepier Wheel of Death, a spinning wheel with a "target girl" affixed to it. The Gibsons' husband-and-wife act took it a step further with the Veiled Wheel of Death, wherein Mrs. Gibson was tied to the wheel and covered with a sheet of paper so her knife-throwing husband couldn't see her.