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.

Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As a crusading journalist, Dorothy Thompson made plenty of enemies—but her most formidable foe was Adolf Hitler. Thompson spent well over a decade agitating against the Nazis in print and on the radio, warning Americans of the threat of fascism years before the official U.S. entry into World War II. Her efforts made her one of the most famous women in the United States—and the first American correspondent Hitler expelled from Germany.

Stumping for Suffrage

Born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York, to British immigrants, Thompson grew up in a religious household. Her father was a Methodist minister, and he frequently took his eldest daughter on visits to parishioners across the suburbs of upstate New York. When Thompson was just 7 years old, her mother died of sepsis rumored to have been brought on by a botched abortion. Thompson's father, eager to provide his three children with a maternal figure, soon remarried. But Thompson did not get along with her stepmother, whom she claimed had "an allergy to children." A few years later, she went to live with her aunts in Chicago, where she attended a junior college called the Lewis Institute.

Thompson was a bright student who showed a passion for literature and discourse. She continued her education at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1914.

Upon graduation, Thompson devoted herself to feminist pursuits. Her first job out of college involved stuffing envelopes for the Woman Suffrage Party in Buffalo, though Thompson soon convinced her bosses to put her in the field. As Jack Alexander would later write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Stumping for suffrage consisted largely in starting arguments in public places, which was, of course, Dorothy's dish." She spent the next few years fighting for women's right to vote and other progressive pursuits, working in New York City and Cincinnati as well as upstate. But activism didn't pay well, so she also dabbled in advertising and publicity work to help support her younger siblings through college.

Yet Dorothy also nourished dreams of being a journalist. She already had the names and numbers of several editors, after penning op-eds on social justice for the major New York newspapers. She also had a suffragist friend, Barbara De Porte, who was itching to go to Europe in search of stories and adventure. Once they had saved up enough money, the pair boarded a ship to London in 1920, where they embarked upon careers as foreign correspondents.

Hitler: "A Man Whose Countenance Is a Caricature"

Thompson and De Porte both immediately sought freelance work at the International News Service, an American agency with bureaus all over Europe. The I.N.S. assignments suited Thompson, a workhorse who also had incredible luck. In one early success, she landed the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, a leader of the Sinn Fein movement who died in prison on a hunger strike, while visiting relatives in Ireland. She later snagged an exclusive with Karl I, the deposed former king of Hungary, by sneaking into a castle dressed as a Red Cross nurse. After this string of scoops, Thompson landed a job in Vienna as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Through this post, she developed a deep understanding of central European politics—bolstered by her fluency in German and 1923 marriage to Hungarian writer Josef Bard—that catapulted her to bureau chief of both the Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, which shared foreign services. She was, as her biographer Peter Kurth put it, “the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”

But a period of change was ahead. Tired of her husband's many affairs, Thompson filed for divorce in 1927; that same year, she met Sinclair Lewis, the successful novelist of Elmer Gantry and Main Street. He was instantly smitten. In 1928, Thompson accepted one of Lewis's many proposals and resigned her post to marry him, leaving Germany to start a new life with him in Vermont.

Life in the country did not dull her interest in international affairs, however. Thompson continued to report on foreign politics as a freelancer, making several months-long trips back to Germany in the early 1930s to chronicle the crumbling Weimar Republic. She had been following Hitler's rise to power since at least 1923, when she attempted to interview the future dictator following the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed government takeover that put Hitler in prison. Her interview request was finally approved in 1931 under strict conditions: She could only ask him three questions, which were to be submitted a full day in advance.

Thompson came away from the interview less than impressed. "When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany," she wrote. "In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man."

While Thompson misjudged Hitler's appeal (he would be chancellor of Germany in just two years), her biting character assessment stayed with the Führer. He did not initially retaliate, even as the interview circulated among Cosmopolitan readers and the mass paperback market through Thompson's 1932 book I Saw Hitler!. But in the late summer of 1934, the Nazi government expelled Thompson from the country, informing her that they were "unable to extend to [her] a further right of hospitality." It served as one of the first significant warnings to foreign journalists in Germany: Criticism of Hitler would no longer be tolerated.

"My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all," Thompson wrote shortly afterward in The New York Times. "That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people—an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris."

