Accidents involving circus performers are rare
The Flying Wallendas during their three-tier seven-person pyramid performance in 1962 that ended in tragedy.
By: Felice J. Freyer, staff writer
May 10, 2014
Death-defying — that’s how circus acrobatics are often described, and that’s what makes the performances thrilling. But even when executing the most daring stunts, these highly skilled and disciplined performers usually do survive, unscathed.
Serious circus accidents are rare, says Janet M. Davis, an American studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who has researched the history of circuses.
“This is regulated business,” she said, saying that Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards are well-enforced. Additionally, both owners and performers have a stake in safety.
Last Sunday’s accident at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Providence, while not fatal, was extremely unusual for involving so many performers at once — eight women and one man, seven of whom are still in the hospital.
Other less serious accidents have occurred at circuses in Providence. In 1985, an aerialist fell about 30 feet at what was then called the Providence Civic Center. He cracked three vertebrae but recovered and resumed performing. And in 1998, a “human cannonball” broke her ankle when she landed in the net the wrong way. Both incidents occurred at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Circuses have also endured train wrecks, animal attacks, people crushed by elephants and fires. In 1944, nearly 170 people were killed in a circus fire in Hartford, Conn.
But serious accidents involving onstage performers are rare. Here are some of the most notorious:
April 1915. Otto Kline, a Barnum & Bailey Circus “rough rider,” died at Madison Square Garden while performing the act for which he was famous: vaulting over the back of a running horse. He lost his grip on the saddle’s pommel and was flung against a box, fracturing his skull.
February 1931. Lillian Leitzel was world-famous for an act in which she would climb a rope, grasp it with one hand, and repeatedly flip her body over her shoulder. During a performance in Copenhagen, a piece of equipment that held the rope in place snapped. She fell 40 feet and died a few days later.
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