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