Athletic derring-do in the past was usually something done by men, while the ladies watched and swooned. But there were exceptions. I've written about high-wire aerialist Bird Millman, and here's another: a Victorian teenager who, under the stage name of Zazel, became the world's first human cannonball.
English-born Rosa Maria Richter had been raised in an acrobatic family, and by the time she was fourteen she was already a seasoned performer on the high-wire. Zazel was the protégé of Canadian aerialist William Leonard Hunt, known as The Great Farini, and renowned for being the first to cross Niagara Falls on a high-wire. Always striving to create a more exciting act, Farini had created the prototype for launching a human through the air to land (with luck) into a woven safety net.
The newly opened Royal London Aquarium seemed to be the perfect venue for Farini's "cannon" (the satisfying explosion that thrilled audiences had little to do with the cannon's actual propulsion, which relied more on springs and luck.) Farini persuaded sixteen-year-old - some sources say she was only fourteen - Zazel to complete her usual aerial act with a spectacular finale.
The act debuted on April 2, 1877. Waving as she slid into the long metal barrel, Zazel was next seen to be shot seventy feet into the air to land in net. Posters featuring Zazel's act accentuate her slight figure flying over the heads of spectators, but the reality probably had more to do with sheer courage than grace. The danger was undeniable. The cannon's mechanism was unpredictable, and Zazel herself had little control of her flight or where she'd land.
Still, she became an instant celebrity, earning £200 a week to huge crowds in England and America, where she became one of P.T. Barnum's favorite performers. As was inevitable with a young woman in a skimpy (for then) costume, much was made of her physical beauty, with one writer advising that "her most perfect figure warrants repeated viewings." She posed for cartes de visite, right, to be sold as souvenirs. Some photographs featured her lying suggestively on a tiger skin, while others played to her youth and innocence, looking modestly down at a bouquet.
But while the audiences may have clamored for more, Zazel's time in the spotlight was short. A misguided launch sent her far from the safety net and crashing to the ground, where her back was broken by the impact. Fortunately she recovered, but her career was done. She wisely retired, and disappeared into less thrilling but safer obscurity.
The poster, top, makes it clear that Zazel is the star of the show, calling her the "Champion of the World." Not only is she shown flying through the air, but also dancing along the high-wire in various poses. The card, lower left, includes a poem from a love-struck admirer that reads in part:
POLICEMEN! I have lost my heart
Here in the Westminster Aquarium,
Since first I saw her rapid dart
Across the disper'd Velarium.
A form that Phidias might confess
As graceful as a young gazelle,
With raven hair, and ruby dress,
And winsome eyes, make up ZAZEL!
Top left: Selby, Pullman & Hamilton's 8 Shows: Zazel's Cannon Feat, 1881, lithograph, The Ringling Museum.
Right: Zazel, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, late 19th c. Victoria & Albert.
Bottom left: Zazel, Standidge & Co. Lithography, c. 1870s. The Ringling Museum.