The French Tightrope Walker, Charles Blondin, a Daredevil

The French tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, as he was called, was born at St. Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France on 28 February 1824 under the name of Jean-François Gravelet. When Blondin was about four, a traveling company of equestrian and acrobatic performers came to town. It “produced a powerful and abiding effect upon his infantile mind,”[1] as the young Blondin fell in love with the idea of acrobatics and tightrope walking. It also encouraged him to attempt to duplicate these acrobatic and gymnastic feats, and before long, he succeeded.

Charles Blondin carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back as he crossed the tightrope. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because Blondin proved to have uncommon agility and a strong desire to perform as an acrobat, at the age of five, his parents placed him in the École de Gymnase at Lyon. Blondin’s first instructor was a man named Blondin and it was from this elder Blondin that he took the name Blondin. The elder Blondin used kindness to get the best out of the young Blondin, and he quickly became recognized as a prodigy. In fact, it was noted that whatever feat he desired to achieve, “he … practised with unflagging pertinacity until he achieved complete success.”[2]

Charles Blondin in 1850. Author’s collection.

Blondin also excelled at tight-rope dancing, jumping, and somersault-throwing. Six months after enrolling in the Lyon school, Blondin made his first public appearance as “The Boy Wonder” or “The Little Wonder.” His amazing abilities quickly got him noticed in Lyon where he became a favorite with audiences. Before long his fame spread throughout France and eventually got him noticed outside of France. This resulted in him giving special performances, one of which was for the King of Italy when he was eight years old. 

Blondin’s popularity got him noticed by William Niblo, who was the agent of well-known French equestrian and acrobatic troupe. He hired Blondin to tour with the Ravel troupe, and they immediately set out on a Transatlantic journey to America. While at sea, a violent storm hit. The ship was tossed to and fro and the seas were so rough a nobleman fell overboard. Blondin, with no thought of his own safety, leaped overboard, grabbed the drowning nobleman, and returned to the ship, being drawn up by a rope that was thrown to him.

When Blondin reached America, he quickly made a name for himself. One person wrote that “except in equestrianism, there was no gymnastic or curious performance in which he did not excel.”[3] Spectators were transfixed and amazed by his skills. He vaulted over obstacles both figuratively and literally, and there were many stories about his amazing successes. For instance:

“One day at Niblo’s celebrated Garden in New York, … a performance illustrative of some of the Bedouin Arabs was being gone through, ready for that evening’s programme, and at a particular stage of the business one person represented a prisoner surrounded by a crowd of soldiers armed with muskets and fixed bayonets, from the midst of which he [Blondin] had to clear himself by a vigorous leap. Antoine Ravel, who was to make the jump, was busy rearranging the grouping of the soldiery, it not being exactly to his mind, and Monsieur Blondin, attired in ordinary citizen’s costume, stood close by, watching with a curious eye the slow progress of affairs. Suddenly, by one of those erratic impulses which at times come over him and impel him to attempt the most hazardous enterprizes, and without the slightest intimation of his intention, he took three or four hurried steps, and then with a tremendous bound threw a double somersault over the entire group – Antoine, soldiers, muskets, and all – and instantly subsided into his former attitude of repose, as though he had done nothing at all out of the way, and the moving mass of bayonets were only so many bulrushes.”[4]

Each success resulted in something more daring until eventually Blondin earned the title of “Monarch of the Cable” because of his feats on the rope. This eventually resulted in him daring to traverse from shore to shore above the booming roar and sweeping waters of Niagara Falls. He knew that such a feat would make him a rich man and without anyone knowing about his intentions, he went there to assess the situation.

Having decided crossing the falls was a practical idea, and because he had nerves of steel, Blondin got permission from the proprietors on either side of the river and then announced his intention to a stunned public in the spring of 1859. Just as Blondin predicted, people could not believe he would dare to accomplish such a feat. Moreover, Blondin’s announcement created a media frenzy. Some people thought his idea stupendous and others thought him insane. One person wrote that his feats “are at best daring and foolhardy. He is trifling with life, and spending that life which is given for a high and noble service in way from which no possible good can result.”[5] Such remarks did not deter Blondin, and as no one stopped him from crossing the falls, he went ahead with his scheme. He stretched a hempen cord across the Niagara, 160 feet above the water on one side and 170 feet on the other and 1100 feet across. He then set the date for his first walk across the water for 30 June 1859.

The idea that someone would cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope was unthinkable. No one had ever done it before. Everyone wanted to see it, and in preparation for the expectant crowds, rooftops, bridges, and scaffolding were prepared. Viewers poured in to Niagara: Canadian steamers arrived with excursionists, trains chugged from Buffalo stuffed with people, and spectators walked and arrived in carriages from far and wide. Estimates of the number of spectators ranged from 25,000 to 50,000 spectators.

