Bundaberg’s May Wirth became a circus legend

May Wirth
Bundaberg-born “wizard rider” May Wirth has been remembered by the National Portrait Gallery.

Circus Hall of Fame member May Wirth, born at Bundaberg in 1894, has been described as “one of the greatest female acrobats on horseback of all times”.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography records that May was born on 6 June 1894 at Bundaberg.

She was the daughter of John Edward Zinga, a circus artist from Mauritius whose real name was Despoges, and his native-born second wife Dezeppo Marie, née Beaumont.

After her parents separated, May was adopted in 1901 by Mary Elizabeth Victoria (‘Marizles') Wirth (1868-1948), equestrienne and sister of Philip and George Wirth.

May Wirth
Born at Bundaberg in 1894, May Wirth was a contortionist and bareback rider who was admitted to the American Circus Hall of Fame.

Having been taught by her father to do the ‘flip-flap', May soon featured in balancing and tumbling acts, and as a tightwire performer and contortionist.

At the age of 10 she was a ‘real trick rider' and began appearing in acts. In Melbourne in 1906 she was billed as ‘May Ringling', the ‘American fearless hurricane hurdle rider'. A ‘remarkably pretty girl', she grew to only 4 ft 11 ins (150cm) tall.

The National Portrait Gallery says that 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.

In 1916 the Sydney Sunday Times reported:

“One of the features of the program yesterday afternoon at Wirths' new Hippodrome was the introduction by Miss May Martin Wirth of an entirely new act, attempted for the first time by any equestrienne in Australia. Standing on the bare back of a horse, with anothero ne galloping behind, the performer set herself the task of turning a somersault in the air and landing on the back of the animal behind. The horses were a bit fractious, but after some coaxing they settled down into an even gait. 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'.”

May has an entry in Circopedia, the International Circus Encyclopedia. It describes her as “one of the greatest female acrobats on horseback of all times”.

In 1932 she appeared in the operetta The Blue Mask, which opened in Chicago.

May Wirth
May Wirth from Bundaberg has been described as one of the greatest female acrobats on horseback of all times.

The Blue Mask was an adaptation of the famous operetta The Circus Princess, by the Hungarian composer Imre Kálmán.

Thanks to the presence of May and her troupe of riders the opera’s circus scene was the real thing. May’s two big steeds loped around the ring (with padded hoofs) in the true manner of the circus arena.

May received the supreme honour of the American circus world when on February 23, 1964 she was inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame.

Visitors found that May, at 80, possessed a sharp memory for the details of the many tricks she did on horseback during her circus career, spoken in a gentle voice with a faint trace of an Australian accent.

She died on 18 October 1978 at Sarasota.