Robert ‘Bobby’ Leach was a daredevil stuntman said to hail from Cornwall. In July 1911 he became the first man, and only the second person, to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. After recovering from his injuries he became an international celebrity, travelling the world with his barrel, regaling audiences with his tales of daring. Sadly, however, this fearless adrenaline junkie was to meet a rather ignominious and unexpected end.
Barnum and Bailey Circus
The early part of Bobby’s life is a bit of a mystery – something we will discuss later in the this article – but he is said to have been born in Cornwall in 1857/1858. At the age of 18 however Bobby left Cornwall behind and joined the circus! Circuses were extremely popular in 19th century Britain with hundreds of different groups operating around the country. There were all the weird and wonderful acts that you would expect, including acrobats, jugglers, exotic animals, clowns and strongmen. Indeed, there was even an aquatic circus which saw the ring flooded with water for a series of soggy stunts.
It is unclear how Bobby became involved with circus life, perhaps a travelling show had visited Cornwall while he was growing up, whatever the case by about 1880 he had travelled to America to pursue a career in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Known as ‘The Greatest Show of Earth’ this was one of the earliest circuses to be established in the US and one of the first to introduce wild animals and a so called ‘freak show’. Bobby Leach is said to have been an extraordinarily good swimmer, perhaps learning his craft in the Cornish waves, and for several years he performed death-defying high dives for crowds of open-mouthed onlookers.
Now know as ‘shallow diving’ the performers attempt to dive from the greatest height into the shallowest pool of water, without injury. Here is footage of a stunt diver like Bobby, filmed in 1948.
At some point in the early 1900s Bobby gave up the travelling life and retired from the circus. He was by then around 50 years old, married to a woman called Sadie and the couple had one daughter named Pearl. The family took the opportunity to settle at Niagara Falls and open a restaurant. Since the arrival of the railway in 1892 this city had become a huge draw to tourists coming to wonder at the magnificent waterfalls and consequently it was a great place to establish a new life as a businessman. But, of course, Bobby couldn’t leave his daredevil life entirely behind.
Between 1906 and 1911 Bobby Leach performed a number of stunts in and around the falls, including parachuting into the river after jumping off the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, also known as the Honeymoon Bridge.
In 1910, to the delight and horror of the expectant crowds, Bobby began riding the dangerous rapids below the falls in a barrel. This he did successfully on several occasions but then in June 1911 something went wrong. The barrel became stuck in a whirlpool and began to fill with water. The spectacle ended with a half drowned Bobby being pulled to safety.
” . . . owing to an accident the barrel became swamped and it was only with the very greatest difficulty that he was rescued. “Bobby” as he is familiarly known around Niagara Falls, has made several successful passages of the rapids and decided to try a slightly different route in his barrel today. In the centre of the rapids the spectators were horrified to see the barrel turn completely over and the air hole must have been submerged. Desperate efforts were made to rescue him but for two hours these were were fruitless. At length however the barrel was brought ashore and Leach was found to be alive though unconscious. The barrel was half filled with water and the unfortunate man was bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose. Very little hope is entertained of his recovery.”Northern Whig, 29th June 1911
The accident had happened on the last day of the International Niagara Carnival and more then 30,000 people had reportedly turned out to see the event. Other acts included Oscar Williams, a local steeplejack who called himself ‘The Great Houdin’, walking above falls on a high wire. Houdin had already failed to cross in the same place in 1910 and this time the tightrope was too slack. He was marooned for half an hour about 100 metres from the Canadian side of the gorge before he could be rescued. This was followed by Leach’s attempt, so the crowd had really got their money’s worth watching all the drama unfold that day!
Despite the newspapers tragic prognosis Bobby Leach did recover and just one month after the incident was ready to try his greatest feat of all.
All the shenanigans in the river had been leading up to just one thing, Bobby Leach’s ultimate ambition – to go over the falls in a barrel. This madcap feat had not been attempted since the first ever person to do so, ten year previously in 1901 – Annie Edson Taylor, an American schoolteacher. After barely surviving the ordeal Annie advised that no one else should try it!
“If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”Annie Edson Taylor
But Bobby Leach, despite the very real danger and the fact that he had almost died just a few weeks previous, was determined that this would be the very pinnacle of his career. When he announced his plan to recreate Annie’s achievement there were mixed feelings about the idea. Some applauded his bravery, some complained that it was just a foolish publicity stunt and others thought he had completely lost his senses. Much was also made of his age, he was by then at least 53 years old, and the newspapers started referring to him as ‘Old Bobby’.
However Bobby may not have been as foolhardy as you might first think, in fact, it is important to note that his so-called ‘barrel’ did not look as you might imagine. In January 1911 the Illustrated London News carried a picture of him beside a contraption that looked more like a submarine than a barrel. The picture seems to show Bobby standing beside it, with the ground covered in thick snow.
