As far as tourist towns go, Niagara Falls, Canada is well worth the pit stop — there’s really nowhere else like it. The Falls themselves, straddling the American and Canadian border on the southern end of the Niagara Gorge, are made up of three separate waterfalls: the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. The largest of the three, and the most visually iconic, are the Horseshoe Falls located on the Canadian side of the border. Tourists have been flocking to Niagara Falls from all over the world since the early 1820s, with the Canadian side welcoming around thirteen million visitors annually. If you think the Falls look beautiful in photographs, it’s no comparison to how truly massive and majestic they are in person.
Standing between 167 and 188 feet (51 and 57 metres) in height, the Falls see over 168,000 cubic meters of waterflow every single minute making it the most powerful waterfall in all of North America. While the majority of visitors travel to the area to see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, visit the kitschy tourist spots on Clifton Hill, or play in one of the city’s two casinos, there are a few who don’t want to stand on an observation platform to experience the waterfalls. They want to go over them. In a barrel.
Below is a comprehensive list of what have come to be known as the Niagara Falls Daredevils – individuals who willingly went over Niagara Falls with the intent of surviving, typically inside some sort of modified barrel. Each person has their own strange story and a number meet a gruesome (and not always fast) end, but they all share the same bizarre dream of surviving the plunge over the unforgiving and sublime Horseshoe Falls.
(Author’s note: while researching for this article details such as ages, dates, fines, etc. were often provided in conflicting amounts between sources. I’ve done my best to include these details from the most reputable sources, but please be aware that there might be some discrepancy.)
Annie Edson Taylor
|Date Over the Falls||24 October 1901 (age 64)|
In 1901, Annie Taylor found herself in an unsatisfactory financial situation. After failed attempts to secure employment in both the United States and Canada, the widower and former schoolteacher decided to turn to an unconventional form of income. On 24 October of that year, which happened to be Taylor’s sixty-fourth birthday, she became the first person to survive the plummet over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Prior to her stunt, Taylor had tested the barrel (a custom job made from oak, iron, and mattress for padding) by sending it over the Falls with a cat inside. The cat survived with a bleeding head and Taylor felt this was good enough reason to assume she would survive as well. Luckily, she was correct. After her own trip over the Falls Taylor declared to the press, “if it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat… I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.” Imagine how the cat felt.
Despite her intentions of garnering fame and riches from her stunt, Taylor found little post-Niagara Falls success. She spoke a number of times about her experience and wrote a memoir that she intended to sell. However, her barrel was stolen by her manager and the little money she did manage to make was spent hiring detectives to locate it. Taylor died penniless on 29 April 1921 at the age of 82.
|Date Over the Falls||25 July 1911|
As a performer with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, Bobby Leach was no stranger to danger. Ten years later on 25 July 1911, he became the second person (and first man) to survive the trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. His barrel was made of steel with wooden bumpers and an interior harness for ‘safety’. A large crowd gathered to watch Leach’s stunt and at 2:55PM he was set loose from Chippawa Creek. It wasn’t until 3:13PM that his barrel reached the edge of the Falls and a reporter for the Daily Record wrote about his experience standing amongst the crowd that day:
As the barrel approached the brink, the multitude of voices hushed, as if by magic, and the silence was intense as the fearful plunge was made. Not a sound was heard except for the roar of the cataract until ‘there he is’ was shouted by dozens of voices as the barrel reappeared in the seething, bubbling waters below, some little distance below the falls.
The next question naturally was ‘Does Leach still live’?
The answer was yes, Leach was still alive. But unlike Taylor, he broke a number of ribs, his jaw, and both kneecaps from the fall and spent 23 weeks in hospital. Once recovered he travelled the world with his wife and his barrel to speak on the success of his daring feat. Ironically, Leach died 15 years later after slipping on an orange peel in Auckland, New Zealand, breaking his leg and dying in surgery while having it amputated from infection.
|Date Over the Falls||11 July 1920 (aged 58)|
To continue the trend of ‘firsts’, Charles Stephens was the first person to die going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Not quite the same level of distinction. Known as the Demon Barber of Bedminster, Stephens took on work as a daredevil alongside his work as a barber in order to support his wife and eleven children. He performed stunts in his native England including high dives and parachute jumps, but the money he raised still wasn’t enough. Stephens then felt the pull of Niagara Falls and planned to become the third person to survive the plunge. His vehicle of choice was an oak barrel with an anvil for stability. Both Bobby Leach and William “Red” Hill Sr (who’s son would make the journey over the Falls thirty years later) insisted Stephens test his barrel prior to the event. He ignored them both.
