‘Zazel’ was the stage name of Rossa Matilda Richter, a sometime child actor and trapeze artist, who has the curious distinction of being the first ever ‘Human Cannonball’, aged 14, at the very performances advertised here. Her act consisted largely of trapeze stunts and dives, but climaxed with her apparently being shot out of a cannon into a waiting net. All was not quite as it seemed, however, because while the cannon was rigged with gunpowder and gave an impressive bang as Zazel appeared, the mechanism that launched her was actually a series of rubber springs. Indeed, Zazel’s flight was restricted by lengths of rubber rope so she would not overshoot the waiting net. This apparatus had been designed by William Leonard Hunt, ‘The Great Farini’, who was himself famous for daredevil acts such as a tight-rope walk across the Niagara falls.
For all that Zazel and Hunt’s cannonball stunt was an illusion, it was also genuinely dangerous. In Portsmouth in 1879, the safety net was rotten and Zazel plunged straight through it, with nearly fatal consequences. She recovered and continued her acrobatic career with P T Barnum’s Travelling Circus in America.
Lurid circus-style entertainments such as this were immensely popular with the population of Victorian Britain. Indeed, the original collector of this advertisement, Henry Evans (estimated 1832-1905) was himself a conjuror and ventriloquist under the stage name ‘Evanion’. Evans collected thousands of similar posters and ephemera; many, like this one, bold examples of chromolithography – a newly developed printing technique used in the mass production of colourful, eye-catching advertising material.