The World’s First Human Cannonball Zazel or Rossa Matilda Richter

The world’s first human cannonball Zazel was born Rossa Matilda Richter in 1863.* From an early age she was performing aerial stunts, and when she turned fourteen, she made a name for herself. It happened on 2 April 1877, when Richter, using the stage name Zazel, was fired out of cannon at an amusement place in Westminster, London, called the Royal Aquarium.

Rossa Matilda Richter in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Multiple newspapers publicized Richter’s amazing cannonball performance, with one stating:

“The curiosity excited by the extraordinary conglomeration of letters intermingled and turned upside down, and forming all sorts of queer angles on our walls, has been partially satisfied by the appearance and performance of the handsome and graceful young lady who lays claim to the name given above, and by the descriptions which in various quarters have been written of her doings.”[1]

 

Image of Zazel flying through the air at the Royal Aquarium. Author’s collection.

Twice daily Richter flew in the air after being shot out of a cannon in what papers termed “anything but horrifying.” It was an amazing sight to watch and newspaper readers were excited to hear the astounding details. One newspaper reported the following:

“Zazel crawls into the huge mortar – a most realistic looking weapon with the greatest possible nonchalance, and, instead of shuddering, we applaud most heartily, and then proceed to watch and to wait with almost breathless eagerness.”[2]

Her act was so astonishing, no one had to silence the audience. Spectators naturally fell quiet as they waited nervously for the torch to be lit and then waited for her to fly through the air.

“We listen to the loud report which follows its application to the powder and lo! our vision is startled by the sight of the living Miss – we mean missile – flying through space, and alighting safe and sound in the huge net spread to receive her. It is Zazel. There she stands, bowing her acknowledgments of the thunders of applause which greet her. Before the smoke has cleared from the vast mouth of the cannon whence she had come she has made her away along the net, and is found again bowing and smiling upon the stage, and the spectators, almost bewildered as well as delighted, are turning to each other with astonishment plainly written upon their faces, and upon their lips the query, ‘Is it possible?’”[3]

Richter was shot as far as seventy feet before she landed in the net. However, she had little control as to where she would land, and she likely relied on nothing more than sheer courage to accomplish the feat. Her performance was so mesmerizing and stunning, audiences soon gave her several sobriquets: “Zazel, the Daring”; “Zazel, the Graceful”; “Zazel, the Champion of the World”; “Zazel, the only Lady Gymnast”; “Zazel, the Human Cannon Ball”; and “Zazel, the Wonder of the World.”

Richter also did more than just being shot out of cannon. She had long been lauded and praised for other aerial feats, one of which was her tightrope act. She began performing on the tightrope as early as age 6. One paper remarked of her in 1877:

“Where, we wonder shall we look for a more clever or more graceful wire walker? Her support is so slender that it is hardly visible. And yet without any other than the natural balance of her arms to and fro she passes high above the head of the wondering visitors. Now her feet are encased in baskets, but her progress is equally easy. Now she sits down midway in her aerial passage; now she lies at full length upon the slender wire, and getting up again seems a matter of sheer impossibility. … [P]resently she is on her feet again, tripping along as nimbly as ever, and with more ease and grace than some mortals we name exhibit on terra firma.”[4]

Tightrope walking wasn’t her only aerial feat. She was also a trapeze artist and first performed professional at the age 12. Those who saw her said she displayed unbelievable skill, strength, and grace. She often finished her trapeze act with a rapid descent where “she contrives to turn a somersault … and the general verdict is that no such splendid plucky ‘header’ has been seen apart from aquatic surroundings. Zazel has only to be seen to be admired.”[5]

Although she may have been an aerial phenomenon, not every performance went smoothly. While performing on the trapeze at the Chatham Circus in 1879, she “fell from a great height, but was fortunately caught in the accident net.”[6] She was carried off stage senseless murmuring over and over, “I am killed,” but she was not killed and whatever injuries she sustained were quickly overlooked by the circus owner.

Advertisement for Zazel in 1879. Author’s collection.

Within a half hour of her fall, the owner had her reappear in the ring where a gleeful audience cheered her. She then performed the remainder of her act with her hands bandaged, which according to newspapers was done while she “suffered great nervousness.” Of this performance, one newspaper criticized the circus owner stating:

“A more heartless spectacle could hardly be imagined. We talk about cruelty to animals, and the horrors of vivisection as practised before medical students. But here is a young woman suffering from an accident which might have ended fatally, repeating her dangerous performance half-an-hour later, for the amusement of an idle audience. What has the manager of the circus to say to this? … Zazel was no doubt, anxious to redeem her professional reputation. Yet, she could hardly propose to make an aerial flight with her hands bandaged up, and her mind and body shaken by the danger she had just passed through.”[7]

Richter also suffered injuries during her cannonball act. The first accident happened at the Royal Aquarium and another happened in Portsmouth in 1879. It the latter instance the net used to catch her was rotten and she fell through. Fortunately, she broke no bones, but her injuries were enough to prevent her from performing the following day. Outrage over the accident was expressed by several newspapers with The Graphic asking:

“When will the Home Secretary be made to see the necessity of putting some restraint upon the suicidal sensational acrobatic feats, which are now, to our shame, be it said, so popular?”[8]

Richter was the second daughter of Ernest Richter. He had worked as an agent for performers since 1848 engaging the most notable talent in exhibitions or circuses. According to him, his daughter was born on Agnes Street, Waterloo Road and made her debut performing a pantomime at the Raglan Music Hall. She was thereafter engaged for several seasons by Mr. Cormack at Drury Lane with her first trapeze performance happening at the Garrick Theatre in Whitechapel where she performed under the name of “La Petite Lulu.”

From there she was apprenticed and performed with “Siamese” acrobats and appeared in Dublin, Marseilles, and Toulouse. Allegedly, it was while she was performing in Toulouse that she met with a serious accident. Her father claimed that she fell from the trapeze, and, that afterwards, he refused to sanction any other performances by her, and, so, she returned to London in 1873. Then, according to Ernest:

“After some further engagements at Hamburg and other places, she was apprenticed to a person calling himself Lorenz; this Lorenz is ‘Farini,’ but his real name is Hunt. When I signed the agreement handing over my daughter to ‘Farini,’ I did so under the belief that I was negotiating with Mr. Lorenz Stolberg, a friend of mine, and I understood that she was only to be employed in singing and dancing. My wife Susanna, deceived me into signing the agreement.”[9]

Ernest wanted Richter restored to him even if she was the protégé of the Canadian aerialist William Leonard Hunt, better known as “The Great Farini.” He had made a name for himself in 1860 crossing Niagara Falls on a high-wire and then he became the first white man to cross the Kalahari Desert on foot and survive. Ernest noted that he was worried that his daughter might be killed during the cannon act popularized by Farini:

“When the cannon is fired off, her limbs have to be rigid. If by mistake it is fired one moment too soon, she might be killed. When she takes her dive, if she did not fall lightly she would break a limb, and if the net underneath is rotten, as it was at Portsmouth, she might be killed.”[10]  

Richter’s father may have been unaware of how the cannon act worked, but he probably knew that she was shot from a spring-loaded cannon invented by Farini. One newspaper provide the particulars of the cannon stating:

“Of course the powder discharged from behind the cannon is not the propelling power. Within the tube there is what is called a ‘vampire trap,’ that is to say a coil of metal, which, when a spring is touched, flies forward and gives to Rossa Matilda an impetus that carries her through the air into a net.”[11]

By 1879, advertisements claimed that Richter had performed her cannonball act over 1,000 times consecutively and that more than two million spectators had seen her flying through the air. When Farini had her perform in March of 1879, he advertised her act stating that she was a wonder and a marvel and that she would be “running upon the thread,” performing mid-air evolutions, diving from the ceiling into the net, and fired from an exploding cannon. He also noted in his advertisement that London’s Daily Telegraph of 10 April 1878 stated: “The young lady is placed into the muzzle of the cannon, and literally fired into space.”[12]

