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


Lidian said...

Those are amazing stories - I had no idea that the locals got so worked up about these daredevils. They must have got a bit tired of all the hullabaloo.

I love the picture of Jenkins and his velocipede!

Laane said...

I told my children the other day about this, but couldn't find the name of the guy.

Thanks a lot!