Monday, November 24, 2008

Anna Edson Taylor 2: How The Tale Ended

Dear Readers: I have apologies to make, not only to you, but to Anna Edson Taylor. For almost two months now, she's been waiting, at the crest of the Falls, cramped inside an oaken barrel, waiting to see how her life would play out. She, and you, will wait no more! The rest of her story is here, with my sincere apology for its delay - MR

The barrel was sealed, and pressurised with a bicycle pump. It was cut free of its bond with the rowboat. Carried by the thundering waters, it began its run to the edge, and what was likely a fatal drop.The waters roared louder inside Anna's barrel as she approached the crest. Suddenly, a gasp from the assembled viewers. The barrel was coming down, down the face of the Horseshoe Falls! Then, with a massive splash, and a resounding crash, it reached the base of Niagara. The spectators were amazed that the barrel had survived its devilish run over the Falls without any apparent damage (Inside, Anna Edson Taylor was stunned. She had bumped her head on one of the barrel's inside surfaces. She was bleeding, but, when she regained alertness, believed she was mostly alright.).

The barrel bounced and spun in the rapids at the base of the cataract. Taylor was being shaken like a puppy inside her craft. Moving from wall to wall inside the barrel, she was repeatedly bruised, but amazingly, suffered no broken bones. The crowd at Niagara watched as a rescue boat [manned, one suspects, by some daredevils itself] headed out to Anna Edson Taylor. It took them some eighteen minutes to secure the barrel, and open some air vents. But Mrs. Taylor was inside for many minutes. more. Wild rumors ran through the crowd on shore. That crazy old woman was dead! Served her right, for daring God like that! But others watched the frantic efforts to open the barrel. No one would hurry like that over a dead body!

Then, the impossible! Looking more than a little shaken, helped by two or three men, Anna Taylor stepped out of the barrel! She needed help, but she was walking. She was gingerly aided to the shore, then across a low rock wall. Given a quick examination, she was found to be badly bruised, and suffering from a small gash on her head. But she had no broken bones, and seemed in good health. The assembled crowd roared its approval. Anna Edson Taylor had done the impossible! She had ridden over mighty Niagara, with only a mattress-padded barrel for protection, and lived!

Mrs. Taylor was the toast of Niagara. She posed with her barrel, and, no doubt, was looking forward to a comfortable future, her frightening ride behind her. In an interview shortly afterwards, she said, "If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall". But, as was the case with stunters both before and after her, the Curse of Niagara took her in hand.

"Tussy" Russell, her manager, told her that she was the most-demanded attraction in Vaudeville. Everyone wanted to hear her story. In his hand, he held a fistful of telegrams, offering Anna bookings at the highest rates of the era. Mrs. Taylor looked at him coldly. Didn't he understand that she had no intention of appearing on the vulgar public stage? When Russell had invitations to appear on the more genteel lecture circuit, she would look at them then. Russell was able to find her a few opportunities to speak, but, ironically, the Chautauqua and Grange circuits found Mrs. Taylor's stunt too vulgar for their tastes.

Things spiraled downward for Anna Edson Taylor. "Tussy" Russell stole her barrel, a highlight of her talks. He hired a younger, more attractive woman to impersonate Taylor. What money she brought in went into a search for her stolen barrel. It was recovered briefly, then lost, this time forever. She had a replacement made, and posed with it for tourists at Niagara Falls. For a long time, such photos were her main source of income. But Anna, to her credit, never gave up. She floated a plan to raise money through the New York Stock Exchange [after concocting the idea of challenging Niagara in a barrel, anything must seem possible]. She briefly considered making another trip over the cataract [but apparently couldn't face that cannon's mouth a second time]. Mrs.Taylor tried to write a novel [no trace seems to have survived], to re-create her journey on film [it was never shown, and appears to have been lost in time], even, towards the end of her life, to act as a clairvoyant [perhaps implying that surviving Niagara gave her special powers]. None of it worked.

Blind, and nearly deaf, Anna Edson Taylor died on April 29th, 1921, more than nineteen years after her feat. Hoping to live out her days in control of her life, she instead died in an old-folks' home, virtually destitute. The Curse of Niagara, in retrospect, seems have taken out a harsh vengeance on her. But, of course, she is remembered to this day. She has been the subject of books, of songs, and even of a few poems.

There is a cachet in being first. Like many Niagara Daredevils, Anna Edson Taylor is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, not far from where I live in Niagara Falls, NY. Her tomb, along with many who challenged the thunder, is in a section known as "Strangers' Rest". Her stone carries neither her birth nor death dates. But it does tell you the most important thing about her:

I'll be back [a bit sooner, next time] with another story of the Niagara Daredevils. Till then, be well.

-Mike Riley

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A. E. Taylor: Society's Child

There is a certain cachet that comes with being the first person to accomplish a feat. No matter how many others come after you, you have the exclusive right to say, "I did it first". How sad, then, that the first person to conquer Niagara Falls, by riding over them in a barrel, received few rewards for the achievement. As noted elsewhere in these stories, though, the number of those who have profited financially by stunting is much smaller than the number of stunters themselves. Perhaps if more of A. E. Taylor's story was known at the time, or Taylor had been a different kind of person, things might have gone better.