For her daring cannonball performances, Richter earned a small fee, while Farini got a large one. According to one historian, when she learned of the financial inequity, she developed an attitude:

“She assumed the time-honoured prerogative of the prima donna, and threatened to walk out of the theatre. Farini finessed, and in secrecy prepared four Zazels in separate suburbs, all ready to replace the recalcitrant beauty at a moment’s notice.”[13]

In 1880, Farini and Richter left England, and she performed with the Barnum & Bailey Circus for a season, and although she was best known as a human cannonball, she continued to perform her other aerial acts. She eventually married George Oscar Starr, who worked as a press agent for Barnum and Bailey, and they then left the circus for a time. Together they launched the Starr Opera Company in 1886.

Richter in costume in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

During her time away from the circus, she performed in a comic opera and sang (exceedingly well). However, when Starr was offered a position as managing director of Barnum & Bailey, she reentered circus life, and, in 1891, while touring in the United States with Adam Forepaugh’s Circus, she gave her last performance in New Mexico.

Zazel sheet music cover. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

She appeared in the ring dressed in a “boyish” dress of yellow and wearing heelless satin slippers with yellow bows and a bunch of yellow roses in her hair along with a cluster of holly. She nimbly climbed to the tightrope platform and tested the rope. It wasn’t tight enough and she signaled to her assistant below, who began tightening it. She tried it a second time, but again it was too loose, and the assistant began tightening it again. Then according to an eye-witness:

“Suddenly there came a wrenching sound that seemed to fill the tent, then a sharp crack and the whirring of rapidly-loosened wires, then a roar of horror, and above the roar a piercing shriek. The platform upon which Zazel had been standing a moment before was seen to topple forward, and Zazel herself was falling to the ground. She had been thrown beyond the safety-net stretched beneath the wire.

There she lay in a heap, her face on her knees and over her, right across her back, lay the supporting poles of the platform and the coils of ropes and wires.

Of course, there was almost a panic in the circus, but … the people were quieted by the loudly-sounding voice of the manager, who assured the sympathetic but fickle public that Zazel’s hurt was only a slight one. But as I saw a number of the attendants carrying the girl away, I saw them trying to straighten her poor body, and as they did so a dreadful shriek gave evidence of her torture.”[14]

Richter had broken her back. Fortunately, local medical professionals were able to provide short-term medical care before she was transferred to medical facilities in New York City. The accident was serious enough that it ended her career, and she spent several months suspended in a full body cast.

After she healed and sometime later, she and her husband returned to England, where she eventually died. It happened on 8 December 1937 at Camberwell House Hospital in Peckham. Because it had been years since she performed, the public seemed to have forgotten her as there was no specific mention of her death in newspapers. Gone were the days when Zazel was referred to as a “thrilling sensation,” and gone was her electrifying performance where audiences lauded her as fearless.


*Some people argue that Richter was not the first human cannonball and give that honor to “The Australian Marvels,” Ella Zuila and George Loyal, who reputedly performed the act a few years earlier.

References:

  • [1] The Era, “‘Zazel,’ at the Aquarium,” April 29, 1877, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] The Era, p. 4.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Accident to Zazel, the Gymnast,” December 18, 1879, p. 3.
  • [7] Manchester Evening News, “Accident to Zazel,” December 18, 1879, p. 4.
  • [8] The Graphic, “Dangerous Performances,” December 20, 1879, p. 6.
  • [9] Dundee Courier, “The Father of Zazel,” May 27, 1879, p. 3.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Dundee Courier, p. 3.
  • [12] Barnsley Chronicle, “Farini’s Aquarium “Zazel”,” March 22, 1879, p. 5.
  • [13] H. G. Hibbert, Fifty Years of a Londoner’s Life (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1916), p. 188.
  • [14] “The Showman: An Illustrated Journal for Showmen and All Entertainers,” December 27, 1901, p. 254.

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