First there was an explosion, then a puff of smoke, and then, on this day, April 2, 1887 the first human cannonball was propelled into the air about 20 meters above the heads of an astonished crowd.
She was Rosa Richter, a 16-year-old English girl who performed under the singular and clearly un-English name of “Zazel”. A tightrope walker and aerial acrobat, she had learnt her craft from William Hunt, a Canadian who gloried under the title of The Great Farini. He was most famous for performing a high-wire walk above Niagara Falls.
In any case, in 1871 William Hunt patented the mechanism for launching a human projectile through the air into a safety net. Fortunately for Rosa, the process did not actually involve any explosive: her ejection from the cannon being achieved by an innovative system of springs and tension, accompanied by a fake explosion and smoke.
Still, the London spectators who witnessed the first performance in 1877 were really impressed and excited. It happened at the Royal Aquarium, a place of entertainment that had been built next to Westminster Abbey the previous year and which continued to pull in crowds until it was demolished in 1903.
Despite her physical prowess and acrobatic ability, the act was not without danger for Rosa. The springs-and-tension method of propulsion, replaced in modern times by compressed air, was hardly precise and the day came, almost inevitably, when she shot through the air and missed the safety net at the Chatham Circus in 1879.
Fortunate to survive, Zazel, the first human cannonball, who had excited crowds of 20,000 in England and the United States, broke her back and was forced to retire.