Rhode Island native Sam Patch had a hardscrabble upbringing as a child laborer in a cotton mill, but he later became America’s first celebrity daredevil after he discovered he could draw a paying crowd by staging terrifying leaps off waterfalls, bridges and river dams. Patch made his first high-profile jumps in 1827, when he repeatedly vaulted off an 80-foot cliff over Passaic Falls in Paterson, New Jersey. Two years later, he cemented his fame by diving off a 125-foot platform at Niagara Falls. From there, Patch traveled to Rochester, New York, where some 8,000 spectators turned out to watch him jump off the High Falls of the Genesee River. Ever the showman, he added an extra bit of drama by having his pet bear cub take the plunge along with him.
Patch’s last jump took place in November 1829, when he scaled a platform for a 125-foot vault into the Genesee. The stunt was supposed to be the leaper’s crowning achievement, but after jumping feet first and landing awkwardly, he vanished beneath the foamy waters. It wasn’t until four months later that Patch’s body was finally recovered. His career as a daredevil had lasted just two years, but he was later honored as a folk hero in songs, poems and plays. Among his many admirers was President Andrew Jackson, who named one of his prized horses “Sam Patch.”
One of the first stuntmen to be nicknamed the “Human Fly,” Harry Gardiner won fame in the early 20th century for scaling hundreds of skyscrapers using only his bare hands and a pair of sneakers. He began his climbing career in 1905 by shimmying up a 159-foot flagpole in New York, and by the 1910s, his death-defying displays had become so popular that whole cities would shut down to watch him scurry up walls and dangle from ledges. In 1916, Gardiner drew an estimated 150,000 spectators when he climbed Detroit’s Majestic Building while clad in his trademark white suit and rimless spectacles.
A few months later, 45,000 people watched in awe as he conquered the Allen County courthouse in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Gardiner made money by persuading newspapers and businesses to sponsor him, and he often interspersed his climbs with publicity stunts. In 1918, he paused halfway up a Vancouver building to encourage the crowd to buy war bonds. While climbing Canada’s Bank of Hamilton building that same year, he stopped for a breather, reached inside a widow and jokingly signed the papers for a life insurance policy.
Annie Edson Taylor
Annie Edson Taylor was the most unlikely of daredevils. A schoolteacher and Civil War widow, she was in her early 60s in 1901, when she looked to fund her retirement by becoming the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Taylor timed the stunt to coincide with a nearby World’s Fair, and she made careful preparations including designing a five-foot-tall pickle barrel outfitted with a safety harness and a mattress for cushioning. On October 24, 1901, having sent her pet cat over the falls as a test, the former schoolmarm wedged herself into her barrel and tumbled over Niagara’s 170-foot Horseshoe Falls. To the astonishment of onlookers, she emerged just minutes later with only a few scrapes and bruises.
Taylor had hoped the Niagara stunt would bring her fame and fortune, but following a brief period of celebrity, the “Heroine of Horseshoe Falls” was largely forgotten. “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat,” she famously said of her ordeal. “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the Falls.”
Andre-Jacques Garnerin was a pioneering inventor and balloonist, but he is best known today for making history’s first high-altitude parachute jumps. In 1797, the former French military officer hopped into a small basket and took off in a hot-air balloon over Paris. After reaching a height of 3,200 feet, he cut the balloon away and unfurled a 23-foot-wide canopy parachute of his own design. The descent was anything but smooth—the rudimentary chute reportedly whipped and twirled through the air—but Garnerin managed to land without injury.
Over the next several years, he tweaked his parachute design and made several more jumps across Europe, including an extraordinary 8,000-foot descent over England. In 1799, meanwhile, his wife Jeanne-Genevieve became the first woman parachutist when she took the plunge from nearly 3,000 feet.
Mauricia de Tiers
The early 20th century’s answer to Evel Knievel was Mauricia de Tiers, a Frenchwoman who drew sold-out crowds with her high-octane automobile stunts. As part of a signature routine known as the “Dip of Death,” the young mademoiselle would pilot a small car down a ramp and into a loop-de-loop, jump a large gap while upside down and then land safely on the other side. De Tiers’ began performing the extraordinary stunt in 1905 despite never having driven a car before, and it eventually made her one of the highest paid stars of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
After witnessing the “Dip of Death” in New York, one journalist gushed, “all the other acts that make ‘hearts cease to throb’ look about as harmless as a game of tiddlywinks indoors compared with the trip that Mlle. Mauricia does in her made-in-Paris automobile.”
During a time when most people could not swim, Paul Boyton wowed audiences with spectacular feats of aquatic derring-do. The former lifeguard and U.S. Navy man first won fame in 1874, when he executed a treacherous, 30-mile open ocean swim to the coast of Ireland while clad in an inflatable rubber bodysuit. Over the next several years, the “Fearless Frogman” employed the rubber suit in a string of increasingly audacious swims.
He traversed the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar and the canals of Venice, and conquered parts of several great rivers including the Mississippi, the Seine, the Danube and the Tiber. During each journey, he would float on his back and propel himself forward using a paddle, all the while towing a small boat filled with food, fresh water and a supply of cigars. Boyton’s exploits failed to make his “wearable kayak” a common lifesaving device, but they did earn him a reputation as one of the 19th century’s great adventurers. After finally hanging up his rubber suit for good, he went on to great success as a bar owner, circus performer and theme park promoter.
When Rodman Law died in 1919 at the age of 34, many newspapers expressed surprise that the cause was tuberculosis—and for good reason. Before being confined to a sick bed, the New England native had spent most of his life repeatedly cheating death as a movie stuntman and professional daredevil. His seemingly suicidal feats included scaling the side of New York’s Flatiron Building with no ropes, parachuting from biplanes and hot-air balloons and paddling a canoe over a 40-foot waterfall.
In 1912, meanwhile, Law became one of history’s first BASE jumpers when he parachuted from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. The self-described “biggest fool in New York” later executed similar leaps from the Brooklyn Bridge and the 31st story of a Manhattan skyscraper, but his most hair-raising stunt came in 1913, when he suffered severe burns while trying to launch himself skyward in a giant rocket packed with gunpowder. Law would go on to chalk up several silent film credits, and he was said to be planning a mile-high parachute jump shortly before his death. “I haven’t any nerves and I don’t know the meaning of the word fear,” he once told reporters.