Unanswered Juggling History Questions: Part 1

As a juggling historian and writer, one of my primary goals is to uncover facts, stories, photos, and videos of jugglers that have never been published in the juggling community before. I feel that I’ve accomplished this fairly well in my time writing for eJuggle. Among the most important discoveries I’ve made are the fact that The Price Brothers were the first Restaurant Jugglers, that Gene Adams was the first to juggle 5 hoops and the first to do the blind / scorpion kick, and that Frank Le Dent definitely performed 11 balls. I’ve discovered numerous facts and photos of jugglers such as Ollie Young, Ferry Mader, James DeWitt Cook, and Frank Le Dent and shared many other photos and videos that had never been online before. As a collector and museum curator, I’ve gathered, saved, and displayed thousands of props, photos, books, and videos. I say all of this to make the point that I truly desire to solve the mysteries of juggling history and to preserve that history for future generations. With those goals in mind, I thought about what questions I have that I most desire answers for. I’ve chosen a few of them for this article. If you happen to have any information that might be helpful in answering these, please let me know.

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”.
So you may be asking yourself what’s so mysterious about Max Wessely. Well, the mystery comes from 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.
 First To Juggle Rings

The question “Who was the first person to juggle rings rather than hoops?” is one that is greatly discussed between myself and fellow juggling historian Erik Aberg. It’s known that hoop juggling can be traced to around 1887, when William Everhart started to perform with them. Click here to read about Everhart.

Everhart3William Everhart

The first question regarding the hoop / ring mystery is this: What’s the difference between the two? Basically, a hoop is wider, or at least roughly as wide, on it’s edge as it is between the inside of the hoop and the outside of the hoop (the grip width). A ring is very thin on its edge and fairly wide on its grip width. In other words, a ring is like a flat disc with the middle cut out. To clarify the difference, the picture below shows one of Rudy Horn’s wooden rings from 1942 inside of one of Bob Bramson’s wooden hoops.

HornBramson (1024x703)

The juggler that is usually thought to be the first to juggle rings rather than hoops is Angelo Piccinelli. Piccinelli, who is still alive, was born in 1921. It’s known that he performed 8 rings at the age of 19, which would be in 1940. It is not known how young he was when he started working with rings, which is part of the reason for some of the discussion below.

PicinelliAngleo Piccinelli

While Angelo Piccinelli was certainly one of the first well known jugglers to use rings, I think that there’s quite a good deal of evidence that ring juggling precedes him. First of all, we have the following photo of Italo Medini from 1937. It shows him as a 15 year old juggling five rings with a ball bouncing on his head. Like Piccinelli, we have no idea what year he started working with rings.


The following photo shows the 2 Langers passing rings back to back and dates back to 1935, when Piccinelli was 14 years old.


Thirdly, we have three photos of Freddy Zay juggling large rings on a tall unicycle. These are from 1935 or 1936. Notice the close up photo reveals that they are in fact thin rings and not hoops. He appears to be holding six of them in his hands.






We can fairly safely assume that both of these acts were working with rings earlier than 1935. This is especially true of Freddy Zay.

However, there are two even more convincing pieces of evidence about an earlier date for the use of rings in juggling. Jenny Jaeger was born in 1909. She could juggle 8 balls at the age of 9, 9 balls at the age of 12, and 10 balls at the age of 15. She also juggled rings. The following picture shows her in 1924 at age 15. While it’s not entirely clear that the props at her feet are rings rather than hoops, their appearance seems closer to rings to me.


The next photo of Jenny Jaeger is from five years later, in 1929. These are definitely rings, as you can see from her grip on one.


In 1929, Piccinelli was 8 years old and certainly could have been juggling rings by that age, so we need to look at one last piece of evidence. This is something that definitely predates Piccinelli. The first instructional book (rather than pamphlet) on juggling was written by Australian juggler Anglo, who’s real name was T. Horton. The book, The Art Of Modern Juggling, was written in 1904 or earlier and was published in 1907. We know it was written no later than 1904, for Anglo was put to death for the murder of his second wife on May 12th, 1904. Nevertheless, this book contains instructions on both ring juggling and hoop juggling, differentiating between the two. Below are the ring and hoop sections of the book.


Note that the rings are described as being “very similar to plates”, which more or less describes the flat props we now consider rings. Therefore, ring juggling definitely predates Piccinelli, Jenny Jaeger, and the other jugglers mentioned in this article. Jenny’s father, Willy Jaeger, juggled either hoops or rings at least as early as 1900, as the following illustration from that year shows. However, we again can’t tell if they are hoops or rings.


While my research has revealed a great deal more about the origins of ring juggling than we previously had, we are, unfortunately, now farther away from knowing who the first ring juggler was than we initially thought. At least we now know to look further back than we were looking.

One More Ring Mystery

While we’re on the subject of rings, I’d love to know how Nikolai Gerasimov holds and releases 11 rings from his hands. I asked him and he replied that it was “a professional secret”! Click here to see him do this most mysterious feat.


In Part 2 of this series, we’ll examine a few more mysteries of juggling history. If you have such a topic to suggest, please let me 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 16 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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