On 11 July 1920 Stephens entered his barrel and strapped his feet to the anvil. The anvil, obviously heavy, proceeded to drag his barrel over and then under the Falls. Only his right arm was pulled from the wreckage, the rest of his body was never recovered. Maybe going over Niagara Falls in a barrel isn’t such a great idea after all?
For his efforts, Stephens was awarded a Darwin Award in 1994.
|Date Over the Falls||4 July 1928 (aged 36)|
|Method||Rubber and steel ball|
Unbothered by the grisly death of Charles Stephens nearly a decade earlier, Jean Lussier was ready to change the Niagara Falls Daredevil Game by doing away with the barrel and making the plummet inside a giant ball. The ball measured nine feet in diameter and contained 32 layers of inner tubes, a steel frame covered in canvas, and nine layers of rubber. To keep the ball from spinning, a 150lb rubber ballast was added to the bottom. Lussier initially intended to be dropped from a plane above the Horseshoe Falls, but unsurprisingly airport management decided this was absolutely not happening. In an attempt to keep the police at bay, an exact time for Lussier’s stunt was never disclosed to the public. Regardless approximately 200,000 people showed up to see if he would meet the same fate as his predecessor. This time, rescuers didn’t witness a severed arm when they retrieved the vessel, but a very alive Lussier who only looked as though he’d been in a bar fight.
Following his successful assault, Lussier decided to use his new found fame to gain a little additional income. He moved to Niagara Falls, New York and began selling pieces of the ball for 50 cents to tourists. Locals noted that Lussier’s supply of rubber never seemed to dry up, which was a valid observation — allegedly, he had begun selling bits of random inner tubes when the supply from the original ball dried up. In an interview with The Buffalo News in 1968, Lussier confirmed that he actually made a decent living selling these as souvenirs as well as signing autographs and talking about his experience. Good news for Lussier who invested $7000 USD from his savings as a salesman (the equivalent of about $113,000 today) to have his ball created by Akron Rubber Company.
|Date Over the Falls||5 July 1930 (aged 46)|
Returning to the traditional barrel, Greek citizen George Stathakis wanted to raise funds for the publication of a series of books he had written detailing his metaphysical experiences. With a little help from his friends, Stathakis built his ten foot long barrel from wood and steal. William “Red” Hill Sr tried to warn Stathakis that his nearly 2000lb barrel was too heavy to safely make the journey, but Stathakis ignored his concerns. Remember what happened the last time someone didn’t listen to Red?
When Stathakis went over the Falls on 5 July 1930 he became the first person to get their barrel stuck behind the waterfall. Twenty hours later, Stathakis’ barrel (roughly the weight of a hippopotamus or ten baby elephants) was successfully retrieved. And while the barrel was in surprisingly good condition, Stathakis had died from suffocation. He wasn’t alone in his final moments because for some reason Stathakis took the trip with his 150 year old pet turtle named Sonny (don’t worry, Sonny survived). I wish this was the last time an animal was involved, but alas, these aren’t the most forethinking people.
William “Red” Hill Jr
|Date Over the Falls||5 August 1951 (aged 38)|
|Method||Inner tubes, fishing netting|
Remember William “Red” Hill Sr? The voice of reason that no one listened to? William “Red” Hill Jr (who we’ll call Will) was his ill-fated son who could have used his father’s advice before going over Niagara Falls in a contraption he referred to as… The Thing.
In 1950 Will tipped the press off about his plan to go over the Falls the following year in a spherical vessel similar to Lussier’s. His younger brother Lloyd attempted to overshadow his brother by going over in a steel barrel a year before Will. However, his barrel became stuck near the Canadian Power Plant and, after he was rescued, went unoccupied over the Falls. Undeterred, Will pressed on with his plans but decided to swap out the ball for the aforementioned Thing. His homemade Frankenstein’s monster consisted of fourteen rubber truck tire inner tubes covered with canvas and netting. The top and bottom of The Thing was also covered in inner tubes, and more inner tubes were packed inside to keep Will secure. It’s clear from photos of The Thing (above) that this was an absolutely dreadful idea. Maybe even worse than our Darwin Award winner Charles Stephens (maybe).
