Richard Cavendish | Published in History Today Volume 59 Issue 6 June 2009
Richard Cavendish remembers how the daredevil Jean-François Gravelet stunned the world on 30 June 1859
Jean-François Gravelet was the most spectacular funambulist, or tightrope-walker, of his day or probably any other day. Born in 1824, he was the son of a veteran of the Grande Armée who was nicknamed ‘Blondin’ for his fair hair. The family lived at Hesdin in the Pas de Calais and when a circus came to town the little boy was so fascinated by the tightrope-walkers that he decided to be one himself and started practising immediately using his father’s fishing-rod as a pole. His parents sent him for training as an acrobat at the celebrated École de Gymnase in Lyons. He made his first professional appearance as ‘The Little Wonder’ at the age of five and later adopted his father’s nickname.
Blondin’s first crossing of the Niagara Falls, in 1859, was the most famous feat in a life packed with them and like all the others was painstakingly prepared, organised and exploited for maximum publicity. He took care to enlist the support of the Niagara Falls Gazette which at first thought it was a hoax and then decided he was mad but went along anyway. Newspapers all over the country were soon interested. The rival Niagara Mail was sarcastic in its coverage and the New York Times said Blondin was a fool who ought to be arrested, but posters and handbills boosted the excitement. The railway companies laid on special trains and thousands of spectators assembled to watch.
The tightrope was taken across the river in a rowing boat. More than three inches (7.5cm) thick, it sagged by some 60 feet (18m) in the middle, so it had a steep slope. The distance was a little over 1,000 feet (305m). Blondin offered to carry a volunteer over on his back but, unsurprisingly, no one stood forward. Bands on both banks played as he began his crossing at 5.15pm and took his time over what he privately considered an easy task. He stopped and lay down for a rest at one point and stood on one leg for a while. The crossing took him a little over 17 minutes. After a pause he went back across on the rope, much faster this time. He was cheered to the echo and the feat was reported all over America and in Europe.
In several later crossings Blondin introduced variations. He carried his top-hatted manager across on his back, crossed blindfolded or on stilts or in a gorilla costume and pushing a wheelbarrow. One of the wonders of the age, he built himself Niagara House in the London suburb of Ealing in 1889 and died there of diabetes in 1897, days before his 73rd birthday. He lies buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. Neighbouring streets in Ealing, Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue, preserve his memory and there’s a Blondin Street in Bow.