History in Focus: The Bravest Woman in the World

Lucia Zora and her favorite elephant, Snyder, demonstrate the circus act that made them famous in the Sells-Floto Circus in the early 20th century.
BucklesBlog/Courtesy photo

The bright lights of the big top circus tent were home to Lucia Zora, one of America’s premiere celebrity circus performers of the early 20th century.

Her dangerous acts with lions, tigers and elephants catapulted her to fame. But at the height of her prominence, she and her husband retreated to a homestead at the base of Black Mountain, severely testing her circus title as “The Bravest Woman in the World.”

Born Lucia Card in Cazenovia, New York in 1877, her parents moved to Fort Pierce, Florida along the Indian River in 1882 and started a pineapple plantation. However, young Lucia’s formative years were spent at the Cazenovia Seminary, a nonsectarian co-ed boarding school.

In her autobiography, “Sawdust and Solitude,” published in 1924, Zora described herself as a “tomboy.” She was physically and mentally strong, rebellious and a naturally talented singer. As a young woman, she spent a couple of years performing for the Wilbur Opera Company. Eventually, she gravitated to the thrill of the circus with the dream of performing acts with lions, tigers and especially elephants. 

Lucia’s life was never mundane. In Chicago, while floating between circus jobs around 1900, she was involved in a murky and cloudy dispute with the owner of a music theater named Joseph Pazen. As the dispute escalated, Pazen started choking Lucia. Brandishing her revolver, she shot him in the stomach. It’s unclear if Zora ever faced charges or if Pazen died from his wound.

Lucia’s journey to national fame kicked off when she joined the Sells-Floto Circus and married Fred Alispaw, one of the circus superintendents. Soon she fulfilled her dream of training lions and tigers and developed her signature act with her favorite elephant, Snyder. As the highlight of the show, Snyder would rear up on his hind legs and nimbly walk around the main ring all the while Lucia was gracefully perched high above on one of his tusks.

In December of 1917, at the height of her popularity, the couple decided to leave the circus. Enthralled by a romanticized idea of the West and forging a new life on a homestead in a remote and unsettled area, the couple somehow discovered Moffat County. The original homestead site is located seven miles up County Road 11, the Freeman Reservoir Road.

Arriving in the depths of winter, Lucia and Fred were immediately plunged into the formidable loneliness and immense challenges of making it through their first winter living in a drafty dirt floor cabin. This 180 degree change in lifestyle tested the limits of their endurance and sanity.

In July of 1926, Zora wrote a three-part story for the Ladies Home Journal, a national publication of over a million subscriptions, about the trials of that first year. She recalled a conversation with an old Moffat County woman who doubted Zora’s willpower and mental toughness.

“Well, they say if a woman like yourself … comes into this country and stays here six years she’ll do one of three things: She’ll run away with another man, kill her husband or kill herself!”

Shocked by the old woman’s harsh assessment, Zora proved herself equal to her sobriquet. The Allispaws survived the first winter, delved into cattle ranching, developed their homestead, and soon flourished as active citizens in the community.

In June of 1918, Lucia and Fred joined the newly organized Black Mountain chapter of The Grange and were installed as lecturer and purchasing agent, respectively. In May of 1922, Lucia was elected secretary to represent the Fortification School District in Moffat County.

They also set up an exhibit at the Moffat County Fair displaying circus memorabilia and sharing fantastic stories of their adventures in the circus. In April of 1926, the couple volunteered to help with an upcoming boys summer camp to teach them all about wild animal life.

In September of 1927, Zora’s father passed away and soon thereafter the couple decided to move back to Florida to care for her ailing mother. Fred and Lucia never had children, and Lucia passed away in 1936 at the age of 59.

Taking on the extreme challenge of homesteading in the tough environment of northwest Colorado, Lucia proved her title as “The Bravest Woman in the World” was no mere publicity stunt. Her exciting and exotic life easily lifts her into northwest Colorado’s crowded pantheon of unique and eccentric characters. 

James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at Sources for this article include “Zora!” by Catherine Enns Griga, Indian River Magazine, December, 2010; “Taming a Home on Burnt Mountain” by Lucia Zora, Ladies Home Journal, July 1926; and various news articles pulled from the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection.

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