Robert “Bobby” Leach was a daredevil. Originally from Cornwall, England, he moved to Canada at some point and got a job as a stuntman in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. In his early 50s, Bobby owned and operated a lunch counter and souvenir stand near Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, but he thrived on the attention his life-threatening feats brought him. He once told reporters, “I fear nothing.” He had made four trips through the dangerous rapids at Whirlpool Falls, the last of which nearly killed him. He had made “a number of balloon ascensions” in homemade balloons, he rode over the Seneca Falls in a barrel, and leapt off the Rainbow International Bridge 200 feet above the Niagara River with a homemade parachute. Newspapers reported that his net worth since his daredevil days began had risen to between $20,000 and $30,000, an enormous amount in the early years of the twentieth century.
Bobby had another goal that would exceed anything he had done before. His next feat was to go over Horseshoe Falls, the largest of three waterfalls which collectively form Niagara Falls, in a barrel. If he succeeded, he would be the first man to survive the trip. Ten years earlier, Mrs. Anna Edson Taylor became the first human to survived the trip. Unlike Anna Taylor, who used a wooden barrel for her trip, Bobby helped design and build a steel barrel for his trip over the falls.
Bobby’s plan was hindered almost immediately. Authorities in Niagara Falls, New York, and Ontario, Canada, both refused to allow Bobby to launch his barrel from their cities. Undeterred, just after 1 p.m. on July 25, 1911, the 53-year-old Bobby tied his barrel to a motor boat and launched it several miles upriver from Horseshoe Falls. Strong winds and choppy water pounded the boat and barrel, but Bobby was determined to continue. At a point about three miles above Horseshoe Falls, Bobby climbed into the barrel, released the rope, and sealed the hatch on the barrel. There was no turning back. Bobby was now at the mercy of the river.
Spectators watched as the barrel slowly made its way toward Horseshoe Falls. A mile above the Falls, the barrel reached the rapids. Over and over, the barrel smashed into and bounced off of the myriad of rocks in the rapids. At 3:13 p.m., the barrel tumbled over the falls and disappeared into the churning water below. Spectators held their breath and wondered if Bobby had survived. Less than a minute later, the barrel bobbed up to the surface of the water. Newspapers reported that the force of the impact tore both ends off of the barrel, but it was still afloat.
Spectators stood in stunned silence for almost twenty minutes while the barrel drifted a safe distance away from the falls. There were no signs of life from Bobby’s barrel. Frank Bender, a local resident, swam out to Bobby’s barrel with a rope. He tied it around the barrel and held on as a team of men pulled the Barrel to shore. The men struggled to open the hatch. They all wondered if Bobby had survived, though none would say it aloud. When the hatch gave way, they peered in. Blood streamed down Bobby’s face from a deep gash and his right leg was sprained, but Bobby was alive!
On the following evening, Bobby spoke with a reporter about the trip. His first words were “no more,” when the reporter asked if he planned to take another trip over the falls. Bobby told the reporter, “The drop over the falls was not so bad, but that through the upper rapids was frightful. It seemed as though the barrel turned over a million times. The nearer I approached to the falls, the more the barrel turned. Once, when I struck a rock, I thought it was all over. A big dent was stove in the barrel and a couple of quarts of water came in. I prepared to die. But the water merely washed through the air holes. It was striking the rock that hurt my leg. The big drop over the falls was nothing in comparison to the rest of the trip. I felt no sensation, certainly no pain, going down, and there was very little bump at the bottom. All I have to say is that nobody’s got anything on me, so far as going over Niagara Falls is concerned. But—never again.”
Adopting the nickname Professor, Bobby went on a worldwide speaking tour and told of his many life-threatening, death-defying feats. The people were most interested to hear Bobby tell the story of his trip while showing a film of his barrel going over Horseshoe falls. He answered questions and posed for pictures, all for a small fee. People flocked to his presentations. While returning from one such showing in Christchurch, New Zealand, Bobby slipped, fell onto the street, and broke his leg. Within a short time, his leg became infected with Gangrene. Penicillin and other antibiotics were not yet available. Doctors did the only thing available to them at the time and amputated the infected leg. The infection, however, had spread throughout his body. On April 26, 1926, in an ironic twist of fate, the man who had survived a trip over Horseshoe Falls, who had survived four trips through Whirlpool Falls, who once predicted that the water would probably “get him” one day, died as a result of slipping on an orange peel.
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