For many the circus is a place of wonder and fantasy come alive. But for these 15 women, it was their workplace, their home, and the platform for their legacies.
1. MARIA SPELTERINI, TIGHTROPE WALKER
Sometimes referred to as Maria Spelterina, this buxom beauty became the first woman to tightrope walk across Niagara Falls on July 8, 1876, when she was just 23. The wire she walked was only 2½ inches wide.
This insane stunt was just the first in a series meant to celebrate America's centennial. Four days later she returned, making the treacherous crossing again, but this time with peach baskets bound to her feet. A week later she came back and did it with a paper bag over her head as a blindfold. Three days after that, Spelterini tightrope walked across the Niagara gorge with her wrists and ankles in shackles.
She also did this treacherous trek backwards, and used the thin wire as a stage, dancing and skipping across its 1000 foot length. Her elegance in these endeavors was described by a local paper as "traveling the gossamer web with a graceful, confident step, which soon allayed all apprehension of an impending disaster."
2. KATIE SANDWINA, WOMAN OF STEEL
Born into a family of Austrian circus performers, Katharina Brumbach performed feat-of-strength acts throughout her childhood. At over six feet tall and weighing 187 pounds by the time she was a teen, Katie was soon wrestling men who'd risk the ring with her for the possibility of a 100-marks prize. She not only won every bout, but also her husband, Max Heymann. He happily joined her family's business, helping in promotions and sometimes allowing himself and their infant son to be hoisted up by Katie's mighty arm.
Katie's greatest challenge came at the hands of strongman Eugene Sandow. In New York City, her promotional stunt pitched that no man could lift more weight than this strongwoman. Sandow took that bet and lost when Katie pushed 300 pounds over her head with one hand. (Sandow only managed to get it to his chest.) From there, Katie changed her stage name to a feminine version of Sandow, so that no one would soon forget her Herculean strength.
3. ZAZEL, THE FIRST HUMAN CANNONBALL
Petite and pretty acrobat and tightrope walker Rosa Richter (billed as Zazel) was just 16 years old when she made history at the Royal Aquarium. There, she slid into a massive cannon mouth and allowed herself to be blasted 70 feet into the air, high above the dazzled spectators. This stunt was a collaboration with her mentor, celebrated tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt. He had concocted a device that would give the illusion of a cannon shot, while keeping Zazel from being blown to bits.
Fireworks were set off to give the impression of a cannon's explosion; Zazel's flight depended on springs and tension hidden within the metal barrel. As this trick caught on, Hunt's device was abandoned in favor of compressed air, which lessened the risks considerably. But this came too late for Zazel; after a long string of successful stunts, she flew past the safety net and broke her back, which forced her into retirement and, ultimately, obscurity.
4. ANNIE OAKLEY // TRICK SHOOTER
By the time she was a teen, Phoebe Ann Moses' shooting skills were so advanced that she was putting them on public display to help her beloved mother pay off her mortgage. In 1875, Moses bested celebrated marksman Frank E. Butler in a shooting competition, and not long after, these rivals wed. In the 1880s, Moses took the stage name Annie Oakley and began touring professionally with her husband, and in 1885, she joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, where she performed for 15 years as a top attraction.
One of her most popular stunts was shooting the lit tip off a cigarette being held in her husband's lips. She even performed this trick for Kaiser Wilhelm II, with the King of Prussia taking Butler's place. Her fame brought her grand introductions to royals and world leaders like Queen Victoria and Sitting Bull, who gave her the name "Little Sure Shot."
By the time World War I rolled around, Oakley had retired. She sought to organize a group of female shootists to form a special sharpshooting unit, but her petition was ignored. It's also said that she reached out to Wilhelm II, asking pointedly for a second shot; that request too went ignored. Finally, Oakley turned her efforts into raising money for the Red Cross. When she passed away in 1926, the whole of America mourned the loss of this iconic cowgirl.
5. MAUD WAGNER, TATTOOED LADY
As Maud Stevens, this Kansas girl was an aerialist and contortionist who traveled the U.S. in circus troops. But it was a chance meeting at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1907 that inked her place in history. It was there that Maud met Gus Wagner, a charismatic tattoo artist who described himself as "the most artistically marked up man in America."