However, for whatever reason this was not the design that was used in the end, Bobby was to ‘shoot the falls’ in what was more of a metal capsule. Made of steel, it was roughly 7ft long and 3ft wide, with padding lining the walls, wooden bumpers on the outside and even a little viewing window. Bobby was slung inside in a kind of sting hammock designed to try and stop him bouncing around too much.
Shooting the Falls
“Leach entered the water a mile above the falls and with amazing speed hustled down towards them. On the way he collided several times with huge rocks. Sometimes the barrel rested in the crest of the waves like a cork, at other times it disappeared beneath the torrent.”Airdrie & CoatBridge Advertiser, 29th July 1911
The Horseshoe Falls are the largest of the three falls at Niagara, here the water plunges 52m (168ft) here at a rate of 2,271,247 litres per second. And this was to be the site of Leach’s greatest triumph. So on 25th July at 2.55pm after months of delays and considerable expense, Bobby was strapped into the barrel at the mouth of Chippawa Creek. The event had been widely publicised so thousands had turned out to watch.
The barrel went over the edge of the falls at 3.13pm and a Daily Record reporter who was there described the moment:
“As the barrel approached the brink, the multitude of voices hushed, as if by magic, and the silence was intense as the fearful plunge was made. Not a sound was heard except for the roar of the cataract until ‘there he is’ was shouted by dozens of voices as the barrel reappeared in the seething, bubbling waters below, some little distance below the falls. The next question naturally was ‘Does Leach still live’?”
It was be another 20 minutes before they would find out.
The barrel was eventually caught and dragged ashore by Fred Bender, who waded out into the river with a rope tied around his waist. When the capsule was on dry land a hotel owner called Harry Williams hammered on the side and to everyone’s great relief Bobby hammered back!
When they got the barrel open he asked for a cigar. Summ boi!
But Bobby Leach had by no means escaped unscathed however. He had a gash on his forehead, a broken jaw and two broken kneecaps, Leach spent the next six months in hospital recovering. But he told reporters that he was “the happiest man alive” and that he had achieved “the greatest ambition of his life”.
The Second Attempt
In the years that followed Leach, his wife and the barrel travelled across the world making public appearances and giving talks on his daring stunt.
It seems that Bobby struggled to leave his adventurous life behind, he was after all an adrenaline junkie, so in 1920 he announced his intention to shoot the falls for a second time. This time in a giant rubber ball! Just few days before Leach’s announcement on the 14th July 1920 Charles Stephens, a barber from Bristol, had been killed attempting the same feat. Bobby had been at Niagara to watch Stephens’ attempt and some suggested he was callously cashing in on the tragedy.
The date was set for the 29th August according to Canada’s Hamilton Daily Times but that date came and went with no sign of progress. It wasn’t until four years later in April 1924 that Bobby Leach was making headlines again. This time the papers reported that he was in talks with a rubber company who was going to make him a rugby-shaped ball of “huge dimensions” for him to fit inside. The plan was to again have a hammock inside, to ensure Leach didn’t hit the sides and the papers reported that he expected it to be “a comfortable ride”.
The authorities had other ideas however. Niagara marks the international border between Canada and the US, with one bank of the river belonging to each country. Neither nation would give Leach permission to launch his giant rubber ball from their bank, effectively banning the escapade. But Bobby would not give up! Numerous newspapers reported on the 25th July 1924 that he planned to circumvent this holdup by having the ball dropped in the river from a plane! But by September of that year Leach appears to have given up on the idea and had gone on another tour with his barrel.
An Ignominious End
Bobby Leach died on 26th April 1926 while on tour in New Zealand. For a man with such a devil-may-care reputation his end was rather inglorious and anti-climactic. He slipped on a piece of orange peel in the street in Auckland, badly broke his leg which then developed gangrene and he passed away just a few days later.
Cornish or no?
As I said at the beginning of the article Bobby’s early life is something of a mystery. And as someone who likes to have all my research ducks in a row, so to speak, I feel that it is only right that I discuss this. Most recent articles (those published online) about Bobby, including the records held by Niagara Falls Museum, record him as a Cornishman. However, I haven’t been able to find any original sources for this in our parish records or census returns.
Most contemporary newspaper articles (those published at the time of the events above) call him an Englishman, not unusual perhaps given that they were written by the American press, but even pieces about him that appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette and the Cornishman at the time of his death in 1926 make no mention of him being from Cornwall . . . Was it that this fact had simply been forgotten because he left at such a young man or something more? I should add that in the course of my research I have come across one journalist who refers to him as ‘the pride of Lancashire’, another as a native of Bristol (probably confusing him with Charles Stephens) and an article published in New Zealand which suggests he was born in Manchester.
I cannot honestly tell you what the truth is, so . . . here’s a song instead . . .