Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel is the Mount Everest of accomplishments for daredevils. It stands to reason that anyone who can survive such a feat must possess near-superhuman invulnerability and should be nigh unstoppable. Sadly for one man, he successfully overcame the challenge of the falls, only to fall prey to a slippery fruit peel.
Bobby Leach was born in 1858 in Cornwall, England. When he heard of the exploits of daredevils (thus far, all unsuccessful) attempting to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, he was intrigued. In 1901, schoolteacher Annie Taylor became the first person to survive the stunt. That’s when Leach made up his mind that if he couldn’t be the first person to accomplish it, he could, at least, become the first man to do so.
Leach designed and built a “barrel” consisting of a strong metal cylinder. He was confident it would survive the pummeling the great horseshoe-shaped falls would give it, and he was right. His optimism about how well the device would protect him was a bit overstated. Leach did survive his journey over the falls on July 25, 1911, but he emerged from his barrel substantially worse for wear. He suffered a broken jaw, two broken kneecaps, and a number of different injuries that kept him in the hospital for the next six months.
Once he was discharged from medical care, Leach went on the road, attempting to profit from his experience. He told of his exploits as a performer with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and on the vaudeville circuit and lecture halls. He brought his banged-up barrel with him and happily posed for pictures with it.
In 1920, Leach was back at Niagara Falls. He ran a pool hall but always had his eyes on the water and dreamt of ways to add to his fame. He attempted to swim across the Niagara’s whirlpool rapids. Several times he failed and had to be rescued. He decided to ditch the pool hall and the rapids attempts and return to the road to tell his story again.
By 1926, Leach had taken his show international. He was in New Zealand on a lecture tour when tragedy struck. It wasn’t a waterfall that brought him down this time. It was an orange peel. Leach slipped on a peel that had been carelessly discarded and injured his leg. Having survived a trip over Niagara Falls and several attempts at swimming its rapids, Leach likely thought nothing of the injury. It soon became infected, however, and developed into gangrene. Physicians amputated his leg, but by then it was too late. The infection was too much for his body, and Bobby Leach died on April 26, 1926.
In the end, a small orange peel did what the mighty Niagara Falls could not. Bobby Leach made his last journey, not in a barrel, but in a coffin.
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