October is fairly late in the Niagara Falls tourist season; the uncertain [but usually cool, damp and windy] Fall weather in the region encourages visitors to come during the Summer months. But it was October, and late-October at that, when Taylor challenged the Falls.

October 24th, 1901, saw two distinct groups at Niagara Falls. One, composed of reporters and those who made their living from the Niagara River, were at the crest of the Horseshoe, or Canadian Falls [the international border between the US and Canada divides the two Falls of Niagara; the larger Horseshoe Falls, belonging to Canada, the smaller American Falls US territory. Due to the lower water flow and huge rocks at the base of the American Falls, no well thought-out attempt was ever made from it]. A larger crowd watched near the base of the Falls, wondering if what they were about to see was little more than a suicide attempt.

In time, Taylor clambered into a rowboat, lashed firmly to the shore. Tied to its side was the specially-designed barrel created for the feat. Two assistants helped her into...

Wait a minute! Did I read that right? The first person to attempt a Falls challenge was a woman?

Yes indeed. The "A.E." in Taylor's name was short for "Anna Edson". And the story gets better! Taylor, who claimed to be in her mid-40's, was actually 63! [The daredevil was not only a woman, but in her 60's]. An explanation of what brought Anna Edson Taylor to the brink is probably in order.

Anna Edson was born October, 24, 1839, in Auburn, NY. One of eight children, Anna lived a comfortable life, paid for by her father's prosperous flour mill. She was said to prefer outdoor sports with her brothers and others to the quieter pursuits of her sisters, but was fond of reading. Her father's sudden death when Anna was 12 caused much sorrow, but little change in her life; Samuel Edson had left a large fortune.

As she grew older, she began training as a teacher. Suddenly, at age 17, she married David Taylor, a fellow student. We know little of these years; the Taylor's probably made up money shortages from Anna's still-substantial inheritance, so she was able to continue her proper life. As we shall see, Anna's propriety would later cause her much suffering.

In 1864, Civil War raged in the US. David Taylor, a member of the Union Army, was killed in battle. Anna Taylor was widowed at the age of 25. But there was still the sizable inheritance to keep her lifestyle as she expected it should be.

Now began years of travel across the US. Most of the time, she worked as a dance teacher. But seldom were her expenses covered by her income. The inheritance was growing smaller each day. Finally, near the end of the 19th Century, she found herself in Bay City, MI. Unable to find work as a dance teacher, she plowed most of her remaining money into opening a dance school. The school was well-attended, at one time instructing over 100 students. But Taylor, used to an elegant lifestyle, gave her students the same. Once again, income was smaller than expenses. The school closed, leaving Anna dependent on the charity of relatives. For a lady like herself, this was just not acceptable.

Around this time, she read about the Pan-American Exposition, taking place in Buffalo, NY. It was drawing huge crowds, many of whom stopped off at Niagara Falls while in the area. Somehow [and I can't even imagine how], she came up with the idea of riding over the Falls inside a barrel. Using the last of her money, she had a extra-strong barrel built to her specifications, including a mattress inside for protection, and headed for Niagara Falls.

Anna's luck failed her now in two serious ways. As she headed for Niagara, US President William McKinley was mortally wounded at the Exposition. His death a few days later plunged the nation into deep mourning. Attendance at the Exposition, and at Niagara Falls, fell dramatically. Undaunted, Taylor continued her preparations. She could always give lectures on her feat, if she succeeded; if she didn't, what difference did it make?

Her second mistake was to hire Frank "Tussy" Russell as her manager. Russell, as we shall see, was not a man to be trusted.

Preparations continued, and finally all was ready. It's October, 24th, 1901. Anna Edson Taylor has turned 63 today. What thoughts must have been going through her mind, as she slipped into the already-wobbling barrel? What would be her fate: a return to a comfortable life, or oblivion beneath the churning waters? I can't imagine her being enthusiastic about the trip. But I do think she had a sense of contentment; either way, all her problems would soon be over...
Anna Edson Taylor's story concludes in our next posting. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Monday, September 22, 2008

Joel Robinson: Ulysses and the Sirens

"And having come to Circe he was sent on his way by her, and put to sea, and sailed past the isle of the Sirens. Now the Sirens were Pisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepia, daughters of Achelous and Melpomene, one of the Muses. One of them played the lyre, another sang, and another played the flute, and by these means they were fain to persuade passing mariners to linger; and from the thighs they had the forms of birds.
Sailing by them, Ulysses wished to hear their song, so by Circe's advice he stopped the ears of his comrades with wax, and ordered that he should himself be bound to the mast. And being persuaded by the Sirens to linger, he begged to be released, but they bound him the more, and so he sailed past. Now it was predicted of the Sirens that they should themselves die when a ship should pass them; so die they did."


What motivates people to do what they do is frequently a mystery. Indeed, if we were to know the real reasons for people's actions, we would probably shake our heads in disbelief. Consider the strange story of Joel Robinson. In 1861, he placed himself in a graver peril than Ulysses; unlike the myth, Robinson's challenge was very real. And he did it, as far as anyone can discern, for [the admittedly princely sum, at the time, of] five hundred dollars!

A little history: before the construction of the great Suspension Bridge {itself a fascinating story, and one that will be addressed in another posting], it was difficult for those living on either side of the Niagara River to cross the waters. In 1846, a ferry service was instituted, under the name Maid Of The Mist. In 1848, with the completion of Suspension Bridge, the ship's owners converted the ferry to tourist use, mapping a route through the surprising tranquil waters near the base of the Falls. The new attraction proved very successful, as it has remained to this day. It was so successful, in fact, that a second, larger vessel was introduced in 1854.

