Rossa Richter was born in 1863 to Ernst and Susanne Richter in London, England.
Ernst was a talent agent and Susanne was a dancer. Both worked for the circus.
Rossa’s first performance was in a pantomime of Cinderella when she was 4 or 5 years old. She took ballet and gymnastics. When she was 6 years old, she began studying trapeze.
At 12 years old, she joined a traveling acrobat troupe. While on the road, she fell from the trapeze and was injured. Her father insisted that she return home to London.
At 14 years old, Rossa began working with William Leonard Hunt, known professionally as The Great Farini. He was a high wire walker and creator of the human cannonball act.
Ernst and William did not get along, so Susanne tricked Ernst into signing the agreement allowing Rossa to work with him.
Rossa adopted the stage name Zazel and is often credited as the first human cannonball flying upwards of 70 feet and landing in a net.
She was fired out of a spring loaded cannon designed by William twice a day at the Royal Aquarium in London. Late, William designed a fuse and pyrotechnic for the back of the cannon. These were just for show.
Rossa and William also traveled Western Europe performing. She also executed a high dive of 90 feet into a net and walked the tightrope.
In 1879, while in Portsmouth, England, Rossa fell through a rotted safety rope. She was injured and could not perform the next day.
Ernst attempted to force Rossa to stop performing, fearing that she could be seriously injured. By this time, he was no longer working for the circus. He and Susanne were divorced and Rossa lived with her mother. Ernst felt that Susanne was not properly concerned for Rossa’s safety and wanted her to come home with him.
On December 15, 1879, Rossa fell from the trapeze while performing in Chatham, Kent. She returned to finish her performance 30 minutes later, but the audience noted that her hands were bandaged and she seemed very nervous.
Despite some tension between Rossa and William concerning the amount that she was paid for performances, the two traveled to France and the United States. During this time, Rossa performed with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She met George Oscar Starr, a press agent for P.T. Barnum. They were married and Rossa took a break from performing.
In 1886, George and Rossa opened the Starr Opera Company. Rossa was a talented singer and performed in comic operas.
George became the managing director of Barnum and Bailey and Rossa went back to performing.
She also began advocating for the potential of safety nets for firefighters. She would demonstrate this by jumping from a 4 story building and landing in a net.
In 1891, while performing in New Mexico, she fell when the tightrope she was preparing to walk collapsed. The pole holding the wire landed on and broke her back. She was in a full body cast for several months and never performed again.
George died in 1915. Rossa died on December 8, 1937 in London.
There have been approximately 50 human cannonballs in history. 30 have died, usually because they missed the safety net.
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