Because well-behaved women rarely make history.

When was the last time you were brave? Was it when you tried a new dish for dinner or when you jumped off that waterfall last weekend? If you’re on the downside of courage these days, let these six fearless females inspire you. Without the benefit of fancy high-tech gear and environment-tested apparel we have today, these women earned their immortality by walking on the wings of planes as they flew through the sky and crossing teetering tightropes. They defined bravery and showed the boys that girls have grit too, and here they are — the lion-hearted women who changed our perspective female power with death-defying stunts and unheard-of acts of strength.

Gladys Ingle, the only female member of Hollywood’s 13 Black Cats aerial daredevil stunt troop

Gladys could fly with the guys, all 13 of them. In 1924, at just 26, she was initiated into Hollywood’s aerial daredevil men-only stunt group The 13 Black Cats. She proved her worth when she walked blindfolded on the wings of a Curtis JN-4 biplane as it flew over Los Angeles, and mastered midair archery from these planes! And no parachute for Gladys either, not until several deadly accidents resulted in a new 1927 law requiring these fate-tempters to wear them. Picture her the next time you’re on a plane snapping a traditional photo of the wing.

Photo credit of San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Maria Spelterini, the only woman to cross the Niagara River Gorge on a tightrope

Maria “Spelterina” Spelterini had perfect balance. To prove it, she donned an elaborate costume and showed up at the lower suspension bridge on the Niagara River Gorge on July 8th, 1876.   Stepping onto a two-and-a-quarter-inch wire, the 23-year-old Italian “Signorina of the Niagara” made the trip look easy. She completed the walk a second time with her feet strapped to peach baskets. Her third walk, five days later, was done blindfolded, and three days after that she walked the wire with her ankles and wrists tied.

RIGHT: Photo credit George E. Curtis LEFT: Photo credit C. Bierstadt

Zazel, the first human cannonball

Rossa Matila Richter, aka Zazel, literally flew into the room with a big boom. At just 14, she became the first human cannonball when, in 1877, she was shot from a spring-loaded cannon created by The Great Farini at London’s Royal Aquarium. The big bang and cloud of smoke produced by a perfectly timed firecracker awed audiences and fooled them into thinking she really had been shot from an actual cannon. Zazel later toured with and became a star attraction of the PT Barnum Circus, entertaining crowds of thousands as she shot across the sky.

LEFT: Photo credit Comtesse DeSpair. RIGHT: Wikimedia Commons

May Wirth, circus Hall of Famer and equestrian daredevil

Tiny but mighty comes to mind when we think of May. Standing a mere five feet tall, she was strong enough to balance herself on the backs of cantering horses while doing forward and backward somersaults, and performing backward flips from one horse to the next in the Australian circus. She once even danced the Charleston on top of a trotting white horse!  At the early age of 10, she was scouted by Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey and Hagenbeck’s Circuses with whom she toured for 15 years. Her craft and passion earned her an induction into the Circus Hall of Fame in 1963 where she is forever enshrined as the greatest bareback rider who ever lived. You can understand Mike’s excitement when he picked one of her touring trunks on an episode of American Pickers.



Helen Gibson, the first Hollywood stuntwoman

This woman had a 50-year love affair with danger. After years of riding in rodeos, Helen Gibson, born Rose August Wenger, had developed the agility and strength she needed to succeed as Hollywood’s first stuntwoman. She made her name as the stunt double in the adventure series The Hazards of Helenand that led to a career in the movies. Poorly paid and socially stigmatized for her decision to become a stuntwoman, Helen persisted, often creating her own routines, many involving speeding trains. One of her most dangerous stunts required her to jump from a building roof onto the top of a moving train. The momentum sent her rolling to the end of the train car, only to be saved by catching herself on an air vent. Another stunt involved chasing a runaway train on horseback, grabbing a dangling rope to swing herself from her horse onto the train just before it went under a bridge. All hail Helen.

Photo credit godsey

Ethel Dare, the first woman to switch planes in the air

Revered as the “Queen of the Air” in the 1920s, Margi Hobbs, aka Ethel Dare, took the audience’s eyes to the sky. This former Barnum and Bailey Circus flying trapeze performer was known for her wing walker talents and for being the first woman to successfully walk from the wing of one plane to another in mid-air. Did we mention she was just a teenager when she did that? Her two signature moves included falling backward off the wing of the plane with nothing but a rope tied to her to save her life, and a move called the “Iron Jaw Spin” where she was suspended in midair by a special harness placed between her teeth.

LEFT: Photo credit George Dettling Collection via Rob Osborne via Holcomb’s Aerodrome RIGHT: Danes Homes Antiques, Waupaca WI via Holcomb’s Aerodrome

How many daring darlings do you know? Share what makes them brave with us in the comments below.


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5 thoughts on “Daring Darlings: 6 Stunt Women You Ought to Know”

  1. Mykel

    It’s hard to find a place to just post some words of respect for the whole lot of people you have and the people you all help. I just finished watching the kid pickers episode and it brought a smile to my face, really helps one remember their roots and what our families sacrificed and preserved for their enjoyment.
    When treasures of type and tale are shown on your amazingly informative (but not too much that people learn too much) and intuitive show, I get very excited.
    When I catch a rerun I still enjoy it. Just want to give a shout out to Mike (great name) franky ( fritz, comon is there a better name? And especially Danielle** and Emily (no offense Emily but I’m sure you understand) I don’t think the boys would be where they are with out you. It’s amazing to be apart of your family all the why up in Canada. ( if your reating this Scott and Sheldon (Canadian pickers) love you all too brining things back and fourth telling history from the items you dig and bring back from the dying life they would be bound to lead withot you all!
    Bug love from canada

  2. Bill Crabtree

    having been born and raised in Iowa on a dairy farm durring the 40s and 50s and always collecting old stuff ,that I dont have any more, I truly love and enjoy your show. My bucket list includes a visit to your store in Leclair some day. I now live in Tucson Arizona with my son. Your show is the best for me, I can relate a lot. Thank You , Bill

  3. Ed Hanson

    Mike, Frank, Danielle & dear Emily,
    At our household (of minimum 6), we all look forward to your program. Some 65+ years ago I would travel through the Swapmeet with my father, looking for treasures. Those times were the treasure, not just the finds. I walk through those memories, every time I watch your show.
    If ever out in the San Diego area, I will take you to a local museum owned by a friend of mine. Not only does he have cars, but WWII memorabilia, such as the original hand written plans of the assault on Normandie. I held this sacred book in my hands and felt the chills. Lots of Hitler memorabilia including letters home by American heroes written on Hitler’s letter head, when they first entered his bunker.
    Maybe we could get into Jay Leno’s garage as well. Now if that is not a good teaser to get you to San Diego, when out here , then you just might need a transfusion. Good luck on the hunt and God Bless your success.
    Ed Hanson and family

  4. Marleen A. Price

    Well, Mike and Frank don’t know any guy’s loved as much as you, being a collector myself, I can understand your passion.
    Wish I could travel again. My husband passed this year and can’t believe I am in my 70’s Don’t every go away, I would miss you.
    I have visited your Nashville store.

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