Sunday, September 27, 2009

Charles Stephens - "The Demon Barber"

Welcome back. Things have eased up a bit, enough for me to return to stories of the daredevils of Niagara. I've missed writing about them, and hope you enjoy their return as much as I am bringing them to you! -MR

1991 was a notable year for tourism at Niagara. Among the region's innumerable guests were Princess Diana and Princes Henry and William. Also in the crowds that season was 81-year-old Viola Cogan. She was making a return visit to the region. Her first time in Niagara had been when she was just nine, accompanying her father on a "business trip" in 1920...

Charles Stephens was born in England in 1862. From his youngest days, he seemed to live a charmed life. Then, at the age of five, he suffered a mysterious illness and died. But his adventures were just beginning! Just before writing the death certificate, a doctor decided to give Stephens a final examination. Perhaps he had hopes of discovering the disease that had killed the child. Imagine his shock when, looking down into the coffin, he discovered the boy, eyes open and alert, looking up at him!

Stephens seemed to take his inexplicable recovery as a sign that he was a bit different from the rest of the world. He discovered that he had no fear of danger, and decided that he would take up the life of a stuntman. Unlike many who plied that career, Stephenson was legitimately fearless. Like fellow Niagara figure Red Hill Sr., he fought with distinction in the First World War, surviving three-and-a-half years when the average life-span of a British "trench warrior" was said to be twenty minutes! (It should further be noted that Stephens was in his early-50's when he accomplished those feats!)
A man like Charles Stephens needed a partner as brave as himself. He found one in his wife, Annie. Annie Stephens was awarded a certificate for ascending to five-thousand feet in a hot-air balloon; this, at a time when very few men had gone that high. Charles and Annie had eleven children. "The Professor" immortalized their relationship by having the words, "Forget Me Not, Annie" tattooed on his right arm, above the elbow.

Before and after his military career, "Professor" Stephens was a barber [one of his stage nicknames was "the Demon Barber"] between frequent stints on the Vaudeville circuit as a daredevil. One of the frequent highlights of his presentations involved a brave "volunteer" [no one is sure if Stephens brought his own or not]; the Demon Barber, who earlier in his show would demonstrate that he could shave a man [with straight-razor] in just three seconds, would perform the feat inside a cage of lions!

The community of stunters being what it was, Stephens no doubt was aware of the potential for glory and gold at Niagara. With eleven children to support, he soon decided to make the journey across the Atlantic. For good luck, he brought his family, including nine-year-old Viola.
It was the summer of 1920, high tourist season. Stephens had brought a barrel made from Russian Oak to the Falls. Fellow Englishman [and successful Falls conqueror] Bobby Leach had settled in Niagara Falls; Stephens sought him out for advice. Would that he had taken it...

Leach was horrified to learn that "The Professor" had done little or no testing of his craft. He strongly urged him to delay his Falls ride until the barrel had been thoroughly checked. No one is sure why Stephens rejected Leach's good counsel: perhaps he thought Leach was trying to talk him out of the attempt completely. Leach knew about Stephens' eleven children; he didn't want to be responsible for leaving them fatherless for lack of effort. He contacted the one man every Niagara stunter respected for information about the River; Red Hill, Sr.

Almost 90 years after the conversation, we don't know what Hill said to Stephens. It is known that Hill suggested sending the barrel over empty, to test it before an actual attempt. Again, Stephens rejected the advice.

The morning of July 11th, 1920, Hill and Leach watched Stephens preparing for the journey. The barrel had very little padding [although Stephens did wear a padded suit]. Taut straps would hold The Professor to the inside of the barrel, leaving no "give" for movement inside. Stephens' next act horrified Hill and Leach. The Professor strapped a heavy anvil to his feet. He presumed it would lend his craft ballast. But the two veteran stunters saw the danger his choice made. If the barrel plunged too quickly, as it was likely to do, the force could break out the bottom of the barrel, pulling the anvil - and Stephens, into the roiling waters.

Suddenly Leach stood up. If Hill felt obliged to stay, he said, it was his business. But Leach had not come out to watch a man die. He returned to town.
"The Demon Barber"s crew were trying to be a bit sneaky on that July morning; there were rumors that the authorities, perhaps alerted by Leach or Hill, would try to stop the attempt. Stephen's distinctive black-and-white craft was lowered into the River just after 8 AM, at Snyder's Point, three miles from the brink of the Falls. The Professor had left nothing to chance, even selling filming rights to his stunt.
The barrel moved slowly but steadily through the water, soon attracting the attention of the 200-or-so tourists who would witness the run. Stephen's crew soon took their rowboat ashore; they had no desire to face Niagara! The barrel moved on towards the powerful water at the Falls. It reached the brink at around 8:55 that morning.
What happened at that moment is a matter of speculation, even 89 years after the fact, but it's likely that, when the Professor's huge barrel hit the Falls, the force of the craft hitting the water ripped the base of the barrel away. The heavy anvil, attached to Stephen's feet, must have been sucked through the open bottom, down, down, down to the pool of water at the base of the Falls, a pool of unknown depth, created by centuries of water crashing into the rock below.
What was left of the Demon Barber's barrel was trapped at the base of the Falls for hours. Finally, the constant pounding started to smash the craft to pieces. Some of them were grabbed by spectators, looking for a memento of the day.
As the self-proclaimed "riverman", Red Hill, Sr was involved in many rescues and recoveries at Niagara. Was he a participant in the following day's search? Likely. I picture him, the man who knew more about the River's many eddies and rapids than anyone before or since, looking where Something had told him to look, and finding an arm; a tattooed arm, inscribed, "Forget Me Not, Annie". Except for a rib, it was all anyone ever found of Charles Stephens. He was the first person to die in attempting to conquer the Falls in a barrel; within a month of his demise, around 20 people had applied to local governments for permission to make the attempt.
It's said that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree". No one really knows what Viola Cogan was thinking of during her return to Niagara. It is known that she rode a motorbike well into her 70's [I suspect the Professor would have been proud]. A few years before her 1991 visit, she was quoted as saying, "I get very cross if anyone says anything funny about him. He wasn't crazy and he wasn't a demon. He was a daredevil and there is a difference".
Next time, another adventure of Niagara. Till then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

1 comment:

Mike Golch said...

Mike Glad to see that you are back to posting again.