The Great Farini, Canada's Most Fascinating Man
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?”
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.
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.
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.