Robert ‘Bobby’ Leach was a daredevil stuntman said to hail from Cornwall. In July 1911 he became the first man, and only the second person, to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. After recovering from his injuries he became an international celebrity, travelling the world with his barrel, regaling audiences with his tales of daring. Sadly, however, this fearless adrenaline junkie was to meet a rather ignominious and unexpected end.
Barnum and Bailey Circus
The early part of Bobby’s life is a bit of a mystery – something we will discuss later in the this article – but he is said to have been born in Cornwall in 1857/1858. At the age of 18 however Bobby left Cornwall behind and joined the circus! Circuses were extremely popular in 19th century Britain with hundreds of different groups operating around the country. There were all the weird and wonderful acts that you would expect, including acrobats, jugglers, exotic animals, clowns and strongmen. Indeed, there was even an aquatic circus which saw the ring flooded with water for a series of soggy stunts.
It is unclear how Bobby became involved with circus life, perhaps a travelling show had visited Cornwall while he was growing up, whatever the case by about 1880 he had travelled to America to pursue a career in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Known as ‘The Greatest Show of Earth’ this was one of the earliest circuses to be established in the US and one of the first to introduce wild animals and a so called ‘freak show’. Bobby Leach is said to have been an extraordinarily good swimmer, perhaps learning his craft in the Cornish waves, and for several years he performed death-defying high dives for crowds of open-mouthed onlookers.
Now know as ‘shallow diving’ the performers attempt to dive from the greatest height into the shallowest pool of water, without injury. Here is footage of a stunt diver like Bobby, filmed in 1948.
At some point in the early 1900s Bobby gave up the travelling life and retired from the circus. He was by then around 50 years old, married to a woman called Sadie and the couple had one daughter named Pearl. The family took the opportunity to settle at Niagara Falls and open a restaurant. Since the arrival of the railway in 1892 this city had become a huge draw to tourists coming to wonder at the magnificent waterfalls and consequently it was a great place to establish a new life as a businessman. But, of course, Bobby couldn’t leave his daredevil life entirely behind.
Between 1906 and 1911 Bobby Leach performed a number of stunts in and around the falls, including parachuting into the river after jumping off the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, also known as the Honeymoon Bridge.
Source: The Cornish Bird
Original publication 10 April, 2021
Posted on NatCorn 23rd April 2021
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