Fearless gymnast and trapeze artist Rossa Matilda Richter was born in 1863. By fourteen she took the stage name Zazel. Working with the Great Farini, she introduced something new to the world of circus performance art. As the first human cannonball, Zazel thrilled Victorian Era audiences with her beauty, grace and bravery.
Although the Guinness Book of World Records places Richter as the first human cannonball, some say the title rightfully belongs to the Australian Marvels, Ella Zuila and George Loyal. First or not, Rossa Richter was one of the world’s great female daredevils at a time when women were just starting to loosen their corsets.
Rossa Ricther was the protégé of Canadian born William Leonard Hunt, a.k.a. The Great Farini. His story is a treasure trove of Victorian Era Secrets beginning with his strolls across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
On June 13, 1871, Hunt was issued Patent No. 115837. His apparatus was designed for “Projecting Persons and Articles into or through the Air” for the purpose of entertainment. The device was designed to look like a cannon, but it was not. It was more of a platform that catapulted a gymnast through the air to a designated height or distance.
Like many inventions during the Victorian Era, this one seemed to have several “fathers.” Other people were devising similar contraptions and perfecting his. He also worked out several iterations of his own invention, with constant improvements worked out in performances.
The mechanism that initially launched Zazel utilized rubber springs to limit the distance she could travel so she would not overshoot the safety net. Gunpowder was later used to make a grand explosion, purely for effect. And effective it was. Audiences loved Zazel.
On April 10 1877, Zazel appeared before an excited audience at the Royal Aquarium at Westminster in London. She climbed into Hunt’s apparatus to waves of applause. She was fired out of Hunt’s spring-style cannon, traveled approximately 20 feet and landed in a net.
She developed a routine in which she leapt through the air in a daring aerial dive or Eagle Swoop. She would be shot from the “mouth of a cannon” to the topmost height of the pavilion. She then leapt head first through the air at a distance of nearly 100 feet. In reality, she caught a trapeze then dove from a perch to a net below.
When P.T. Barnum saw her perform, he probably made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. (According to his account, she begged him to take her away.) Presumably, Farini kept too big a share of the money her act earned. She toured with Barnum’s circus in France and across the United States. She also married his manager, George Oscar Starr.
Success of the human cannonball act bred many impostors. According to CircusHistory, “Zazels” were making appearances in many shows. Rossa Richter began to bill herself as “The Original Zazel.”
The stream of imitations came to a head when one woman appeared in an obituary in which she was identified as “Zazel.” Rossa Richter wrote to the Clipper newspaper on July 7, 1883 that she was indeed the real Zazel and that she was alive and well.
Not surprisingly, more than 30 human cannonballs died in the act or sustained career-ending injuries. Sadly, in 1891, Rossa Richter was performing with Barnum’s Circus when she plummeted to the ground. She broke her back, thus ending her career as a human cannonball.
Following is the account of Rossa Richter’s accident as reported in The West Australian (commonly known as the West). It’s Perth Australia’s second oldest newspaper, published since 1933. This article was printed on February 2, 1892.
“Frequenters of the circus will doubtless remember the daring divinity Rossa Richter and her famous leap-for-life act. Of this feat she was the originator, and has practiced it ever since she was six years old with wonderful immunity from injury. But she failed in her performance the other day, and fell fifty feet to the ground, receiving serious injuries which may put a quietus on her aerial leaps and flights.”
There was never a more fearless woman gymnast than this Zazel, who jumped nonchalantly from a fourth storey window into a net to illustrate the possibilities of the net as a means of saving life. She tied a stout cord about her skirts, and throwing her head up and backward, she sprang to the centre of the net as confidently and as gracefully as my lady springs from her carriage.
It was Richter, too, who was tucked away inside of a cannon, all but the top of her curly head, to be fired out again, sixty feet down into a net below. It was Richter who vaulted from the proscenium atop of the theatre ninety feet into the pit below and came up smiling to kiss her hands, to the wondering people.
Fear was to her an unknown quantity because she was taught the science of falling before she was taught the skill of performing. If ever any accident happened, however trifling, no earthly power could persuade Richter to perform again in the colors worn at the time of the accident.
It was in an old condemned church in a London street that Ricther studied her art, with her wire stretched from the chancel down through the nave to the gallery, and her nets spread below. She urged that the perilous leap was a simple thing, requiring only courage, perfect self-control, and a knack of using the muscles of the chest. It is a kind of flying, in which the performer throws back her head, expands her chest, and draws her feet well up in leaping, in order to hold her course, which would otherwise be downward.
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