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Updated on March 12, 2009

Frank "Cannonball" Richards

The name Frank "Cannonball" Richards isn't exactly a household name, but chances are you have seen the iconic photograph of a gentleman being shot in the stomach with a cannonball, as the ultimate feat of strength. The image of Frank being blasted in the gut with a hard shot iron ball, has been view by many incorrectly. Some would come to believe this famous picture is a metapohr as the absolute example of stupidity and the ultimate expression of fame without talent or ability.

Frank Richards launched into entertainment's spotlight, by working the carnival and vaudeville circuits in 1932. Frank's unusual talent set him apart, from many of his contemporaries. Richards' act was remarkable, leaving many who witnessed it astounded, with his feats of strength and edurance. You see, Frank Richards unique talent was his belly...and I'm not talking about competitve eating, or amazing acts of gastronomical curiousity. Frank’s amazing ironclad gut was his claim to fame. His entire act was mainly nothing more than taking hits to the tummy, and I'm not talking about gentle "love taps" either. He subjected himself to heavy,and powerful blows to his belly; the kind of physical abuse that would hospitalize the average man for days... maybe even weeks.

Richards began by letting people, including heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, punch him in the gut. Frank steadily increased the tolerance of abuse his mighty belly would endure. It wasn't too long before Frank would invite spectators from the audience to jump on his stomach. To out do that stunt... next, he began to allow himself to be struck in the gut by a two-by-four. Later to top that trick, Frank became able to handle repeated blows from a sledgehammer. He was truly doing this...from all reports, research and records, there were no gimmicks, no "prop" sledgehammer, no fake two- by- fours, or schill audience members used during his performances.

The concept of the "pain proof man" performer has been around in one form or another for centuries. From Fakirs walking on hot coals, or laying on a bed of nails... to the persons, known in the sideshow days as the "human blockheads" that drove nails deep into their various facial orifices. Still it would be The Amazing Frank "Cannonball" Richards that would capture the imagination of an audience, and the hearts of pop culture.

In a "showstopper" that would finally top all of the other belly busting stunts that Frank Richards would be remembered forever for... Frank would be shot in the belly with a cannonball. Forever, cementing his now famous nickname, "Cannonball"

It is important to note,  that ‘Cannonball’ Richards used a spring-loaded cannon to fire his cannonball. Which still equaled, the velocity that the ball traveled. This was still beyond the limits of sanity and would likely have killed or severely injured the average man. Richards limited his cannonball act to twice per day, as performing it more often was too painful.

Sadly today, most audiences would never understand, nor realize the dedication and spirit that was required by Frank "Cannonball" Richards to perform these gut busting stunts. To this day, no comparable act has existed since.

The photo image of "Cannonball" taking a cannonball to the gut, still reamins inconic.This image is so ingrained into the mental lexicon, that during the long running animated TV series, The Simpsons, an episode paid homage. During the show's seventh season the mentally child-like father, Homer Simpson who is hopelessly tallentless, yet, a lovable loser is hired into a traveling freak show,that is part of a large music festival, to be shot in the stomach with cannonballs.

Frank 'Cannonball' Richards

The Human Cannonball

Flying through the sky, you're rocketing across the horizon, but you a living projectile; a performer... a human cannonball. You are blasted out from a specially designed cannon, thankfully not by gunpowder, but usually by either a spring load or a powerful jetstream of compressed air. In some circus performances, gunpowder may be used to add to the drama of sight and sound effect. Hopefully, your calculations are right and you land on your target.... which most of the time is either a large net or an inflated giant air bag. Sometimes for outdoor performances you maybe aimed toward a body of water as your landing spot.

You maybe asking yourself... who in their right mind would have sat around one day telling someone, "You know, I think I want to be shot out of a cannon." For the record, the first known human cannonball stunt was performed on April 2, 1877 at the Royal Aquarium in London, by a young woman who's stage name was "Zazel" or Rossa Matilda Richter, (then 14 years old) as she was known by her parents. Zazel was launched by a spring-style cannon, that was invented by another performer, Canadian William Leonard Hunt, aka "The Great Farini." Zazel later toured with the famous P.T. Barnum Circus.

Zazel may also be the first recorded casualty of being shot out of a cannon. Some stories claim, that during one of her performances, Zazel broke her back. Which resulted in Zazel having to spend the rest of her life in a back brace. Did she pay the high price for her fame?

Through the course of human cannonball history, there have been many folks that have climbed into the barrel of the cannon, only to be launched at speeds of up to 90 mph and rocketed as far as the world record of 201feet at heights upto 100 feet in the air. These human cannonballs endure "G" forces of around 12 G's when hitting their intended "safety net," ... if they are so lucky to make it to the calculated landing point... Out of roughly 50 human cannonballs more than 30 have been killed, mostly by missing the net. Even if you can avoid any of the numberous landing mishaps, it is claimed that many human cannonballs black out in flight, which would raise the questions about long-term brain damage. Talk about occupational hazards! ... but let's face facts folks.. if you are being shot out of a cannon, chances are your mental stability would have to come into question. The act of human cannonball landing miscalculation has been common enough that the State of New York even passed a law prohibiting anyone from being shot from a cannon.

