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Emily Chesley - a biography





Peruse her biography:

Formation (1856-1880)
London, Ontario (1880-1904)
Travels (1904-1919)
A Long Twilight (1919-1948)

...Chesleyan Timeline
...The Oeuvre



Roll Out The Barrel: The Aborted Niagara Challenge

Throughout the 19 th century, Niagara Falls was a Mecca for daredevils, adventurers, inventors and other assorted loonies from around the world. Given the relatively close proximity of London Ontario to the Falls, one has to wonder why neither the adventurous Emily Chesley or her inventive Uncle Michael Flannigan ever attempted to conquer the falls. One need not wonder further. In 1900 Michael Flannigan did set his sights on Niagara Falls. The result was one of the few heated arguments ever between Emily and her uncle.

The Vehicle for Dropping from an Enormous Height and Splashing About in Rapids had a strangely familiar design. Flannigan preferred to call it his “bobber”.

Throughout the 1800s, most of the Niagara daredevil feats had been confined to tightrope walking across the Niagara gorge, as well as riding or swimming the whirlpool rapids below. By the end of the century nobody had yet attempted to survive a plunge over the falls. This is the challenge which the increasingly dotty Michael Flannigan chose to conquer. Working in his Maitland Ave workshop, Flannigan constructed his Vehicle for Dropping From a Great Height and Splashing About in Rapids. It was also known more simply as the Flannigan Bobber. The invention consisted of a barrel-like structure. Inside there was silk pillows for padding and a large anvil for ballast. There only remained one question: who would pilot the vehicle over the brink and into the watery hell below? The answer was the source of friction between Flannigan and Emily Chesley.

Upon hearing of her uncle’s plan, Emily believed that she was the logical choice for the task. For the first person over the falls to be a woman would be a coup for women everywhere. There was also a long and illustrious history of women daredevils who had challenged the falls. Some were successful. Others, sadly, were not. There was, for example, the lovely and buxom Maria Spelterini who walked tightrope across the gorge a number of times in the 1870s. On one occasion she walked the wire with manacled legs. On another occasion she wore buckets on her feet. Less successful was the unfortunate Maude Willard. Her barrel became trapped in whirlpool for several ours. She succumbed to asphyxia while her pet dog survived by sticking his snout through the craft’s only air hole.

Lovely little Maria Spelterini crosses the gorge in 1876, with buckets on her feet. She also later wrote a song called “These bucket’s are made for walkin’” but nobody cared. More popular at the time was a nonsense ditty titled, “She boxed my ears with round wooden feet”.

Michael Flannigan appreciated the enthusiasm of his darlin’ niece, but was dead set against her going over the falls. Though eternally an optimist, Flannigan was more than aware that a number of his past inventions had ended badly – often involving dismemberment and/or massive cranial bleeding. For the Niagara adventure he selected a local gymnast and trapeze artist Ryder “Doggie” Stiles. Stiles had gotten his nickname for his compact build, energy, and alert demeanour – which was not unlike a frisky Jack Russel Terrier or an enthusiastic Beagle pup. While Emily was impressed by the young Stiles’ physicality – and particularly his flexibility – she was nonetheless unimpressed by her uncle’s decision.

“I admit he is wiry and flexible,” Emily said, at a meeting of the Celtic Union of Non-Testosterone Sybarites. “But he’s so small that the two of us could fit in Uncle’s contraption. Hmmm.”

Meanwhile, Flannigan pushed ahead with his plans. He decided that, before the assault on Niagara, there would be a public test of the device. This would have the bonus of drumming up some publicity for the main event. So it was that on April 14, 1900, the Flannigan Bobber was dropped into the rushing Thames River from high atop the wrought iron girder work of the Blackfriars Bridge. The bridge, which spanned the river between London and the hamlet of “Petersville” on the west bank, still exists today. A platform was built atop the apex of the bridge’s girders. From there the Bobber was to be dropped into the river. From their it would float down river to the Dundas St. Landing.

