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May Emmeline Wirth

1894 – 1978

May Emmeline Wirth (1894–1978), circus performer, was once described as the ‘greatest lady bareback rider of all time’. Born May Zinga in Bundaberg in 1894, she was the daughter of a Mauritian circus artist and his Australian wife, but was adopted in 1901 by Mary ‘Marizles’ Wirth (1868–1948), one of the six children of Bavarian-born bandsman John Wirth, who arrived in Australia in the mid-1850s and performed with various circus outfits until his death in 1880. In 1882, John’s sons Philip and George, along with Marizles and their other siblings, started their own troupe. By the 1890s, the Wirth Brothers’ Circus was touring the continent and abroad, billed as ‘Australia’s own Greatest Show on Earth’. May was introduced at an early age to acrobatics, highwire and other circus tricks by her father, and her adoptive mother and uncles soon added equestrian stunts to her repertoire. After a star turn with Wirth Brothers’ Circus in Sydney in 1911, Marizles took May to the USA. There, she was spotted by John Ringling, who signed her for two seasons with his Barnum & Bailey Circus. She made her American debut at Madison Square Garden in 1912, and, with Marizles and her step-sister, Stella, then went on to perform in the UK and Europe. As the ‘Royal Wirth Family’ the trio of women featured alongside other dazzling international artistes in Wirth Brothers’ tour of Australasia during 1915 and 1916. One Sydney newspaper in 1916 recounted one of her daring appearances thus: ‘Standing on the bare back of a horse, with another one galloping behind, the performer set herself the task of turning a somersault in the air and landing on the back of the animal behind …With fine judgment, the performer took off, and landed on the rear animal’s back, thereby earning salvos of applause from the big audience present. Miss Wirth has justly earned the title bestowed upon her of ‘The Wizard Rider’.’ Returning to America in 1917, the ‘Somersaulting Queen of the Arena’ and her May Wirth Troupe again headlined with Barnum & Bailey, May remaining the star equestrienne attraction following the merging of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey in 1919 and up until the time she left the company in the late-1920s. A bareback rider, acrobat, stuntwoman, and contortionist, she retired in 1937 and settled with Marizles in New York. Later in life, she resided in Sarasota, Florida, and was inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame there in 1964.

Updated 2018