The Reported 16 Ball Jugglers of the Past

Experience, common sense, and physics all tell us that it is extremely unlikely and almost assuredly impossible that anyone will ever see a juggler perform even a flash of 16 balls on stage except possibly via multiplexing or some other “cheating” method. If you don’t believe me, check out the following wonderful video produced by Wired and featuring well-known jugglers Alex Barron, Zak McAllister, and Jack Kalvan that discusses why it’s almost impossible to juggle 15 balls.

An 11 ball flash has been performed on stage by Frank Le Dent, Ben Beever, and Michael Ferreri. A flash of 12 rings has been performed by Willy Colombaioni in his act and by Anthony Gatto and Albert Lucas in demonstration settings. However, I have found mentions of three jugglers of the past who were said to have performed 16 balls. Let’s take a look at them.

Unnamed Inverted Indian Jugglers

Volume 7 of Beeton’s Every Boy’s Annual, dated 1857, reported about two jugglers from India who each juggled 16 balls, sometimes doing so while upside down. Here is what was reported:

“A tall athletic fellow advanced and making his salaam to the gallery, threw himself on the ground. After performing several strange antics, he placed his head downwards, with his heels into the air, raised his arms and crossed them over on to his breast, balancing himself all the while upon his head. A cup containing sixteen brass balls was now put into his hands; these he took out severally, threw them into the air, keeping the whole sixteen in constant motion, crossing them and causing them to describe all sorts of figures, and not allowing one of them to reach the ground. When he had thus shown his dexterity for a few minutes, a slight man approached, climbed up his body with singular agility and stood upright upon the inverted feet of the performer, who was still upon his head. A second cup, containing sixteen balls was handed to the smaller man who commenced throwing them until the whole were in the air. Thirty-two balls were now in motion, and the rays of the sun falling upon their polished surfaces, the jugglers appeared in the midst of a shower of gold. The effect was singular and the dexterity displayed by them quite amazing. They were as steady as if they had been fixed into stone, and no motions save the movements of their hands and heads were visible. At length the upper man having caught all his balls, and replaced them in his cup, sprang to the ground, and his companion was almost as quickly upon his legs.

After a short pause, the man who had before exhibited himself with his body reversed, planted his feet close together, and standing upright like a column, the smaller juggler climbed his body as before, and placing the crown of his head upon that of his companion, raised his legs into the air, thus exactly reversing the late position of the two performers. After they had been in this position for about a minute, the balls were again put into their hands, and the whole thirty-two kept in motion as before. It was very remarkable that, during the entire time they were thrown, neither of them once came in contact- a proof of the marvelous skill displayed.”

Not only was it said that each performer could juggle 16 balls, but that they could do so for several minutes without dropping and while standing upright or while balancing upside down. This is obviously preposterous. Aren’t you glad that we live in a time where most people have video cameras in their pockets!

Max Wessely

Max Wessely was the leader of a juggling troupe in the early 1900s. The troupe, which consisted of three or four performers, juggled tables, chairs, and plates and appears to have done a fairly standard restaurant juggling act. Little is known about them other than that they were European, that their act lasted 11 minutes, and that two of the members, other than Max, were named Dix and Anger.  I believe they were only active for a short time, as the earliest reference I can find of them is from 1903 and the latest is from 1910. Below is a photo of the troupe.

MaxWesselyJugglers1903Max Wessely Troupe

Here is a review of the Max Wessely Troupe from Variety in 1907:
“The Keith people have been very successful in digging up good closing acts lately. They have another one in this newly imported troupe. The four (two men, a boy, and a woman) manage to pack more fast action in the short space of their appearance than any organization of its size seen hereabouts recently. Not only do they keep moving rapidly but find time for an entire costume change. In the team work they showed traces of nervousness at the Monday afternoon performance and a number of their best tricks fell down on this account, but the rest showed plainly that after a few days work they will have a smooth and altogether novel offering. The woman is a decidedly pretty one and is more than an extra member taking an equal part with the men in all the work. The closing feat is a clever adaptation of the old plate passing trick. The plates whizz through four hands in a zig-zag line, ending in an upward swoop to the last person stationed on a balcony. The acts is a valuable acquisition to American vaudeville.” Another review of their act was not so positive, calling them a “far inferior troupe of jugglers.”
Now we come to the claim of 16 ball juggling. We find it in the book Vaudeville, From The Honkey Tonks To The Palace, by Joe Laurie, Jr., published in 1953. Here’s what Mr. Laurie wrote:
“Chinko was one of the first to juggle eight balls, which was a record for a time. Then along came Amerous Werner, a German who juggled ten, throwing one ball in the air at a time. That caused plenty of “Ah’s” until the Max Wessely Troupe came along and Max juggled sixteen balls, which is a record that still stands as far as I know.”
Obviously, this is difficult to swallow, especially when it’s attributed to an almost unknown juggler. When Frank Le Dent added 11 balls to his act, it was announced in all of his advertisements. When Enrico Rastelli flashed 10 balls in practice, it was international news and was shown in posters. I find it unbelievable that someone could do this trick and even more unbelievable that no one would know anything about it for 50 years. Therefore, I’d love to know what Mr.  Laurie based his comment on. He was a well-known vaudeville performer, so his knowledge should be fairly reliable. Perhaps, like Chinko, whom he referred to in the quote in question, Max Wessely multiplexed the balls. A flash of a 16 ball multiplex in a four ball pattern is certainly possible to achieve and yet not something so impressive as to make the news. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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