83 years ago today in Daredevil history….The odds were not good on the day Joseph Albert “Jean” Lussier climbed into a rubber ball and headed for the brink of the Horseshoe Falls.
Name: Joseph Albert “Jean” Lussier
Hometown: Concord, N.H.
Stunt: Rode a rubber ball over the Horseshoe Falls
Date: July 4, 1928
The first person to go over, Annie Taylor, escaped relatively unharmed. The second, Englishman Bobby Leach, was so battered that he spent 23 weeks in a hospital. The third person, Englishman Charles Stephens, was torn out of his barrel and killed, leaving only a single arm strapped inside.
But Lussier , a wiry 150-pound French-Canadian, was confident that his 1,026-pound rubber ball would protect him when he took the plunge on July 4, 1928.
Lussier was right. He not only survived the drop, he went on to live a long life in his adopted hometown of Niagara Falls, signing autographs and postcards, regaling tourists with his story, and even selling rubber scraps of the barrel. Rumor has it that when he ran out of cuttings from the original barrel, he used similar rubber scraps and promised that they were real.
Lussier’s inspiration for his falls stunt began, he told some interviewers, when he saw Bobby Leach make the plunge in 1911. But when Lussier was interviewed in 1968, he told Bob Curran of The Buffalo News that he had met Leach a year after Leach’s plunge and noted that he made a fair living by telling his story and selling souvenirs.
Whether he saw Leach’s drop or not, Lussier had big plans to make his stunt unique. A month or so before his drop on July 4, news dispatched from Springfield and from Akron, Ohio, where the rubber ball had been fabricated, indicated that Lussier’s ball would be carried over the river by an airplane and then cut loose to land in the rapids above the Horseshoe. After he entered the water in the conventional way – by being towed by rowboat into the channel – Lussier said that airport managers refused to allow a plane to take off towing his rubber ball.
Lussier designed the ball to be strong and resilient. It was 9 feet in diameter and made of nine layers of rubber and a lyer of canvas enclosing a steel frame. A series of air pockets between this outer layer and a second, inner ball made of rubber were designed to provide cushioning. Lussier sat on a rubber cushion with straps holding his head, waist and legs.
The ball carried 150 pounds of ballast in the bottom to keep the it upright and the space inside was filled with some 32 rubber inner tubes. He also designed a valve system that would allow him to release air from tanks inside the ball while keeping it watertight. The tanks provided some 40 hours of air.
Lussier, who had worked as a salesman and in a grocery store in Springfield, Mass., took his plans and his savings of $7,000 to the Akron [Ohio] Rubber Company to make the ball.
On the day of the plunge, helpers rowed a boat towing the brick-red ball out to the middle of the Niagara River about two miles upstream of the Horseshoe Falls. Lussier climbed in, wearing a blue and white bathing suit. Although Lussier and his helpers kept the time of his plunge a secret to avoid being stopped by police, it was estimated that 200,000 people lined the banks of the river and both sides of bridges to see him go over.
The ball was cut free at 3:20 p.m. and drifted towed the precipice, plunging over the edge some 25 minutes later. “It looked frail; spectators held their breath, expecting it to be torn to shreds in the terrific current,” reported The Buffalo Evening News.
The ballast installed at the bottom of the ball to keep him upright tore off when the ball struck the first rough water, Lussier said later, so the ball turned over again and again in the rapids. While the next day he said that the plunge was “just like making a sharp descent in an airplane,” the details provide a more harrowing tale. He told Curran that the ball kept grounding on rocks above the falls. Then, he said, “three [inner] tube explode. Now as ball start over precipice it overturns, and I plunge headlong – 170 feet I plunge headlong.
‘Now water pressure tear first cover off ball. Water begin to leak in. Now ball is washed behind cataract. Inside I know nothing of where I am. I am stunned.
“Then strong current catch ball and wash me out, I am rescued. And as I am taken from ball, I have only strength to say, ‘I am happy to be first man to carry Stars and Stripes over Niagara Falls.’”
Lussier was pulled from the barrel by William “Red” Hill Sr. and taken by Hill’s boat to the Canadian side, where he was cheered by the massive crowds. He was handed a bathrobe and bruised on his temple and forehead were bandaged.
A few days later, perhaps when public attention subsided, Lussier announced his plan to go over the falls again. “Daredevil to defy cataract a second time,” read a local headline. He set Labor Day of 1929 as the date for his stunt. It never happened, but Lussier, whom some sources say had a wife and four children to support, did tour the country speaking in movie theaters where film footage of him preparing for the stunt was shown.
In 1930, he told the Niagara Falls Gazette that three film companies had advanced $4,000 each into an escrow account to fund a plunge on Labor Day. Lussier said his price for doing the stunt was $30,000, but he intended to keep the $12,000. “It’s the first easy money I ever got and I’m going to hang on to it,” the newspaper quoted the “little Frenchman” as saying.
By 1930, Lussier had taken a job as a tourist guide, including work at the Falls View Observation Tower in Niagara Falls, Ont. He quit in 1942 to take a job in a local defense plant, where he worked until the end of the war. In 1946, he announced that he had designed a rubber ball 12 feet in diameter that “could withstand the fury of the atomic bomb” and sought an investor to provide $500 so he could make a prototype.
In 1947, Lussier announced plans to ride a rubber ball around the world, “starting with the trip through the lower Niagara rapids and the whirlpool.” The newspaper article said Lussier’s “latest grandiose scheme” planned to start the trip by having the ball dropped from a blimp into the lower river between the Rainbow Bridge and the Whirlpool Rapids. A small motor on the ball would propel it through the Great Laqkes, and it would be towed across the Atlantic by an ocean liner.
A year later, Lussier admitted that the chances of being able to complete the circumnavigation of the globe in a barrel seemed unlikely, since no “angel” had stepped forward to fund his trip.
Through the years, Lussier periodically announced plans to build another ball. In 1952, he shared detailed plans of building another, much larger rubber ball to go over the American Falls, which has never been done because of the huge pile of rocks at the bottom. That elaborate barrel would have included rollers to keep the passenger upright, air to last him many hours and a radio system. That ball was never built, and Lussier never performed another stunt.
In 1968, Bob Curran of the Buffalo News found Lussier, 76, living in a room in an “exhausted boarding house” on Third Street in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Curran wrote that the elderly man, laid up with a back problem, was “one of those rare men who can swagger while sitting.”
“You mention Niagara Falls to anyone,” said Lussier, “and you have tothink of two people – Blondin and Jean Lussier.” Eyes flashing, he added, “And I am the only one alive.”
Three years later the daredevil with the zest for life died of a heart attack while living in a senior citizen high-rise in the city. His obituary said that Lussier claimed that the stunt “gave him only a fair living.”