The Man Who Tightroped Niagara Falls on Stilts


Long before Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire—decades, in fact, before Nik’s grandfather, Karl, even founded the Flying Wallendas—there was Blondin.

Born Jean Francois Gravelet, the self-styled Charles Blondin knew from an early age that tightrope walking was his calling. Having already conquered Europe as “The Boy Wonder,” he set his sights on the U.S. in the 1850s.

For his first stunt, Blondin declared that he would cross the gorge at Niagara Falls on June 30, 1859. He carried out the task with ease, taking a mere 23 minutes for the round trip, including a stop on his way back across to snap a few pictures.

While getting across alive would be enough for most people, Blondin was compelled to make the trip again and again, adding new props and tricks to increase the level of difficulty. He crossed again on July 4, less than a week after his first journey. This time, he made it halfway across before he lay down on the cable, flipped over, and finished the trip backward. Just in case the crowd wasn’t impressed, he made the return trip wearing a sack over his head and body.


On July 14, he stopped in the center of the rope and held out his hat. From the Maid of the Mist boat below, “Captain Travis” produced a pistol and fired a shot at Blondin. Moments later, the daredevil lowered his hat down to the boat to show the bullet hole in its rim. On the way back, Blondin donned a monkey suit and traipsed across with a wheelbarrow. He may have felt the need to up his game since former President Millard Fillmore was watching.

He crossed doing flips and somersaults. He crossed with his manager clinging to his back. He crossed while shackled. He crossed on stilts. He crossed carrying a table and a chair, and though the chair toppled over the edge, Blondin remained upright. He sat down on the cable to enjoy a slice of cake and some champagne.


On another momentous occasion, Blondin crossed carrying an iron stove. When got to the midpoint, he balanced the stove on the wire, then donned a chef’s hat, whipped out a couple of eggs, and cooked an omelet. But there was more—he lowered the snack down to the Maid of the Mist, where tourists no doubt scrambled to snatch the ultimate souvenir.

Not everyone was impressed with Blondin’s feats, though. Mark Twain once referred to him as “that adventurous ass.”

Unlike other daredevils that ended up paying the ultimate price for their showmanship, Blondin survived all of his attempts. When he died at the age of 72, it wasn’t a daring stunt that did him in—it was diabetes.

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Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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