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16 Unusual Circus Acts From 100 Years Ago

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In today’s internet-fueled society, oodles of entertainment is quite literally at our fingertips. It wasn’t so for people before the technological revolution, so they had to go to circus, vaudeville or magic acts to experience things out of the ordinary. The biggest circuses in the United States were:

  • Ringling Brothers
  • Barnum & Bailey
  • Pepin & Breschard

Though the circus held many acts that are still seen at carnivals and events across the country, it also has held some of the most unusual and sometimes dangerous acts in history. Worldwide there were wide variances in talent and format, leading to some questionable decisions.

Here is a look back into some of the weirdest acts of the past, some of which we’d likely still love to see today. 

1. Le Petomane – Joseph Pujol is a good place to start, who gained fame by drawing and expelling air from his rear on cue. That’s right, he farted for a living. Putting out candles and even doing some impressions, Pujol was a successful act that ran at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

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2. Ethel Purtle – Along with King, her lion, Purtle would race around a specially made track doing gravity-defying stunts like the “Wall of Death”.

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3. Frank Richards – A stunt parodied many times, “Cannonball” Richards would take the point-blank shot right in the gut twice a day, among other strongman performances.

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4. Josephine Giradelli – An act the Targaryens would be proud of, Giradelli was a fire queen who seemed immune to heat. Between holding boiling lead in her mouth, and frying an egg in hot oil in her hands she shocked and awed audiences across Europe.

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5. Samuel Gilbert Scott – Before the age of stratosphere sky-diving, Scott was considered a daredevil as he jumped off anything high he could find. Unluckily during one of his performances a rope slipped and tightened around his neck. Thinking it was part of the act, the audience did not react until it was too late.

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6. Aloys Peters – In a similar act, Peters was dubbed “The Man With The Iron Neck” and would jump from a platform with a type of bungee cord around his neck. He met a similar fate when something went wrong and his neck broke during a performance.

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 7. Samuel Wasgate – At the age of 10, Wasgate was already performing a death-defying stunt called “Le Tambour Aerial” which would see him hang from a trapeze by his neck while playing a large drum.

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8. Richard Sands – Sands was actually a circus owner as well as an acrobat, and was dubbed “The Human Fly” when he walked upside down on ceilings with the help of small suction cups on his feet. Unfortunately, a plaster ceiling eventually gave out and he fell to his death.

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9. Leon Rauche – In an illusion that is still unexplained, Rauche (as LaRoche) would be inside a ball that would travel up a winding track suspended around a pole, and descend just as smoothly.

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10. Pansy Zedora – In an act with her sister, Zedora would be shot out of a human crossbow through paper targets and be caught on the other side. She was named “Alar, The Human Arrow” and mystified crowds with her ability to fly great distances with such accuracy.

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 11. Octavie LaTour – In 1905, when automobiles were still in their infancy, LaTour would drive one down a steep track and fly through the air upside down. Dressed in full Edwardian era gowns, she would step out of the vehicle as if she was meant for the ball and this was just the fastest route.

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12. Edgar Parker – Legally changing his name to “Painless”, Parker would travel across the country pulling teeth in a circus-style performance. Using a painkiller derived from cocaine, his patients wouldn’t feel a thing as he tore the teeth out and added them to his buckets.

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13. Gus Visser – Some of the acts aren’t dangerous at all, but still include the bizarre. Visser would stand on stage with his trained duck, and sing simple songs as a duet. The duck, trained to quack on cue would get huge laughs from the audience.

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14. Hadji-Ali – If you’ve seen David Blaine’s most recent special, you’ll know that there has long been tales of those who could control their stomachs in unexplainable ways. Ali would drink water, then kerosene, start a fire spraying one and put it out with the other.

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 15. Adah Isaacs Menken – Inspired by Lord Byron’s Mazeppa, Menken would play the titular character in a performance which notably had her riding nude tied to the back of a horse. She actually wore a flesh colored body-suit, but the dramatic effect was the same.

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16. Helen Keller – Unfortunately later in her life Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy needed money and took to the stage to perform her spelling and speaking in what would closely resemble a sideshow act. She was even told to keep her political views, of which she had many, off the stage entirely.

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