Clockwise from top: Toronto’s popular (and controversial) diving horse exhibition, the legendary Great Farini was one-of-a-kind and bee beards have long been a popular sideshow stunt
Last month, Nick Wallenda shuffle-stepped his way into the history books when he walked across a tightrope overtop Niagara Falls. It wasn’t the first crazy stunt at the site. In fact, throughout the area, including Toronto, there is a rich history of madcap adventurers who walked that fine line and tempted fate for the thrill of it all.
Of the many people who risked life and limb to walk over, or barrel down, Niagara Falls, Samuel Dixon was the first Torontonian to give it a shot in 1890 and again in 1891. His tightrope spanned the Niagara River from a location at the foot of Bridge Street. Reports indicate the man nicknamed “Daring Dixon” did more than just walk, he knelt down, hopped on one foot and even lay down on the wire before proceeding to the other side. Apparently, he never really made much money from his performances — he relied on the passing of the hat and never did it again. Probably a good thing. But no history would be complete in this genre without mentioning the Great Farini, otherwise known as William Leonard Hunt, who grew up in the Bowmanville area and eventually became one of the show-biz greats of the time, known for crossing the wire in a full-body sack or even carrying a man on his back!
Rumour has it, he even invented the human cannonball.
And it wasn’t just people that got into the act.
Toronto was a well-known mecca for horse diving. Apparently this was a craze back in the 19th century and was actually “invented” by a fella from Nebraska named William Carver. But in Toronto, it was J. W. Gorman’s show that featured a number of horses that would dive into the water from a platform some 20 feet above.
Daredevil acts, sideshows and crazy stunts still continue to this day. Take the bee-bearding folk. They have been performing at places such as the CNE for over a hundred years, and you can still find them there this season. In fact, that particular stunt has a history that dates back to 1830s Russia.
Makes the whole X Games thing seem kind of passé.