Like so many circus performers in the Victorian Era, the details from the life of the Flying Zedoras Human Arrow vary from one account to another. One thing is certain: at a time when the concept of the “New Woman” was emerging, she offered a model of courage, strength and grace that mesmerized audiences in Europe and America.
The Flying Zedoras Human Arrow was known primarily for being shot from a giant crossbow 40 feet across the Big Top to crash through a paper target. As she emerged on the other side, a partner hanging upside down on a trapeze caught her and whisked her to safety. Needless to say timing was everything.
Her greatest professional achievement is documented in The Guinness Book of World Records 1896:
“Under the stage name of Alar the Human Arrow, aka Mary Zedora, Mary Murphy or “Pansy” Murphy, was shot from a giant crossbow 12.19 m (40 ft) through a paper target to a catcher on a trapeze. Mary, of the Flying Zedoras, performed the feat at Barnum & Bailey, USA, in 1896.”
In the late 1800s, women were emerging as the New Woman–an independent, educated being. Industrialization was opening doors in both education and employment. Many women were pushing against traditional roles, choosing careers often at the expense of marriage. LINK
According to Visual Delights Two: Exhibition and Reception edited by Vanessa Toulmin, and Simon Popple:
“… circus publicity of the time linked extreme risk-taking to ideas of social change in female behavior. The circus made use of the phrase ‘the new woman’ in its posters and publicity.” (126-7)
“Aside from its opportunism, this practice of cultural quotation in its promotion suggests that the circus was deliberately making connections between these extreme displays of female physicality and muscular prowess and the social campaigns to achieve greater suffrage rights and freedoms for women.” (126-7)
In his book, The Flying Zedoras published by Arcady Press, John Peter Jones writes that John Salmon created the Flying Zedoras in the 1880s. At 17, Mary Murphy ran away from home and joined his act. Capitalizing on Mary’s natural skills and bravery, they devised their Human Arrow act.
Mary’s younger sister Frances later joined them. Salmon trained Frances to catch Mary as she shot through a paper target. Frances was hanging upside down from a trapeze. Their act became known as Alar The Human Arrow.
Both sisters were trained to perform that position. Mary took the stage name Adele and Frances became Pansy. When Mary/Adele died suddenly in 1902, Francis/Pansy was left as the only their only Human Arrow until the Flying Zedoras disbanded in 1910.
In a time before movies and television, music halls became a nationwide phenomenon as people had more disposable income. The most successful acts of the day left the provinces to play famed venues in London. Among the most famous were the Hippodrome, the Palace, the Peoples’ Music Hall and the Theatre Royal. Circuses also began traveling between America and Europe.
The Flying Zedoras became one of the most popular acts of their time in London. Their line-up was John Salmon, his cousin Leo Jones, and the two Murphy sisters. They were known for dangerous stunts that amazed audiences. John Salmon was known as “the daring young man on his flying trapeze” for famously completing three midair somersaults between trapezes.
Between 1891 and 1896 they toured America with Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Newspapers hailed The Flying Zedoras Human Arrow as “The crowning miracle of physical and mechanical sensation, surpassing adequate description…the bravest of all living artists.”
Their acts were inherently fraught with danger. While mishaps occurred, none were ever seriously injured. Perhaps their most famous accident occurred in Madison Square Gardens. The giant crossbow malfunctioned, knocking Pansy unconscious. Newspapers reported the incident widely. One included a sketch that showed Pansy unconscious on a narrow platform high above the audience as her husband climbed to rescue her.
After the Flying Zedoras disbanded, Pansy performed as a member of acts including ‘Mars and Mars’ and ‘The Ritz Trio’. She later joined a ladder-balancing act. She performed until 1916 when she was 37 years old.
In A – Z of Curious Suffolk Sarah Doig writes:
“In 1969, Pansy Chinery, a 90-year-old widow, died in an Ipswich nursing home. It was only after her death that her family found a trunk in the attic with contained photographs, programs, newspaper clippings, posters and even props relating to her highly successful career as the “human Arrow”.
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