The Flying Wallendas

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Contrary to what the song would have you believe, flying through the air doesn’t exactly happen with the greatest of ease—even if the Flying Wallendas make it look that way.

The world’s most famous high wire act has been making headlines since 1780, when the Wallenda family traveled Europe as a complete circus act that included high wire, clowns, jugglers, and animal trainers. The modern-day act began when young Karl Wallenda joined the family business in the early 1900s. He developed a new four-person pyramid stunt that caught the eye of John Ringling, who invited the troupe to perform with his circus. They accepted, and so completely stunned the audience at their 1928 Madison Square Garden debut that they received a 15-minute standing ovation. The Wallendas say such an ovation has not happened at Madison Square Garden before or since.

As the family grew, so did the act. By the 1960s, children, in-laws, nephews, and family friends were all performing death-defying stunts—until the day that they didn’t defy death. On January 30, 1962, the Wallendas were in the middle of their famous seven-person pyramid 35 feet up when the front man on the wire faltered, sending three men plummeting to the ground. Two of them, Karl’s son-in-law and nephew, died from their injuries. The third, Karl’s adopted son Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Here's the modern-day troupe recreating the act:

A year after the accident in Detroit, Rietta Wallenda, Karl’s sister-in-law, was killed in Omaha when she fell 50 feet during her sway pole act.

Tragedy spared the Wallendas for the better part of a decade. Then, in 1972, Karl’s son-in-law was killed in a freak accident when the pole he was holding accidentally brushed a live wire. The resulting shock made him fall; he later died from head injuries sustained in the accident.

Karl himself died in 1978 at the age of 73 when he fell from a high wire strung 121 feet in the air between two buildings in San Juan. Though many reports chalk the accident up to high winds, the family has stated that it was due to some misconnected guy ropes along the wire.

Images: Stacy Conradt

The legendary aerialists who gave their lives to the craft can be found at Manasota Cemetery in Bradenton, Florida, which is a neighboring town to the Ringling Brothers’ winter home of Sarasota.

See all the Grave Sightings posts here.