When Will and The Thing went over Niagara Falls at 3:05PM on 5 August it was no surprise when the bizarre contraption fell apart. Only Will’s shoes remained inside and his corpse was later recovered from the Niagara River the following day.
William Fitzgerald (aka Nathan Boya)
|Date Over the Falls||15 July 1961|
|Method||Giant rubber ball|
William Fitzgerald (aka Nathan Boya) achieved two ‘firsts’ in his summer ’61 descent over the Falls:
- He was the first African American to attempt and survive the stunt
- And he was the first person ever to be fined for doing so under the Niagara Parks Act.
Taking a page from Lussier’s book, Fitzgerald’s weapon of choice was a giant ball, this time made of rubber. Named the Plunge-O-Sphere, the ball weighed 544kg, had a diameter of thee meters, and was filled with inflatable cushions for protection. On 15 July 1961 Fitzgerald was strapped into the ball and, with a helmet secure on his head, towed towards the rapids. Just as he was about to go over the Falls, the hatch of the Plunge-O-Sphere opened and Fitzgerald recalled seeing daylight. He managed to hold the hatch secure while the ball plunged over the edge. But unlike the previous two attempts, he survived.
After his successful stunt, Fitzgerald was pulled from the Plunge-O-Sphere only to be met by the Niagara Parks Police. He initially said his name was Nathan Boya and was given a fine of $100 CAD and additional costs of $13. Fitzgerald proudly told Niagara Police that he had “integrated Niagara Falls” and was taken to Greater Niagara General Hospital to be treated for chest pain and bruising. While Fitzgerald was in court two days later he was identified by his real name William Fitzgerald by a corporate spokesperson from his employer IBM in New York City. Not much else is know about Fitzgerald since, unlike his fellow survivors, he didn’t choose to pursue a life of fame and fortune. Fitzgerald laid low for the next couple decades until he attended the funeral of our next Daredevil.
|Date Over the Falls||2 July 1984 (aged 37)|
Unlike many before him, professional stuntman Karel Soucek did his homework before manning his own barrel over the Falls. He was a professional, after all. After researching previous successful and failed attempts, Soucek tested the river’s water currents by sending unmanned barrels over the Falls as well as testing shock absorption by dropping his nine foot long barrel off the Niagara Escarpment. In total Soucek’s stunt sent him back $15,000 CAD in materials and labour as well as a massive investment of $30,000 to film his Niagara Falls joy ride. His barrel was made of lightweight metal and plastic, with snorkels for air and a two-way radio.
When Soucek went over the Falls on 2 July 1984 he was rescued 45 minutes later relatively unharmed with nothing but a chipped tooth and a gash on his head from his wristwatch. Like Fitzgerald, Soucek was greeted by Niagara Parks Police who confiscated his barrel and fined him $500 for performing a stunt without a license, putting the total costs on his venture to $45,500. But unlike poor Annie Taylor, Soucek was more than capable of making the money back.
The following year Soucek planned a 180 foot drop inside his barrel into a pool nine feet deep and twelve feet wide in front of an audience 35,000 at the Houston Astrodome. Since the barrel survived Niagara Falls, surely it could survive one more stunt… right?
Wrong. Despite a stern warning from friend Evel Knievel, who called the stunt “the most dangerous [he’d] ever seen”, Soucek was nailed into his barrel and lifted up to the roof of the Astrodome. Before the barrel was dropped it began experiencing issues with stabilisation and kept spinning as it hung in the air. A worker for the event said that “after a while the people started getting so impatient that we went ahead and dropped him. Just as we started to release the barrel, it started spinning again.” The barrel fell, spinning just enough to tilt onto its side and smash onto the edge of the pool. Soucek was taken to hospital with severe back and neck injuries where he died. Moral of the story: if Evel Knievel tries to talk you out of a dangerous stunt, you should probably listen to him.
