(Reprinted from the book "4,000 Years of Juggling," vol. I, courtesy of author Karl-Heinz Ziethen)
Karl Rappo was the first strong-arm juggler of modern times, and many heroic stories were written about this well-known German figure. Even if you discount the obvious exaggerations, however, you still realize he was a most interesting and unusual person.
He was born May 14, 1800, in Innsbruck, Austria, as Karl von Rapp. He trained as an athlete and was phenomenally strong by age 19. One day he saw a troupe of Indian artistes in Innsbruck and the romantic idea of living in a covered wagon set his imagination on fire. He travelled with them as Charles Rappo for two years and began his career as an artiste.
His aristocratic family wasn't pleased about his new way of life, but he was determined to keep it up. He officially relinquished his title, adopted the name of Rappo and began a Bohemian vagrant life. When he found a troupe who wanted his act he gave guest appearances, but frequently performed solo. In 1825 he married Jesephine Beli and they had three children. With his wife and two apprentices he formed the Rappo Theatre and built it up to the point that he was was playing the finest establishments in large towns across Europe.
Rappo called himself an "Indian Artiste," dressed accordingly, and presented a program of gymnastics, juggling and balance. He balanced a real egg on top of a straw on his nose. He balanced a three-foot iron ship's anchor with a cannon ball on top on his chin. He played with cannon balls weighing up to 40 pounds, juggled with five-pound balls and made neck catches with them. He rolled them over his head and from hand to hand.
He invented a "walk in the air" on a 25-foot windmill, standing at the top of a wing while it revolved 100 times or more. His finale was balancing a war ship model on his chin, then hoisting all the sails and flags under the thunder of cannon fire and surrounded by fireworks.
He balanced real horses and demonstrated his strength occasionally by putting his hands under the wheels of moving cars.
He was witty and handsome, and many daring anecdotes about his adventures followed him. The truth is that his life was continually up and down. He was a dozen times rich and then poor again.
Success in Berlin gave him the encouragement and means to enlarge his ensemble and travel. Russia was the most profitable area for artistes at that time, and Rappo won fame there. He came to be a house guest of Czar Nikolas in Petersburg, and the monarch often requested some special tricks. To comply, Rappo reputedly lifted the back axle of the Emperor's carriage while his horse was pulling it.
Rappo died of typhoid in January 1854. His son, Francois, was also a man of great strength, but never reached the heights of strong man juggling life his father did.