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.

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John Tradescant, Royal Gardener and Forefather of the Natural History Museum
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
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Two ribs of a whale, a dragon’s egg, the hand of a mermaid, and a picture made entirely from feathers: These were just a few of the items displayed at the curiosities museum that John Tradescant the Elder opened around 1630.

Tradescant is best known for two accomplishments: being the forefather of the modern English garden, and opening the first public museum. He collected seeds and plant samples on his extensive travels, then incorporated these flowers into the envy-inspiring gardens he was hired to create for the British nobility. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment on its own, but Tradescant is also remembered for his cabinet of curiosities, which eventually grew to become the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England.

Not much is known about the Tradescant the Elder’s early years. Thought to have been born around 1570, he made his first mark in the historical record when he married in 1607. Two years later, he was appointed gardener to Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury. Tradescant continued to work for the Cecil family for about six years, then took a job with Edward, Lord Wotton, for another eight years. Lord Wotton released him for two major collecting journeys: one as part of a diplomatic mission to the Russian Arctic in 1618, which resulted in him introducing the larch tree, a valuable timber source, to England; and one as part of a 1621 expedition against Algerian pirates. Although the mission failed to do much about the pirates, Tradescant did succeed in bringing back samples of gladioli, wild pomegranate, and Syringa persica—better known as lilac, which became a favorite in English gardens.

Tradescant then served George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, for five years, before the duke was assassinated by a disgruntled army officer and King Charles I himself summoned Tradescant's services. The king appointed Tradescant the Keeper of his Master’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, an estate occupied by his queen, Henrietta Maria. Tradescant would become celebrated as the gardener to the "Rose and Lily Queen."

On Tradescant's travels, he tended to favor trees and flowers that looked interesting above those with a pleasant aroma, since he had no sense of smell. From his trips to France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, he returned with tulips, anemones, irises, clematis vines, and poppies. He also began actively seeking out curiosities, such as "a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree," and "the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone," according to one 1638 accounting of his collection. (He also collected what we might today consider more run-of-the-mill cultural artifacts, like clothing and weapons.) Aside from his own collecting, he contacted British trading ships and asked merchants and diplomats around the world to find him “All Maner of Beasts & Fowels & Birds Alyve.”

Tradescant first began displaying his collection of oddities—fondly known as The Ark—at his home in Lambeth, London in 1628. The museum was a chance for Londoners to see creatures previously unknown to them—animals like salamanders and pelicans were on view—and to touch fantastic relics, such as wood that supposedly came from the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Like other cabinets of curiosity of its era, it combined scientific curiosities and mythological artifacts without strict organizing principles: A brightly colored parrot might be displayed next to a gourd, a precious coin, and some artistically arranged shells. At some point, the collection also incorporated a dodo, described in a 1656 accounting as being a “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big." (While most of the specimen was disposed of due to rot in the mid-18th century, the head—now the only soft tissue dodo specimen known to exist—and several other parts of the specimen are currently in the collection of Oxford's Museum of Natural History.)

Tradescant charged visitors sixpence to view his curiosities, which became one of London's most popular and famous attractions for nearly half a century (it was especially popular with schoolchildren). One early visitor praised it as a place "where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell."

Although the museum was a success, it was not a full-time project. Tradescant also continued to garden for nobility until his death in 1638; his last project, undertaken a year before he died, was a Physic Garden for herbal remedies at Oxford.

Tradescant is called the "Elder" because he also had a well-known son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662), who carried on his work. The younger botanist also gardened for nobles, traveled the world, and collected both plants and curiosities. In 1638, he assumed his father’s title as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. All the while he kept collecting, adding to the Tradescant legacy.

Tradescant the Younger had a son he hoped would carry on the family tradition, but his heir died at 19. Heartbroken, he deeded the collection to a friend and antiques aficionado, Elias Ashmole. It was a decision they came to regret after a variety of squabbles and a court case, which upheld Ashmole's right to the collection. Ashmole paid for and helped compile a catalog of the Tradescant objects in 1656, the first printed catalog of a museum collection in England.

Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
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Ashmole donated the Tradescant curiosities to his old school, the University of Oxford, in the 1670s, alongside some items he had acquired himself. The museum built to exhibit the whole collection officially opened in June 1683, and remains open today.

But it's not the only museum inspired by the work of the Tradescants. The church where the Tradescants (both Elder and Younger) are buried is now known as the Museum of Garden History; it was initially created to preserve the their magnificent tomb. Carved with images from their travels and collections, it incorporates a long epitaph attributed to John Aubrey that describes their curiosities as "a world of wonders in one closet shut."

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March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

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