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


Jayne said...

That's a great article :)
We had a Blondin impersonator here in Australia, Henri L'estrange, who tightrope walked across the Sydney Harbour several times.
Henri L'estrange
These days there doesn't seem to be much left to entertain or amaze people, it wouldn't rate more than a 2 sentence media report.

Roger DJ said...

That's quite a story. I've heard about people who tightroped across Niagra but I never knew the personal drama behind it. Thanks for a well written piece.