Niagara Falls is freaky. Which means not only that freaky things have happened there, but that freaks and oddities have been a continual part of the Falls landscape. And why not? The Falls themselves are a freak of nature, one-fifth of the world's fresh water heaving itself over a narrow brink. Here are some of my favorite sideshows that have enhanced the freakish Falls.
1901: Annie Edson Taylor braves the brink
Daredevils have always been attracted to Niagara. Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old former dancing teacher from Bay City, Michigan was actually the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel and live. She hoped it would bring her lecture opportunities and make her rich in her old age, but unfortunately, she wasn't young or pretty enough to draw big crowds. Shown here emerging from her barrel, she died destitute on the streets of Niagara Falls and was buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in a pauper's grave.
1930: The Turtle's not talking
Daredevil George Stathakis took a turtle with him in his barrel-ride over the Falls in 1930. His barrel survived the plunge but then got caught behind the waterfall for more than ten hours. Stathakis, who only had oxygen for three hours, suffocated. He had promised that if he died, the turtle would tell his tale. The turtle was alive when the barrel was finally recovered, but alas, it wasn't talking.
1857: Mummies arrive at the Falls
In 1857, the Niagara Falls museum bought the first of its famous mummy collection. Much admired throughout the nineteenth century, the mummies were routinely laughed at by Egyptologists in the twentieth century. That is, until Billy Jamieson, a shrunken-head collector from Toronto bought the entire collection and sold the mummies for two million dollars. One of them was subsequently determined to be the missing pharoah Ramses I. Find out more about the museum at http://www.niagaramuseum.com.
1800s: Freaks of nature
This eight-legged, two-headed calf was one of many “freaks of nature” exhibited at Niagara. The Niagara Falls Museum included many of them, and Niagara sideshows often involved such sights. The tradition survives today at the Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum and other carnivalesque exhibits at the Falls.
1830-1878: Thomas Barnett's two-legged dog
Museum-founder Thomas Barnett had a pet dog named Skipper. Skipper was born with no front legs: just a ridge of bone across his chest. Barnett built a two-wheeled contraption on which Skipper rested his front end for walks. They were a common sight around Niagara Falls, Ontario. When Skipper died, Barnett mounted him and his skeleton separately and included them in his freaks of nature exhibit. Skipper now lives in the apartment of Billy Jamieson, the private collector who owns the museum's collection.
1887: The “Ossified Man”
Sideshow exhibitions at the Falls included a man with skin discoloration known as “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy” and the above “Ossified Man,“ a local whose joint ossification prevented him from moving his limbs. First displayed at Niagara in 1887, the Ossifed Man went on the road for the final five years of his life.
2007: Pam Anderson in wax
Wax museums have been popular at the Falls since the mid-nineteenth century. Today, at Louis Tussaud's Wax Museum, Pam Anderson stands in front of a painting of Lelawala, the “maid of the mist” whose sacrifice was at the center of Niagara's spurious “Indian legend.” All of Niagara's attractions seem designed to celebrate artifice, suggesting that the world, like Pam, can be endlessly remade.
1980: Bigfoot stalks Niagara
This almost impossible-to-read photo of a “Bigfoot head” turned up around Lewiston in 1980. Around the same time, a Japanese group used a two-million-dollar minisubmarine to search the Niagara River for a Loch-Ness-like sea serpent that was periodically sighted there. This was also the era of Love Canal: evidence of the area's toxic legacy was burbling up from below. The monster sightings suggest an unconscious awareness that something unnatural was haunting the region.
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