October 1, 2008

Stephen Peer, Tighrope Walker of Niagara Falls in Carnival of Genealogy “I read it in the news!”

Newspapers are a great source of information on our ancestors. I didn't actually find this news story in a newspaper until after I had been told about it. One of my uncles had always told this tale, and insisted it was in a Hamilton Ontario newspaper. Uncle Roy's retold tale of family lore was that my great grandfather's brother had walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope and plunged to his death.

To say I was intrigued was putting it mildly! Uncle Roy could not find the newspaper clipping he claimed he had from the 1880s, so I began searching. Sure enough my grandfather's cousin (not brother) Stephen Peer (whose flyer proclaims him as Professor Stephen Peere) had indeed walked Niagara Falls on a tighrope, then fell or was pushed to his death a few days later on 25 June 1887.

The full story is given in various newspaper accounts, for this was high drama and intrigue!

The Niagara Falls Public Library has this report:

Stephen Peer was born in Stamford Township in 1840. He was nineteen when Blondin performed the first of his many tight rope walking feats at Niagara Falls. Peer became determined to become the first real "Niagaran" to walk the Gorge. In 1873 he became an assistant to Henry Bellini, he then illicitly used Bellini's equipment to perform his own first stunt. Bellini was not amused and attempted to cut down the tight rope. The residents chased him out of town, after all Peer was the home town boy ! By 1887 he had become famous enough to begin performing under his own billing and on June 22, 1887 he successfully walked on a wire cable stretched between the present Whirlpool Bridge and the Pen Central Bridge. Three days later he went to the platform from which he had started his crossing, with friends. Speculation is that they had been drinking, Peer began to walk across the cable and fell forty five feet to his death

The reports of his death claimed accident, suicide and murder, but his family was convinced Peer was murdered.

The first report of his successful first walk across the Falls follows:

"NIAGARA FALLS TIGHT ROPE WALKER in The Hamilton Daily Spectator, Hamilton Wed. June, 1887, pg. 1 Col 7

Niagara Falls Ont. June 22 Steve Peer, a local tight rope walker, crossed the Niagara River on a 5/8 inch cable stretched from the Canadian to the American side between the Cantilever and Suspension bridges at 4 o’clock this afternoon successfully. A stiff breeze was blowing during the time, and the cable was not properly guyed and he says that several times he very nearly lost his balance from its vibrations. Several thousand people witnessed the daring performance. Peer will repeat his performance several times during the season. "

The famous Canadian author Pierre Burton wrote about Stephen's walk and mysterioius death in his book Daredevils of the Falls.

It was unusually windy on June 22, 1887, but Peer gave his performance as scheduled. His five-eighths inch cable was a mere thread compared to the heavier ropes of his prdecessors, and the wire was held steady by 20-30 guy wires and weighted down between them with 12-20 sandbags, each weighing about 35 lbs. His walk was a complete success, and he returned to Canada in a carriage via the suspension bridge, welcomed by thousand sof applauding spectators. Three days later he ws dead, discovered on the gorge bank below his cable. The reason for his death remains a mystery, but stories suggest murder.

The Hamilton Daily Spectator Hamilton, Canada, Monday June 27, 1887 called its story Peer the Rope-Walker Suicide

Niagara Falls, June 25 Steve Peer, the local celebrity who outdid Blondin in daring feats around Niagara and recently crossed the rapids on a 5/8 inch cable is dead. Ever since he did the daring act he has been drinking very heavily, and Wm. Leary proprietor of the Elgin House where Peer has been stopping, has been watching him closely. This evening about 7:30 pm Peer went out unobserved with John Gillespie and a stranger, and later was seen with 2 men near his rope. As he did not show up by 8:30 and no trace of him could be found elsewhere, it was suposed that he had attempted to walk his rope and had fallen from it or stumbled over the bank, and ropes and lanterns were procured and Peer’s brother, with John Connolly was lowered down. Near the bottom of the incline they found his lifeless body, badly cut around the head. There was a large gash leading from his nose over the top of his head so that his brains protruded, and death must have been instantaneous. His body was raised to the top of the precipice by means of ropes, and taken to the Elgin House, where it now lies awaiting the coroner. A good many rumors are afloat regarding how he met his death, amongst them one that he suicided, there being, it is said some trouble between himself and his wife. The general belief is that he attempted to walk out on the cable when recovering from his drunk and lost his footing and fell into the abyse below.

The coroner's inquest labelled his death suicide. Others proclaimed that as nonsense, for why would Stephen, just as his career as a tighrope walker was about to peak, end his life? Sadly 121 years later, the mystery remains - accident, murder or suicide?

4 comments:

Sasha Mitchell said...

Wow! That's quite a mystery. It's funny how the details are blurred when we hear the story from relatives, but in this case, even the newspaper reports are a little blurry!

Cheryl said...

We are tracing our family tree because we are also related to Stephen Peer. I have gone back as far as John Peer 1843 which should be a brother or cousin. Can you give me Stephen's parents or siblings?

Cheryl

Genealogy Blogger said...

Hi Cheryl, I have complete details on your Peer ancestors. Please visit Peer Family on my website, then write to me at olivetreegenealogyATgmail.com (Change the AT to @)

Lorine

Herb Peer said...

Fascinating stuff, Lorine. Thanks for all your research.
Herb Peer
Union, Ohio
(descendant of Levi Peer)