The Maid Of The Mist II was a solid 72 feet in length, steam powered, and soon became an attraction in its own right. Business was better than ever. Unfortunately, the good times would not last. Early in 1861, due to an economic downturn [and where have we heard that before?], brought on in part by the impending American Civil War, the tourist boat business failed, and the Maid Of The Mist II was sold at auction.

Its purchaser, a Canadian company, put a reasonable condition on the acquisition; the boat had to be delivered to them at the Lake Ontario port of Queenston [in Ontario, across a narrow inlet of the Lake from the American village of Lewiston]. Impossible!, cried the tour boat owners. To deliver the vessel at Queenston, it would have to cross three perilous stretches of water; the Great Gorge Rapids, the Whirlpool, and the Lower River Rapids. There may have been a more dangerous stretch of water elsewhere in the world, but no one could imagine it. The purchasers were polite, but firm. Unless the boat could be brought to Queenston, it was of no use to them. The tour boat operators considered their options: given the ship's immense size, there was no way to move it by land. But who would pilot the vessel through the most dangerous waters in the world? In desperation, they offered five hundred dollars to anyone who would take on the challenge. Finally, they found a taker.

Joel Robinson was 53, and a long-time ship's captain. Somehow, two men were found who would serve as crew: James McIntire, who acted as ship's mechanic, and James Jones, who would spend the voyage below decks as engineer. For those who've never been at Niagara, it may be hard to imagine just what these three had signed on to accomplish. I've found a short clip, taken from the Spanish Aero Cars that cruise above the River. It shows the Whirlpool, the mid-way point of Robinson's journey...

...and probably the least perilous of the three dangers.

On June 6th, 1861, the Maid Of The Mist II was readied for its last cruise on the Niagara River. A sizable crowd lined both sides of the River, waiting to see a miracle, or what they expected to see.About 3 pm, a single blast from the boat's whistle indicated that the trip had begun. Ulysses had been able to spend his time with the Sirens lashed to the mast. But Robinson needed to operate the ship's wheel. He had to be unencumbered. The first buffeting wave knocked him, and McIntire, to the floor of the wheel room. In the Engine room, Jones was also knocked to the floor. He desperately grabbed a pipe stand and pulled himself to his knees. And this was merely the first blow! How could they get the ship through the gauntlet that awaited?

The boat moved faster and faster, reaching an incredible-for-the-era speed of 39 MPH. Robinson and his crew could do little more than hold on, and pray that they would pass through the Gorge Rapids. Incredibly, they did! During a moment of relative calm, Robinson noted that the ship's smokestack had wrenched free and been lost overboard. What else might be damaged before the journey was over?

Safely passing the first Siren, Robinson and his crew next challenged the Whirlpool. As noted above, this was, compared to the Gorge Rapids, a relatively calm sequence. The captain and crew righted themselves, just in time to find their ship trapped in the swirling waters of the Whirlpool. It took all of the captain's skill and strength to break free of the ghoulish grip of the Whirlpool, but finally, the vessel was free.

Now came the third Siren, and perhaps the most dangerous of all, the Lower River Rapids. It was said that one of three Sirens played a lyre, another entranced mariners with her flute, while the third sang so beautifully that sailors would steer their vessels closer to hear her, only to be smashed by the rocks near the Sirens' island. There are some who say they hear songs in the water of Niagara. Did Captain Robinson and his crew hear the songs of the Sirens? Did they hear the voices of those who had died in those waters, calling them to join their company? Who can say? Robinson was facing the most difficult peril of all, trying to steer a badly-battered ship through the perilous waters. He could do little more than try and move to the center of the channel, perhaps following Homer's advice to travellers; "You will go most safely through the middle".

Then, suddenly, it was over. The boat moved through calmer waters, past the three Sirens. The rest of the voyage was without notice. Robinson docked the Maid Of The Mist II at Queenston, and turned it over to its new owners. Surprisingly, the ship was in good shape, considering the course it had taken. The only major damage was that lost smokestack. Robinson and his crew returned home with their money, and went on with their lives.
Ulysses, the Ancients relate, eventually made it to his home port, and a happy reunion with his wife and son. Joel Robinson's life after his mythical voyage was, sadly, not as joyous. He never captained another boat. The formerly gregarious sailor took to his bed much of the time, and was seldom seen in town. Captain Robinson, the conqueror of the Rapids, died two years later, at the age of 55. Joel Robinson survived his day with the three Sirens. But it is probably fair to say that the River had killed him, as surely as if he had died in the encounter. And, unlike the Sirens, the two Rapids and the Whirlpool did not die once they were beaten; they can be seen to this day by visitors to Niagara.
Next time, an entry I'm sure you've been waiting for; the story of the first person to go over the Falls in the barrel. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Thursday, September 4, 2008

More Funambulists

Although it was by no means the only form of stunting at Niagara during the 19th-Century, the most common form of daredevil feat was tightrope walking, or funambulism. Here, a look at a few memorable performers:

J. F. "Professor" Jenkins - The strange vehicle pictured here is a velocipede. On August 25th, 1869, "Professor" Jenkins successfully crossed above the Whirlpool Rapids by riding across his tightrope on it.

