A Cannonball to the Stomach: The Story of Frank Richards

Frank “Cannonball Richards” became famous for an incredible act where he would stand in front of a cannon and have a 100 lb. cannonball shot into his stomach. In this episode, we talk about the development of this talent and then quiz Comedian and Improvisor Joel Savage!

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In 1887, Frank Anson Richards was born in a Kansas town called Minneapolis to Richard and Ellen Richards. 

As a young man, he fought in World War I and at some point, realized he had the ability to take tremendous amounts of force to his abdomen. How much? Apparently he figured out that he could take a punch at full force to the stomach and not be affected. 

He thought he was on to something, so after the war, he entered the Vaudeville Circuit with his iron-clad gut. He would allow people to pay their entry fee to punch him in the stomach. Even world-famous boxing heroes like Heavyweight Champion Boxers Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard punched Richard in the stomach at full force.

His Vaudeville act was success. And if you aren’t familiar with Vaudeville, it was a series of performers who would all perform separate acts together on the same bill and often would travel around doing shows in the late 1800s and early 1900s. You could pay one fee and see all these acts. And Frank Richard’s contribution to the show was to show off the strength of his amazing iron stomach. He would ask people to punch him with all their might and it wouldn’t phase him. The act evolved into more elaborate stunts. Frank would lie on the ground and have people line up in front of his body. One by one, they’d get their turn to jump on his abdomen. He’d stand while someone ran a battering ram into him. Then, he’d get struck with a 2×4. As a finale, he’d find the biggest man in the room and allow that man to swing an eighteen pound sledgehammer into his stomach.

Many people have seen the famous act of a person being fired from a cannon. It’s a feat that’s been performed in circuses and festivals all over the world. Well in the 1920s Frank Richards had an act with a cannon that was a little different. Rather than being fired from one, Frank Richards had a cannon fired at him. Like into his stomach. And I’ve looked around everywhere. This type of act had never been done before and – believe it or not – has never been done since. It was so popular and unique, he soon became known as “Cannonball Richards.”

Here’s how it went. The cannon would be set up and loaded with a one-hundred pound cannon ball and Richards would stand in front of it, wearing eye goggles and a wrap around his belly – only 10 feet away. The fuse was lit, sparks would fly, and the cannon would fire with a big plume of smoke and Richards would take the hit directly to the belly. It became so famous, newsreels of the stunt were spread far and wide as moving pictures became a popular medium. He would tell the newspapers he could only do the stunt for two shows a day. More than that was too painful. 

 

But here’s the thing that stuck with me when I read about this. I’ve seen photos of this famous piece of armor from the Battle of Waterloo. It’s in the Army Museum in Paris, France and it’s a Napoleonic Breastplate from a French Cavalry soldier. There’s a clear hole through the front and the back of the breast plate where a British cannonball fired through. It belonged to either François-Antoine or his brother – history really isn’t sure – but whoever was wearing it died on June 18, 1815 and it’s pretty clear evidence that you can’t survive a cannonball hit to the chest.

That led me to do further research and learn that the cannonball stunt by Frank Richards was just that – a stunt. The ball was real. It was actually 100 pounds. But the cannon was spring-loaded to propel the ball and release a cloud of smoke, but it wasn’t really being fired by gun-powder. The cannonball would receive just enough velocity to hit him in the stomach – and that it did. Any normal person would be knocked over and injured doing the stunt. But it’s important to note nonetheless – it wasn’t a real cannon.

 

It didn’t matter. The stunt was so wildly popular, the newsreel footage has lived on. It’s been featured all over popular culture. The slow-motion clip of him getting hit but that cannonball and the skin rippling black away from the impact is a popular stock footage clip used in everything. He was featured on the cartoon “Freakazoid!” And “The Fairly Oddparents” and was even referenced in Seinfeld. A whole episode of the Simpson’s had a bit about it where Homer performs the stunt. If you’re a Van Halen fan and have the album Van Halen three, you’ve seen it. That’s Frank Richards on the cover. Although he died in 1969 at the age of 81, Frank Cannonball Richards developed an act so original and unique, that 100 years later, we still recognize his image.


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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.

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