On this day in history : 10th April 1877 – 14-year-old Rossa Matilda Richter, using the stage name ‘Zazel’, performs the first human cannonball act in London….
Rossa was born into a family of acrobats in Lambeth, London in 1863….her parents having come to live in England from Dresden…. Her father was a well-known agent, supplying performers and animal acts to circuses and shows – whilst her mother was a dancer in a circus….
At the age of 4 or 5 Rossa started a career on the stage…. She took up ballet lessons and gymnastics and by the time she was 6 she was performing as a trapeze artist with the stage name ‘La Petite Lulu’….
When she was aged 12 Rossa joined an acrobat troupe that took her to Dublin, Marseilles and Toulouse…. It was whilst performing in Toulouse that she had an accident and subsequently returned home to London….
Rossa had come to the attention of Canadian daredevil William Leonard Hunt – ‘The Great Farini’….known for his death-defying stunts and particularly his high wire acts – such as his crossing of Niagara Falls…. It was he who conceived the idea for the human cannonball act…. In the beginning he used his stepson as the ‘cannonball’; the boy, dressed as a girl, wowed the crowds and the act became extremely popular…. Only after a serious accident that hospitalised the boy was his true identity revealed….
Farini needed a new ‘cannonball’….he had been hired by the Royal Aquarium in London to attract visitors…. Rossa’s father was very protective and swore that his daughter was not going to be used in one of Farini’s dangerous performances…. However, her mother had no such qualms and tricked Rossa’s father into signing an agreement with Farini – saying the contract was with someone else and that Rossa would just be singing and dancing….
Performing as ‘Zazel, the Beautiful Human Cannonball’ Rossa became an overnight success….thousands flocked to see her…. In the words of the Mackay Mercury “hurled from the jaws of death into the arms of fame”….and from the ‘jaws of death’ indeed it must have seemed…. The cannon operated using rubber springs, accompanied by a gunpowder explosion for effect only….the contraption was extremely temperamental and Rossa would have had no way of controlling her flight or landing…. A great deal depended on luck that she landed in the net….
So popular was her act that often she would perform in front of 20,000 spectators and sometimes twice a day…. Even the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII attended her performance twice…. Wearing a skimpy costume she cut a fine figure and souvenir photographs sold well…. Rossa was soon earning £200 a week – a considerable amount of money at the time…. So successful was the show the Aquarium extended its run….
Rossa went on to perform across Europe, adding more awe-inspiring acts such as high dives…. Eventually she went on to join Barnum’s Circus and ended up marrying its manager George Oscar Starr….
Although she suffered accidents nothing was as catastrophic as to harm her career….but all that was to change whilst performing in New Mexico…. Rossa was balancing on a high wire situated 40ft above the ground – when she fell…. She landed on her hands and knees – and broke her back….
Rossa spent several months in a body cast….she did recover – but was not to perform again….