Nothing else is known about the Professor, or his unusual device.

Henry Bellini / Stephen Peer - Henry Bellini was an English stunter, who came to Niagara in 1873. Among the crew he hired to assist him in his feats was a man who grew up near the Falls, Stephen Peer. Peer had seen the Blondin - Farini tightrope "duels" a few years earlier; just as Farini [nee William Leonard Hurt] had been inspired to take up funambulism by watching Blondin, Peer was drawn to the rope by the Blondin - Farini performances. Peer also was motivated by local pride. He wanted to be the first "local" to conquer Niagara [not realizing, as most probably did not, that "Farini" grew up not far from Niagara himself].

On August 25th, 1873, Bellini made his first crossing of the Niagara River near the Falls, stopping at one point to lie across his wire [see above]. For a finale to his act, Bellini dove from his rope 22 feet into the churning waters below. A safety boat picked him up shortly after he landed. Bellini repeated his tightrope - high-dive combination two more times that year. His "season" ended shortly thereafter, under, well, shall we say, "unfortunate" circumstances. It seems that crew member Peer decided that he was ready to make his debut on the high wire. Without telling anyone, including Bellini, he scrambled up on the rope and began a crossing. If you had polled the crowd that literally ran Bellini out of town later that day, they probably would have said they understood his anger. After all, here was this "greenhorn" taking over the act! But trying to stop him by attempting to slice the tightrope at one end, well, that was just a bit too much.

Always cautious, Bellini waited thirteen years for things to cool off, then returned in the winter of 1886. While there, he attempted a leap from the Upper Suspension Bridge, over the Niagara River. He struck the water hard, and had to be rescued, unconscious, from the River. He broke two ribs in the attempt, but later recovered. His career, and his life, ended two years later in a failed leap from a bridge in London, England.

And what of Peer? Details, more than a century later, are understandably sketchy; it's likely that he continued his apprenticeship on the high wire. His next appearance at Niagara came on June 22nd, 1887, when he successfully crossed the River from a rope near the present-day Whirlpool Bridge [below]. Three night later, on June 25th, his mangled body was found near the base of his rope tower. Exactly what happened remains unknown. It is known that Peer had been drinking heavily since his successful crossing. Could he have been trying to win a bar bet by crossing at night? If that was his aim, he made a fatal error in judgement by wearing street shoes [slick-soled], instead of the rubber-soled safety shoes he'd worn to cross three days earlier. Peer was, as far as I can tell, the only person ever to die as a result of a tightrope stunt at Niagara. He was 33 at the time of his fatal accident.

There were other funambulists who used the roiling waters of the Niagara as a backdrop for their dramatic feats, and we will no doubt return to their stories in due course. Next time, though, we'll tell the story of a boat ride through some of the most dangerous waters in the world - The Great Gorge, Whirlpool, and Lower Rapids. And, unlike the earlier voyage of the derelict schooner "Michigan", this vessel carried a human crew. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Magic Man

(From time to time, this site will focus on individuals who, while not strictly speaking "daredevils", still made a mark through an interaction with Niagara. We begin with a performer who almost qualifies as a "daredevil", although on a different stage)

Harry Houdini was without question the greatest performing magician of the early-20th century, and arguably the greatest of all time. An inventive performer, who invented or improved on many illusions, he was the greatest attraction in vaudeville, in virtually every nation in the world. Magic experts believe that virtually all of Houdini's illusions can be recreated [indeed, many of them have], but virtually no one could reproduce Houdini's near-hypnotic presentation.

But Houdini was more than a magician. He was an innovative self-promoter, regularly putting on spectacular stunts in the cities he performed in. He was one of the first entertainers to see the value of radio appearances as a publicity device. He lent his name to a series of magic trick articles, published regularly in major newspapers. He parlayed an interest in aviation into a publicity coup when he became the first person to fly an airplane over Australia [see right]. And he made a few movies.

Harry's film career began in 1901, with an obscure film from French movie-maker Pathe [this movie was so obscure that Milbourn Christopher, one of Houdini's major biographers, says nothing about it in his book]. It was little more than a film record of some of Harry's more spectacular stage feats, tied together with a loose storyline. After a 17-year hiatus, Houdini returned to the screen, starring in the serial The Master Mystery. Financial problems led to the closing of the film production company, but the serial did well at the box office. This led Harry to sign with Paramount Pictures, where he made two full-length films, The Grim Game, and Terror Island. They were mostly opportunities for Houdini to perform spectacular escapes [possibly making Harry the first action star]. After his contract expired, Houdini started his own film company. Its first project was The Man From Beyond [1921]. In it, Harry played a typical 19th-century man, accidentally frozen in a block of ice, then discovered a century later. He was freed from the ice, thawed out, then confronted with 20th-century life. It was a big-budget project, with footage shot at, among other places, Lake Placid, NY [the early, "frozen" sequences], and Niagara Falls.

In the big scene, Harry desperately jumps into the water just above the Falls, in an attempt to save his girlfriend, who had been captured by the villains. Please excuse the poor quality of the following clip from that scene:

At the time of its release, critics claimed that Houdini had used a safety rope to make his exertions easier. Very likely he did. But the enthralled audiences didn't seem to care, and, in the interest of curiosity, I'd ask anyone who would be willing to recreate the feat [with or without safety rope] to raise a hand [my hand, it should be noted, is not raised].