For the human cannonballer of today, the propellant of choice is compressed air. The human shotput climbs into a hollow cylinder that is fitted inside the cannon barrel. The cylinder is then lowered to the bottom of the cannon barrel. With a heavy blast of compressed air, the cylinder is launched forward at roughly 150-200 pounds per square inch. The internal cylinder stops at the cannon's mouth. Leaving rocket boy to be catapulted out towards the wild blue yonder. The explosion, flash and smoke from the cannon are a bit of theatrics, to sell the drama.

The most famous human cannonball families, (yes, there is one...someone has to be) is the Zacchini's, with over 35 members in this performing family. Their entire lives have been devoted to this dangerous form of entertainment since 1922. The Zacchinis immagrated to the US in 1929. And been the years of 1939 to 1991 the Zacchini's would have as many as 5 traveling shows with 14 cannons. It was the Zacchini's who introduced launching two people simultaneously from the same cannon routine and also the launch of two performers simultaneously from opposite ends of the circus... which lead to a mid-air collision that left one of the Zacchini family members with a broken back... Aside from the original five Zacchini brothers who took up the family business, two of the daughters also got into the act. Hugo Zacchini was the last of the family members to take flight on August 29, 1991. I would guess it would be safe to say the Zacchini family has probably seen their fare share of pain, and tragedies.

It is still safe to say that being a human cannonball is still a pretty easy way to get yourself injured or killed. I can imagine that the flight would be the easy part... It would probably be the sudden stop that would hurt like a son of a bitch, especially if you missed the net.

Human Cannonball

Right In The Jewels

Homerpalooza: an homage to Frank "Cannonball" Richards

"Homerpalooza" was the twenty-fourth episode, and The Simpsons' seventh season season finale. The story's plot thickens around Homer's quest to prove to his kids (Bart and Lisa) that he is still cool and "with it." Homer decides to take art and Lisa the the "Hullabalooza" music festive, instead of school... Through complete typical Simpson happen stance, Homer joins the music fest as a carnival freak... in a fashion that was "a tip of the hat" to Frank "Cannonball" Richards.

At the festival, Homer attempts to be cool by wearing a Rastafarian hat, but finds himself being confronted by an angry mob  of "self rightious alternative music purest." After being booted out by the hippest crowd, Homer angrily kicks a cannon, which releases Peter Frampton's inflatable pig (purchased at "Pink Floyd's yard sale.") The blow-up pig cannon fires the pink balloon at his stomach, and the rest is sideshow history. The festival promoter is so impressed by the accidental stunt, that he hires Homer, as a part of the festival's touring freak show.As a result of joining the tour, Homer gets to hang out with the music festival acts: The Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill and Sonic Youth.

Homer's new found fame has him living the rock star life, not to mention he gets to party with big name rock stars. Homer gains the respect of the apathic  American youth movement at the time, and the love of his son, Bart. As the tour approaches a stop in Homer Simpsons' hometown of Springfield, his stomach begins to hurt and he is sent for medical attention from a  veterinarian. The veterinarian... advises Homer that if he performs his act one more time, his stomach will burst and he will die. Homer blows- off the doctor's advice, not wanting to lose his new found popularity. At  the day of the show Homer stands, as before facing the cannon... awaiting the cannonball to be shot at his stomach... When at the last second he loses his nerve and dodges the cannonball saving his life.

Homer's performance may have been using his large round gut as a target for catching cannonballs. Earning him a chance at being cool amongst the pierced and tattooed Hullabalooza crowd. But in the end Homer is back to being the lovable loser that he always has been, uncool, and not respected by his children.

Hit In The Gut

Belly Flop Contest

Doin' A Belly Smacker

What used to be concidered bad diving form around the pool has grown into a contest phenomena. Participants are doing belly flops diving into the local watering hole, belly whackers jumping into swimming pools, and belly smackers into giant muddle puddles celebrating the Redneck Games. No matter if you call it by any of the three names listed above or even a gut buster; you can call it what you will, but the fact of the matter is to some, belly smackers are a sport. The usual rules are fairly simple: dive into a body of water flying squirrel style and the first one to draw blood wins.

The more height and performance style the more the crowd will egg-you-on. Costumes and goofball antics are welcomed... they only add fuel to the fire...of course so does alcohol...drinking is encourged.

Most people discover the belly flop the old fashioned way... by missing how to stick a back flip dive off of a swimming pool diving board. The higher the dive the harder the water feels against the large exposed surface of the entire body... usually resulting in the stomach taking the brunt the watery wall's harsh resistance. Occaisionally "knocking the wind out" of the happless pink bellied victim.

