16 Weird Circus Performances From 100 Years Ago

Circus Performances From 100 Years Ago

In today’s society, with the help of the internet, we can access all types of entertainment with just a few clicks. However, long before the technological revolution, people had to attend circus shows, vaudeville performances, or magic acts to witness and experience something different and unique. The biggest circuses in the United States were:

  • Ringling Brothers
  • Barnum & Bailey
  • Pepin & Breschard

Though the circus held many acts that are still seen at carnivals and events across the country, it also has held some of the most unusual and sometimes dangerous acts in history. Worldwide there were wide variances in talent and format, leading to some questionable decisions.

Here is a look back into some of the weirdest acts of the past, some of which we’d likely still love to see today.

1. Le Petomane – Joseph Pujol is a good place to start. He gained fame by drawing and expelling air from his rear on cue. That’s right; he farted for a living. Putting out candles and even making some impressions, Pujol was a successful act that ran at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.


2. Ethel Purtle – Along with King, her lion, Purtle would race around a specially made track doing gravity-defying stunts like the “Wall of Death."

3. Frank Richards – A stunt parodied many times, “Cannonball" Richards would take the point-blank shot right in the gut twice a day, among other strongman performances.

4. Josephine Giradelli – An act the Targaryens would be proud of, Giradelli was a fire queen who seemed immune to heat. Between holding boiling lead in her mouth and frying an egg in hot oil in her hands, she shocked and awed audiences across Europe.

5. Samuel Gilbert Scott – Before the age of stratosphere sky-diving, Scott was considered a daredevil as he jumped off anything high he could find. Unluckily, during one of his performances, a rope slipped and tightened around his neck. Thinking it was part of the act, the audience did not react until it was too late.

Awful Death of Sam Scott

6. Aloys Peters – In a similar act, Peters was dubbed “The Man With The Iron Neck” and would jump from a platform with a type of bungee cord around his neck. He met a similar fate when something went wrong, and his neck broke during a performance.

7. Samuel Wasgate – At the age of 10, Wasgate was already performing a death-defying stunt called “Le Tambour Aerial,” which would see him hang from a trapeze by his neck while playing a large drum.

8. Richard Sands – Sands was actually a circus owner as well as an acrobat and was dubbed “The Human Fly” when he walked upside down on ceilings with the help of small suction cups on his feet. Unfortunately, a plaster ceiling eventually gave out, and he fell to his death.

9. Leon Rauche – In an illusion that is still unexplained, Rauche (as LaRoche) would be inside a ball that would travel up a winding track suspended around a pole and descend just as smoothly.

10. Pansy Zedora – In an act with her sister, Zedora would be shot out of a human crossbow through paper targets and be caught on the other side. She was named “Alar, The Human Arrow” and mystified crowds with her ability to fly great distances with such accuracy.

11. Octavie LaTour – In 1905, when automobiles were still in their infancy, LaTour would drive one down a steep track and fly through the air upside down. Dressed in full Edwardian-era gowns, she would step out of the vehicle as if she was meant for the ball, and this was just the fastest route.

12. Edgar Parker – Legally changing his name to “Painless,” Parker would travel across the country pulling teeth in a circus-style performance. Using a painkiller derived from cocaine, his patients wouldn’t feel a thing as he tore the teeth out and added them to his buckets.


14. Hadji-Ali – If you’ve seen David Blaine’s most recent special, you’ll know that there have long been tales of those who could control their stomachs in unexplainable ways. Ali would drink water, then kerosene, start a fire spraying one and put it out with the other.

Hadji Ali demonstrating his skills, 1927

15. Adah Isaacs Menken – Inspired by Lord Byron’s Mazeppa, Menken would play the titular character in a performance that notably had her riding nude tied to the back of a horse. She actually wore a flesh-colored body suit, but the dramatic effect was the same.

16. Helen Keller – Unfortunately, later in her life Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy needed money and took to the stage to perform her spelling and speaking in what would closely resemble a sideshow act. She was even told to keep her political views, which she had many, off the stage entirely.

What Acts Do Modern Circuses Have?

Modern circus acts refer to a miscellaneous group of performances and disciplines circus artists carry out. These performances can be divided into several categories and usually require diverse skills, such as physical balance, stamina, agility, and coordination. Some popular categories of circus acts include:

  • Aerial acts - circus performances that occur mid-air and showcase the performer's flexibility, balance, strength, and grace, such as trapeze acts, aerial straps, aerial hoops, and the Spanish web.
  • Acrobatic acts - This category involves physical acts of balance, agility, and strength, often employing equipment like trampolines or teeterboards - such as partner acrobatics, hand balancing, tumbling, and contortion.
  • Equilibristics - acts that have the performers use their coordination and balancing skills, including tightrope walking, stilt walking, unicycle riding, rola bola, and slackline.
  • Fire performances - This category focuses on the manipulation of fire as their main element, such as fire breathing, fire eating, fire spinning, and fire juggling.
  • Object manipulation - circus acts that involve maneuvering with various objects in a precise and skillful manner, including plate spinning, hula hooping, plate spinning, and staff spinning.

How Many Acts Are In A Circus?

According to circus historian George Chindahl, there are 200 existing circus acts, with new ones being created every day. Most performers function as a part of a troupe, but some may also work on their own. All solo and group performers develop their unique acts.

Every circus act aims to entertain, thrill, and shock the audience. For that purpose, many circus stunts involve risky and even death-defying activities. The main appeal of most circus attractions lies in the moment of suspense before the performer reaches the ground or escapes a perilous setting safely.

Outside the circus acts, the performers maintain their equipment, costumes, and other props with their apprentices and helpers. Additionally, the whole circus troupes spend a lot of time training and rehearsing their routines.

As the circus show begins, all the performers participate in a circus parade surrounding the arena. Performers usually wait near the entrances so that they are ready to go on stage when the time comes for them to perform. An average circus show tends to include 20 or more precisely timed acts.

What Is A Circus Ring Called?

The circus ring is also known as the circular arena, and it is the central place where circus entertainers perform their acts. Most circuses have multiple rings or arenas where several artists perform different acts simultaneously. The circus ringmaster is here to announce these performances, introduce the entertainers, and address the audience in one or more rings.

Historically, most circus shows used to take place in outdoor tents, also known as big tops. In contrast, modern circuses are held in huge indoor arenas. In these circumstances, the circus ring is the central place that defines this type of entertainment.

The circus ring brought a special vibe to circus performances - it provided the audience with a complete view of the artists and a communal experience of entertainment.

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