Like his other movies, The Man From Beyond did well at the box office, and was shown around the world. But costs were very high. Houdini tried again the following year with Haldane of the Secret Service; it was filled with spectacular escapes and stunts [all done by Harry himself], but it cost much more than it brought in. Houdini brought his movie career to a close.

Typically, Harry looked as his movie work as great promotion for his live shows [although there is some evidence that he'd hoped to end his almost-continuous touring in exchange for the easier life of a film star]. Houdini continued to perform for another five years, before dying as the result of a freak injury [a long story, easily found by those who are interested].

Technically, he wouldn't qualify as a "daredevil". Yet Houdini is still remembered for one of the most spectacular stunts performed at Niagara.

Until we meet again, live and be well.

-Mike Riley

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

When The Conqueror Fell...

In our last visit, presenting the unfortunate story of Sam Patch, we learned that success at Niagara is no guarantee of glory elsewhere. It should come as no surprise, then, that success elsewhere is no guarantee of anything at Niagara.

Matthew Webb was born on January 15th, 1848, in the English town of Dawley. Like many young men of that era in British history, the era when Brittanica was truly said to "rule the waves", he entered the merchant navy [a term sometimes used to describe merchant ships and their crews, especially in Great Britain and its former colonies]. Webb developed a reputation for fearlessness as he moved up through the ranks; once, while serving on a ship, he attempted to rescue a fellow crewmember who'd been washed overboard by jumping into the treacherous waters of the Atlantic. The rescue attempt failed, but Webb received a medal [and a handsome cash reward, for that time] in recognition of his effort. The British press marked Webb as a man whose future career would be followed. The British press was frequently wrong in such choices. They would not be wrong about Webb.

The 19th and 20th Centuries were times when many feats were accomplished for the first time. One goal that seemed impossible was swimming across the English Channel, the body of water seperating England from continental Europe. In 1862, William Hoskins crossed from France to England astride a bundle of hay. Impressive? Yes, but then again, Hoskins had used the hay to help him remain afloat. The challenged of crossing without artificial aid remained.

In 1873, Webb, now captain of a steamer, read an account of an unsuccessful attempt. He decided to try to conquer the Channel. Webb immediately quit his job and went into training. Two years passed before he felt himself ready.

Webb's first attempt came on August 12th, 1875. Strong winds and uncertain seas forced him to abandon the try. Undaunted, he re-entered the water on August 24th. Webb was plaguedv by stinging jellyfish and strong currents. The difficulties, along with numbing exhaustion, forced him to turn a 21-mile route into a zig-zagging, 39-mile ordeal. He needed almost 22 hours to cross from England to France, but finally crawled onto the French coast at Calais.

With his fame assured by conquering the Channel, Webb abandoned his sea career for the life of a professional swimmer. The next few years were spent performing feats of swimming and endurance in water, including once spending 128 hours in a huge water tank. On land, he "wrote" a book on swimming, made paid appearances, even endorsed brands of matches and souvenir pottery. In 1883, he faced the challenge of Niagara. A group of promoters had put up 12 thousand British pounds to see Webb sucessfully swim across the Niagara River, near the lower Rapids [left]. Webb was in desperate need of a new triumph. The crowds were smaller and smaller at his music hall appearances. He had a wife now, and two small children. He had to make this work!

Matthew Webb entered the Niagara River just before 4:30 in the afternoon, on July 24th, 1883. It was immediately obvious that he was in serious trouble. Some witnesses say that a particularly crashing wave rendered Webb virtually paralized. Within ten minutes he was caught in a whirlpool, and pulled under. His body was not recovered until July 28th.

I have yet to find out the story of the canvas poster represented at right; it bears the curious title "Captain Matthew Webb Conquers the Niagara River". Well, no. But apparently there were at least a few people who thought Webb would win again, as he had in the Channel, as he had in his many swimming exhibitions and challenges. That which is mortal of Matthew Webb [at least, that which has survived more than 115 years of burial] is at Oakwood Cemetery, in Niagara Falls, NY., in a fenced-off section of the cemetery devoted to Niagara Falls daredevils. But perhaps the best memorials to Webb's memory are in England - the monument to his English Channel swim at Dover. Or John Betjeman's 1940 poem "A Shropshire Lad", which portrays Webb's ghost swimming home to Dawley. Or perhaps it's the memorial in Dawley, erected by Webb's older brother Thomas. Almost the only thing carved on the stone are the words, "Nothing great is easy".
The Webb memorial at Dover, England
Challenging The Thunder is updated on a constant, but irregular, basis. I'm going to set up RSS and e-mail syndication over the next week or so. If you enjoy these little essays, may I suggest you consider a subscription? I'll be back soon, with another story of the challengers of Niagara. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Adventures Of The Jersey Leaper

[Before I get into this post, I want to take a moment to thank those of you who are reading this series of articles on the daredevils of Niagara Falls. Special thanks to those of you who've taken the time to comment on the posts. The "Daredevil Era" is over at Niagara (one or two challengers notwithstanding), and it seems as if the twin communities would rather forget the past; while I can understand their desire to keep stunters from risking their lives today, the stories of those who challenged the thunder have always been fascinating to me. Based on your kind words, they seem fascinating to you as well. Thank you for your interest and support! - MR]

