Mysterious death of a daredevil
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.
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