The Alarming Fate of High Wire Walkers Who Operate Without a Net

How to take responsible risks

Jason McBride

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All illustrations by Jason McBride

The problem with death-defying circus acts is that sometimes they don’t defy death.

It used to be that high-wire walkers and trapeze artists always performed with a net. It was crazy not to. No matter how skilled you are, bad things can happen — often things outside of your control. A gust of wind, a loud bang from the audience that breaks your concentration, or improperly assembled equipment can make you lose your balance.

And when you’re hundreds of feet off the ground, any slip or momentary lapse can send you tumbling down to the ground below.

Without a net, the consequences of any failure are almost certainly fatal.

If you have a net, you might still get hurt, but you will live to balance above the ground some other day. Walking the wire with a safety net is still risky — it’s a responsible risk.

The famous Flying Wallendas changed everything when it comes to safety nets. It wasn’t a calculated decision.

The Ringling Brothers Circus hired the family after John Ringling saw the Wallendas perform in Havana. The group’s first show was in Madison Square Garden in 1928. But the net never arrived at the venue.

This performance was a big break for the Wallendas. If they failed to perform, they wouldn’t get paid. They most likely would get dropped from the circus and might never work in the U.S. again. The phrase, “The show must go on,” isn’t for the honor of the performers or the enjoyment of the audience. It’s for the protection of the owner’s or producer’s profits.

The show must go on, and so, the Wallendas did.

The group did their tricks up on the high wire with no safety harnesses and with no net, and they got the loudest, most enthusiastic applause of their careers. The Flying Wallendas never used a net again. The circus business, being a cutthroat world of copycats and narrow margins, performing without a net became the industry standard.

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Jason McBride

Freelance Writer & Illustrator | Poet & Visual Essayist | Amateur Human | he/him https://weirdopoetry.com/newsletter/