Mysterious death of a daredevil

Stephen Peer in tightrope-walking outfit.

Daredevils have fascinated and thrilled audiences with their death-defying antics in Niagara Falls for decades. Although still active up until quite recently, the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the heyday of high wire rope walking. For some reason, a local boy did not garner as much fame and fortune as he might deserve.

Stephen Peer was born in the Montrose section of Stamford Township in 1840 and was only 19 years old when Blondin, the famed French aerialist made his first crossing in Niagara in 1859. Like many local lads at the time, Stephen tried to emulate his hero. He began practicing on ropes that he made by twining grapevines together and stringing them between trees in the family orchard.

As his technique improved, he began to give performances for local audiences. One such performance saw him cross Main Street on a rope strung between the upper floors of the Prospect House and Kicks Hotel across the street.

In 1873 Stephen Peer was hired by the Australian funambulist Bellini. His job was to help put the three-strand rope safely across the Niagara River. Although Bellini successfully crossed before huge crowds in August and September, he did not want any competition from Peer. For this reason, he would not lend his balancing pole to the local amateur.

When Bellini was absent between shows, Stephen Peer “borrowed” the pole and amazed onlookers with his feats on the rope. Some say he even outperformed Bellini himself! Unfortunately, Bellini returned unexpectedly and was so enraged that he began to cut the rope on the Canadian side. He managed to cut through two of the three entwined ropes before he was forcibly removed by onlookers. Fearing for his safety, Bellini certainly left town in a hurry.

It wasn’t until 1887 that Peer garnered enough fame to perform on his own. This time, Peer would attempt to cross the river on a 5/8 inch wire cable, which was described as a “mere thread” compared to the rope size used by his predecessors. On June 22, wearing white tights and red and black striped trunks, he started his journey from the Canadian side of the river. He slowly made his way to the center of the rope and sat down to rest for a few minutes before getting up and making his way to the American side.

Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. Only three days later, the lifeless body of Stephen Peer was found on the bank of the gorge directly below his cable. Some say he slipped crossing on a dare after a few drinks with his friends. Others say it may have been suicide. Some family and friend believe that foul play was involved after he was seen earlier in the day with two strangers.

Cathy Roy is the local history librarian.

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