William Fitzgerald attended Soucek’s funeral, since the men had developed a friendship through the exchange of letters. In a note left with flowers on Soucek’s grave, Fitzgerald wrote:
To a Fallen Comrade: I had so wanted to meet you, yet it wasn’t to be. We had something in common and those Falls are still tumbling there. That I’ve lived to tell the tale is a miracle. Fate has taken a hand and your life has ended too soon, but I doubt you would have wanted it any other way.
Watch Karel Soucek’s final stunt here.
|Date Over the Falls||18 August 1985 (aged 22)|
18 June 1995 (aged 33) with Lori Martin
1995: Water heater tanks
Later that year, Steve Trotter would become the youngest person ever to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and the first American to attempt the stunt in 25 years. On 16 August 1985 twenty-two-year-old Trotter approached the river to enter his barrel when he was stopped by the police and escorted back to the US border. Undeterred, he tried again on 18 August from a different location near the Horseshoe Falls and made the journey over the Falls safely in his $6,200 USD barrel made of two pickle barrels, fiberglass, balsa wood, and truck tire inner tubes covered by a tarpaulin. Trotter had a number of supplies in his barrel to ensure he could survive if he became stuck below the Falls including a flashlights, a lifejacket, a two-way radio, and oxygen tanks.
Because of his age and good looks, Trotter became a minor celebrity appearing on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as well as numerous worldwide print publications. He was even chosen as “One of the 10 Sexiest Men in the World” by Mademoiselle women’s magazine. Later in November that same year, Trotter’s fame increased when he set a world record for the longest Tarzan swing off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Trotter completed a second trip over the Falls on 18 June 1995 in a newly constructed barrel consisting of two pieces of welded together water heater tanks costing approximately $90,000. This time, he intended to take a companion, but his first choice’s mother called him the day before and threatened to call the Canadian border patrol if Trotter took her daughter. His second choice was too big for the straps inside the barrel to safely secure her. So in the end he took his former boss Lori Martin who had always joked with Trotter about going with him over the Falls.
In 2015 Forbes interviewed Trotter recalled listening to Alive by Pearl Jam inside the barrel with Lori as they made their way down the river. Just before the plummet, they were informed through their walkie-talkie that their barrel had turned and they were going over the Falls head first. Miraculously, both Lori and Trotter survived but were arrested and fined $14,700. It took nine days and a crane to remove the barrel from where it was stuck at the bottom of the Falls.
Trotter had been planning his third trip over the Falls during 2015, but had difficulties securing sponsors. He planned to take another companion, this time his fifteen-year-old pet turtle Oscar. Thankfully for Oscar, it doesn’t appear that Trotter ever secured the appropriate funding.
|Date Over the Falls||5 October 1985 (aged 48)|
26 September 1993 (aged 56)
|Method||1985: Steel barrel|
1993: Diving bell
While Trotter went over Niagara Falls twice in 1985 and 1995, he wasn’t the first to do so. That achievement goes to skydiving instructor and helicopter pilot David Munday who completed his second stunt two years before Trotter’s. Munday’s first planned attempt over the Falls was on 28 July 1985, but he was stopped by the Niagara Parks police when Ontario Hydro lowered the water level at the Hydro Control Dam. He received a fine of $503 CAD and a warning that any future attempts would land him 30 days in jail and an additional $1000 fine. Munday felt the threat was unjustified and returned to Niagara Falls a few months later on 5 October to try once again. His homemade vessel consisted of a steel barrel with aluminium and foam lining that cost Munday around $16,000. Painted on the exterior of the red and white barrel was a maple leaf. He launched himself 137 metres from the edge of the Horseshoe Falls and went over in a matter of seconds. After being trapped in the barrel for 90 minutes, Munday was successfully rescued.
Munday couldn’t shake the Niagara Falls bug and wanted another go – this time in a lighter barrel weighing only 394lbs. However, bad luck struck again on 16 July 1990 when the new barrel became stuck near the edge of the waterfall. He was fined $4,375 and handed a two year probation by the Niagara Parks Commission. Still determined to become the first person to make it over Niagara Falls twice, Munday tried again on 26 September 1993 with a vessel made from a 650lbs diving bell he had purchased from the Canadian Coast Guard. He survived, but he also set a new, dangerous precedent for future daredevils to attempt a second stunt at Niagara Falls.
