One of the greatest female acrobats on horseback of all times, May Emmeline Wirth (1894-1978) was born on June 6, 1894 at Bundaberg, Queensland, in Australia, the daughter of John Edward Zinga, a circus artist from Mauritius (an island nation off the southwest coast of Africa) whose original name was Despoges, and his Australian-born wife Dezeppo Marie. In 1901, after her parents separated, May was adopted by Marizles (“Rill”) Martin (1868-1948), an equestrienne and a sister of the Wirth brothers, proprietors of one of Australia’s largest circuses.
Having already been taught by her father to turn “flip-flaps,” May soon featured in Wirth Bros. Circus in balancing and tumbling acts, and as a tight wire performer and contortionist. From the Wirths, May also learned equestrian skills. At the age of ten, she was a “real trick rider.” In Melbourne in 1906, aged twelve, she was billed as “May Ringling,” the “American fearless hurricane hurdle rider.” Like the most adroit of circus performers, bareback riders in particular, May was short but strong. She grew to be only 150 centimetres tall (about five feet).
Contortion work and tumbling, the earliest and most basic performing skills she acquired, were the basis of the technical precision and artistry she brought to her career as a bareback rider. By 1910, May’s work on horseback was clearly the most outstanding of her versatile accomplishments. But for all her skill as an equestrienne by that time, she did not rank highly on the Wirth program.
In 1911 the remarkable flying trapeze troupe, The Flying Jordans, and the wild animal acts claimed most of the attention of Australian audiences who came to see Wirth’s circus that year—and in Sydney, at the annual opening of the Circus, May was simply “a remarkably pretty girl who rode and drove eight ponies and turned somersaults on a cantering grey.”
Read more of the May Wirth Story on Circopedia or for an indepth view of the life of May Wirth copies of the limited edition book – Volume Thirteen – Circus in Australia: May Wirth, The Bareback Queen