The Tragic Irony Of The First Man Who Survived The Niagara Falls Plunge

Niagara Falls isn't the tallest waterfall in the world. According to Geology, Venezuela's Angel Falls is, measuring 3,212 feet. Technically, Niagara Falls, with a drop of 170 feet, is made up of three waterfalls — the American Falls, Horseshoe Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls — but still, none of them are anywhere near the more than 3,000 feet that Angel Falls reaches into the air. However, there has been a sort of magnetism that has drawn daredevils to the shores of the Niagara River in hopes of hopping inside either a homemade apparatus or even just a run-of-the-mill barrel and going over the falls.

Many people have taken their own lives at Niagara Falls over the years, and many other people have gone over the falls accidentally. However, according to How Stuff Works, there is another group of folks who went over the falls intentionally, in hopes of surviving the ordeal and, perhaps, cashing in on the resulting fame. Not all of them were fortunate to make it through the stunt unscathed, or even alive, but some were. One of those who survived a harrowing trip down the falls was Bobby Leach. While Leach became one of the few who was able to relate his tale, he, unfortunately, met a far less dramatic demise (per Niagara Falls Museums).

The first successful trip over the falls

The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel is not the kind of person you would expect to tackle such a death-defying, adrenaline-fueled stunt. Her name was Annie Edson Taylor, a widow and retired schoolteacher, and when she took the plunge in 1901 she was 63 years old. However, according to How Stuff Works, she claimed she was only 43 years old. Taylor's trip over the falls was a good old-fashioned publicity stunt because she was convinced that surviving the fall would bring her fame and fortune. She even hired a manager whose job was to handle publicity duties and make sure people knew about her stunt.

Taylor's vessel was not high-tech by any means; it was a custom-made pickle barrel. Granted, it was airtight, and before she hopped inside — with her pet cat, who also took the plunge — it was filled with pillows and an anvil which was meant to act as ballast. She survived, albeit with a concussion and small facial laceration. Her stunt made her a star ... temporarily. She and her now-famous barrel took photos with people and she gave speeches, but the interest in her and her stunt dried up and she died 20 years later, broke.

Bobby Leach gives it a go

For 10 years after Annie Edson Taylor's historic plunge, no one else decided to give it a shot, per Niagara Falls Museum. That is, until Bobby Leach decided that he wanted to be the first man to accomplish the same feat. Leach was an English stuntman who performed in circuses, and going over the falls in a barrel was the last leg of what he called the "triple challenge." According to How Stuff Works, he completed the other two parts of his triple challenge — by riding in a barrel through rapids and a whirlpool, and base jumping from a bridge farther up the river from the falls — in 1908 and 1910, respectively.

As opposed to Taylor's more rustic, wooden barrel, Leach used an 8-foot-long barrel made of steel as his vessel of choice. He climbed into his barrel, strapped in, and entered the river a fair distance from the falls. Some 18 minutes after entering the water he took the plunge — literally.

Accounts of the journey differ. According to How Stuff Works, the barrel got stuck on rocks at the base of the falls and Leach remained there for more than 20 minutes before someone was able to free him and his barrel. The Niagara Falls Museum reports that after going over the falls, the barrel was caught in an eddy for the same 20 minutes. An employee of Ontario Power Company, Fred Bender, tied a rope around his waist, gave the other end to his co-workers, and swam out and grabbed Leach's barrel. His fellow employees hauled everyone onto dry land.

Bobby Leach's death

Leach survived, but — depending who you believe — suffered a gash on his forehead, a broken jaw, and broke both of his knee caps (or a forehead gash, a cut on his ear, and kneecaps with significant bruising). The severity of his injuries led to him spending six months in the hospital.

Now, every fan of slapstick comedy and "Mario Kart" is well-aware of the dangers posed by discarded banana peels. Pop culture would lead us to believe that they are the most dangerous fruit peels by a significant margin, but it's fair to say that Bobby Leach would want to argue that orange peels — not banana peels — are the ones to watch out for.

In the years after his stunt, and once he had recovered from his injuries, Leach and his wife took a page out of the Annie Edson Taylor's playbook and toured around the world, showing off his famous barrel. According to Niagara Falls Museum, 15 years after plummeting down Niagara Falls, Leach was in Auckland, New Zealand. He was walking down the street, minding his own business, when he suddenly stepped on a discarded orange peel. He slipped and broke his leg. However, things quickly went from bad to worse. The broken leg became infected, and doctors decided that the only path forward was to amputate his leg. Complications from the surgery set in, and two months later, Leach died on April 28, 1929, at the age of 69.