The Great Farini, Canada's Most Fascinating Man

William Leonard Hunt and Krao Farini

William Leonard Hunt was truly one of the most fascinating and colorful men in Canadian history, and yet today his legendary life is largely unknown. In the latter half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, Hunt was known as The Great Farini, and while he received the most attention for high wire stunts over Niagara Falls, he also achieved success as a circus impresario, world traveler, author, inventor, businessman, and painter.

Hunt was born June 10, 1838, in Lockport, New York, close to the Canadian border and near the source of an attraction that would bring him stardom: Niagara Falls. At a young age, he and his family moved north to Ontario, and he grew up in Bowmanville, not far from Port Hope. While his parents were strict and wanted him at home to do chores, Hunt would seize every opportunity to slip away and pursue one of his favorite pastimes: swimming. As the story goes, before he went out for the day, his mother would sew up his collars and sleeves so he couldn't easily strip them off. But Hunt didn't care—he would plunge in the water fully dressed or rip off his clothes and jump in for a swim.

When he heard of a traveling circus coming to town, Hunt knew he would have to see it. Mesmerized by the spectacle, Hunt decided then and there to get into show business. He began practicing to be an acrobat, memorizing the circus performances and repeating them at home. He mastered tumbling, tightrope walking, and carrying heavy objects on his back. By all accounts, he developed great strength—an essential quality for doing stunts.

At age 21, Hunt thought he was ready to take on his first professional high wire performance. To do so, he decided he needed a more intriguing and glamorous name than William Hunt. So he became Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini, or The Great Farini. He announced that on October 1, 1859, he would walk between two buildings along a tightrope stretched about 80 feet above the Ganaraska River.

On that day, a crowd of thousands came to Port Hope to see the spectacle. The Great Farini gave them a show they wouldn't soon forget: He walked once across with a balancing pole, and then back without any aids, although his balance may have been helped somewhat by his long waxed mustache, which stretched out horizontally on his upper lip into two dramatic points. On the latter trip, he also stopped and sat down on the rope. Not content with just tightrope walking, he also performed a strongman routine in which a rock was broken on his chest.

While word of his daredevilry spread, Farini's father was growing more and more disappointed in his son. He expected him to follow a more traditional path and become a doctor. When Farini told the family of his commitment to show business, they disowned him, and Farini took off without their support.

While his crossing of Ontario's Ganaraska River was certainly a spectacular stunt, Farini was always drawn to a much bigger challenge: Niagara Falls. As Farini was preparing for his debut, the king of the tightrope walkers was The Great Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet). On June 30, 1859, Blondin became the first to cross over Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Up to 25,000 spectators looked on as he crossed with his balancing pole, children clutching their mothers' legs with anxiety and women fainting. On his return journey across the wire, Blondin brought a large daguerreotype camera; he stopped midway and snapped a photo of the crowd. In subsequent performances, he upped the ante—crossing on a bicycle, proceeding blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, walking with his hands and feet manacled, and even cooking an omelet on a small stove at the midpoint. When the omelet was ready, he lowered it down to passengers aboard the famous Niagara Falls tour boat, the Maid of the Mist. He also made one harrowing crossing with his manager on his back.

A fervent admirer of the Great Blondin, Farini vowed to duplicate and surpass his amazing feats. On August 15, 1860, he took his first high wire journey across the falls. According to a contemporary account in The New York Times, it started out inauspiciously when his balancing pole got caught in the guy-ropes. After regaining composure and crossing into Canada (and doing a headstand along the way), he rested for a few minutes and came back across. At the midpoint, after securing his balancing pole to the wire, he lowered himself down to the deck of the Maid of the Mist around 100 feet below. He joined the passengers for a glass of wine. After he bid adieu, he climbed back up the rope to the wire—an incredibly physically demanding task. Once high above the waters again, he detached his balancing pole and continued his journey to the other side. He had planned for many more tricks, but the near-accident at the beginning probably stopped him. The New York Times was still impressed, saying “Who dare say that this method of crossing Niagara River, will not ultimately supersede both boats and suspension bridges?”


The Great Farini hanging upside down from a tight rope across the Niagara River Gorge, c.1855-1860. Image credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, UofT via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Farini issued several challenges to Blondin, saying they should "compete" against each other over Niagara Falls. Blondin, however, left all challenges unanswered. He thought allowing Farini to perform with him would only raise Farini's stature and hurt his own.

