Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bobby Leach: The Wildman

Looking through the history of stunting at Niagara, one simple fact becomes obvious: these people did not think the same way that you and I do. Even Anna Edson Taylor, whose 1901 challenge of the Falls was carefully planned and carried out, had somehow come up with the idea of riding Niagara inside a barrel in the first place. Mrs. Taylor was no stuntwoman, but a desperate person, hoping for fame and fortune, or, in darker moments, the death that would end her financial woes. What, then, of an actual stunter attempting her feat?

Bobby Leach was born in Cornwall, England, in 1858. Though details of his early years are somewhat vague, he came over to the United States at some point, and spent several years touring with Ringling Brothers' Circus as a stuntman. Eventually tiring of the touring life, he settled in Niagara Falls, opening a restaurant. While Leach had lost the taste for constant travel, he was still vitally interested in stunting. He concocted a plan to attempt what he called the "Triple Challenge":

-a barrel trip through the Rapids to the Whirlpool,

-a parachute jump off the Upper Suspension Bridge into the swirling River, just above the Rapids, and

-riding the Falls in a barrel [It's unclear if he considered this part before Taylor's 1901 Falls stunt].

He jumped from the Upper Bridge on July 1st, 1908. Leach's successful parachute landing made him the fourth person to achieve that feat. He conquered the Rapids in 1910 [although at least one source claims he accomplished the feat twice as early as 1898]. His 1910 attempt was not without difficulties; during his first try that year [when he may have been testing his Falls barrel], Leach became trapped in the Whirlpool. He had tied an anchor to his craft for ballast, but rocks tore the rope it was attached with apart. As he crashed wildly from boulder to boulder in the water, riverman Red Hill, Sr. was called for. He swam to the barrel, tied a rope to it, and dragged it to shore. Leach, knocked unconscious by the pummeling water and rocks, was fished out of the device. To add insult to injury, Hill slid into Leach's barrel, and rode it through the Lower Rapids to the nearby Canadian community of Queenston! During that summer, Leach made three successful trips through the Rapids.

On July 25th, 1911, Leach entered his eight-foot-long barrel. It was cigar-shaped and, unlike Taylor's craft, was made of metal. Leach's crew steered it towards Navy Island, where the current would carry it to the Horseshoe Falls. He was cut loose around 2:55 pm. The barrel moved slowly to the brink, taking eighteen minutes to go over the Falls. Once it cleared the Falls, though, a new problem arose; the barrel became trapped in the pool of water at the base of the Falls. 22 long minutes passed before Fred Bender [employed by the Ontario Power Corporation] was able to swim to Leach, tie a rope to the craft, and pull him safely to shore. Leach's ride was not as safe as Taylor's had been a decade earlier; the pounding had broken both his kneecaps, as well as his jaw. Still, he was able to shout drunkenly to the crowd, "Ain't nobody got nothin' on me now!"

Leach spent the next six months in a hospital, recovering from his injuries. Then he embarked on a world tour to tell of his exploits. In this, unlike Anna Edson Taylor, his luck was spectacular. Unlike Taylor, whose barrel was stolen by an unscrupulous manager, he kept control of his, making it a major prop in his presentation. Unlike Taylor, the old showman Leach embraced the music hall and Vaudeville circuits, and made a fortune telling of his stunts. Unlike Taylor, whose film of her stunt was somehow lost, Leach showed his footage wherever he went [Supposedly, the film was shown so much during his first year of touring that it wore out. Undaunted, Leach returned to Niagara, filmed his barrel going over empty, and showed that instead!].

After a few years, Leach again tired of touring, and returned to Niagara Falls, where he opened a pool hall. But the desire for stunting had yet to leave him. In his sixties, he made two attempts to swim from beneath the American Falls to Canada, but failed both times. He is known to have made a parachute jump from an airplane in 1920; he failed in his goal of landing in the River, ending up in a corn field miles from the water [Some sources say he made a second attempt, with similar results; other reports say he was disappointed with the result of his first effort, and cancelled the second attempt]. Through it all, he continued to tour with his barrel, his film, and his stories.
In February of 1926, he was in New Zealand, yet again on the music hall circuit. While taking his daily walk, he slipped on a piece of orange peel, fracturing his leg in the fall. The leg became gangrenous, and had to be amputated. But the poison had entered his body and, in those days before antibiotics, doctors could not cure his infection. Aged 67, he died on April 26th, 1926, in Christchurch, NZ.
Next time, another story of those who dared to challenge the thunder. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley