The History of 5 Deadly Circus Stunts

The circus has always been about performers reaching the pinnacle of courage, strength, and skill, all for the intangible payback of the roar of the crowd. No other acts define this better than those who truly put their lives on the line for your entertainment. Here are the stories behind five of the most dangerous stunts ever seen under the big top.

1. Knife Thrower

Knife throwers and their "impalement arts" cousins—bullwhip crackers, archery experts, and firearm sharpshooters—became popular in the late-1800s as part of circuses and Wild West shows. The knife throwing acts generally consisted of a few standard stunts, like popping balloons, pinning playing cards, slicing through flower stems, as well as the famous "Profile," in which the thrower embeds 12" knives along the body of his assistant, known as a "target girl."

By far the most famous stunt, though, is "The Wheel of Death," in which the target girl is strapped to a large wooden wheel and then spun around. It's unknown exactly how old the Wheel stunt is, but it's widely believed that The Gibsons, a husband and wife act, are responsible for bringing it to America in 1938 as part of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Gibsons also introduced the most death-defying stunt known, the Veiled Wheel of Death, in which a large sheet of paper hides the wheel from the thrower. The stunt has been performed only by a handful of acts—The Gibsons, The Zeros in the 1940s, The Brumbachs (performed only once in 1978), and the current Guinness Record Holder for Fastest Knife Throwing, David "The Great Throwdini" Adamovich. The Great Throwdini has even taken the stunt one step further by adding a second target girl:

The Great Throwdini performs the Veiled Double Wheel of Death.

2. Lion Tamer

In 1819, Germany's Henri Martin stood inside a cage with a tiger for four minutes and lived to tell the tale. It was the culmination of many weeks' worth of acclimation, gaining the beast's trust by first rubbing the tiger through the bars, and then putting his head and shoulders inside before finally walking into the cage. After forming a friendly bond, Martin soon taught the tiger to do simple canine-like tricks, such as sitting up and lying down on command, thus becoming the first-known wild animal trainer.

Although Martin's methods were humane, not all trainers have been so kind. Pioneering American trainer Isaac Van Amburgh was the first person to (intentionally) put his head inside a lion's mouth. Unfortunately, he gained this type of control by savagely beating the animals into submission with a crowbar. Van Amburgh justified his cruelty by citing Genesis, which proclaims man's dominion over the animals. Even at the time, his methods were controversial, but it didn't prevent him from performing his show across Europe and America to huge crowds in the 1830s and '40s.

This "Man vs. Beast" philosophy was also the basis for trainer Clyde Beatty's act (above), which ran from the 1920s until the early 1960s. Inside the ring, Beatty used a bullwhip and chair to distract the big cats, and he kept a loaded pistol strapped to his side, becoming the epitome of the lion tamer persona that we all know today.

Clyde Beatty performing with his cats.

Sadly, cruelty to circus animals continues even today. Recently, the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was hit with a $270,000 fine for 27 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act, stretching back to 2007.

3. Human Cannonball

Despite the big bang and puff of smoke, human cannonballs are not really shot out of the cannon with gunpowder. In fact, the original design for the catapulting system, created by tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt, used rubber springs for propulsion. The first dedicated human cannonball act was a 14-year-old girl going by the stage name "Zazel," whose inaugural blastoff occurred on April 2, 1877, in London. Sadly, her career ended a few years later the same way as so many other human cannonballs—she missed the net. Thankfully, though, she only broke her back.

The cannon's design was upgraded in 1922 by Italy's Zacchini Brothers, who replaced the rubber springs with compressed air. Originally, they suggested the Italian Army use the cannon to send troops equipped with parachutes behind enemy lines, but when the Army said no, they adopted it for the circus instead. Over the course of 70 years and multiple generations, the Zacchinis became the long-standing holders of the world record for distance, and helped popularize the now-common stunt of launching over obstacles, such as buildings or carnival rides.

The modern reigning family of human cannonballs is the Smiths, made up of patriarch David, son David Jr., and one of the few female cannonballers, daughter Jennifer. Over the years, the Smiths have been fired up and over everything from the American-Mexican border to a baseball stadium wall, the first human home run. They also have quite a few world records to their credit. The first was in 1995, when David Sr. broke the Zacchini's distance record by launching himself 180'. David Jr. upstaged his old man in March 2011, though, when he went 193'. But David Sr. still holds the record for the highest launch at 200'4", which he set by flying over two Ferris Wheels in 2002.

