Famous Circus Accidents in History
Circuses, particularly contemporary ones, have significantly improved safety measures for performers and audiences. However, despite all precautions, accidents can still happen. They are relatively rare compared to the number of performances that occur worldwide. These incidents, while tragic, also tend to receive more attention due to their rarity and the dramatic nature of circus performances.
As with any activity involving physical acts, acrobatics, or working with animals, there are inherent risks involved in circus performances. Many circus organizations provide rigorous training and strict safety protocols, including regular equipment checks, practice sessions, and risk assessments.
Over the years, several high-profile circus accidents have occurred, including trapeze and high-wire falls, animal attacks, and equipment malfunctions. These incidents, while tragic, are not the norm and tend to receive more attention due to their rarity and the dramatic nature of circus performances.
Here are some of the accidents and tragedies throughout history:
- Hartford circus fire
happened on July 6, 1944. Nobody knows how the fire started, but it spread quickly because the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus tent was
waterproofed with paraffin. One hundred sixty-nine people died, and more than seven hundred were injured from fire or trampling.
- Dessi Espana
was an aerial chiffon acrobat at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus when in May 2004, she fell from a height of 10 meters due to technical
failure. She died in hospital from the injuries.
- Massarti the Lion-Tamer
died on January 3, 1872, while performing in Bolton, England. A lion named Tyrant attacked him, after which three other lions he was performing
with also attacked him. Massarti has torn apart in front of an audience of several hundred.
- The Great “Wallace Brothers” Circus Train Disaster
1903, in a cruel game of faith, two trains that carried two different “Wallace Brothers” circuses collided on the tracks. The first train managed to stop
, but the breaks of the second one failed, and disaster struck. Thirty circus workers were killed, and another 27 were hurt. Animals also died
- Hagenbeck-Wallace Train Wreck
happened on June 22, 1918. A train carrying Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus stood, and many circus workers slept in the cars. The driver of the
other train fell asleep at its wheel and hit the first train at 56 km/h.
- The Cleveland Circus Fire
didn't have human victims, but over one hundred circus animals died in a fire in the menagerie tent of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1942.
It is unknown how the fire started, but it spread too quickly to save many animals.
- The St Louis Trapeze Accident
happened in 1872, when Fred Lazelle and Billy Millson fell to the ground when the trapeze construction failed. They fell on George North, a gymnast, underneath, and all three men were injured to the point where they didn't perform anymore.
- The Flying Wallendas
are stunt performer family that, in 1962, had an accident on a tightrope. They performed their “Seven-Person Chair Pyramid” act when a leading man faltered.
Three men fell, two died, and one was left paralyzed.
- Rossa Matilda Richter
was the first Human Cannonball ever. She worked in a circus since she was 14, and while she worked at P.T. Barnum Circus, she was shot out of spring-loaded
cannon into the net. She missed the net and broke her back.
- Eva Garcia
worked at Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth, England, and was an aerial silks acrobat since she was 7. She lost her grip and
fell in August 2003.
- Sarah Guyard-Guillot
was an acrobat at “Cirque de Soleil” fell from a complex platform at and height of 30 meters during an act on June 29, 2013. She died on her way
to the hospital.