Adventure and fame are the most commonly cited reasons why daredevils have challenged Niagara Falls. Charles Stephens was no different.
In the summer of 1920, the 58-year-old barber from England and the father of 11 children apparently grew tired of the numerous high dives and parachute jumps he made in Europe. The man, whose wife was named Annie, was known as the “Demon Barber of Bristol” back home. Stephens arrived in the United States to plunge over the Horseshoe Falls in a Russian oak barrel.
It was July 11, 1920 when Stephens embarked on the adventure. Bobby Leach, a well-known Niagara Falls daredevil at the time, suggested to Stephens that he not move forward with the trip down the falls until the barrel was perfected. Stephens stubbornly refused to listen. He thought that Leach did not want the English outsider to gain notoriety.
Leach asked another popular daredevil during that time period, Red Hill Sr., to talk to Stephens. Send an unoccupied barrel over the falls first as a test, Hill recommended to Stephens. The “Demon Barber of Bristol” refused and went through with his trip. The barrel was durable and included straps for Stephens’ arms. As ballast, though, Stephens secured an anvil to his feet, much to the chagrin of Leach and Hill. Stephens reluctantly took a small tank of oxygen with him inside the barrel, and he wore padded clothing.
When the massive barrel containing Stephens hit the base of the waterfall, the anvil that was tied to his feet was shot through the bottom of the barrel, carrying him to his death.
When the barrel was recovered, only the tattooed right arm of Stephens was still strapped in the harness. The tattoo read “Forget Me Not Annie.”
Stephens did achieve the fame he sought, only in an undesired way. He became the first person to die in a barrel while challenging Niagara Falls.
Stories of the many daredevils who have challenged the falls and the gorge are brought to life, and relics from their adventures are showcased, at the new Daredevil Gallery at Niagara IMAX Theatre. The daredevil exhibit features the world’s largest collection of Niagara Falls history, including actual barrels and artifacts along with the engaging stories of Niagara’s heritage and tales of the daredevils.