Maud was intrigued by his craft, and offered to exchange a date with her future husband for a lesson in how to tattoo. This is how she got her first of many, as well as her start as a tattoo artist. The Wagners went on to tour as artists and "tattooed attractions," and later trained their daughter Lovetta in the art of tattooing. Nowadays, Maud is credited as the first female tattooist in the United States.
6. ANTOINETTE CONCELLO, TRAPEZE ARTIST
At 16, the Quebec-born Antoinette Comeau was living in a convent when her biological sister, Gertrude "Mickey" King, urged her to join her at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Around this time, the aspiring aerialist met Arthur Concello, who'd been trained on the trapeze since he was 10 years old. The pair married in 1928, and formed The Flying Concellos.
Their act was one of Ringling's most popular attractions, earning Antoinette the billing "greatest woman flyer of all time." She's also credited with being the first woman to ever pull off a triple somersault in the air. These claims to fame attracted the attention of director Cecil B. DeMille, who hired her to train Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Dorothy Lamour for his circus-centered drama The Greatest Show On Earth. She and her husband both appeared in the film. After decades that made up a long and storied career, Antoinette retired from her role as Ringling's aerial director in 1983.
7. LEONA DARE, QUEEN OF THE ANTILLES
This circus performer took her act to the literal next level. Forget the tents and nets—American daredevil Leona Dare (born Susan Adeline Stuart) became a sensation across Europe in the late 19th century for hanging by her teeth from the bottom of an ascending hot air balloon.
She also scored headlines for romantic scandals and occasional falls, including one that accidentally caused the death of her performance partner, Monsieur George. But from all of these lows, Dare rose again. Her most famous "iron jaw" performance was held 5000 feet over the Crystal Palace in London in 1888, leading to a tour en route to Moscow. By the 1890s, Dare and her iron jaw had more or less retired.
8. THE MARVELOUS MABEL STARK, TIGER TRAINER
The facts of Mabel Stark's early life are obscured by much showmanship and manufactured mystique. But Stark (formerly Mary Haynie) found her way into circus life after training as a nurse, a discipline that would later prove quite useful. She was tenacious in her rise up the animal training ranks; at her most daring, she was commanding 18 tigers at a time.
Stark developed some seedy secrets for her most popular stunt, a fake mauling by her hand-raised tiger Rajah, whose behavior during this act was actually more sexual than sinister. But danger was never far, as Stark acknowledged a tiger is never truly "tame." In her career she survived three major maulings and many minor ones. Yet she never blamed the animals for the attacks and maintained that death by tiger would be her preferred way to go.
9. URSULA BLÜTCHEN, THE POLAR BEAR PRINCESS
As a working-class German twenty-something, Ursula Blütchen's entry into the circus was far from glamorous. In 1952, she took a cleaning job at the East German Circus Busch. There, she hit it off with an animal trainer, who began to show her the ways of this treacherous trade.
Though only five-foot one-inch tall, Blütchen was drawn to the towering polar bears. She named each one, and is said to have treated them as if they were her children. Her act grew to include 14 polar bears and four Kodiaks, earning her a reputation as one of the world's most remarkable animal trainers. After a retirement tour in 1998, Blütchen found new homes for her beloved bears, placing them in German zoos.
10. BARBARA WOODCOCK, ELEPHANT TRAINER
Because her parents owned the small operation Marlowe's Mighty Hippodrome, Barbara's circus career began in the 1930s, when she was just a girl. She trained as an aerialist and leopard tamer before meeting her future husband, William "Buckles" Woodcock, who came from a long line of elephant trainers. Together the pair created an act of their own, combining his skills and her showmanship. Barbara added panache to their packaging by coming up with fantastical costumes for herself, William, and their precious pachyderms. The act was a hit, earning them a place with the Big Apple Circus from 1982 to 2000, and even an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965.
Following in family tradition, the Woodcocks brought their children into the fold within her parents' circus. By four months old, Barbara's son Ben (from a previous marriage) was on the back of his first elephant. Later, he and his younger sisters, Shannon and Dalilah, would find a role in their parents' elephant acts.
11. GLADYS ROY, WING WALKER
Gladys Roy's three brothers were pilots for Northwest Airlines, but this Minnesota daredevil made her mark in aviation on the wings of planes. Roy built a name for herself by barnstorming, wing walking, parachuting from 100 to 16,000 feet, and dancing the Charleston on the wings of planes in flight. But she might be best remembered for playing tennis with Ivan Unger on the wing of a biplane. Well, pretending to play (no real ball was involved).
