The odds weren’t that good on the day William FitzGerald attempted his plunge over the Falls. Six people had tried the stunt in barrels or balls, and only three – Annie Edson Taylor, Bobby Leach and Jean Lussier — had survived. Charles G. Stephens, George A. Stathakis and William “Red” Hill Jr. had all died.
Name: William FitzGerald
Hometown: Probably New York City
Stunt: Rode a rubber ball over the Horseshoe Falls
Date: July 15, 1961
But FitzGerald was determined. Although he lived with his grandmother in Jamacia, Queens, and worked as a night maintenance man at IBM, he somehow became obsessed with the falls, a stunt last tried in 1951, when Red Hill Jr. died.
FitzGerald has always closely guarded his reason for going over the falls, hinting occasionally but never making a specific statement. His preparations were extensive – although a last-minute failure of his hatch latch could have doomed him.
Adding to the mystery of his life, FitzGerald gave a false name in court, telling the judge he was “Nathan Boya,” a name he came up with on the spur of the moment as a tribute to Kenyan nationalist leader Tom Mboya.
The ball FitzGerald used in the stunt, which he labeled “Plunge-o-Sphere,” was modeled after the ball used by Jean Lussier, with a steel frame covered with rubber. In fact,, FitzGerald said he traveled to Niagara Falls in September 1960, nine months before the plunge, to consult with Lussier. The steel framework of the ball cost $3,000 and was made by the Hudson Fixtures Co. in the Bronx; Louis Bernardo, president of the Rubber Covered Products Co. in Pawtucket, R.I., said his company was asked in late June to cover the steel skeleton of the ball. He said, “We did the best job possible. We assumed it would be used in a Niagara Falls stunt.”
The ball, which is 6 feet in diameter, was equipped with an inner compartment containing breathing apparatus with 30 to 40 hours worth of air, in case it should get stuck behind the falls. The ball also had a breathing snorkel inside, although whether the tube could be inserted through the skin of the ball to the outside air was unclear. FitzGerald wore a crash helmet and was strapped into a reclining seat.
FitzGerald said he had brought the completed Plunge-o-Sphere to Western New York on a trailer the week before. He said he arrived in the area the Wednesday before the stunt with two friends, Joseph Tini and his sister, Miss J.N. Tini, and the trio stayed at a Buffalo hotel until Friday, when they checked out. The Tinis returned to New York City and had no connection with the stunt, he said.
No one has ever admitted assisting FitzGerald with the stunt. Two men who were swimming in the Niagara River near Navy Island on the day of FitzGerald’s plunge claimed that they saw the ball being towed by a light cabin cruiser into the river current about 1.5 miles above the falls.
The ball was first spotted near Gull Island around 10:15 a.m., and people gathered to watch it drift past Three Sisters Island, through the upper rapids and over the falls around 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 15. Some onlookers said they saw the ball thrown some 10 feet into the air in the upper rapids. FitzGerald said later that the impact in the upper rapids had sprung the hatch loose, and he had to hold it shut with his hand during the plunge.
“I felt like I hit a stone wall, two stone walls,” he said later.
He said, “The ball landed upside down, then righted itself. The hatch on the top started to open and I held onto it by a hook inside. I held onto the hatch for dear life. After I went over the falls, I landed upside down again. The ball righted itself and the hatch whipped off completely. The people on the dock were cheering me as I came in.”
Witnesses who saw the Plunge-o-Sphere in the pool below the Horseshoe Falls said that FitzGerald repeatedly opened the hatch and peered out, then closed the hatch again. In later years, FitzGerald said that he was not sure that he had gone over thefalls and was trying to get his bearings. Capt. L.H. McGinn, marine superintendent of the Maid of the Mist operations, used a boat to approach, got a line on the ball and pulled FitzGerald aboard the Maid.
The Plunge-O-Sphere was towed to shore, where it was seized by customs officials.
Picked up by Canadian police near the Maid of the Mist dock. FitzGerald complained of chest pains and was taken to Greater Niagara General Hospital, where he was photographed smiling, with bruises visible on his bare back.
He told parks police that the stunt “was something I always wanted to do.” FitzGerald, an African-American, was also quoted as saying, “I have integrated Niagara Falls.” But people kept asking why, and eventually he told reporters: “I know why, but nobody else does. It was a very personal reason.”
On Monday, July 17, FitzGerald, still calling himself Boya, was brought to court in a car driven by Corp. Alex Sawada of the Niagara Parks Police, accompanied by McGinn of the Maid of the Mist.
