WORDS BY ROSS PEDDLESDEN
Ever dreamed of running away and joining the circus? At the age of seven, a Bundaberg girl did exactly that. She performed as part of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, and was billed as ‘the greatest bare back horse rider who ever lived’
May Wirth was born in Toonburra Street, Bundaberg in 1894. Her parents were travelling circus performers Mauritius-born Johnny Zinga and his wife Dezeppo, although it seems their marriage didn’t last long.
In 1901, May was picked up in Bundaberg by Wirth’s circus and became part of their troupe. At the time it was reasonably common for travelling circuses to take on orphaned, abandoned and poor children from towns they visited. The circuses had a continuing need for young performers. Though some suffered exploitation, for others like May it was no doubt a happy escape from a difficult life. May became a favourite of the Wirth family and was formally adopted by Marizles Wirth, taking her name by 1905.
May had already been taught some skills by her father, and at a young age was performing as an acrobat, high wire artist and contortionist. But it was when she began working with horses that her career really took off, with one source describing her at the age of 17 ‘driving eight horses while doing somersaults on their backs’.
May’s extraordinary skills weren’t considered special; apparently Australian circuses had plenty of skilled horse acts during this period. It was fortunate for May that in 1911 Marizles had a fight with her family and took May to the United States, where she quickly became a star.
She was extraordinary – somersaulting backwards through rings from the back of a cantering horse, leaping onto a moving horse from the ground with baskets on her feet. The trick she was best known for involved performing a double backward somersault from the back of one cantering horse onto the back of another horse going in the opposite direction. It’s a feat which has not been reproduced to this day.
By 1912 she was a centre-ring attraction at Barnum and Bailly’s three-ring circus, which at the time billed itself as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. May was a sensation.
During the ‘20s and ‘30s May toured with several circuses, performed in vaudevilles and even an operetta in Chicago. What she did was very physically demanding. May retired in 1937, and moved to New York with her manager and husband Frank. She died in Sarasota in Florida in 1978. Said to be lively and vivacious to the end; May loved to tell stories of her circus days. You can bet she had many great stories to tell.
The Bundaberg & District Historical Museum is located in the Bundaberg Botanic Gardens on Mt Perry Road. Open 7 days.