David Smith, Jr., being fired out of a cannon.

4. Flying Trapeze

In 1859, acrobat Jules Leotard (left) hung trapeze bars over the swimming pool in his father's gymnasium. He then swung and launched himself from one to the next without fear because, if he missed, he simply landed safely in the water below. A few weeks later, Leotard introduced his 12-minute "flying trapeze" routine at Cirque Napoleon, where he was soon performing to sold-out crowds. Sadly, his reign as king of swing was cut short—he died in 1870 of either typhoid or cholera. However, his legacy lives on as the namesake of the skin-tight leggings he wore for his act, as well as the inspiration for the 1867 song, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze."

While single and double somersaults are pretty standard tricks on the flying trapeze, a triple is so dangerous that Italian fliers once called it solto mortale, "The Deadly Leap." The danger lies in the fact that the feat must be accomplished at such high speed that the brain loses track of its place in space, making it difficult for the flier to regain their sense and know it's time to reach out to the catcher. Missing the catcher means dropping into the net (if there is one), which is notorious for breaking the necks of even seasoned fliers if they're not in the right position. However, this Holy Grail of stunts was performed in 1897 by Lena Jordan, a 4'10" 18-year-old woman who weighed in at a whopping 94 pounds. After Jordan proved it could be done, more fliers tried it, and soon the triple became the high-water mark of a truly exceptional act.

Of course if the triple was possible, it seemed logical that a quadruple was, too. Many tried, but the quadruple eluded even the most skilled fliers until July 10, 1982, when Miguel Vazquez of Ringling Brothers, spinning at more than 80mph, landed the first in Tucson, Arizona, in front of a crowd of 7,000 spectators. Since Vazquez, the stunt has only been completed by a handful of fliers, most recently in January 2010 by Ivo Silva, Jr., of The Flying Caceres.

Miguel Vazquez performing a quadruple somersault.

5. Tightrope Walker

For hundreds of years, acrobats and jugglers have upped the ante by performing their routines suspended high above the ground on a thin wire. As if the very act of walking on a wire 5/8" thick at 40' in the air (minimum) without a net wasn't dangerous enough, these "funambulists" have continually developed routines that truly defy reason. Perhaps the most famous of these is the human pyramid, wherein two walkers follow each other onto the rope with a balance bar stretched between them on their shoulders. A third walker will then climb onto the bar and the group will make its way across.

But a three-person pyramid simply wasn't exciting enough for Karl Wallenda. In 1928, his Great Wallendas performed a four-person, three-level pyramid consisting of two men on bicycles, with Karl sitting on a chair on the bar between them, and his wife Helen standing on his shoulders. They performed this act for years under their original name; however, that changed during a performance in Akron, Ohio, when the group lost their balance and fell. They caught themselves on the wire and were unharmed, but a reporter in the crowd said they fell so gracefully that it appeared they were flying. From then on, they became known as The Flying Wallendas.

The family pushed the act to the limit, performing a three-layer, seven-person pyramid: two pairs of men with shoulder beams at the bottom, two more men with a shoulder beam on the next level up, and a woman on a chair like a cherry on top. They performed this stunt (above) without incident from 1948 until January 30, 1962, when, tragically, the performers fell during a show in Detroit. Of the seven, two died on impact and another was paralyzed from the waist down. The rest dangled from the wire, but made it down safely. Convinced that the show must go on, the pyramid was dropped from the routine, but the Wallendas performed again the very next night.

A group practicing the Wallenda 7 act for a production at the Goodman Theatre of Chicago.

The fall in Detroit led some members of the act to retire shortly thereafter. The tragedy had the opposite effect on Karl, though. He practically became a one-man act, performing ever more daring tightrope walks from ever increasing heights and distances. He became famous throughout the 1970s for walking 1,000' across Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, across the roofs of stadiums like the Astrodome, and between two landmark hotels in Miami Beach. It was during a 1978 daredevil performance in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that the 73-year-old tightrope walker fell 120' to the concrete parking lot below, live on camera. (Yes, it is on YouTube.) For a man who risked his life for the thrill of the crowd, he probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Warner Bros.
Everything That’s Leaving Netflix in April
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

If you’ve been desperately trying to plan a Batman movie marathon with your friends, you’d better make it happen quickly. As of April 1, Netflix will no longer be streaming Tim Burton’s stylish 1989 reimagining of the Caped Crusader. (They’ll be eliminating Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin, too—though you may not care as much about those latter two efforts.) In order to make room for the dozens of new movies, TV series, and specials making their way to Netflix in April, here’s everything that’s leaving the streaming giant’s library.


