While Jules Leotard may have invented the trapeze act, as well as giving his name to the skin tight outfit its practitioners wore while performing, the six Hanlon brothers were the ones who made the trapeze famous. Thomas Hanlon, and his younger brother William were the stars of the show; each would perform the trickiest part of the routine the brothers called “The Zamperllaerostation.” The act coupled grace and beauty with danger, as the brothers performed their somersaults directly over the crowd, and without a safety net. As they flew through the air, the audience held its collective breath, for if the performer missed the trapeze, he would fall directly in their midst.
Eventually, to cover more of the country, the brothers split up three and three, with Thomas heading one troop and William the other. To complete the required six members, the brothers adopted three teenagers to join them; the faux Hanlon brothers were initiated into the arts of the trapeze, and after a few years were able to take full part in the show.
Falls were rare. William missed a trapeze in New York in 1861. Thomas fell in Cincinnati in 1868 while springing for a rope held by his brothers, which he would use to lower himself to the stage. He lay bleeding profusely on the stage, unconscious. In true trooper fashion, once he’d regained his senses, he insisted on going on with the Hanlon brothers tour through the Midwest. Thomas’ resolve masked deeper problems. He performed the show in Indianapolis, but quit suddenly, informing his brothers he intended to go to New York City. He took the three faux Hanlon brothers with him, but Thomas showed up in Harrisburg without them, delirious and wandering the streets. For his own safety, the town police locked him in jail.
They were wise to do so, for Thomas attempted to hang himself by roping his bed sheet round his neck and tying it to a hook above the door. An officer foiled the attempt, and all linens were removed. Thomas broke his pewter dinner plate (a feat in its own), and attempted to slice his throat with one of the pieces. This attempt too was stymied, Thomas’ wounds were bandaged by a local doctor, and officers removed everything which could be useful to one intent on his own destruction from Hanlon’s cell.
The officers had not counted on Thomas’ acrobatic skill, nor the strength of his resolve. On the floor of the cell there was a bolt, topped with a brass nut, used to hold the jail’s heating system in place. Turning a somersault in the air, Thomas brought his forehead down on the brass nut. Bleeding, he did it again, and again, some fifteen times in all. By the time the officers reached him, Thomas’ scalp hung in ribbons, flaps of skin hanging down before his eyes.
He still had strength enough to fight, and it took six men to hold him down so that a doctor could apply chloroform. The wounds were dressed, and the doctor managed to staunch the blood flowing from what remained of Thomas’ scalp . Thomas awoke for a few moments, appeared to be rationale, then lapsed once more into unconsciousness. A few hours later he was dead; participant in the most acrobatic suicide on record.