Mys­te­ri­ous death of a daredevil

The Niagara Falls Review - - Arts & Life - CATHY ROY Cathy Roy is the in­for­ma­tion re­sources and con­nec­tions li­brar­ian of lo­cal his­tory for Ni­a­gara Falls Pub­lic Li­brary

Dare­dev­ils have fas­ci­nated and thrilled au­di­ences in Ni­a­gara Falls for decades with their death-de­fy­ing an­tics. Al­though still ac­tive up un­til quite re­cently, the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury saw the hey­day of high-wire-rope walk­ing.

Stephen Peer was born in the Mon­trose sec­tion of Stam­ford Town­ship in 1840 and was only 19 years old when Blondin, the famed French aeri­al­ist made his first cross­ing in Ni­a­gara in 1859. Like many lo­cals at the time, Stephen tried to em­u­late his hero. He be­gan prac­tis­ing on ropes that he made by twin­ing grapevines to­gether and string­ing them be­tween two trees in the fam­ily or­chard. As he im­proved, he be­gan to give per­for­mances for lo­cal au­di­ences. One per­for­mance saw him cross Main Street on a rope strung be­tween the up­per floors of the Prospect House and Kicks Ho­tel. In 1873 Peer was hired by the Aus­tralian fu­nam­bu­list Bellini. His job was to help put the three-strand rope across the Ni­a­gara River. Al­though Bellini suc­cess­fully crossed be­fore huge crowds in Au­gust and Septem­ber, he did not want com­pe­ti­tion from Peer. For this rea­son, he would not lend his balanc­ing pole to the lo­cal ama­teur.

When Bellini was ab­sent be­tween shows, Peer “bor­rowed” the pole and amazed on­look­ers with his feats. Un­for­tu­nately, Bellini re­turned un­ex­pect­edly and was so en­raged he be­gan to cut the rope on the Cana­dian side. He man­aged to cut through two of the three en­twined ropes be­fore he was forcibly re­moved by on­look­ers. Fear­ing for his safety, Bellini left town.

It wasn’t un­til 1887 that Peer gar­nered enough fame to per­form on his own. This time, Peer would at­tempt to cross the river on a 5/8-inch wire ca­ble, which was de­scribed as a “mere thread” com­pared to the rope size used by his pre­de­ces­sors. On June 22, wear­ing white tights and red and black striped trunks, he started his jour­ney from the Cana­dian side of the river. He slowly made his way to the cen­tre of the rope and sat down to rest be­fore get­ting up and mak­ing his way to the U.S. side.

Only three days later, the life­less body of Peer was found on the bank of the gorge di­rectly be­low his ca­ble. Some say he slipped cross­ing on a dare af­ter a few drinks with friends. Oth­ers say it may have been sui­cide. Some fam­ily and friends be­lieve foul play was in­volved af­ter he was seen with two strangers.

If you are in­ter­ested in finding out about other lo­cal mys­ter­ies, visit my.nfli­brary.ca.

Stephen Peer

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