So Farini decided to give performances that would match or top Blondin's stunts. He stood on his head and once he hung from his toes. He did somersaults on the wire and crossed wearing a sack over his whole body. He repeated Blondin's stunt of carrying a man on his back.

About a month after his Niagara Falls debut, the Great Farini dressed as an "Irish washerwoman" and strapped an Empire Washing Machine to his torso. When he reached the center, he lowered a bucket to the rushing falls below and hauled up enough water to wash a dozen handkerchiefs given to him by his lady admirers.

While Farini did gain attention and performed before the Prince of Wales, he never seemed to get beyond the shadow of Blondin. Blondin was always the first Niagara Falls high wire act, and Farini was always number two. Farini did, however, have a keen sense for business. Blondin passed the hat to make money, but Farini negotiated deals to make himself even more income. He even made an arrangement with regional railroads to get a percentage of ticket sales from passengers heading to Niagara Falls to see his shows.

However, by most accounts, the Great Farini spent only one season at Niagara Falls, then performed as an acrobat throughout the U.S. and Canada for the next six years.

This was also the time of the Civil War, and Farini reportedly served for a stretch in the Union Army, figuring out ways to cross bodies of water. He also traveled to Havana, Cuba, to perform with his wife Mary Osbourne, whom he married in 1861. He'd taught Mary how to hold on to his back as he walked the wire. In a performance before an estimated 30,000 in the Plaza de Toros bull-fighting arena in 1862 Farini completed a trip along the wire with Mary on his back. As they approached the end of the rope, the crowd cheered and Mary let go with one arm to wave at the appreciative audience. In waving, she lost her balance and fell. Miraculously, Farini caught her dress with one hand. He thought he had her, but before he could pull her to safety, her dress ripped and Mary fell to her death.


Napoleon Sarony via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After the death of his wife, Farini performed a few shows, but he was shaken and disappeared for a while into South America. In 1866, he crossed the Atlantic and began performing again in England with a new partner—his adopted 10-year-old son, who went by the name El Niño. He and his son became The Flying Farinis, a popular trapeze act performing at Cremorne Gardens and the Alhambra Palace in London. One of the highlights of the act was when his son would hang from a trapeze by the nape of his neck, all the while playing a drum high above the crowd. (As an aside, in 1870 El Niño began performing in Paris as "The Beautiful Lulu, the girl Aerialist and Circassian Catapultist." Lulu received dozens of marriage proposals over the next eight years, until revealing his true gender identity in 1878.)

At age 31, the Great Farini retired from performing stunts and turned his attention to training, managing, and inventing. He came up with the apparatus to make a "human cannonball" act possible. His teenage protégé Zazel was the first to go flying across an arena, blasted from a cannon. Farini is also credited with, variously, inventing the modern parachute, a folding theater seat, better gun cartridges, types of telegraph equipment, and an efficient watering can. He also came up with improvements to steam engines and can-packing machines. At age 33, Farini married again. Although his union with Alice Carpenter produced two sons, they divorced in 1880.

Ever the showman, Farini also put together an exhibition of human oddities, including Krao, the Missing Link; the Man with the Iron Skull; the World's Most Tattooed Man, and Dwarf Earthmen (actually pygmies from Africa). He put together the spectacle in the 1870s to help the struggling Royal Westminster Aquarium, and paying customers came flocking in.

His exploits continued when he traveled to the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa in 1885. With his adopted son along as photographer, Farini claimed to have discovered the ruins of an ancient kingdom. The tribespeople of the sandy savannah had claimed that there was once an ancient civilization there. In London, Farini mounted an exhibition of the photos "revealing" The Lost City of the Kalahari. He later published a book on his explorations titled Through the Kalahari Desert. It's never been conclusively proven that the mysterious ancient kingdom was real.


WellcomeImages via Wikimedia Commons // Image credit CC BY 4.0

In addition to all his other interests, Farini was fascinated with botany. He collected bulbs and seeds from his travels, and published Ferns Which Grow in New Zealand (around 1875) and How to Grow Begonias in 1897. He was also a keen businessman, and served as second vice-president of the Rossland Gold Mining Development and Investment Company. He invested his own earnings in mining operations.

Through his vast travels, he mastered seven languages, which proved to be a needed talent in World War I—he and his wife Anna (whom he married in 1886) were hired to translate stories from German newspapers related to the war effort.

In his eighties, living back in Port Hope, Farini took up oil painting. His work was so skilled that it hung in the Canadian National Exhibition. When he died from the flu at age 90 in Port Hope, Ontario, it could truly be said that Farini had lived a great life—there was never a dull moment.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.