Circuses are widely known as dangerous places. In fact, that’s part of the thrill, isn’t it? Nobody is interested in going to a circus that promises a subdued time. Instead, we want to be on the edge of our seats, ready to gasp in awe at the stunts performed or the ferocity of the animals.
Unfortunately, that also means things can go very wrong at the circus. If the whole conceit of a show is cheating danger, you better believe that occasionally danger is going to win. And while it may seem like tales of circus woe are edging toward harmless, it’s worth pointing out that the disasters we’ll discuss in the following pages are no trifling affair simply because they took place in a fun setting. There’s some pretty horrific traumas in circus history, and we won’t be shy.
But let’s start with a modern circus disaster that, while horrific, didn’t result in loss of life.
10: Providence Hair Hangers
Sometimes it’s best to ease into things. And while most of us wouldn’t consider a handful of people gravely injured a “gentle” way to start a list, we’ve got a lot of pretty gruesome circus disasters to go. So let’s at least start with a circus disaster that spared people their lives.
In May 2014, eight acrobats were performing a hair-hanging stunt in Providence, Rhode Island, as part of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus act. (One performer was standing below.) About 3,900 people watched as the acrobats formed a human chandelier, all hanging by their hair from a round ring [source: AP]. The steel fastener that held the ring in place snapped, causing all acrobats to plummet 15 to 20 feet (4.6 to 6.1 meters) below and injure the grounded performer. Two of the acrobats had spinal cord injuries, five had fractures, one sustained a lacerated liver, and the grounded performer was also injured [source: Ellement].
Luckily, none of the injured performers died from the fall, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the circus $7,000 for failing to properly install the rigging used during the act. By November 2014, two of the acrobats had returned to work [source: Ellement].
9: Flying Wallendas
Not to take away from the horrible tragedies that have befallen the Wallenda circus family, but when you get your famous nickname (“the Flying Wallendas”) from a reviewer who was describing an accidental fall, albeit a graceful one, it doesn’t bode well [source: Cox]. If given a choice, most of us might decide on a nickname from a stunt gone right. But the Wallenda family — circus folk since the 18th century — may as well take on a name with a rough and tumble origin, as they’ve had some circus disasters that live in infamy.
In the 1930s, Willie Wallenda fell to his death doing a bicycle stunt on a high wire. In 1945, a Wallenda sister-in-law died from a 50-foot (15.2-meter) fall while doing a headstand on a pole. In 1972, a Wallenda son-in-law was shocked by a live wire during an act and died from the subsequent fall [source: Cox]. One of the worst Wallenda accidents happened in 1962, when a seven-person human pyramid collapsed from 35 feet (10.7 meters). Two people died, and one was paralyzed [source: Detroit Free Press]. But the Wallendas took their show business roots seriously, and the remaining members performed the next day.
8: Dessi Espana
In 2004, a terrible accident claimed the life of Dessi Espana, a 32-year-old circus performer. Espana worked with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as an aerial silk performer. The troupe was performing in St. Paul, Minn., when one of her scarves gave out, and she fell 30 feet (9.1 meters) to the concrete floor [source: USA Today].
As if it couldn’t get more horrifying, Espana was given medical attention on the floor as clowns came out as a kind of distraction from the emergency. The show continued on after Espana was taken to the hospital, but she died of her injuries later that night. The Espana family continues to perform at the circus, including Espana’s daughter Zore, who was 7 years old at the time of her mother’s death.
You might be surprised to know that nets are not often used in aerial acts without swings. The equipment they use (like the scarves Espana employed) are at risk for getting caught in a net, and performers who aren’t flying through the air don’t have the time to “plan” a net fall [source: Angels in the Air].
7: 1918 Circus Train Wreck
One of the worst disasters in circus history happened in 1918 when a military transport train collided violently with a circus convoy train occupied by the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. The circus caravan had stopped on the tracks between Gary and Hammond, Indiana, to cool an overheated axle. The engineer running the military train had fallen asleep and passed numerous warnings and flares about the stalled vehicle, and the train hit the caravan at 35 miles per hour (56 kph) [source: Borrelli].
The damage was terrible: Since the circus cars were wooden, they were easily crushed to splinters, and the kerosene lamps that lit them quickly ignited a conflagration that trapped and killed dozens of people. Five cars were heaped on top of each other, and at least 187 people were injured and 86 killed. The fire proved so devastating that it was impossible to identify the remains, and somewhere between 53 and 61 unrecognizable bodies were buried in a mass grave near Chicago [source: Borrelli]. Large elephant statues mark the plot (called Showmen’s Rest) as a monument to all the performers buried on the spot. All the Hagenbeck-Wallace animals were on an advance train, and none were hurt in the collision or fire.
6: Cleveland Circus Fire
Listen, stories of performers meeting their ends in terrifying ways is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the fascination is understandable. But forewarned is forearmed: If you’re sensitive to tales of helpless animals destroyed in grisly disasters, this entry is not for you. It’s one of the most harrowing tales of circus animal horrors, and the descriptions are graphic.
In 1942, the Ringling Bros. circus was staked out on Cleveland’s lakefront when a fire started on top of one of the wooden animal cages. As horrified spectators watched, more than 50 animals were burned alive [source: Ludington Daily News]. Some, including an elephant and giraffes, wrenched free from their tethers and had to be shot by riot police after running free. As the fire spread and emergency responders showed up, a crowd of 5,000 gathered [source: Ludington Daily News]. The newspapers from the time are not shy with descriptions; suffice it to say here that the animals didn’t meet swift or painless deaths.
And while we don’t have a cheerier topic to transition to, let’s at least move on to a circus disaster that only resulted in one tragic death.
5: Otto Kline
We’d like to think that there are some “safer” circus acts out there that aren’t as inherently dangerous as others. Like clowning, for instance — how much trouble can one of those guys get in? Besides a strong stream of water to the eye, it seems fairly safe. And while we all know that riding horses has its risks, it does seem a bit more controlled than flying through the air without a net to catch you.
Until, of course, it isn’t. Otto Kline, a 28-year-old trick rider with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, died in 1915 during a packed performance at Madison Square Garden in New York. Included in his act was a vaulting stunt, where he would grip the pommel to vault himself side-to-side over a galloping horse, all without touching the saddle.
Unfortunately, Kline seemed to lose grip at one point and was flung head-first into boxes in the ring. If you’re really feeling cold, try not to get a little choked up at the New York Times article that describes his horse “stopped almost in her tracks … [where she] seemed to realize that something terrible had happened to her master.”
4: Sarah Guyard-Guillot
Cirque du Soleil has always been known for its extremely high levels of artistry and safety. Before 2013, the circus hadn’t suffered a fatal on-stage accident in its 29-year history [source: Nestuck]. Unfortunately, that record was broken by a terrible tragedy that occurred in Las Vegas during a performance of its Vegas staple, “Ka.”
Sarah Guyard-Guillot was a 31-year-old aerialist performing in the final battle scene of the show. She was wearing a motorized safety harness, but she ascended too quickly at one point and struck a catwalk above her. The cable jumped from the pulley wheel of the harness and was cut by a sharp edge. Guyard-Guillot fell more than 90 feet (27.4 meters) into an open pit below the stage while onlookers watched in confusion [source: Katsilometes]. She died of her injuries en route to the hospital.
A new safety system was installed to lift performers more gradually, and the act eventually returned to the stage after a hiatus of 18 months. It’s still performed five nights a week at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas
3: Massarti the Lion Tamer
It takes a special kind of person to lose a limb to a wild animal, then climb back in the ring to tempt fate again. Massarti the Lion Tamer was made of such stock. Massarti (an Irishman named Thomas MacCarte) was performing in Bolton, England, with Manders’ Menagerie in 1872. Even though he had previously lost an arm in a big cat act at a different circus, accounts at the time paint him as always eager for a show. In fact, the accounts imply that perhaps a bit too much pre-show imbibing inflated his recklessness on the day of his death [source: The New York Times].
Not only were the hot-iron prods apparently out of reach to MacCarte, but he also seemed to have gotten a bit closer to the five lions than trainers normally would. (All this according to the owner of the circus who may have had reason to put blame on a drunken trainer, of course.) When one lion attacked, the others followed suit and some 500 people witnessed the ghastly carnage that led to MacCarte’s death — graphic descriptions of which the New York Times eagerly printed.
2: Tyke the Elephant
Ready for another super-sad story about circus animals? This one, you should be warned, involves tragedy for both human and animal.
Tyke was a 20-year-old female African elephant who performed with Circus International. The circus was in Honolulu in 1994 when attendees at the day’s performance were surprised to see the elephant enter the ring tossing around what appeared to be a dummy. In reality, it was the groomer that she had severely injured. As the audience panicked, Tyke’s trainer was killed during an attempted intervention.
The elephant then fled the ring, where she bounded through the streets of Honolulu for almost a half-hour. The rampaging elephant was shot 87 times by police officers and eventually died from brain hemorrhages and nerve damage [source: Cave]. To the horror of most, news coverage allowed people to watch the chase and death in real time. No exotic animals have appeared at a Honolulu circus performance since, although neither the state nor city officially prohibits it.
1: Hartford Circus Fire
It’s hard to rank tragedies, and there’s no way to call one disaster worse than another. But the Hartford Circus Fire was so damaging and caused the death and injury of so many small children that it’s hard not to put it at the top of our circus disaster list.
It was 1944, and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in Hartford, Connecticut, for an afternoon show in front of several thousand people. A fire started on the roof of the big top, and — with the tent covered in a paraffin and gasoline waterproofing mixture — it spread rapidly. The chaos of the fire resulted in a stampede, and the panic caused clogged exits. Nearly 170 people died, and 487 people were injured. Sixty-eight of those dead were 15 or younger, due in part to the long hours adults worked at war production plants [source: Flood].
No one was ever charged with starting the fire, although some circus officials served time for negligence. An Ohio man did confess to starting the fire in 1950 after being arrested for a series of arson charges, but he later recanted, and investigators didn’t get to interview him before he was declared paranoid schizophrenic and sent to a state hospital.