Peter DeBernardi and Jeffery James Petkovich
|Date Over the Falls||28 September 1989 (DeBernardi aged 42, Petkovich aged 24)|
Initially, Peter DeBernardi planned a ride over the Falls in his $1,500 CAD barrel with a friend, making them the first two people to go over the Falls together. But at the last minute his friend got cold feet and pulled out of the stunt. DeBernardi then met Jeffrey Petkovich, a University of Ottawa student 18 years his junior, who agreed to accompany him on his Niagara Falls adventure.
DeBernardi’s barrel was 3.7 meters long, 1500lbs, had a two-way radio system, ninety minutes of oxygen supply, a keel, and a ballast control. At this point these ‘barrels’ had practically become small boats. Under the guise of promoting drug education, DeBernardi and Petkovich went over the Falls in their barrel sporting the slogan “Don’t Put Yourself on the Edge – Drugs Kill” at 5:30PM on 29 September 1989. They received the distinction of being the first people to go over the barrel in a pair, making Trotter and Lori the second when they attempted the same feat six years later.
DeBernardi and Petkovich attempted a second trip over the Falls, this time on the American side, inside a ten foot Styrofoam ball. When they arrived on 14 August 1990 they were stopped by the New York State Park Police, which was enough to put an end to their Niagara Falls daredevil plans for good.
Jessie W. Sharp
|Date Over the Falls||5 June 1990 (aged 28)|
After nearly 100 years of engineering a vessel safe enough for humans to successfully make a trip over Niagara Falls, twenty-eight year old Jessie Sharp decided that simply wasn’t reckless enough. He was going to go over the Falls in a kayak. You might assume that Sharp at least wore a helmet and life-jacket for his incredibly dangerous stunt, but you’d be sorely mistaken.
Sharp had been successfully jumping 30 to 40-foot waterfalls with his kayak prior to arriving in Niagara and assumed incorrectly that a waterfall three times the height would be smooth sailing. His plan was to gain enough speed on his approach to Niagara Falls to thrust himself over the edge and create enough distance to avoid the deadly, crushing water below. He would then kayak down the lower river to Lewiston where he had left his car, and celebrate his success by eating dinner at a nearby restaurant where he had booked a reservation. Sharp was nothing if not confident.
On 5 June 1990, Sharp paddled his way towards the 176-foot drop. As a C-1 kayaker, he went over Niagara Falls on his knees with a single bladed paddle while his friends watched and recorded his final moments from the shore. Niagara Parks Police Staff Sargent Fred Hollidge commented “I think he just underestimated everything. With the speed of the water and the lightness of the kayak, he thought he’d be catapulted away from the main falls. . . . It just didn’t work out that way. He didn’t shoot out at all. He just dropped like a ton of bricks.”
Needless to say, Sharp did not survive. In fact, other than the discovery of his beat up kayak, Sharp was never seen again.
|Date Over the Falls||1 October 1995 (aged 39)|
|Method||Jet Ski, rocket-propelled parachute|
On 1 October 1995, Californian Robert Overacker went over Niagara Falls on a jet ski. His plan – to discharge a rocket-propelled parachute once he became airborne, allowing him to slowly coast down to safety. The photo above shows the exact moment that the parachute was meant to be deployed… but wasn’t. Someone else had been in charge of packing his parachute and they clearly hadn’t done it properly. Allegedly, onlookers thought Sharp had survived when they saw his arms flailing in the waters below, but in reality it was his corpse being whipped around in the current.
|Date Over the Falls||22 October 2003 (aged 53)|
19 April 2017 (aged 67)
2017: Plastic ball
In 2003 Kirk Jones jumped off Niagara Falls in nothing but his own clothes, becoming the first person to survive the stunt without a vessel. Conflicting reports from both Jones and his family painted a confusing picture of whether or not it actually was a stunt, or if Jones jumped with the purpose of taking his own life. He walked away from the scene with only cuts and bruises, a $4,500 CAD fine for performing mischief and an illegal stunt, and a ban from Canada. Afterwards, Jones said that he would never try a stunt like that ever again.