The world of the 19th Century was considerably different from our world today. It's an obvious statement, but one that should be remembered when thinking about the stunters of that era, and why their exploits were so marvelled at. No movies, television or radio were available to entertain, so people naturally gravitated towards spectacular feats to break up the monotony of everyday life. Some of the most spectacular feats were performed by a young man named Sam Patch. He was born in 1807, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. At an early age, he began working in factories. He moved to New Jersey, and made plans to operate a factory with a partner. But his partner turned out to be dishonest, and left town with the money for the new business. Patch was in desperate need of funds, as his former colleague had left with his life savings. He was an excellent swimmer, and fearless high-diver. So, in 1827, he began a new life as a stunter. His first public performance was at the Passaic Falls, in Patterson, New Jersey. Patch's success gave him a nickname, the "Jersey Leaper", and the fame he needed to pursue the life of a roving daredevil. He jumped from buildings, bridges, and even the rigging of ships, all to greater and greater acclaim. But he was best known for his dives at waterfalls. His reputation made him a natural choice to challenge Niagara.

A group of local promoters had big plans for the tourist season of 1829. Bringing Patch to town was an obvious idea. He came to Niagara in early October of 1829. On October 7th, Patch made an 85-foot dive from a special platform built on Goat Island near the brink of the Horseshoe, or Canadian Falls [see right]. Ten days later, on October 17th, he completed an even-higher, 130-foot leap. Both times, he dove head first, and emerged unscathed.

While Sam Patch was brought to Niagara by sponsors, he could not have been insensitive to the boost that a Niagara Falls leap would give his career. History fails to record how much money he collected for his stunt. Whatever the amount, he would have very little time to enjoy it.

Patch remained in Western New York after the Niagara Falls stunts, possibly appearing on stage to tell this story of his leaping career, including his recent success at Niagara. During his presentation, he'd no doubt use the phrase associated with him, "There's no mistake in Sam Patch". In November, he headed east, stopping at the nearby city of Rochester, New York. On November 6th, Patch successfully leaped into the Genesee Falls. Accounts years later said Patch was unhappy with the amount of money he raised. He decided to repeat the stunt a week later. On November 13th, 1829 [a Friday], he mounted his specially-built platform to leap the 92-foot high Genesee Falls. What happened is subject to speculation. Some witnesses say Patch appeared to trip on the platform as he leaped, others, that he had been drinking heavily before the stunt. Patch entered the water awkwardly and failed to surface. He was 22, and had been on the stunting circuit for two years at the time of his death [the handbill reproduced at the beginning of this post was from his November 13th leap; the fact that it contained the phrase "Sam Patch's Last Jump" probably referred to the fact it was his last performance of the year. Or had Fate decided to give it a truth unintended by its designers?].

Patch's body was not recovered until the following spring. An autopsy revealed that his ungraceful plunge had dislocated both shoulders, leaving him unable to swim to safety. He was buried in the nearby Charlotte cemetery, beneath a wooden board inscribed "Sam Patch - Such Is Life". In time, the board vanished, and his grave remained unmarked for many years. In the years after World War II, a group of students at Charlotte High School, hearing his story, raised the funds for a proper gravestone:

[While we remember Sam Patch, we should also take a moment to note a man named Morgan, who attempted a similar feat a year or two earlier. He failed, and his story, beyond the fact of his failure and death, has been lost in the mists of time.]

The story of Niagara Falls daredevils will continue soon. Until we meet again, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Voyage Of The Damned - The Adventure Of The "Michigan"

Today, a voyage like the final one taken by the schooner Michigan could not happen. The public outcry, understandably, would be too strong/ Our tastes have changed considerably from those of out 1820's ancestors. But, in their defense, let it be noted that the world of the 19th-century was notably different from our own. Public hangings were still presented; many believed that such punishments were a deterrence to crime. Some criminals, guilty of less-serious deeds than those that called for the gallows, were publicly whipped, or branded with red-hot irons. In that context, the promotion created by three hotels in Niagara Falls seems, well, understandable, if not acceptable.

The 1820's were the beginnings of the tourist trade in Niagara Falls. Improvements in roads and railroads made it possible for many on both sides of the border to reach the Falls in a week or less [in those days, that was truly rapid transportation]. At first, the Falls themselves were more than enough reason to visit the bustling communities. (A note: for the most part, tourism in those early days was on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. This was for a simple reason, still true today; while there are some spectacular views of the rushing waters on the American side, the best overall view of the scene belongs to Canada. The Americans, aware of the logistics of the site, devoted most of the efforts to bringing industries that needed water power to operate their machinery) As time went on, however, the early entrepreneurs of Niagara tourism realized that more than the majestic waters would be required to attract large groups of visitors. During the summer of 1827, William Forsyth, manager of the Pavilion Hotel, on the Canadian side of Niagara, had an idea. He got in touch with two other hotel operators, John Brown, who ran Canada's Ontario House, and General Parkhurst Whitney, who ran the Eagle Hotel in Niagara Falls, New York. They agreed to join forces and present a bizarre spectacle for those visiting Niagara Falls at the end of the main tourist season.

Forsyth bought a condemned lake schooner named the Michigan. It was about 16 feet in height from keel to deck, more than suitable to go over the Falls [in those days, the water depth at the Horseshoe Falls was estimated at around 20 feet; power creation demands have since reduced the depth to about three feet]. But Forsyth and his partners had other, more disturbing plans for the stunt, plans to send a living "crew" with the Michigan.

