An eight-part series on the history of the circus, by Liam Nolan


When people earn a living by carrying out high-risk, daredevil, death-defying stunts, accidents will happen. Fatalities are inevitable. It occurs in the circus world as in everywhere else.

In August 2006 at a performance of the Royal Russian Circus in Scariff in County Clare, the audience saw 26-year-old BelaRussian trapeze artiste Vitaly Kharapavitski killed when his skull was crushed. Part of the apparatus on which he and his wife were performing gave way, and heavy equipment crashed down on top of him. He died instantly.
Patrick Doyle, a witness, told a coroner’s court in Ennis that Vitaly “seemed to me to throw his wife clear, and this saved her from certain death.”

The possibility of apparatus or rigging failure is an ever-present risk taken by daredevil performers. Metal fatigue (as in Lillian Leitzel’s case), knot slippage, wires parting, electrical outages, breakages — these can be catastrophic for acrobats, wire walkers, trapeze artistes, horse riders, animal trainers, the lot.

“A screw that loosens, or a chord that breaks, can be fatal,” is a mantra among circus people.

At a Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey matinee in St Paul, Minnesota in 2004, Dessi Espana was high up in the air, twirling from a chiffon scarf when, suddenly, the chiffon separated from the mechanism holding it in place. A beautiful, lifelong circus performer, Espana (32) and married, was the mother of two daughters.

Working without a safety net that afternoon in St Paul, she fell head first onto a concrete, and died. Children who witnessed the accident were seriously shocked, and one father said it was his daughter’s first visit to a circus, “and her last”.

Accidents like those in Feakle and St Paul are relatively rare. Relatively. Ringlings said that the Espana fatality was the first fatal accident in 10 years in any Ringling circus.

Sometimes the failures that cause accidents are of the human kind. What happened to the Flying Wallendas is a case in point.

They were the greatest high-wire balancing act in history. In 1961 they made it into the Guinness Book of World Records by performing a three-layer, seven-person “human pyramid”, moving on a wire nearly 50 feet above the ground.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own