The Human Cannonball Of Westminster

By M@ Last edited 43 months ago
The Human Cannonball Of Westminster
From Strand Magazine, 1897.

Westminster can claim many 'firsts', from the world's first traffic lights to the first television. But who knew that the first human cannonball was fired into the air just across the road from the Houses of Parliament?

The unenviable pioneer was a 14-year-old girl called Rossa Matilda Richter, stage name Zazel (nothing to do with this naughty film).

On 2 April 1877, the teen made ballistic history when fired from a spring-operated cannon at the Royal Aquarium. The device propelled her a little over six-metres (20 feet) across the auditorium and into a net. Pow!

Those flames look impressive, but it's all pyrotechnic trickery. The cannon used a rubber-spring, known as a vampire trap, to launch Zazel — no gunpowder needed.

The faux-mortar was developed by William Leonard Hunt, AKA 'The Great Farini'. Hunt was a well-known tightrope walker who would later become the first to cross the Kalahari desert on foot.

His patented cannon quickly became a sensation in Westminster, while Zazel took on celebrity status. Newspapers fell over themselves to report on her beauty and bravery. The Illustrated Police News placed her act in prime position, at the top of its front page:

From Illustrated Police News, 14 April 1877. (c) The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Found in the British Newspaper Archive.

Zazel's cannonball act toured the country. She was eventually poached by circus king PT Barnum, and headed over the Atlantic to impress an American audience.

Image probably not based on actual events

Sadly, Zazel's career in death defiance came to a premature end in 1891. While performing a 'leap for life' in Las Vegas, her safety wire snapped. She fell 50 feet to the ground, breaking her back. Zazel survived, but never performed again. She died in 1937.

Royal Aquarium 1876

Her tale is one of the many forgotten wonders of the Royal Aquarium. This grand building once stood opposite Westminster Abbey, and is now the location of Methodist Central Hall. Strange to think that the bongs of Big Ben were once syncopated by the boom of a novelty cannon.

All images public domain, unless otherwise stated.

Last Updated 26 February 2018