The promoters sent handbills throughout Western New York State and Ontario [then known as Upper Canada], reporting that the Michigan's last voyage would feature a crew of "ferocious wild animals". The handbills went on to note that "panthers, Wildcats, and Wolves" were being sought, but that "vicious and worthless dogs, such as possess strength and activity" would be used if none of the other animals proved available. September 8th was selected as the date for the voyage.

An estimated ten thousand persons came to Niagara to see the spectacle. They must have been a little disappointed at the animals presented; the most vicious of the crew members were two young bears. A bison added color, while the rest of the cast of characters included a goose, two raccoons and a dog [some reports added a few more creatures, but nothing on the scale of the "ferocious wild animals" the promoters had promised]. To dress things up a bit, the Michigan was decorated as a pirate ship, with mannequins dressed as pirates lashed to the vessel/

Around six pm, the Michigan's last voyage began with its being towed by a paddle steamer from Black Rock [now part of modern-day Buffalo, New York] to Navy Island, near the beginning of the Niagara River rapids before the Falls. There, the derelict schooner was cut free, to begin its trip to oblivion. Near the start of the rapids was a huge island, Goat Island [today part of the Niagara Reservation New York State Park, then privately owned]. The bears chose that spot to successfully jump off the boat, and swim to safety on the island [their eventual fate is unknown]. The pounding, pummelling water of the rapids tore giant holes in the hull, forcing the Michigan lower and lower in the water. Most of the animals were caged or tied to the deck; they had no choice but to complete the trip over the Falls. Of that crew, it was reported that only the goose survived its trip through the maelstrom. What happened to it after the voyage is unknown.

As noted, certainly such a trip would not be permitted today. But the world was a different world then, and what was considered "entertainment" very different as well. But the voyage of the Michigan was the first recorded "stunt" at Niagara Falls, opening the door for the many performers and [if truth be told] crackpots who followed/ Next time, we'll talk about the first HUMAN stunter at Niagara. Till then, be well and happy.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Funambulists - II: The Mysterious Signor Farini

As noted in our last post, a 22-year-old man was an interested observer of one of The Great Blondin's 1860 tightrope excursions across the Niagara Gorge. William Leonard Hunt was born in Lockport, NY, near Niagara Falls, and grew up in Port Hope, Ontario. At the time, he held a solid job, working for his girlfriend's father as a shopkeeper. His girlfriend was with him as he watched Blondin. Hunt informed her that he could accomplish what Blondin had. Her reply to that remark is unknown. We do know her response later that day, when Hunt informed her father that he was quitting his job to challenge Blondin on the tightrope: she broke off their engagement.

Hunt was not completely inexperienced as a tightrope walker; the previous year, he had earned $500 [up from the $100 offered] from a fair for crossing the Ganaraska River, near Port Hope. As part of the act, he crossed the rope blindfolded, stopping along the way to perform a headstand, and a few somersaults. His father, a farmer, disowned him for becoming a circus performer.

Undeterred, Hunt adopted a new name; Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini, usually shortened to "The Great Farini". Unlike his better-known rival Blondin, Farini was physically stronger [once winning a six-against-one tug-of-war] and a better businessman to boot. While Blondin was content to live on the proceeds of "passing the hat" after one of his stunts, Farini made deals with regional railroads, getting a percentage of the ticket price in exchange for his stunt work.

Farini's 1860 season began in spectacular style. On August 15th, 1860, he crossed to the mid-way point of his rope without special notice. Then, using a rope he'd brought along with him, Farini lowered himself some 200 feet to the pitching deck of the Maid Of The Mist cruise boat. He stopped to enjoy a glass of wine, then began the return climb to his tightrope. But pulling himself up 200 feet was much more exhausting then sliding down the rope that distance. He nearly fell several times before reaching the high-wire. Somehow, Farini made it to the other end of his route. Then, after a ten-minute rest, he made the return trip. And, as advertised, he was blindfolded, and wearing peach baskets on his feet!
Over the course of the rest of the summer, Farini issued several challenges to his better-known rival, who was completing his second and final season in Niagara Falls. Blondin, however, believed that simply answering a rival's message gave that rival a degree of undeserved stature. After all, it was Blondin who had dared to walk above the Gorge first.
Denied a straightforward competition, Farini was forced to match, and in a few cases exceed, Blondin's successes. Among Farini's stunts were:
-standing on his head in the middle of a tightrope crossing
-hanging from the rope by his toes
-crossing in an "Irish washerwoman" costume [He topped that one
off by lowering a bucket into the river, hauling up some water, and
washing a few handkerchiefs]
-covered head to foot in a giant sack.
But no matter how spectacular his work, Farini spent his only summer at Niagara in Blondin's shadow. One hopes the large sum of money his superior business techniques earned him were at least a small form of compensation [It's likely he found performing for the Prince of Wales, as he did on one occasion, a special honor].
Although this series of stories on the Niagara Daredevils isn't meant to be a biography, a few words about Farini's post-Niagara experiences are in order. He probably lived the life of an itinerant performer for several years after his triumphant Niagara summer. He next turned up in 1866, performing in Europe. Farini toured the continent for three years, before retiring from tightrope work completely. He believed he would face injury and possible death if he continued. But Farini in retirement was no average retiree. He's believed to have invented the first "human cannonball" launching device. He created many other spectacular stunts for none other than P. T. Barnum.
He headed for Africa in 1885, becoming, among other things, the first white man to survive crossing the Kalahari Desert [Farini also claimed to have found the Lost City of the Kalahari, but his evidence was less than compelling. Debate over just what he did find continues to this day]. He was also reputed to have been a spy for Canada, the US and/or England, but, as you'd suspect, evidence to confirm these stories is sketchy at best.
What is known is that Farini continued to invent, create, no doubt live off his past, until his death from influenza, at the age of 90, in 1929. If all of the Niagara daredevils had done as well, perhaps we could understand why challenging the Mighty Niagara had such an attraction. There were other rope walkers, but only Blondin and, to a lesser sense Farini, are at all remembered today. The next entry in this history will go back to the first stunt ever intentionally presented in the waters of the Niagara. Nowadays it would probably not be permitted, but in its time, it drew thousands to watch a cursed crew ride a boat over the Falls. Until then, be happy.
-Mike Riley

