Showmanship and Mass Frenzy: Blondin’s Niagara Stunt
On the 30th of June 1859, French acrobat Charles Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. “About 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer and dispersed on the American or Canadian side of the falls (…) Both banks grew “fairly black” with swarms of spectators, among them statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey, and Colcord [his manager] gave tours to the press, explaining the logistics of what the Great Blondin was about to attempt. A light rope, not even an inch thick, had been attached to one end of his hempen cable so it could be conveyed across the Niagara River (…) Shortly before 5 p.m., Blondin took his position on the American side, dressed in pink tights bedecked with spangles. The lowering sun made him appear as if clothed in light. He wore fine leather shoes with soft soles and brandished a balancing pole made of ash, 26 feet long and weighing nearly 50 pounds. Slowly, calmly, he started to walk. (…) Children clung to their mothers’ legs; women peeked from behind their parasols. Several onlookers fainted. About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. He drank and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played “Home, Sweet Home,” Blondin reached Canada. (…) After 20 minutes of rest, Blondin began the journey to the other side, this time with a Daguerreotype camera strapped to his back. He advanced 200 feet, affixed his balancing pole to the cable, untied his load, adjusted it in front of him and snapped a likeness of the crowd along the American side (…) The entire walk from bank to bank to bank took 23 minutes.” (Karen Abbott, The Daredevil of Niagara Falls, October 18, 2011, The Smithsonian).
In subsequent feats, Blondin walked the tightrope across the Falls while he drank from his flask, wore a sack over his body, pushed a wheelbarrow along and carried his manager across on his back. He also crossed at night, a locomotive headlight affixed to either each of the cable, had shackles fixed to his body, took with him a table and chair, stopping in the middle to try to sit down and prop up his legs. The chair tumbled into the water and nearly took the acrobat with it…He also reportedly sat down on the cable and ate a piece of cake followed by champagne. Most shocking of all was the crossing when he carried a stove and utensils on his back, walked to the center of the cable, started a fire and cooked an omelette, which he then lowered and offered up to the passengers of the Maid of the Mist!
Funambulism, or the art of tightrope walking had really come into its own as a popular form of mass entertainment in 18th-century France. However, “Acrobats, tumblers, equilibrists, and what were called danseurs de corde or funambulists had been the principal showmen of the fairs since at least the sixteenth century. Their acts, often accompanied by music, included exaggerated postures, grimaces, and gesticulation. These were mute shows, depending on gesture and agility (…) The more any stunt seemed physically impossible, daring, and miraculous, the better the crowd liked it. For this reason, funambulism, an awesome physical feat, was especially relished, and may have had associations with magic in the crowd’s mind. Jean Bodin called tightrope walkers sorcerers in his Demonologie, and a century later Claude-Francois Menestrier in his study of ballet remarked that the “ancients gave the name miracle . . . to these rope dancers who dangle in the air and turn over and over holding themselves only by one foot…. “ (…)Speculating on why the public derived so much pleasure from such performers, Nougaret and Retif came up with this explanation: “To delight, to renew the people: an object more important than a young person can sense. Entertainments which are suited to them are necessary for the people, material spectacles like danses-de-corde, tours-de-force…. “. The key word here is “material.” These were entertainments focused almost entirely on the human body, the symbol of material existence, the universal denominator of humanity. It was an affirmative symbol of the strength and renewal of life. The sauteurs and funambulists suggested the dexterity and power inherent in man’s physical being. But there is more to it. These exhibitions seemed to reach beyond the physically possible. They were daring, often death-defying, suggesting a miraculous dimension. They aimed to arouse astonishment and awe.” (Robert M. Isherwood, ‘Entertainment in the Parisian Fairs in the Eighteenth Century’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 53, No. 1, Mar., 1981).