Blondin crossed Niagara Falls and his crossing was successful, which resulted in several more crossings of the falls as described:

“On the 4th of July … his body enveloped in a heavy sack of blankets; with eyes thus blindfolded, his step was as steady as if he saw. In the middle of the month he crossed, wheeling a wheelbarrow; and on the 5th of August, in crossing, he turned somersaults and performed various gymnastic feats on the rope. He crossed with a man on his back on the 19th; and on the 27th as a Siberian exile in shackles. On the 2d of September he crossed at night, and stood on his head amid a blaze of fireworks. In the summer of 1860 he crossed below the Suspension Bridge; but previously, he had great difficulty in adjusting his one-inch rope, and nearly lost his life in fixing the lateral guy-ropes. The difficult and danger in crossing was increased by a dip of forty feet on the length of the rope. His last performance here, on the 14th of September 1860, was witnessed by the Prince of Wales and suite and a vast assembly of spectators … At this time he crossed with a man on his back, traversed the rope in a sack and blindfolded, and even went across on stilts.”[6]

 

Blondin walking across the tightrope at Niagara. Public domain.

Blondin’s amazing crossing of Niagara Falls resulted in him being called the “Hero of Niagara.” He had won the heart of Americans and his success was so stunning and his performance so breathtaking, more performances were planned across the globe. In 1860, he performed at the Crystal Palace in England:

“A rope two inches in diameter, and two hundred and forty yards long, was stretched from the level of the hand-rail of the highest gallery in the transept right across to the other side, and kept from swinging laterally by fifteen pairs of guy-lines. The rope was made steady, but not rigid, at one hundred and seventy feet from the ground. There Blondin disported himself as if the narrow rope were as broad and safe as a London street. He turned somersaults, walked blindfolded; passed along the rope with his feet in waste-paper baskets. He even carried a cooking-stove, and fastened it on the centre of the rope, and cooked an omelette there. Once, when he pretended to slip, two ladies fainted right away.”[7]

Blondin doing some of his amazing feats. Public domain.

Not all Blondin’s performances went off without a hitch. In 1860, he performed at the Royal Portobello Gardens on South Circular Road, Portobello, Dublin. The day of the performance, Thursday, 23 August 1860, it rained all day. One end of the rope was placed at thirty feet and the other end at fifty feet, so that the rope had an incline. The fifty-foot end was the point where Blondin was to be received by two workers holding lights. The workers were John Cunningham (a carpenter) and Michael Neill (a gardener).

“Blondin appeared upon the top of the ladder, … and began to walk along steadily. The blue fire which was lighted when he set out threw a bright lurid glare by which he could be distinctly perceived cautiously treading the rope, steadying himself with the aid of a balancing pole … when a sudden crash was heard; the last two poles came down, and he was seen to fall to the ground. The crowd at once rushed to where he fell, not exactly understanding what had occurred, but believing that he was killed. He, however, quickly got up, and stated that he had escaped uninjured.”[8]

The crowd sighed with relief but soon realized that a catastrophe had in deed occurred. When the poles fell, the lights had been extinguished and when light was again available, Cunningham and Neill were discovered injured lying on the ground. Both later died from their injuries. An investigation was conducted and the rope examined. Although the judge blamed the rope manufacturer, a bench warrant was issued for Blondin and his manager. They did not appear at trial because they were in America. However, the following year, Blondin returned and performed again at the same venue on rope 100 feet above the ground.

Blondin eventually retired, but in 1880 he reappeared in the 1893-1894 season of the pantomime “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the Crystal Palace. A year or so later when Blondin was 70, one person wrote of his performance:

“He ran along the rope; he did the journey in a sack, and blindfolded; he stood upright in a chair, which he had previously balanced in the centre of the rope; he stood on his head on the rope, and concluded by carrying his attendant across.”[9]

Blondin gave his final performance in 1896 in Belfast and died a year later in Ealing, London, on 22 February 1897 of diabetes. He was buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery. At his death, many people revered the famous tightrope walker who had entertained them with his perilous feats for nearly seventy years.

Blondin had such a stellar reputation that his name became synonymous with tightrope walking, and many acrobats took the name “Blondin,” Among them was the “Austrian Blondin” (Henri L’Estrange), the “Female Blondin” (Madame Genevieve), and Arsens Blondin, who traversed a river in France. Yet, perhaps, the greatest tribute to Blondin came from one spectator who marveled at his abilities and wrote:

“We have seen enough to set our pulses thumping painfully, to send a cold sickening terror crawling along our veins, to make us very glad to look anywhere but on the rope, when the fascination which riveted our gaze upon it had a little died away. When this happened and we looked around, we beheld a more curious spectacle than Blondin will ever present, reflected in the sea of up-turned faces that were watching him.”[10]

Arsens Blondin. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

References:

  • [1] Banks, George Linnaeus, Blondin, 1862, p. 21.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 27.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 29.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 30.
  • [5] The British Controversialist, and Literary Magazine, 1861, p. 346.
  • [6] Chambers’s Journal, 1895, p. 282. 
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] “Blondin — Fatal Accident at the Portobello Gardens,” in Cork Examiner, 27 August 1860, p. 4.
  • [9] Chambers’s Journal, p. 282. 
  • [10] Ibid.

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