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Superiority to Fear: Acrobat and Tightrope Walker Blondin

May 19th, 2017

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Blondin (born Jean François Gravelet, 1824 – 1897) was a French acrobat and tightrope walker.  He started performing as a young boy.  In 1855, he came to the United States and is best known for crossing the Niagara Gorge on several times.

man carrying another man across a tightrope

Blondin carrying his manager. Courtesy the Niagara Falls Public Library

In the late 19th century, as now, Blondin was most famous for his crossing of Niagara Gorge.  The Geneva papers mentioned him more than 60 times between his first walk in June 1859 and his death in 1897.  The earliest account I found was in the Courier of July 6, 1859

The Niagara river was crossed on a tight rope on the 30th ult., by M.             Blondin, with as much or more ease than a lay man would manifest in walking          across a smooth road.  He walked part of the way across and then layed [sic]         down upon his back for a minute, he then started again and when to the middle      of the rope, stopped – let down a cord to the Maid of the Mist which was on the      water under him and drew from it a bottle of liquor which he drank from, after       which he proceeded [sic] . . . and reached the Canada shore in a short time.  He                 . . . accomplish[ed] the return trip in about ten minutes.  . . .

On July 20, the Courier updated its readers:

 MONS. BLONDIN, has again crossed the Niagara River.  . . . When near   the center of the rope, he stopped and held aloft his hat, through which Capt.            Travis from the Maid of the Mist, shot a rifle ball.  He walked backwards and    crossed in fifteen minutes . . . On his return he wheeled before him a wheelbarrow.

At various times Blondin made the crossing blindfolded, in a sack, on stilts, carrying his manager, pausing midway to cook and eat an omelette, and standing on a chair balanced on one leg on the rope.  On August 10, the Courier said, he stood on his head in the middle of the crossing, and performed some one-handed gymnastics off the cable, to the astonishment and terror of several thousand spectators.

Naturally, Blondin had rivals – William Hunt of Ontario, calling himself The Great Farini, challenged Blondin in rope walking the gorge (Geneva Daily Gazette, September 30, 1859).  A circus performer named W. T. Aymar proposed to somersault off Goat Island into the river, though I have not been able to find that he carried out this plan (Daily Gazette August 5, 1859).  It was Blondin, though, who became the standard to whom others were compared:

Man laying across a tightrope

Blondin laying on the cable. Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections

Daily Gazette, August 24, 1860:  “Rope Walking in Geneva.  F. M. Slingerland, a skilful [sic] rope walker, announces some extraordinary feats in that line in this village on Saturday Sept. 1st.  If he performs all he advertises, he will throw Blondin far in the shade.”  I found no review of this performance.

Daily Gazette, June 28, 1867:  “A she-Blondin, who calls herself Rosa Celeste, is going to walk across Niagara river on a tight-rope next month.”

Daily Gazette, July 26, 1867:  The Lent Circus claimed “El Nino Eddie, THE CHILD WONDER . . . Surpasses Blondin on the Tight-Rope . . .”

Daily Gazette, July 5, 1878:  “Mons. Dare entertained our village folk . . . with a tight-rope performance on a cable stretched from the Mansion across Seneca st. [sic] to the Smith block . . . Such an exhibition seems tame to one who has seen Mons. Blondin cross the yawning gorge at Niagara . . . “

Daily Gazette, August 27, 1886:  Circus owner “Forepaugh’s horse Blondin will attempt to cross the Niagara chasm on a tight rope . . .”   Mercifully, this was apparently called off.

Daily Times, March 27, 1899:  The paper described a performing parrot:  “A wire is . . . swung across the whole length of the room.  The bicycle and parrot are put on it, and . . . Polly works his legs and at full speed a la Blondin traverses the hall amid enthusiastic applause.  . . .”

The closest Blondin came to Geneva was in 1888, when he performed at Ontario Beach in Rochester.  The rope was 100 feet up.  The Daily Gazette, August 3:

Man walking on a tight rope

Blonin over the Niagara Gorge. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections

This will be Blondin’s only appearance in Western New York State this season.  The performances of the famous tight rope walker will be free to the public, and very low rate excursions have been arranged over the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad.  . . . although sixty-four years of age, [Blondin] is still nimble as a cat on the tight rope.  Among the notable features of the performance, is the carrying on his back of his son or any other person willing to take the risk across the rope . . . He walks the rope and goes through various evolutions blindfolded and in a bag, balances on a chair, and performs tricks that would be difficult for an ordinary person to attempt on the ground.  . . .

When Blondin died, the Gazette (February 26, 1897) acknowledged that younger people might not know much about him.  To older folks, though, the name meant daring.  “[W]hile the object to which it applied was not of the highest, the absolute superiority to fear Blondin exhibited was the stuff heroes are made of.”

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