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