Americans have long prided themselves on being a nation of risk-takers—from the earliest European immigrants (and the Native Americans who took a big risk letting them in) to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. Maybe that’s why we’re inclined to celebrate the daredevils among us, whether they’re advancing science (like astronauts) or just performing goofy, though risky, stunts for our amusement (think flagpole sitters). Here are seven of the most remarkable daredevils in American history—men and women who bravely defied death, sometimes sacrificing their lives in the bargain.
Often called “America’s first daredevil,” Sam Patch made his name in the early 1800s by leaping from dizzying heights into rivers and waterfalls. His first famous leap was over New Jersey’s Passaic Falls in 1827, earning him the nickname of the “Jersey Jumper.” That was followed by a 90-foot leap from a ship’s mast into the Hudson River at Hoboken and, most famously, a 120-foot leap from a makeshift platform into the waters below Niagara Falls. Before long he was traveling and leaping widely and styling himself as the “Yankee Leaper.” He frequently brought along his pet bear, who made the same jumps, perhaps with a little nudge from his master. In November 1829, however, Patch’s leaping luck ran out. Attempting a 125-foot plunge from a scaffold built over the Genesee River at Rochester, New York, he hit the water “with a noise that might be heard half a mile,” according to an eyewitness account. His body wasn’t recovered until the following March.
Annie Edson Taylor
The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell about it was a 63-year-old former teacher, Annie Edson Taylor, in October 1901. According to newspaper accounts the following day, Taylor and her wooden barrel were “twirled and buffeted” in the rapids of the Niagara River but “escaped serious contact with the rocks,” before plunging over Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. When Taylor emerged from the barrel she had broken no bones but suffered a small scalp wound, a “slight” brain concussion and assorted bruises. That was pretty much the end of Taylor’s luck, however. After her death in 1921, a friend wrote that Taylor’s motivation for the stunt had been to raise money to support her invalid mother, which a promoter promised would be put up by local businesses eager for a boost in tourism—regardless of whether she survived or not. She did survive, received no share of the proceeds and discovered that the promoter had even made off with her barrel and sold it to a Chicago department store, the friend claimed. Taylor finished out her days at a Niagara Falls souvenir stand, selling photos of herself and her barrel.
Born Erik Weisz in Hungary, Harry Houdini came to the U.S. as a young child and was performing by this teens. He began his career as an escape artist by doing tricks with handcuffs, but soon graduated to more elaborate and daring stunts. “He performed every type of escapology on stage,” the vaudeville historian Anthony Slide has written. “He was tied to a ladder. He was sealed in a galvanized iron boiler. He was handcuffed inside a roll-top desk. He escaped from all the best jails.” Off-stage he dangled upside-down from tall buildings while wearing a straightjacket and had himself shackled with locks and chains, nailed into a packing crate and dropped into New York City’s East River. While any of these stunts might have killed him, Houdini died in a Detroit hospital in 1926 as a result of appendicitis. Many news accounts attributed his death to a blow he’d suffered a week earlier in Montreal, when a fan, with Houdini’s permission, punched him in the stomach to test his muscles. More recent writers have challenged that version of events, some even suggesting Houdini was murdered because of his crusade to expose phony spiritualists.
Affectionately nicknamed “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess,” Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman to become a licensed pilot. Trained in France, reportedly because no U.S. flying school would accept someone of her race, she returned to Chicago in 1922 and took to the skies. Like many pilots of the era, including a then-unknown Charles Lindbergh, Coleman performed at air shows to support her more serious aerial pursuits. Her exhibitions were a mix of expert technical maneuvers designed to impress fellow aviators and crowd-pleasing stunts like loop-the-loops and tailspins. “As much as actress as she was a pilot,” Doris L. Rich wrote in her 1993 biography, Queen Bess, Coleman tried not to disappoint her audience. At one Texas performance, when a professional parachutist balked at jumping, Coleman turned the controls of her plane over to another pilot, walked out onto the wing and made the leap herself. “Being Bessie,” Rich noted, “she landed in the center of the crowd.” Coleman’s death-defying career came to an end in 1926, when she was just 34. The day before a scheduled air show, she was trying out a new plane when a wrench got caught in the controls and sent it into an uncontrollable tailspin. Coleman was ejected from her cockpit and fell several hundred feet to her death. She was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1995.
Before America ever heard of Bruce Wayne, it was captivated by the adventures of another “Bat Man,” Michigan-born Clem Sohn. One of the most famous aerialists of the 1930s, Sohn was known to leap from planes at 15,000 feet or more, wearing a homemade suit consisting of metal rods and canvas sails, which gave him wings as long as his arms. Describing one jump from 18,500 feet over a Brooklyn airfield, the New York Herald Tribune said he “rapidly soared and twisted like a bird, sometimes gliding four or five miles before opening his set of parachutes when only 1,000 feet or less above the ground.” He typically carried an open bag of flour to create a trail that his crowds of spectators could see from a distance. Sohn’s stunt was as dangerous as it looked, resulting in several near-fatal mishaps. The end came over Paris, in April 1937, when both of his parachutes failed to open at 1,000 feet. As the Herald Tribune reported, he “dropped like a stone…before 40,000 horrified spectators and was crushed.” Sohn was 26 years old.
In 1960, 32-year-old Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger rode a helium balloon to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere (102,800 ft, or 19.5 miles) and parachuted back down. He free-fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds (out of a total descent time of 13-plus minutes) and reached a top speed surpassing 600 m.p.h., not quite enough to break the sound barrier. A lifelong pilot who first flew solo at the age of 17, Kittinger had worked as a government test pilot in the 1950s and participated in pioneering “rocket sled” experiments testing the impact of gravitational stress on the human body. For his own record-breaking test, he wore 155-1/2 pounds of gear—just three fewer than his own weight—including a pressurized suit the failure of which would have resulted in his death within minutes. (One glove did malfunction.) As he recounted in 1960 in National Geographic, the landing was the hardest in his life. But he described his first reaction to having survived the fall this way: “I am surrounded by sand, salt grass and sage, but no Garden of Eden could look more beautiful.” Kittinger’s space-scraping plunge held for 52 years until Felix Baumgartner became the first man to break the sound barrier during freefall in 2012.
A pioneering U.S. motocross racer who dominated the off-road motorcycle competition circuit in the 1950s, Bud Ekin is best known for his work as a Hollywood stunt man, especially for his good friend and fellow speedster Steve McQueen. He’s best remembered for his iconic 65-foot motorcycle jump over barbed wire to escape a Nazi camp in The Great Escape (1963), and the famed Bullitt (1968) car chase through the streets of San Francisco. “Steve could have done [the Great Escape jump] himself,” said Bob Hoy, a stuntman friend of Ekins. “He did the lead-up to it and rode the bike wherever he was running in that escape, but Bud did the jump. It was a tough jump. You only can do that kind of thing once; you either make it or you don’t make it.”
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