A Woman on a Mission

Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Back in the United States, Thompson mounted a one-woman crusade against the Nazis. She denounced the German government frequently and vigorously in her syndicated column, "On the Record," which ran in 170 newspapers and reached roughly 8 million readers. She also spread her message through regular radio broadcasts for NBC, and a monthly column in Ladies' Home Journal. In one of her most memorable (and dangerous) stands against Hitler's movement, she attended a 1939 rally for the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Seated among 20,000 Nazi supporters, she loudly ridiculed the speaker, even as uniformed men attempted to escort her out of the arena.

These actions brought Thompson incredible fame and adoration. In 1937, she was invited back to her alma mater to serve as Syracuse University's first female commencement speaker. She picked up honorary degrees from Columbia, Tufts, and Dartmouth, among others, and became a frequent honored guest at charity dinners and women's club gatherings. When moviegoers lined up to see the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, they instantly recognized Thompson in Hepburn's accomplished, internationally renowned journalist.

But even as Thompson's popularity continued into World War II, she had already attracted critics. In February 1941, Pacifist mothers paraded her effigy outside the gates of the White House, denouncing her role in "a million boys' lives in blood and pain." Other detractors dismissed Thompson's "perpetual emotion," a complaint that would pick up steam in her postwar career, as she shifted her focus to anti-Zionism and lost many followers in the process. (That included her editors at The New York Post, who dropped her column in 1947.) Her star had significantly faded by 1961, when she died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 67.

The Grimmest Party Game

In the years that followed, Thompson's life was often overshadowed by or absorbed in stories of her more celebrated second husband. Her marriage to Lewis, which lasted from 1928 to 1942, coincided with some of Thompson's busiest and most successful years, and it also inspired one of Lewis's most enduring (and recently resurgent) novels, It Can't Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States.

But unlike Lewis's work, Thompson’s books are now scattered and often difficult to find. As acclaimed as she once was, her name has largely faded in modern times, and frequently appears as a footnote in the wider anti-Nazi cause. One of Thompson's articles, however, has lasted long past her death, and even gained renewed attention in recent years.

The 1941 Harper's story "Who Goes Nazi?" found Thompson playing the grimmest party game: Which person in a room would, if it came down to it, support Hitler's brand of fascism? Drawing on her years of observation, Thompson argued with chilling specificity that the distinction had nothing to do with class, race, or profession. Nazism, she insisted, had to do with something more innate. "Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi," Thompson wrote. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism. "It's an amusing game," she concluded. "Try it at the next big party you go to."

Remembering Nellie Bly, Rabblerouser and Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Elizabeth Jane Cochran came into the world on May 5, 1864. Mrs. Cochran delighted in the baby, her first daughter, dressing Elizabeth in a pink gown for her christening.

The fun was not to last. When Elizabeth was only six, her father died without warning and without a will, plunging Elizabeth and her family into dire financial straits. Several years later, Mrs. Cochran remarried, to a man who was often drunken and abusive. As soon as she was old enough to work, Elizabeth left home to train as a teacher, but ran out of tuition money after only one semester. With no money and no other ideas, she and her mother moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding house.

What girls are good for

It was in Pittsburgh that Elizabeth found her calling. The city's Dispatch ran a weekly column by a self-important man named Erasmus Wilson, who called himself the “Quiet Observer.” One week in 1885, Wilson published an op-ed entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The answer, according to him, was housework. It was unseemly and ugly for ladies to work, he wrote, describing working women as a "monstrosity."

Elizabeth was having none of this. She penned an angry letter to the editor, signing it, provocatively, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The letter was no work of art—Elizabeth had left school at 15, after all—but editor George Madden was impressed by its writer’s fervor. He placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Dispatch, inviting the Lonely Orphan Girl to come forward. She did, and he offered her a job. To protect her identity and her reputation, Madden soon recommended she select a pen name. The two settled upon Nellie Bly, after a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Bly came out with guns blazing. From the very beginning, she was determined to write stories that mattered. She had no experience, no education, and little polish, but she had a fire in her belly that few newspapers had ever seen. She wrote about women’s labor laws. She wrote about sexist divorce laws. She convinced Madden to send her to Mexico, but before long she was expelled for exposing government corruption.

