Today is the birthday of Rosa Richter (1862-1922), known professionally as Zazel, one of the first of the human cannonballs.
Born in England, she was already an acrobat and tightrope walker in her teenage years. In 1877, she was first shot out of a cannon and thrown in the air 100 feet by the Great Farini, the inventor of the device. (For those who don’t know, it doesn’t actually shoot you like a gun. The small puff of gunpowder smoke is ornamental. The real mechanism is a spring, like in a children’s dart gun. But that doesn’t make it less dangerous. 30 people have been killed in doing the human cannonball act, usually by missing the net).
In 1880, she was brought to the U.S. by P.T. Barnum and headlined for a few years with his circus. Zazel’s act was so popular that many people stole it, not just Farini’s cannonball device, but Zazel’s name as well. Rosa herself stopped doing the act after a few years and went back to walking a tightrope. Ironically, it was a high wire fall that eventually broke her back and caused her retirement in 1891.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.