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.

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.

The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of Snake Handler Grace Olive Wiley

Grace Olive Wiley with reptiles
Grace Olive Wiley with reptiles
Hennepin County Library, used with permission

For the first 30 years of her life, Grace Olive Wiley was deathly afraid of snakes—a strange trait for someone who would come to be known as the most celebrated snake woman of her time. As a child and young adult, she would blanch in horror at even the most harmless varieties. But the story goes that one day in the early 1920s, while working at the Minneapolis Museum of Natural History, a rattlesnake slithered across her hand as she was talking to a visitor. When the reptile didn't strike, she thought that perhaps all snakes could be tamed, and decided she wanted to know how.

It was the dawning moment in a career that would see Wiley amass a collection of over 300 snakes, open her own zoo, and make numerous herpetological breakthroughs—even as working with the creatures would end up costing Wiley her life.

From Bugs to Snakes

Grace Olive Wiley holding a snake in 1935
Grace Olive Wiley holding a snake in 1935
Hennepin County Library, used by permission

Wiley started her career as an avid entomologist. Born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1883, she attended the University of Kansas to study insects. After she received her bachelor’s degree in entomology, she went on research trips in Texas, collecting insects, observing them, sending specimens back to the university, and cataloguing her findings. Based on these studies, she published two papers in The Kansas University Science Bulletin in 1922: “Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae (Hempitera) Found in Kansas” and “Notes on the Biology of Curicta from Texas.”

Having shown herself to be a capable and an enthusiastic naturalist, in 1923 Wiley took a post as the curator of Minneapolis's Museum of Natural History, a branch of the Minneapolis Public Library, where she oversaw a collection of reptiles. After the encounter with the rattlesnake that opened her eyes to the potential of all scaly creatures, she built up a private collection—chiefly snakes, but also seemingly unlovable creatures such as the venomous Gila monster.

To tame her snakes, Wiley fashioned a petting stick padded with cloth that she used to stroke them. Gradually, as they became accustomed to touch, she found she could handle them with her fingers—even the venomous species. Wiley also cooed and spoke to her scaly charges, attempting to convey sympathy to them instead of fear. She later explained in a 1937 article called “Taming King Cobras” in Natural History Magazine that “[snakes] are not, as a rule, afraid to trust you first. They believe you are friendly, before you are convinced they have no desire to bite.”

Wiley published two papers in the Bulletin of the Antivenin Institute of America that detailed her success with taming rattlesnakes: the first in 1929 on western diamondbacks and the other in 1930 on a species of pit viper. She didn’t just tame the diamondbacks, however. She also bred two generations of them, becoming the first person to ever breed the species in captivity. Thanks to her work, herpetologists were able to learn the gestation period for diamondbacks and better understand when and under what conditions rattlesnakes lose the segments on their tails.

By 1933, Wiley had decided to make caring for reptiles her full-time job. She wrote a letter to Edward Bean, the director of Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, with an unconventional pitch: She offered the zoo her private reptile collection of over 330 snakes (which included 115 species) in exchange for a job as curator of reptiles at the zoo. Bean accepted the offer, and the zoo set to work building a new reptile house to accommodate their large acquisition. It was rare for a woman to become a reptile curator—so rare that Wiley drew the attention of the national press, from the local Chicago Tribune to The Los Angeles Times, who praised the “lady herpetologist” for her new appointment.

Along with her snakes, Wiley also brought to the zoo her unorthodox methods. Against her superiors’ orders, she continued to handle the snakes without protection, and was generally lax with enclosure protocols. Her failure to close the snakes’ pens resulted in a series of 19 animals escaping, including a venomous Egyptian cobra and an Australian bandy-bandy. The latter escape reportedly disrupted the city, as mothers kept their children indoors and the police scoured the streets for the creature. The bandy-bandy was eventually found in a pile of dead leaves meant to be used as cage decorations.

Wiley had become a liability for the zoo, and the insurance payment resulting from the escape reportedly exceeded Wiley’s annual salary. Acting director Robert Bean fired Wiley in 1935—only two years after she had started.

Grace Olive Wiley's Last Photograph

Wiley left Chicago and moved with her mother to Long Beach, California, in 1937. There, she started her own roadside reptile zoo, which she named Grace Wiley — Reptiles, where visitors could pay to see her collection of cobras, Gila monsters, and monitor lizards. Without the rules and regulations of a formal zoo, Wiley allowed her reptiles—all 100 of them—to roam freely over the grounds. She earned extra money by loaning her tamed 15-foot king cobra, King, out to movie productions; the snake appeared in the Tarzan films, The Jungle Book, and Moon Over Burma.

In 1948, journalist Daniel Mannix visited the zoo to photograph Wiley’s collection. For dramatic effect, Mannix wanted a photograph of a cobra spreading its hood, but her tame cobras didn't spread their hoods—the gesture is usually only displayed out of intimidation or aggression. Instead of posing with one of her familiar cobras, Wiley decided to pose with an Indian cobra new to her collection. During the photo shoot, the Indian struck Wiley in the middle finger. According to a newspaper account of the event, Wiley calmly returned the cobra to its cage while she waited for an ambulance. She died 90 minutes after the bite at the age of 65.

Wiley’s dramatic death, along with her unconventional methods and eccentricities, have often eclipsed her contributions to science. Some scholars have written that it's tempting to see her as more of a showman than as a serious scientist concerned with facts and experiments. Wiley, however, did care about facts, and she contributed quite a few to the study of both insects and snakes. Her detailed notes and observations of the rattlesnakes she kept in captivity helped scientists better understand their breeding, psychology, and development. She also discovered a new species of water strider, and contributed insect specimens to the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions.

Yet sometimes, Wiley found that facts weren’t enough to explain something, and she embraced the unknown. “One may study and observe and know a great many facts,” she wrote in her 1937 article, “but when it comes to the how and the why, one finds one has little knowledge and a great deal of wonderment.”

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