Thrills and Too Many Spills: The Dangers of the Circus

After the horrific Rhode Island circus accident over the weekend, we look at the history of deadly big-top accidents and animals.


Public safety officials say that a broken carabiner is the only piece of equipment they can identify that failed during a circus performance yesterday in Rhode Island, in an accident which injured nine performers, two critically.

During the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus’ Legends performance at Providence’s Dunkin Donuts Center, the high wire snapped, leaving eight acrobats hanging and eventually falling, and landing on a dancer on the floor.

The carabiner is a D-shaped metal clamp that has a gate that opens and closes. Safety officials believe it snapped, sending both acrobats and apparatus hurtling 25 to 40 feet to the floor.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time tragedy has struck under the Big Top. Circus accidents have been an inevitable part of this entertainment industry since the start. There is even an infamous circus accident hoax: the story of the hippopotamus who swallowed a trampolining dwarf in Thailand, which would be quite something if true, although it appears to have been made up.

Trapeze tragedy

The St. Louis Trapeze Incident occurred in 1872. Due to a mechanical failure, performers Fred Lazelle and Billy Millson’s finale became a near-fatal leap. The trapeze grew loose due to the rope’s give, and it shook as it began to fall. Audiences were shocked and horrified by the scene, as the two performers fell on top of tumbler George North. The three were seriously injured.

Lion attack

In 1872, Massarti the Lion Tamer was attacked by Tyrant the Lion during a performance in Bolton, England. The performer had previously lost his arm to a lion during a show in Liverpool, but that didn’t’ stop him from continuing on. During a performance in Bolton’s Victoria Square, Tyrant clamped down on his hip, while another lion went for the stump of his arm. A third lion went for his ribs, and a fourth one nearly scalped Massarti. It took heated irons to move the lions away from Massarti in the cage. He died shortly after reaching the infirmary.

“Murderous Mary” The Elephant

On September 13, 1916, Mary the Elephant was hung in Erwin, Tennessee. An inexperienced elephant handler was put in charge of the colossal creature during a parade with Charlie Sparks’s circus. Mary was suffering from an abscessed tooth. She paused at one point due to the pain, and handler Red Eldridge nudged her to keep moving. Mary then pushed him to the ground and stomped on his head. The punishment? The pachyderm, nicknamed “Murderous Mary,” was hung to death in front of a crowd boasting of hundreds of children, using a railway crane. The chain broke, however, and she fell breaking her hip, but was hung again until a vet declared her dead.

Not sure what’s more absurd: the fact that it all happened or the picture that documented it.

The Hammond Circus Train Wreck

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In 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was scheduled to arrive in Hammond, Michigan to help ease the weary war mindset. Meanwhile, the engineer of an empty troop train failed to stay awake while guiding the train, missed the signals on his route, and crashed into the Hagenbeck-Wallace train. The result of this wreck was 86 people dead and over 200 injuries.

Cleveland Fire

The Cleveland Circus Fire occurred in 1942. With good intentions as an escapism from the stresses of the Second World War, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show that was meant to cheer people up did quite the opposite. A pile of straw right by the menagerie lit on fire, and reached the tent in seconds. The straw and hay piled around the tent only exacerbated the situation. Within fifteen minutes, everything in sight had been burnt down. Many of the animals perished in the flames, or were injured by the burns and smoke around them. No people had died or were injured, just haunted by the scene which unfolded before them.

Connecticut Fire

Arguably the worst circus tragedy in history was the Ringling Brothers Circus fire on July 6, 1944. During a performance in Hartford, Connecticut, the tent became engulfed in flames. Both audience and performers were stampeded in the rush for the tent’s exit (which was on fire as well). It took six minutes for the tent to collapse and burn down. The result of this horrific day was 168 dead, and hundreds more badly injured. It took Ringling 10 years to pay off more than 600 claims that were a result from the fire. To this day, it is unknown how the fire had started. After the Hartford incident, circus tents were treated with a flame retardant compound.

The Flying Wallendas

The Flying Wallendas are famous for their tightrope walking, and have been involved in the circus show business for several generations. Their history is impressive, yet tragic.

The clan had a tightrope act that went horribly wrong in 1962. During a performance of the seven-person pyramid act in Detroit, Michigan, a front man of the pyramid lost his footing, leading to its collapse. Three of the performers in said act, Richard Faughnan, Dieter Schepp and Mario, fell. Mario was paralyzed from the waist down, and the former two died.

Sixteen years later, Karl Wallenda, the patriarch at the time, lost his footing while crossing two hotel towers in Puerto Rico on a wire and fell to his death. To this day, the family still enthusiastically explores tightrope walking.

Acrobat death

In 2004, Dessi Espana, a performer with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, fell 35 feet during a performance. The acrobat was twirling during her performance, suspended by a chiffon scarf. Suddenly, the scarf (or whatever was attaching it from above) slipped, and she fell onto the concrete headfirst. Despite the horrific scene, the circus continued on with the show as Espana was rushed to hospital. She was announced dead later that evening after hours of being in critical condition. She was 32 years old.