30 Days of Night

88 Minutes

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls

American Pie

American Pie 2

Apollo 13


Batman & Robin

Batman Forever

Batman Returns


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Cool Runnings

Death Sentence

Dolphin Tale

Eagle vs. Shark

John Mulaney: New in Town

Never Let Me Go

Set Up

Small Soldiers

The Dukes of Hazzard

The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Pursuit of Happyness

The Shawshank Redemption

The Whole Nine Yards

Wild Wild West


Starry Eyes


The Hallow

The Nightingale


The Emperor’s New Clothes


Happy Tree Friends

Leap Year


Son of God


Z Storm


The Exorcism of Molly Hartley


The Prestige


Exit Through the Gift Shop


Kung Fu Panda 3


Begin Again

12 Outrageous The Office Fan Theories

Mind-bending shows like Lost and Westworld bring out the conspiracy theorist in all of us. But even less cerebral shows have a way of inspiring some absolutely bonkers ideas. The Office was a sitcom that ran on NBC for eight years. But the way some of its fans talk on Reddit, you’d think it was a piece of science fiction. Here are 12 of the wildest theories about Andy’s “alcohorse,” radon poisoning, the Loch Ness Monster, and beyond.


One of the most enduring fan theories is that Michael Scott, noted idiot and jerk, is actually a brilliant businessman. A lot of people have suggested that Michael is putting on an act the whole time, making clients and bosses underestimate him so that he can manipulate them into giving him what he wants. Reddit points to the season two episode “The Client” as one example; this is the episode where Jan Levinson and Michael have a very important meeting, which Michael moves from the Radisson to Chili’s. He’s completely blowing it from Jan’s perspective, coming off as an unprofessional clown to their VIP client (Tim Meadows), but Michael’s approach loosens the guy up, allowing him to swiftly close the deal. There are a few other examples of Michael’s possible genius. Or he could just be a lucky dummy.


From season one, fans were rooting for Jim Halpert to win over Pam Beesly and get out of the paper business. But one fan theory suggests Dunder Mifflin’s slacker salesman manipulated us all. Reddit user Yahnster thinks Jim actually wrote the show, which is why he comes off as the hero and the coworkers he doesn’t like (i.e. Dwight Schrute) seem so annoying. Meanwhile his boss Michael, who never punishes Jim for his pranks or for being plain lazy, is written as a buffoon.


Kevin Malone isn’t the sharpest employee at Dunder Mifflin. He shreds his own credit cards by accident and can’t transfer a call to save his life. In one especially mean prank, Dwight convinces new HR exec Holly Flax that Kevin is mentally challenged. Like the Michael Scott theory, some fans believe Kevin was just pretending to be dumb—in this case, so that no one would notice he was embezzling money from the company. It would explain how he was able to buy a bar, and why he makes a weird comment about insider trading. (“I had Martin explain to me three times what he got arrested for, because it sounds an awful lot like what I do here every day.”) Check out the video above for even more evidence.


Anyone who has watched all nine seasons of The Office has probably noticed that the characters get a little bit stranger as the series goes along. There’s a theory that explains this—and it’s kind of dark! There’s a running joke on the show that the office is due for radon testing. But because Toby Flenderson is always the one bringing it up, it’s dismissed. According to one theory, Toby was right—and the entire staff has slowly been developing brain cancer. Eventually, the illness begins to alter their personalities, causing them to act in demented and strange ways. It’s also why Michael is way more mature in the series finale. Moving to Colorado with Holly did wonders for his radon-poisoned brain. Once he was out of the toxic office, he could finally grow up.


Reddit has piggybacked off the radon theory to explain Andy Bernard’s behavior, which is probably the most exaggerated of the bunch. While Andy could be suffering from radon poisoning, one theory suggests his brain damage is more directly the result of a fateful drink. In the season seven episode “Viewing Party,” Andy is having a hard time dealing with his ex Erin Hannon’s new relationship with Gabe Lewis. He’s processing all this while he’s in Gabe’s room, where he finds a mysterious container. Temp Ryan Howard tells him it’s full of powdered seahorse, which gives people superhuman strength. Andy dumps it in his wine and downs it all. The combination of alcohol and, uh, seahorse messes Andy up permanently. If this theory weren’t crazy enough, it also comes with a ridiculous name: “alcohorse.”


