Niagara Falls has become associated with death in several ways: accidental death, which has been and remains a real possibility for those who venture too close the cataract’s thundering waters, suicide and in the form of daredevil acts intended to defy death.
The Lure of the Abyss
According to Matthew Conheady, President and Founder of the website, NYFalls, 5,000 bodies have been found at the foot of the falls between 1850 and 2011. Regis Gignoux’s granddaughter, Bertha, recalls that the artist once witnessed the suicide of the man who had been his companion in the carriage on the way to the falls, an experience which left him deeply troubled (he believed that he had seen one of the first ever Niagara suicides).
Anecdotal reports suggest that even today there is one suicide every month at the site; another source estimates that 40 people per year go over the falls with 20-30 of these intending to die (Brad Lendon writing for CNN in May 2012, source: Wikipedia.)
There is a long history of daredevil acts and stunts at Niagara Falls. Bearing in mind Patrick McGreevy’s thesis that in the nineteenth century Niagara Falls was associated with exceeding the ordinary, it seems possible that individuals sought to overcome their limitations and win victory over the Falls, a personal enactment of the man versus nature themes that were current at the time.
In the troubled summer of 1859, months before the start of the Civil War, Jean François Gravelet-Blondin, known as the “Great Blondin,” began a series of tightrope walks across the Niagara Gorge that drew crowds as large as 25,000 people. His daredevil acts were characterized by imaginative increases in difficulty until his climactic walk when he crossed the falls on a rope with his manager on his back. In her book Inventing Niagara Ginger Strand gives a toe-curling narration imagining this event – apparently the hapless manager had to get off and on Blondin’s back five times (balancing on the rope while leaning on Blondin’s shoulders each time) before the 42 minute crossing was completed.
Strand identifies a deeper meaning in Blondin’s daredevil acts, seeing in them a metaphor for the fate of the nation, which hung in the balance as the threat of Civil War increased:
The more I read about Blondin, the more I’m convinced his feats over the Niagara River weren’t just spectacular; they plugged right into the national mood. An anxious and divided America, hovering on the brink of war, worried together for a small man walking on a rope.
Indeed, there is a cartoon from the period which shows the recently elected President Lincoln as Blondin, carrying the political burden of slavery in the form of an African American man on his back as he crosses the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. Read more
Strand also suggests that Blondin’s carefully staged stunts involving perilous ways of crossing the Niagara Gorge may have been a commentary on the plight of fugitive slaves, who during the same period, regularly crossed the nearby rail suspension bridge between America and Canada, under cover of darkness and at risk of death or recapture.
Most recently, in June 2017, Erendira Wallenda, completed a heart-pounding stunt that involved hanging by her teeth and toes from a hoop dangling out of a helicopter as it flew over Niagara Falls. Her husband, acrobat, aerialist and daredevil Nik Wallenda, walked a high wire across the Niagara Gorge in 2012.
With thanks to ABC News.