|The First Circus|
by Anthony Waldstock
Continued success in the increasingly crowded market depended on astonishing the audience. The circuses increasingly did this by exhibiting curiosities such as midgets, giants, and mermaids; training animals to perform tricks -such as elephants riding cycles; and inventing new and more ingenious acrobatic acts, demanding faultless timing and relentless physical training on the part of the circus performers. One act, which achieved tremendous notoriety in London after its first performance at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1864, was Mazeppa’s Ride. A woman bareback rider named Adah Menken was strapped, supposedly naked (but in fact clothed in what now seems a quite decorous tunic), on the back of a “wild” horse, which would then rear and gallop around the stage. The act had been performed for years, (see the poster from 1833 above) but never before by a woman. It was the start of a new and immensely popular circus tradition of young female performers which introduced a risqué, slightly titillating aspect to the circus spectacular.
Some authorities assert that the first human cannonball act took place in 1871, when a young male performer posing as a woman was shot from a catapult-like device during a show at a London music hall. However, most historians accept that the first human cannonball act was witnessed on April 2nd 1877 at West’s Amphitheatre in London. The young Madame Zazel (a girl from Leicester) was stuffed down the barrel of a cannon – actually a spring-loaded catapult – and fired high above the audience into a safety net at a distance of 60 feet. For each performance Madame Zazel received the unheard sum of £120, and retired with her fortune two years later. Surely the first Circus Millionaire!