Wearing a black T-shirt and gray pants, FitzGerald stepped from the car, stretched, and said, “I’m not as stiff as I was.” The daredevil said he planned to plead guilty to violating the strict Niagara Parks Act by causing a crowd to gather to watch his stunt, adding, “I was caught in the act.” But in court, his attorney, William Marse, asked for a suspended sentence. “I would like to point out that [FitzGerald] had no intention that a large crowd should gather. … He is not familiar with the laws of this country. He is a very brave man.”
FitzGerald, who was “was all smiles in the crowded courtroom,” according to a Buffalo News reporter, did plead guilty and was fined $100 and $13 in court costs for failing to obtain a permit to perform in the Niagara River.
While the mysterious daredevil was settling matters in court, the truth about his identity was beginning to leak out. A corporate spokesman at the IBM head office in New York City identified Boya as William FitzGerald, an IBM porter who worked as a night maintenance man, earning about $5,000 a year. The spokesman said FitzGerald was living with his grandmother in Jamaica, Queens.
“I understand that many of the fellows at IBM headquarters knew that Mr. FitzGerald had some sort of plans to do a thing like this,” the spokesman said. But the daredevil brushed off the report: “Impossible. I am self-employed. That’s all I’ll say.” Asked if he were FitzGerald, he replied, “I have a good African name. I was born with it. Have you ever heard of Tom Mboya of Kenya?”
FitzGerald said that he had no money when he went over the falls, and “will turn down all offers.” He also said, “Who needed money? I called a friend from the hospital and he sent me some here.” FitzGerald also said he did not expect to make money from the stunt: “Nobody ever got rich at Niagara Falls.”
Asked about his plans, FitzGerald replied, “Why don’t you ask the president of IBM what he has in mind for me, since I’m supposed to work there?”
Speculation about why FitzGerald had gone over the falls increased, and one newspaper published the unattributed tale that FitzGerald began to think about doing the stunt while he was living in France, where he often talked about daredevils with his girlfriend. As the romance faded, she dared him to go over the falls, the story stated. After taking the plunge, the reports said, FitzGerald pronounced the romance “dead.”
A few more unconfirmed details of FitzGerald’s life were reported – that he had lived in Switzerland and studied political science at the University of Geneva.
He also said in an interview after the plunge that “50 or 60 people” knew of his plans to go over the falls
After his court appearance, FitzGerald said he would fly back to New York City from the Buffalo airport. But first he told reporters that “he may return here in about two weeks to reveal the real reason he risked his life in the rubber ball.” He said, “I am not a daring person,” he told a reporter. “I don’t believe there is any such thing as a brave man … only men who act brave.”
FitzGerald felt a strong kinship with other Niagara Falls daredevils. He faded from public view until February 1985, on the bitterly cold day when the next daredevil, Karel Soucek, was buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery. FitzGerald and his Thai-born wife, Ubol, held the arms of Soucek’s mother as she walked to the grave.
FitzGerald and Soucek had communicated by letter but never met. On flowers he sent to the gravesite, FitzGerald attached this note: “To a Fallen Comrade: I had so wanted to meet you, yet it wasn’t to be. We had something in common and those Falls are still tumbling there. That I’ve lived to tell the tale is a miracle. Fate has taken a hand and your life has ended too soon, but I doubt you would have wanted it any other way.”
In August 1988, FitzGerald made one final public statement at the falls. In a news conference held at the Oakes Inn in Niagara Falls, Ont., FitzGerald announced that he planned to go over Niagara Falls a second time to protest the actions of a man he called “Doctor X.”
FitzGerald said that “X” had prevented minority and females scientists from advancing in government agencies, and prevented FitzGerald from publishing a research paper on curing high blood pressure. At his job, which he refused to name but where he apparently worked for X, FitzGerald said, “I underwent debasement ridicule and threats. I was isolated, ostracized and deprived of work altogether. My promising career was ruined.”
FitzGerald passed out copies of a memo detailing an employment discrimination suit he filed against Dr. X in 1984 in the U.S. District Court.
During the press conference, FitzGerald was served with a notice by the Niagara Parks Police that his planned stunt was illegal and he could face fines up to $1,500.
Although in the following years, FitzGerald and his wife occasionally visited Niagara Falls, even stopping to see his Plunge-o-Sphere, he has made no further public appearances or statements.