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Mauricia de Tiers and Her Sensational Dip of Death: The Fearless Young Frenchwoman who Thrilled Americans in the Early 20th Century 

Posted on 09/22/2020

L’Auto Bolide is the very latest, the most startling thing in the world of loop-the-loop. It is an achievement formidable, thrilling, marvellous—the sort of thing that makes the beholder stop breathing and hope the performer will not break his neck.  

Then after a brief description of the daring stunt's evolution— 

First came the dare-devil who ran down an inclined plane on roller skates. Good! Then the death-defying, one-legged youth who rode down a hundred aerial steps on a bicycle. Better! Then the life-hater who whirled around the loop-the-loop on a bicycle. Best? No: not quite best, for here arrived a bicyclist who looped the loop with a big gap cut out of its top. That is, the top of the loop was cut away, and he performed the uppermost part of his topsy-turvy journey upside down, with his whirling bicycle a-top of him. This seemed the climax of all hair raising feats on the vertical ring of death. 

this 1905 Duluth News Tribune article introduces the woman of the hour—

But now comes Mlle. Mauricia de Tiers, a pretty, charming French girl, who actually loops the gap in an automobile.

On May 3, 1905, the Philadelphia Inquirer also published a story about Mauricia de Tiers, including more background on her stunt:

“The Dip of Death” is a French importation. It was originally presented at the Folies Bergere, Paris, by Mlle. Mauricia de Tiers, who still continues to perform the daring and exceedingly dangerous feat. She is a beautiful woman, as well as a daring one, and her appearance in Philadelphia is expected to create a sensation. The apparatus is nearly sixty feet high, the automobile is a road car weighing about 1200 pounds, and the aerial flight is close to forty-five feet. A remarkable feature is the fact that in its flight the machine is upside down.  

The Tampa Morning Tribune offered additional information on the mechanics of the act:

…Mlle. Mauricia De Tiers, a daring young French woman will demonstrate looping the gap in an automobile. The automobile with its occupant starts from a platform as high as a four-story building, and runs with alarming speed down the declivity, which is almost perpendicular. The auto runs on the outside of a frame shaped like a gigantic, inverted letter S. As the lower curve of the S is reached the automobile and its rider are turned upside down, suspended in the air and spring forty-five feet across the gap. 

The steel framework here supports a curved runway which begins in crescent shape and ends in an easy decline to the ground. This daring feat is pronounced to be the limit of possibility of sensational aerialism. 

Later that spring the Harrisburg Patriot published an article describing the performer, the danger, and the apparatus: 

“Wonderful, did you say? Why, man, it’s miraculous, that’s what it is. As a thriller it certainly is the greatest ever, and the girl is the nerviest, as well as the most beautiful I ever saw.”

That is what an old-time theatrical man said after he had seen Mlle. Mauricia de Tiers make her wonderful flight in “L’Auto-Bolide” (the auto meteor) at the Barnum & Bailey circus. 

It was a test performance and for that reason more dangerous than any that may follow it…

This act occupies a fraction under four seconds. In that time the automobile dashes from a point sixty feet above the floor of the arena down an inclined plane set at an angle of forty-five degrees, which finishes abruptly, turning in upon itself. Then there is a gap of some forty-five feet, and a second inclined plane, which the automobile strikes with terrific force and down which it runs to the ground. 


The Biloxi Daily Herald offered a more detailed account of the auto meteor’s path on May 24:  

For two-thirds the distance down the incline the machine remains upright. As it strikes the loop of the “S,” however, its position is quickly reversed, and for a distance of 30 feet, although still following the curve of the incline, it is upside down. It is in that position when it leaves the “S;” it shoots through the air with terrific speed, with its wheels revolving in the air and pointing skyward and with the automobilist riding head down; it strikes the second runway still in its inverted position, is quickly righted by the curve of the incline, and goes rushing earthward with the speed of an express train. So great is the momentum that the automobile runs a distance of 200 feet before its speed can be checked and the rider permitted to alight. 

