George L. Stathakis, a mystic and former Buffalo chef, planned to use the money he expected to make after his plunge over the Horseshoe Falls to publish “the secret of life.” Instead, he paid with his life for challenging Niagara.
Name: George Stathakis
Stunt: Rode an oak barrel over the Horseshoe Falls
Date: July 5, 1930
Outcome: Suffocated when his massive barrel was trapped behind the curtain of water
The carefully designed, one-ton barrel was strong enough to survive the impact of falling 176 feet on to the rocks below the Horseshoe Falls. Two layers of thick oak planks, banded with steel, paneled with a layer of cork and fitted with “steel buffers” at both ends, each clamped with 16 bolts, provided plenty of protection. Inside the sturdy barrel, Stathakis strapped himself onto a spring mattress to provide a bit more cushioning. But against the advice of the workers who made the barrel to the former chef’s specifications, he chose to include only one tank of oxygen.
The barrel was released in the upper rapids off Navy Island about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 5, 1930. Stathakis brought along his “sacred” pet turtle, “Sonny Boy,” whom he claimed was some 150 years old.
Viewers, summoned to the riverbank and the bridges spanning the gorge by a front-page newspaper story announcing the plunge, watched in vain for the barrel to reappear below the falls. Veteran riverman William “Red” Hill Sr., whom Stathakis had hired to recover the barrel and pull him to shore, was among those who scanned the water, in vain. As dusk fell, the crowds melted away.
At dawn the next morning, the barrel was spotted near the Falls View Bridge. It took four hours for Hill to snare the barrel, pull it to shore and open the hatch. Inside, Stathakis lay dead, “stifled,” says the newspaper account. His turtle, “taken along as a mascot, crawled feebly out into the air.” One of the bolts on the hatch had been torn away; a bit of water had seeped inside. But it was lack of air that killed Stathakis.
A worker at the Buffalo cooperage where the barrel was made, told a reporter, “We tried to persuade him to have more than one tank of air, but he said three hours was long enough. There was room for 10 tanks in the barrel if he had wanted to take them along.” Before he entered the barrel, Stathakis reportedly said, “If I don’t come up in three hours, there won’t be any use in living anyway.”
Hours after the barrel was recovered, Stathakis’ body lay in a morgue in Niagara Falls, Ont., and Red Hill had set up a tent on his front lawn under which he exhibited the barrel to paying customers at 10 cents each. Hill, reported the Buffalo Evening News, “was in undisputed possession of the cask used by Stathakis. It was he who hauled it ashore and Monday he set it up in a tent on the front lawn of his home for exhibition purposes … ‘It was worth about $75 to get the barrel ashore,’ Hill explained. ‘I’ll get that back in admission charges at a dime a head.’”
Accompanying a newspaper story about Stathakis’ death was a long essay written by the eccentric man himself. In the essay, he traced his intense fascination with Niagara Falls from a description he read in his youth. Ending the piece, he wrote, “O divine Niagara, be prepared on July the 5th to receive a faithful worshiper of your beauty and of the mystery that covers you, and if you will to keep me with you eternally as your prisoner, I accept the sacrifice in the hope that your divine nymphs will spray my grave with flowers from the gardens of your palaces.”