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Funambulists - I: The Great Blondin

Funambulist - [n] - a tightrope walker. From the Latin funambulus; same meaning.

The first true "stunters" at Niagara were tightrope walkers. The first of these made himself so famous by his high-wire efforts that his name is synonymous with such stunts (Arthus Conan Doyle worked a reference to him into a Sherlock Holmes story). Even today, someone who performs a feat in the air is sometimes called a "Blondin". But who was he? And why did he come to Niagara?

Jean Francois Gravelet was born in 1824, in St. Omer, France. Legend has it he saw his first tightrope walker at the age of five. Soon afterwards, he was sent to the Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon. After just six months of formal training, he began public performances as "The Little Wonder". Natural grace and skill combined with the originality of his act made him a sensation.

Like most entertainers, Blondin was always on the lookout for new, more sensational ways to present his act. He became convinced that his tightrope act, presented against the backdrop of Niagara Falls, would be a sensation.

At that time, because of new railroad lines across the eastern end of North America, Niagara Falls was becoming a popular tourist destination. Large crowds would give Blondin the chance to recoup some of his expenses, by "passing the hat" [it was obvious that he could not close off the area and sell tickets]. Besides, Blondin was probably moved as much by the chance to accomplish a new feat as by any money he might have made.

On June 30, 1859, in front of huge crowds that were alerted of his intention, Blondin climbed onto an 1100-foot long rope, 160 feet above the gorge below the Falls. He moved with his usual grace and skill, making only one mistake - he had made the feat look too easy! Blondin repeated his journey several times that summer, increasing the challenge factor by crossing:

- on stilts

- blindfolded

- tied up in a sack

- pushing a wheelbarrow

- stopping midway to sit, cook, and then eat an omelet, and

- carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, across on his back [This was the only stunt Blondin was not to repeat. One trip was enough for Colcord].

History does not record how much money Blondin took in that summer, but it must have been enough for him to return the following year, for another season of funambulism.

After the two summers in Niagara Falls, Blondin went on to continue his spectacular career. In 1861 and 1862, he walked high above the crowds at London's Crystal Palace, as well as other stunts in England and across Europe. In 1872, he successfully crossed Edgbaston Reservoir, in Birmingham, England. He retired for a few years, then resumed his stunting around 1880. He performed his final tightrope routine at the age of 71, the year before he died, in 1897, of diabetes, in his quiet home outside London [a persistent rumor says that Blondin didn't die at that time, but, having tired of fame once and for all, disappeared into obscurity under the name of Julio DeMasi!].

A final note; during one of those 1860 performances, Blondin was watched by a man from nearby Lockport, NY, named William Leonard Hunt. Like Blondin, he was to change his name, and his life, by challenging Niagara Falls. His story is the subject of the next posting at this site.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


What is it about Niagara Falls? Why do they attract not only millions of tourists [understandable], but those who would challenge the water's power [inexplicable]? The history of Niagara Falls daredevils [the subject of this blog] shows very clearly that no one who has ever challenged the waters has received more than the briefest moment of fame, and next to nothing in the way of fortune. More than one died a pauper, and forgotten. And yet...

...and yet, they still come. They come in much smaller numbers than they did even as recently as the 1980's, but still they come.

For those of you who've never been to Niagara Falls, and even those who have, please watch the video at the top of the right-hand column. It gives you at least a small sense of what the millions who come each year experience. What it cannot give, though, may be the biggest drawing card the Falls have: the roaring, earth-shaking visceral power of tons of water, transported from halfway across North America to this spot.

Watching the water churn, and slide, and rocket over the edge of the Falls at Prospect Point, you'd think nothing could survive such a trip. Yet several have. Two of them survived without a barrel, or other protective gear [save, in the case of one of them, a simple boater's life belt]. It can be done. And yet, common sense reminds us that your odds are better in one of the casinos that have sprung up in the two cities, one in Canada, one in the United States, that share the name Niagara Falls.
There is one other group that comes to Niagara - those who have chosen to end their lives in the roiling waters.On average, 15 people succeed in this goal each year.What brings them to this place, we do not know. Their stories will not be told here. But to them, as well as those who expected to survive their encounter with the river, this site is dedicated.
-Mike Riley