The Tragic Death Of Karl Wallenda

Once a unique kind of star, "circus performer" is now largely a job title of the past — minus a few Las Vegas acts and some traveling mom-and-pop attractions. But once upon a time, there was no gig more glamorous (and sometimes more dangerous) than being part of a circus act.

One of the most famous acts to emerge from the bygone era of the circus was The Flying Wallendas. Performing since the 1920s as wire walkers (those brave enough to balance on an impossibly thin wire several stories in the air, with or without a net), the family actually has entertainment roots that run even deeper than that. According to Heavy, the first iteration of the act traveled the countryside of what's now the Czech Republic, performing for donations.

Eventually, it was young Karl Wallenda who would start the modern-day version of the troupe in the 1920s as a teenager. He had essentially apprenticed with a more experienced wire walker until he knew enough about the trade to strike out on his own, recruiting multiple members of his family. Soon, young Karl and his family had earned the attention of a very famous outfit — Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The Wallendas without a net

One of the reasons for the Wallendas' fame came about by accident. In their 1928 debut in New York City, the net they usually used was lost and so they simply performed without it, which shocked and thrilled the crowd, according to Heavy.

Despite their bravado, the act was not without tragedy. Per ATI, the family was performing its famous seven-person pyramid in 1962 when the formation collapsed. Three members of the family were killed and two seriously injured.

But nothing seems to have stayed in the public's consciousness quite like the death of the group's patriarch, Karl Wallenda. Wallenda had been in San Juan, Puerto Rico for a relatively uncomplicated promotional wire walk, when the act suddenly turned deadly. Wallenda steadied himself as he walked the wire, carefully balancing his pole for stability, when he was hit by a gust of wind and fell to the street below. Karl Wallenda was declared dead on his way to the hospital, according to ABC News. Stunningly, the event was broadcast live.

The Wallendas refused to bow down to fear though. According to ATI, Karl's granddaughter Delilah and her son Nik recreated their patriarch's final wire walk in 2011. This time, the performance went off without a hitch.