Known in the trade as Pansy Zedora, Pansy made her name as Alar the Human Arrow with a troupe called the Flying Zedoras. In her act she was shot from a giant crossbow, flew through the air into a huge paper target, to be caught on the other side by her sister swinging from a trapeze.
The sisters toured across America with Barnum and Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ between 1891 and 1896.
Pansy, whose real name was Francis Murphy, was born in Liverpool in 1879. Her mother was keen for Pansy and her sister to appear on stage and sent them for private dance and acting tuition.
Pansy’s older sister ran away to the circus and when her parents died Pansy went to join her. They began performing as ‘The Zedora Sisters’ and developed their aerial act.
Pansy was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic. American newspapers hailed her as, “The Crowning miracle of physical and mechanical sensation, surpassing adequate description…the bravest of all living artists” and “The only Human Arrow, a lithe Winsome, living weapon”.
When she had an accident in Madison Square Gardens in New York, the event appeared as a cartoon in the paper with the by lines, “The day the human arrow was stunned” and “Knocked senseless on her lofty perch”.
Pansy kept costumes, photographs, programmes, posters, newspaper cuttings, and props relating to her career, including her metal hook and leather strap (complete with teeth marks) which she used as the mouthpiece in her speciality act.
Suspended by the hook from the bar of the trapeze, Pansy clenched the strap with her teeth and this was all that connected Pansy to the trapeze. Collections of ephemera and artefacts from circus and music hall performers are less common than those of actors, and the survival of personal stage equipment like this from an early 20th century act is rare.
Pansy was a member of other variety acts including Mars and Mars, and The Ritz Trio. Ever adventurous, she went on to join a ladder- balancing act called The Uniques. Posters in the collection show that she was performing with these acts in variety theatres across the country until about 1916.
Though World War I largely ended her career, Pansy was still performing physically demanding acts in 1916 when she was 37 years old.
The Zedora's 'Flying Arrow Trapeze Act', in which Pansy Chinery was the arrow, required precise timing since mistakes could be dangerous and there were frequent accidents.
The illustration below from an American newspaper depicts the accident at New York's Madison Square Gardens in 1897 when a string was pulled too soon and Pansy was knocked unconscious on her crossbow. The event appeared as a cartoon in the paper with the captions, 'The day the human arrow was stunned' and 'Knocked senseless on her lofty perch'. Despite the hazards of her work, Pansy never suffered any fatal consequences and died in her sleep in a nursing home in 1969 at the age of 90.