The Dispatch editors were not pleased. They attempted to rein her in by assigning her stories about flower shows and fashion. Nellie Bly would have none of that. She quit, but not before leaving a spectacularly frosty message on the desk of the Quiet Observer: “Dear Q.O.: I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”

“Who is this insane girl?”

The year was 1887, and Nellie Bly had just talked her way into a job at the New York World. For her very first story, Bly agreed to feign insanity in order to gain entry to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

After checking herself into a women’s boarding house under yet another fake name, Bly began acting erratically, peppering her speech with Spanish nouns and claiming she had lost her memory. That night she asked for a pistol. This was apparently all it took; the proprietress called the police, who hauled Bly off to court.

Reporters in the courtroom were instantly captivated by “Nellie Brown.” On the stand, Bly spun a sensational tale of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. A physician who had examined her declared her “demented.”

That weekend, the New York Sun (a World competitor) carried breathless descriptions [PDF] of the enigmatic woman, from the contents of her pockets to the sound of her voice. “WHO IS THIS INSANE GIRL? SHE IS PRETTY, WELL DRESSED, AND SPEAKS SPANISH.”

Bly spent 10 days in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, during which time she saw and was the victim of horrific treatment. The asylum’s residents were mostly poor and immigrant women, some of whom were locked up simply because they could not speak English. The women were beaten, starved, and forced into ice-cold baths—a fate from which even Bly’s nice clothes could not save her.

Upon her release (arranged by an attorney for the newspaper), Bly recorded every single awful thing she had seen. She detailed the conditions in which her fellow residents were forced to live, and the punishment they endured: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

The paper published "Ten Days in a Madhouse" in serial form. By the time the last installment hit newsstands, New York was paying attention.

Bly’s fearless reporting paid off. A grand jury investigation of the asylum confirmed many of her observations, and the institution was eventually shut down.

Still, Bly was just getting started.

Nellie Bly buys a baby

Bly became a sort of journalistic Robin Hood, exposing the darkest corners of New York City society. Wherever women, children, or the poor were being mistreated, you’d find Nellie Bly. She went undercover as a poor clinic patient and narrowly escaped [PDF] having her tonsils removed. For her story “The Girls Who Make Boxes,” she joined the ranks of young women working in a factory. She visited seven different doctors and got seven different diagnoses and an “extraordinary variety” of prescriptions.

She visited a home for “unfortunate women.” She lived for two days in one of New York’s poorest tenements in the hottest part of the summer. She bought a baby on the black market. No, really: she bought a baby.

"I bought a baby last week, to learn how baby slaves are bought and sold in the city of New York. Think of it! An immortal soul bartered for $10! Fathers-mothers-ministers-missionaries, I bought an immortal soul last week for $10!"

What could possibly top that?

Bly decided to conquer the world.

Around the world in 72 days

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, first published in 1873, was all the rage in 1889. Eighty days was pretty impressive given the transportation options at that time, but Bly thought she could do better. After convincing her editors to finance the whole thing, Bly bought a sensible dress and set off.

The rest, of course, is legend. Bly made it home in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. She even had time to stop in France for tea with Jules Verne. The story made her a household name.

Inspired by Bly’s work, other women began to follow in her daring footsteps. Because these undercover stories were the province of “girls,” their brave work was dismissed as “stunt reporting.” Today we’d call it investigative journalism.

A second career

Bly met industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895 and married him a few days later, leaving the newspaper life behind. Seaman was 40 years older than his bride, but neither seemed particularly fussed by the age difference. Their marriage lasted nearly ten years, until Seaman’s death in 1904.

Elizabeth Cochrane (she later changed her name to add the e) Seaman inherited all of her late husband’s holdings, including his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Another widow might have handed the company over. Bly decided to run it herself.

Bly had no experience in this arena, but that had never stopped her before. By 1902, she was filing patents for new types of oil barrels.

As an employer, Bly embodied all the principles she had championed in her stories. She paid her workers fairly and offered them access to gymnasiums, libraries, and healthcare. This was unheard of.

Unfortunately, there was a reason for that. Treating employees like human beings was expensive, and before too long her businesses went under.

Bly returned to the newsroom during World War I. She was still working in 1922, when she died of pneumonia at the age of 58.

Nellie Bly was an unwavering advocate for social change, a journalistic dynamo, and a force of nature. She wasn’t the first woman of her time to join a newsroom, but she was certainly the most ferocious.

This article has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER