The Quick 10: 9 Circus Deaths (and one that never happened)

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As far as dangerous professions go, "writer" is probably not very high on the list. Carpal tunnel, deteriorating eyesight, maybe paper cuts - sure. Being mauled by a lion or falling from the flying trapeze? Never a problem. These 10 circus performers can't say the same.

1. In 2004, a circus performer whose speciality was twirling on scarves 30 feet above the arena floor fell to her death when one of the scarves gave way. Dessi Espana was working without a net at a St. Paul, Minnesota show. She died later that night.

2. This one goes back a few years. In 1870, a traveling circus called the James Robinson & Co. Circus decided to drum up some publicity for their upcoming show in Middletown, Missouri, by having their band and some lions give a sneak peek performance during the parade through town. Despite being warned not to for multiple reasons, the band decided to sit on top of the lion cage during the parade. You can probably guess what happened - the roof of the cage couldn't support the 10 band members and they fell through. Seven of them were killed as horrified parade-goers watched.

3. Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous Flying Wallenda family, met his end during a death-defying high-wire act in 1978"¦ except it didn't actually defy death. The 73-year-old Wallenda was attempting to walk between two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was windier than normally recommended for such a stunt, but the Wallenda family has maintained that the death was due to misconnected guy ropes and not the wind.

4. "Massarti the Lion-Tamer," AKA Thomas Maccarte, entered the lions' den for the last time in 1873. One particular lion named Tyrant had been given him trouble and even bit him on the hand the same week. Maccarte slipped on something and fell to the floor of the den, which is when Tyrant saw his chance to attack. His attack seemed to incite at least three of the other lions into joining the melee; Maccarte's injuries were fatal. Horrifyingly, though, he didn't die instantly - he survived long enough to talk to his coworkers and request that no ambulance be called - he knew he was a goner. You can read the whole story, which is a bit graphic, here. It's really interesting to read such an old style of reporting, actually.

5. Just last year, a Russian bear on ice skates attacked two people during circus rehearsals in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek. One of them died and so did the bear, which was shot dead at the scene. It sounds like something straight out of a John Irving novel, I know, but it's true!

6. Karl wasn't the first Wallenda to die because of his career choice. In 1963, his sister-in-law, Yetta Wallenda (pictured) was performing a handstand at the top of pole 45 feet up when she lost her balance while adjusting a footstrap. She hit the floor face down and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
7. Sadly, just 18 months earlier, two other members of the Wallendas died and one was paralyzed for life. A human pyramid of seven people collapsed, killing two of them, including the pyramid's top, Dieter Schepp. It was his first time joining the Seven and he lost his balance.
8. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was hosting the James Hamid Circus in April of this year when tragedy struck: an elephant handler was trampled by an African elephant named Dumbo. It was thought that the elephant came into contact with electrical wires and was startled into action.
9. Apparently there's a clown serial killer out there, sort of the opposite of John Wayne Gacy: a person who actually targets clowns. In 2007, an attacker jumped into the arena of a circus in Cucuta, Columbia, and shot a clown in the head in front of the audience. It took some time for the audience to realize it wasn't part of the act. It was discovered shortly thereafter that the assailant had also killed a clown standing next to the ticket booth. Just the year before, another circus clown named Pepe was shot and killed.

10. Have you heard the one about the dwarf who bounced the wrong way off of a trampoline, right into the mouth of Hilda the Hippo? Although she was a vegetarian, her gag reflex caused her to swallow and poor Od the dwarf died. It was even reported in some newspapers. Never happened, says Snopes.

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July 13, 2010 - 1:47pm
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