By summer news of the act had reached South Dakota:

Sensation has followed sensation so rapidly in the circus world that the public is prepared to receive without incredulity the announcement of the most startling and seemingly impossible feats. During the past five or six years each successive season has produced something as little more daring and a little more dangerous than its predecessor. This year the acme of reckless sensationalism has apparently been reached. An intrepid Frenchwoman is to thrill the American public, and incidentally place her life in daily jeopardy, by “looping the gap” in an automobile. 

The same Aberdeen Daily News article explains: 

When the time is ripe for the “dip of death” the auto is raised to the elevated platform by means of a wire cable. This is done to afford the audience and opportunity to see the machine and study the construction. When the auto has been placed on the elevated pedestal the automobilist ascends. Mlle. Mauricia de Tiers, “the woman who dares” in the “auto-bolide,” is young, small of stature, but as beautifully formed as a model, and nature has endowed her with a face of unusual beauty and intelligence. 

The automobile is placed with upon the platform in such a way that its occupant may readily be seen from all parts of the auditorium, and the eyes of the crowd are riveted upon her as she takes her seat, grasps the levers and prepares for her thrilling flight. No unnecessary time is consumed in the preparations. The suspense is not prolonged. Almost before the audience has nerved itself for the ordeal the word is given and the auto starts on its perilous journey.

The Idaho Register in an article headlined “Flying with Fate,” in addition to the ubiquitous praise of the performer’s appearance, offers the perspective of de Tiers herself:

As Mlle. De Tiers was unstrapped from the machine and stood upon her feet the spectators rushed about her and babbled over her “sensations.” Later, in her normal brilliance, the Basque beauty said: 

“In making the turn onto the hook, when the auto turns upside down, the breath momentarily leaves my body and I feel as if my head has been torn from my shoulders. When the machine strikes the broad runway my heart seems to be wrenched from me. I gasp—and then—I know I have succeeded.”

Mlle. de Tiers was born in the south of France, and the clear Basque sky has developed the soft charm of the olive complexion, sparkling eyes, and jet hair of this fearless woman. Her beauty of spirit enhances the favoring touch of Nature, and she looks more the drawing-room empress than the circus queen. 

The danger of the act was not unnoticed by the Idaho Falls Times in a lighthearted article titled “A Plunge with Death”:

The most fascinating and hazardous as well as the most skillfully executed exploit ever known is the one called the “Dip of Death” with the Barnum & Bailey shows. It is a new stunt for an automobile and one to which motor car users, should take their police friends, in order to show them what reckless driving really is.…

The hazardous character of the exploit can best be understood when it is stated that the young lady essaying the part of chauffeur in this awful meteoric flight nearly courts death at every performance, and while not actually seeking it, does flirt with the grim spectre and – mocks at him.

In mid-August 1905 the magazine section of the Seattle Sunday Times, after describing driver, the vehicle, and the act, included the following interview with de Tiers:

“What are your impressions during the run?” the French autoist was recently asked. Smilingly, Mlle. de Tiers answered:

“Very disagreeable, I assure you. It only lasts four seconds, but those four seconds appear long. I experience particularly a painful sensation at the moment when I am going over the curve upside down just before the leap in the air. At that moment I feel as though my head was being violently drawn towards the ground. It seems to weigh so heavy. The engineer who constructed the apparatus calculates this gravitating attraction at 200 pounds. I feel as though I were choking, and I suffer quite a severe pain in the head, which does not disappear entirely during the whole evening.”

“You admit that at the moment of departure, or when you are going to jump into space that you feel frightened?”

“Afraid, no—believe me, I have no fear, I am quite collected. Why the day of the debut I was much less alarmed than the people who saw me. Some of them turned pale.”

Mlle. de Tiers laughed and continued: “Fear. Fear of what? The inventor of the feat, Mr. Alonzo Perez, and the engineers who constructed the apparatus, made no mistake in their calculations. Everything is minutely regulated.”