The day of the great test a large crowd of spectators, many looking to watch “Old Flannigan’s latest disaster” lined the river banks. Flannigan and Stiles waved from the top of the bridge. Emily was nowhere to be found. It was assumed that she was still sulking over her uncle’s rejection. Picking up the story is the only surviving eyewitness account by one Phineas Hornblatt. Ironically, Hornblatt was present 20 years earlier to recount the Victoria disaster and the infamous Thong Bank incident. He writes:

I had an excellent view from the foot of the bridge on the London side. A city constable next to me shook his head in doubt.

“Saw the contraption this morning,” he said. “Lots of stuffing lying about outside of it. Looks like it’d been ripped out. Don’t know what he intends to use for padding.”

Then I saw a smiling Ryder “Doggie” Stiles waving to the crowd from atop the bridge. The top hatch of the Bobber was open. He climbed a small stool and stepped into the barrel. Now standing waist high in the barrel, Stiles gave one more smiling wave to the throng below.

The Flannigan Bobber made quite a splash for the crowds gathered at the Blackfriars Bridge.

Then, something odd happened. Stiles glanced down into the barrel as if he had felt something that was not right. He looked around furtively for the old inventor and raised a hand to get his attention. Then, more oddness. Stiles froze and only stared forward. An almost angelic grin came across his features. He dropped his arm and slowly slid down into the barrel like a man sliding into a comforting hot bath. The hatch was secured by two assistants. They looked for the old inventor’s signal.

Then, there was the most extraordinary sight. The barrel began rock back and forth all on its own. It toppled over and rolled, at first the wrong way, and then right toward the edge of the platform. What incredible enthusiasm! Stiles was driving the Bobber down all on his own! As the barrel dropped from the bridge we could hear a muffled high pitched voice shouting, “Weeeeeeeeyaah”. There was an enormous splash, followed by a more guttural “Oh yes! Yes!”

The gathered crowd erupted in cheers. The Bobber rushed down the river, carried by a strong current. It was an aptly named device. The whole time it continued to bob rhythmically up and down, up and down. Then, it would roll. Then, it would bob some more.

I rode down to the landing. When I arrived, the Bobber was already there, perched mid-river on a shallow spot. A couple of lads were wading out into the river to retrieve the vehicle. Just then the hatch popped open. I single arm emerged and waved the lads off.

“No, no, it’s OK.” I heard. “Not done yet.”

What incredible enthusiasm! I dare say, for a man in his position, Doggie Stiles was aptly named.

The barrel rolled off into the current again and bobbed downriver toward Springbank. Again, I gave chase. When I arrived, an hour or so later, the Bobber was standing on the river bank. Flannigan was there as well as a large crowd which, like me, had given chase. The crowd was hushed by the quiet and lack of motion around the barrel. Flannigan himself came forward, opened the top, and peered inside.

“Bloody Hell,” he muttered. “Fetch the wagon.”

The crowd remain hushed with concern as the Bobber was hauled up onto a buck board. Then, one of the lads noticed smoke wafting out of an air hole.

When Annie Edson Taylor did it, Emily Chesley lost interest in the Falls project. It also didn’t help that everybody else involved was dead.

“It’s OK,” he shouted with a wave. “He’s having a cigarette!”

There arose a great “Huzzah!” From somewhere, a band began to play.

Sadly, the Flannigan Bobber was never to see Niagara Falls and “Doggie” Stiles would not be a hero. Within a year, the redoubtable Flannigan was dead, the victim of a freak nasal hair removal accident. The flexible Stiles also soon met his own end. While doing back flips to impress a crowd on Dundas Street he was crushed between two cable cars. On October 21, 1901, Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor, became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The 46 year old widow and school teacher from Bay City, Michigan, accomplished the feat in a large wooden barrel which was padded with silk pillows and used an anvil for ballast. Seeing that Niagara Falls had been conquered, by a woman, in much the same fashion as she had planned, Emily lost interest in the project.

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