Going back on his word (shocking), Jones returned to Niagara Falls on 19 April 2017, this time equipped with a giant inflatable ball… and his seven-foot long boa constrictor named Misty. Details about Jones’ second and final trip over the Falls have always been a bit murky. From what we know, he called his wife the day of his stunt and told her what he was about to do. Terrified, she contacted the the police. When his van was found, Misty’s empty cage was discovered inside. A man came forward saying he helped Jones carry the ball towards the river but left after he realised the danger of the situation. Other than that, it appears Jones was carrying out his feat alone.
New York State Parks Police Detective Sergeant Brian Nisbet found a now defunct website promoting Jones’ stunt (www.kirkjonesniagarafallsdaredevil.com) and where he planned to sell t-shirts. However, the event took place with so little fanfare that no one really knows what exactly happened. It appeared that Jones had tried to film the stunt with a drone that had crashed nearby on Goat Island, but the brief footage only showed the river. No one knows how Jones’ got the ball in the water, or if he ever actually made it inside the ball since the latch was seen open and empty before it reached the edge.
Inside the ball or not, Jones went over the Falls and his body was found on 2 June 2017 relatively far down the Niagara River near Youngstown. The ball was recovered by the Maid of the Mist on the day of the stunt, but the fate of Misty is unknown. According to exotic animal specialists, she likely died due to the cold temperatures of the water which she wouldn’t have been accustomed. Sadly, her body has never been recovered.
Considering Joining the List of Niagara Falls Daredevils?
If the above terrible deaths don’t deter you, consider this: when each of these people decided to put their own lives in danger they ignored the very real reality that they were doing the same to dozens of others. In the majority of cases, daredevils going over the Falls require assistance to get out of their barrel, especially if they’ve become trapped on the rocks. Everyone involved in these rescue missions is putting their lives at risk for someone who made an incredibly reckless decision for their five minutes of fame.
If you are a bit of an adrenaline junky, there are a number of safe things tourists in Niagara Falls can do on the Canadian side of the border – Journey Behind the Falls, Whirlpool Aero Car, the Voyage to the Falls boat tour, a zipline, and the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours are the most popular. Heck, visit one of the numerous haunted houses on Clifton Hill if you really want to be scared. Literally anything other than going over the Falls in a barrel. Or a giant ball. Or jet ski… or canoe…
Born and raised in the Niagara Region, stories of the Niagara Falls daredevils are a fascinating part of our history. But if you went up to a local resident today and told them you wanted to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel, you’re guaranteed to receive a giant eye roll. It’s old hat now, and just not worth the risk. Though I have no doubt that somewhere out there someone is scheming their own stunt over the Falls. But without any real ‘firsts’ left up for grabs I’m sure whatever we see next is going to be even more ridiculous. First person over the Falls dressed as a banana? First person over the Falls in a stolen police cruiser? First person over the Falls while holding a sermon to the almighty Cthulhu? Whatever it ends up being, please, please, please leave your poor pets out of it.
Sources and Additional Reading
BBC News – Niagara Falls survivor Kirk Jones dies in plunge in inflatable ball (2017)
Darwin Awards – Bottom of the Barrel, 1994 Darwin Award Winner
Forbes – Steve Trotter Eyes Third Niagara Falls Barrel Plunge: ‘My Last Big Hurrah, Dude!’ (2015)
Forbes – Daredevil Steve Trotter Revisits His Two Death-Defying Niagara Falls Barrel Plunges (2015)
Imax Niagara – Daredevils of Niagara Falls | Joseph Albert “Jean” Lussier (2011)
Info Niagara – Niagara Daredevils (various articles)
Los Angeles Times – 35,000 Watch as Barrel Misses Water Tank : 180-Ft. Drop Ends in Stunt Man’s Death (1985)
Men’s Journal – Odd details emerge in mysterious death of Niagara Falls daredevil
Niagara Falls Hotels – How Tall is Niagara Falls? (2016)
Niagara Falls Museums – Bobby Leach
Niagara Falls Up Close – Nathan Boya
Snopes – Did Bobby Leach Survive Niagara Falls, Only to Die After Slipping on Orange Peel? (2021)
The Buffalo News – Kayaker Died Pursing Dream He Could Conquer the Falls (1990)