“But still the feat is very dangerous?”

“Yes, it is dangerous, because I am always at the mercy of an accident. For instance, during the rehearsals the automobile fell three times to the ground. Had I been in it it would have been all up with me. I would have smashed to the ground from a height of about fifty feet with an automobile of about 1,200 pounds on top of me.”

Mlle. de Tiers tells all these disquieting facts in a calm voice, with a pretty foreign accent.

The interview continues, turning to the entertainer’s success and philosophical outlook: 

“But your success is, nevertheless, very great.”

“That’s true,” she says, “it is a great success. I have two proofs. The receipts of the management and the amount in my contract. Those are certainly proofs as the barometer of success is the drawer of the treasury.”

“You are certainly plucky.”

Mlle de Tiers made a careless gesture. “Oh, no, I am a fatalist. One of these evenings, perhaps, my trip will finish badly. But that is all written in the book of fate. One may as well die in that way as another.”

De Tiers’ attitude toward death was also reported under the subheadline of “Two Hair-Raising Features”:

Mlle. de Tiers, who makes the l’auto-bolide, or dip of death, which is leaping the gap in an automobile, fully expects to be killed in her act some day, but she says she needs the money to buy a vineyard for the old folks in France, so she laughs at death twice a day. Her automobile is whirled around, high in the air, like a fish wheel, and then the car is shot through space, to alight on a runway that brings her to the ground, if all works well.

On February 9, 1906, the Fort Worth Record and Register reported the sad, and seemingly inevitable, news: 

Mlle. Mauricia de Tiers, while giving her act called “looping the gap” in an automobile at Lisbon, Portugal, was fatally hurt. Her automobile left the track and crashed into the arena. Her chest was crushed and her legs were broken. Many women among the spectators fainted. A part of the crowd present made a demonstration and threatened to burn the circus. 

Less than three months later Barnum and Bailey had found a replacement for Mauricia de Tiers. On May 11 the Trenton Times wrote: 

The L’Auto Bolide act of Isabelle Butler was enthusiastically received. In this the woman is seated in an automobile which follows tracks down an inclined plane and then jumps a gap, landing on another plane. 

Nine days later the Boston Sunday Herald also wrote about Isabelle Butler:  

Isabelle Butler? Who is she? She is the handsome, modest young woman who rides the automobile in “The Dip of Death.”

She is a Boston girl, born on Ruggles street, Roxbury, within a stone’s throw of the circus lot on Huntington avenue. As a child playing about the circus grounds she received the inspiration to adopt a life with the “white-tops” – she would become an aerial artist.

The secret of the “Dip of Death” was revealed in a 1909 expose on circus tricks and some of the performers who risked their lives: 

“What keeps the car on the track?” people asked in wonder. 

This was apparently the great mystery. As a matter of fact there was no mystery about it. The audience could not discover it, but the large wheels of the auto did not touch the track in the descent, although they revolved. There was a second track, or rather two tracks, so constructed that small wheels on the axles of the car ran under, instead of on top, of them. This made it impossible for the automobile to “run off” the track until it reached the end of the “S” and shot into the air. The curved receiving platform was three times the width of the initial runway, and its distance and angle were so beautifully calculated that the car, instead of striking it with full force, hit it on the downward drop, and thus saved the occupant the full shock of the impact. 

“The Truth about the Circus Thriller” continues: 

The truth about the Auto-Bolide is, that with the apparatus properly erected, and barring breakage, the danger was reduced to a minimum—in fact, not a thousandth part of what the audience might naturally be led to expect. 

Four decades later, and without any mention of Mauricia de Tiers, the Sunday Oregonian, somewhat bitterly, summarized the stunt in a series on circus history: 

One of the attractions that appeared most daring among this array of great acts was the Dip of Death, invented in France and known there as the “Auto-Bolido” or auto-meteor. It was based on a clever trick that fooled everybody.

Learn more about making Early American Newspapers available at your library.

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