Fans might like the Michael theory, but they love the idea that HR’s milquetoast Toby is the Scranton Strangler. Seriously, there are entire videos laying out the claims (see one above). Could Toby actually be the notorious criminal who dominates the local news in later seasons? Fans have built up quite the case. For starters, he wasn’t at work when everyone watched the police chase and apprehend the Scranton Strangler. He didn’t even show up for the Glee party later that day! Then he makes it onto the jury, where he can help put the other guy behind bars. He’s pretty eager to share insider info from the courtroom with his coworkers—eager because of the attention, or because he’s getting away with murder? Later on, after the Strangler is found guilty, he tells everyone he’s not so sure they convicted the right guy. Did his guilty conscience overwhelm him? Or is Toby just a normal dude who takes jury duty seriously? You decide.


No really, hear this one out: A bunch of people sincerely believe that the Scranton office is hell—but that it didn’t become a hellscape until after one key episode. “Stress Relief” is a two-parter from season five. In the first part, Stanley has a heart attack in the middle of a safety drill. He survives, and soon returns to work. But what if Stanley really died that day? The theory goes that Stanley’s heart attack kills him and he’s sent straight to hell. (He did have all those affairs, after all.) Stanley hated his work more than anyone, so for him, hell is the office. But because this is hell, all his coworkers are exaggerated versions of themselves: more annoying and more cartoonish.


It’s impossible to forgot where Bob Vance works, because he repeats the name of his business (Vance Refrigeration) every time he introduces himself. But is Bob an awkward hype man, or a savvier businessman than we all suspected? One popular theory says that Bob isn’t selling his services to the people he meets onscreen, but to the people watching the documentary. It’s his way of scoring free ads, even if he does seem a little strange to Phyllis’s coworkers.


Rainn Wilson in 'The Office'

Dwight Schrute frequently struggles to separate fiction from reality. Here’s a quick list of examples, as documented by TimmestTim: He thinks he can raise and lower his cholesterol at will; he thinks Jim might be turning into a vampire and that his neighbor’s dog is a werewolf; he can’t tell the difference between a hero and a superhero or a Benjamin Franklin impersonator and the actual Benjamin Franklin. TimmestTim posits that Dwight has this disconnect because he wasn't allowed to watch movies growing up. Once he got older, and got very into fantasy and sci-fi (i.e. Battlestar Galactica), his brain couldn’t quite separate what he saw on the screen from real life. Since he had no exposure during his formative years, the distinction was harder, which is why he has no problem believing Jim is a creature of the night.


Dunder Mifflin is never the most financially stable company. Even before Sabre buys it out, Michael’s bosses are constantly warning him about layoffs or branch shutdowns—and begging him to stop spending large amounts of money on holiday parties. Based on the wider company problems and Michael’s frequent mistakes, the Scranton branch should’ve been shuttered during the first episode. So how does it survive for so long? One Reddit user theorizes that the camera crew kept them in business. Sensing that the office antics would make for great television, the crew bought up Dunder Mifflin paper so they could keep filming, and eventually make their money back on a TV show deal. Considering the damage Michael does to the warehouse alone, it must have been a lot of paper.


There’s a pretty convincing case that The Office is happening at the same time as Parks and Recreation and Dexter, and it all comes down to office supplies. In season six, a printer company called Sabre buys out Dunder Mifflin. A few Sabre employees became recurring characters, like Jo Bennet (Kathy Bates) and Gabe Lewis (Zach Woods), and the Scranton office suddenly has to drink out of metal water bottles, as per company policy. Otherwise, not much changes. But Sabre is important, because its products have appeared on other shows. Eagle-eyed viewers have spotted Sabre printers on Parks and Recreation and even Dexter. But some people think the connections run deeper. (Here’s a lengthier case for crossover involving Creed and a Parks and Rec cult.)


Creed, the strangest man at Dunder Mifflin, is the subject of many theories. But by far the best one is that he’s trying to catch Nessie. In “The Seminar,” Creed gives a speech about the Loch Ness Monster (which you can watch above), where he describes the creature and mentions the totally fake reward for its capture: all the riches in Scotland. So he’s clearly fixated on this folklore, but LaxBro316 pieced it together with another Creed non sequitur to explain his ultimate goal. “If I can’t scuba, then what’s this all been about?” he asks. “What am I working toward?” It’s unclear if Creed ever found Nessie, but we hope he’s enjoying all the riches of Scotland.


More from mental floss studios