Now a days belly whacker contests have become not only a right of watering hole passage, but also the common man's version of the sport of kings.


The Breeders - Cannonball


Submit a Comment

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    At least you didn't poke him in the eye!

  • blondepoet profile image

    blondepoet 9 years ago from australia

    Hahaha oh St.James the Brazilian wax totally cracking me up...oh my belly hurts so bad.

    Actually my first customer in that department was a gay guy. Haha I thought to myself "Oh Lordy this can only happen to me"

    Remind me to tell you one day the time I accidentally nipped the end of someones ear off lol.Don't worry it had a happy ending. Oh I have to get going before I crack up again.P.S I am a good hairdresser I swear just a few hiccups in the beginning

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Dinky... Floating on a raft being the Sun Goddess is not swimming.

    QuickSand... I agree.

    BlondePoet... You musta been hell on your first Brazilian Waxing gig.

    Iphigenia... coffee and chocolate is always the best way to enjoy reading my Hubs.

    PGundy... Always happy to help.

  • profile image

    pgrundy 9 years ago

    This was too much fun! Now I feel way better about my tummy too... thanks!

  • profile image

    Iphigenia 9 years ago

    Really great coffee tme read - thanks. between the lines i read "don't do this at home" - I'm with Teresa and the chocolate !

  • blondepoet profile image

    blondepoet 9 years ago from australia

    Omg. I never thought the tummy was that strong. You would think it has to cause some damage, I have seen it all now haha. I thought I was crazy, I remember my first eyebrow wax.My hands were shaking so bad I accidentally took the whole brow off hahaha.Oh boy that is a longgggggg story.Great hub once again,you pick some really unique topics.

  • quicksand profile image

    quicksand 9 years ago

    Unbelievable but not enviable. :)

  • Dink96 profile image

    Dink96 9 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

    Well, I was going to say something smart like, "Boys!" and then I suddenly had a memory that despite my best efforts to do otherwise, I was never a diver. I love to swim, but never mastered that whole diving thing. But honey, I LOVE TO WATCH!

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you PackerPack... maybe one day these tidbits of other-wise useless knowledge will use their power for the greater good of all.

    I appreciate the stopping by.

  • packerpack profile image

    Om Prakash Singh 9 years ago from India, Calcutta

    Very good research done James. This Hub was nice reading. Thanks for yet another informative Hub.

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thanks for the dog food idea!

  • Proud Mom profile image

    Proud Mom 9 years ago from USA

    Have you ever shot one of those potato guns? If you load dog food in before the potato, you've got yourself a great shotgun!

    I can't imagine belly flopping on purpose. Even the thought makes me flinch!

    This is fun stuff, St. James!

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    I think there are many job openings for cannonball catcher, and the human cannonball (you may be able to quote your rate, in this job market) Belly smacker may soon be an Olympic sport (or maybe not) that would mean big endorsement deals.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 9 years ago from East Coast, United States

    wow, i'm going to go do some situps

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you Marble Venus... funny but with a name that has the word Marble in it I would guess sinking, not swimming would be your forte'.

    thanx for floppin' by.

  • Marble Venus profile image

    Marble Venus 9 years ago

    Fantastic, hon!!! <3 As usual. I'm really good at belly flopping...though it DOES hurt. So I usually only do it on accident. :P

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    I thought feeling the burn, was part of fitness routines. Thank you C.C. for giving a peek into the madness.

    watch those swan dives.

  • profile image

    C. C. Riter 9 years ago

    Another great read. That Cannonball was something. I wish I'd have seen him live.

    My first beeky smacker was off of a 14' dive, ouch! burned like hell! Had a few since, but that first one was a doozy. thanks St. for making me remember my burn

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Lgali... Thank you.

    Laila, I am happy you enjoyed this little bit of rambling. I find interest in the strangest things.

  • Laila Rajaratnam profile image

    Laila Rajaratnam 9 years ago from India

    WOW..StJames..thanks for all the have really gone into the heart of the matter oops sorry.. heart of the cannon! :) Thanks..enjoyed it!:)

  • Lgali profile image

    Lgali 9 years ago

    good hub

  • St.James profile image

    St.James 9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Eating chocolate is a great claim to fame... can't hurt as much as a cannonball to the gut, or diving in belly smacker fashion. To the best of my knowledge no one has died from chocolate missing its intended target... So, I would say you picked a good one.

    Proud to call ya, friend... no need to trying catching up on the endless thoughts that happen to escape my head and make it here to be published. I appreciate the moral support.

  • Teresa McGurk profile image

    Sheila 9 years ago from The Other Bangor

    Yeah, see -- some guys have way too much time on their hands. But then, my major claim to fame is eating chocolate, so I guess I should just shut up. LOVE the title for this, and, as usual, really enjoy your writing -- I'm just now realizing that I haven't read many of your hubs, and I mean to fix that right now!