Early 20th Century Circus Gals: Brave and Tough


March is always a special month for me. For one, it’s my birthday month, and for another, it’s Women’s History Month. As a historical fiction writer whose passion is writing about strong women living in the past, I find that rather fateful.

Since Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is coming out next month and the book focuses on murder at the circus, I thought it would be fun to take a look at women circus performers of the 19th and 20th centuries. What I discovered was a handful of women who had more guts than their male counterparts. They were brave and resilient and not ladies you’d want to mess with.

Probably one of the most well-known of these was Lillian Leitzel. She was an aerialist who worked with a rope or brass rings, very similar to what Gina Lollobrigida does in this scene in the 1956 film Trapeze. The aerial rope requires a lot of strength in both the legs and arms and Leitzel would wow the crowds by spinning around so hard she would dislocate her shoulder at nearly every performance. In spite of this, she kept on going, sometimes for a hundred rounds or more. Her act brought in millions and, like many circus stars who knew their worth, she commanded top dollar, including luxuries such as her own tent and her own private railroad car. Like many circus women, she believed in suffragism, advocating for women’s athletics at a time when women were thought to be “too delicate” for physical activity. She was also not a fan of corsets and believed women should have freedom of movement (not surprising, given her circus background). Sadly, Leitzel went the way of many daredevil circus stars. While doing a handstand on a brass ring during a performance in the 1930s, the brass ring broke and she fell on her head from twenty feet in the air, dying of a concussion the next day.

When we think of lions, tigers, and cougars in the circus, we think of the big, manly man as their tamer (there is actually a character like this in Murder Under a Twilight Roof). But there were a small handful of women who tamed cats as well. In 1911, Mabel Stark became the first woman tamer of big cats. One of the thrills of her act was wrestling with one of her lions. She was once asked how she did it and she advised that training cats required a subtle and soft tone of voice and, above all, never showing fear. It obviously worked, as her death was not caused by the mauling of one of her cats. However, it was tragic nonetheless. In the late 1930s, one of her cats escaped and was shot down. She was said to have been very devoted to them and the grief was too much for her so she took her own life.

Photo Credit: Lillian Leitzel (standing on the running board) and May Wirth (sitting behind the wheel), 1924, National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

If we’re talking about bravery with animals, how about May Wirth? She was an equestrian who did somersaults and flips from one horse to another while circling the ring. She was one of the Ringling Brothers’ early stars and when she first auditioned by doing a somersault while riding a horse, she fell and landed on her back. But as all circus women, she was resilient and got up, went right back on the horse, and did it again, this time succeeding. Unlike many circus daredevils, Wirth’s life did not end in tragedy. She simply retired, still in one piece, and lived a quiet life until her death in 1937.

My book Murder Under a Twilight Roof features many daring women, including a trapeze flyer, a tightrope walker, and three sisters who handle three mighty big elephants. You can read about them and about murder at the circus in April when the book comes out, but copies are now available at a special preorder price here

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