At the height of her popularity, Roy was earning between $200 and $500 per performance (that's $2600 to $6700 in today's dollars). But by May of 1926, she was lucky to get $100 for her stunts, telling the Los Angeles Times, "Of late the crowds are beginning to tire of even my most difficult stunts and so I must necessarily invent new ones, that is, I want to hold my reputation as a dare-devil. Eventually an accident will occur and then ..."
It was an airplane accident that took Roy's life at the age of 25, but not in the air. Moments after snapping a publicity shot near her plane, a distracted Roy walked right into the still-spinning propeller.
12. ANNIE JONES, THE ESAU WOMAN
Though it was her long beard that drew crowds, it was Annie Jones' charm and musical talents that made her the most celebrated bearded lady of her time. Born with a bit of a beard, Jones was still in diapers when she won the attention of P.T. Barnum. He paid her parents a hefty sum ($150 a week in the late 1860s) for the right to put little Annie in his show as "The Esau Infant" ("Esau" being a biblical name that translates to "hairy"). She attracted much attention, but not all of it positive.
Once, when her mother left Annie in the care of a nanny, she was kidnapped by a phrenologist, who presumably wanted to study the bumps on the hirsute girl's head. Thankfully, Jones was unharmed and quickly recovered. As she grew from Esau Infant to Esau Child to Esau Lady, her mother was forever more at her side.
13. THE SEVEN SUTHERLAND SISTERS, SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD
Theirs was an act that played a bit like burlesque, minus the stripping. New York-born sisters Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Mary, and Dora Sutherland were gifted singers who, at their father's urging, moved off his struggling turkey farm and onto the stage in the 1880s. While their act began with singing, it was their big reveal that had audiences flocking and P.T. Barnum calling them “the seven most pleasing wonders of the world.”
As their grand finale, the seven sisters would undo their updos to unfurl seven feet of long, lustrous hair. There was something provocative to this display that had men in awe and women feeling envious. Their father, Fletcher, took advantage by peddling Sutherland Sisters Hair Fertilizer, which brought in $90,000 in its first year. The massive popularity of this and similarly themed products allowed the girls to retire. And just in time, too, as hair trends soon turned shorter when bobs became the haircut du jour. Sadly, wealth did not bring happiness to the Sutherlands, who would long be plagued by scandals over frivolous spending, drug use, alleged witchcraft, and tawdry romances.
14. THE HILTON SISTERS, HOLLYWOOD'S CONJOINED TWINS
While conjoined twins have become an icon of circus sideshows, none reached the kind of mainstream celebrity of Daisy and Violet Hilton. Born to an unmarried barmaid in 1908, the British babes were taken in by Mary Hilton, the midwife who delivered them. It was Mary who trained the girls in singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments, and she who introduced them to the circus life by age three. In return, she took all of the girls' earnings for 20 years, until they sued.
Daisy and Violet went on to become some of the highest paid talents on the vaudeville circuit, pulling in $5000 a week. They found some success in Hollywood, appearing in Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks, which showed the humanity and tenacity of the people who made up sideshows, and starred in the 1952 B-movie Chained For Life, about one twin committing murder, forcing both to go on trial. When they fell on hard times, the sisters turned to burlesque, but by the 1960s their stage career had stalled out completely. From there, Daisy and Violet took up work in a grocery store in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their story was revisited in 2012 in the documentary Bound by Flesh.
15. KITTIE SMITH, THE ARMLESS DYNAMO
While many sideshow acts featured people born with abnormalities, Kittie Smith's condition was the product of an abusive childhood. In 1891, when Smith was nine years old, she refused to make dinner for her drunk father. As punishment, he held her arms to the lit stove until they were so badly damaged that amputation was necessary. Subsequently, she was made a ward of the state, while her father escaped jail time because of "lack of evidence."
Dr. F. M. Gregg was so moved by the girl's story that he began an educational fund for Smith, which paid for a specialized staff to teach her how to function without her arms. Smith thrived, becoming skilled in writing, painting, embroidery, and piano playing with her feet. When the fund was exhausted, she made her own way by performing at Coney Island and with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She also sold her drawings and a self-penned memoir. Notably, in this autobiography, Smith completed what might be her greatest feat by forgiving her father. She literally rewrote her own history, claiming she lost her arms from falling into a fire.