Stephen Peer was born in Niagara Falls in 1840. At nineteen years of age he watched, spellbound, as The Great Blondin performed ever more challenging feats while crossing the gorge, and Stephen vowed he would surpass him. He started by crossing ropes he made himself by twining grapevines together, strung between the trees of his family's orchard. Soon he was entertaining the villagers of Drummondville by performing high on a rope across Main Street from the Prospect House to Kick's Tavern (location of Mints to the Niagara Falls Farmers' Market Parkette).
By 1873 he had landed a job as assistant to Henry Bellini, who billed himself "The Australian Blondin". Tales about Bellini suggest he had quite a volatile temper. He refused to allow Stephen to use his rope. One day, however, when Bellini was not around, Stephen leapt aboard and lightly skipped across; to the delight of onlookers, he proceeded to perform many of Blondin's original stunts.
Returning unexpectedly, Bellini flew into a rage and managed to cut two strands of the three-strand rope (while Peer was on it) before he was pulled away. Now it was the crowd's turn to be enraged. Bellini was run out of town. Peer performed his first official rope walk, under his own billing, on June 22, 1887. A broadside advertising the performance shows that somewhere along the line, he had gained the title of "professor" and had added an extra "e" to his surname for effect. His performance was free, but a collection box was passed through the crowd. His 5/8-inch wire cable was erected between the Great Western's suspension bridge and the Michigan Central's cantilever bridge.
His walk was a complete success, and he received the accolades of thousands of applauding spectators. Three days later he was dead, discovered on the gorge bank below his cable. The reason for his death remains a mystery: some suggested he attempted to walk the rope while drunk and wearing street shoes; the coroner cited suicide, but the family claimed it was murder, that he had been shot by rivals and dumped into the gorge. We may never know.
Niagara Falls, June 25, Steve Peer, the local celebrity who outdid Blondin in daring feats around Niagara and recently crossed the rapids on a 5/8-inch cable is dead. Ever since he did the daring act he has been drinking very heavily, and W[illia]m. Leary proprietor of the Elgin House where Peer has been stopping, has been watching him closely. This evening about 7:30 pm Peer went out unobserved with John Gillespie and a stranger, and later was seen with 2 men near his rope. As he did not show up by 8:30 and no trace of him could be found elsewhere, it was supposed that he had attempted to walk his rope and had fallen from it or stumbled over the bank, and ropes and lanterns were procured and Peer's brother, with John Connolly was lowered down. Near the bottom of the incline they found his lifeless body, badly cut around the head. There was a large gash leading from his nose over the top of his head so that his brains protruded, and death must have been instantaneous. His body was raised to the top of the precipice by means of ropes, and taken to the Elgin House, where it now lies awaiting the coroner. A good many rumors are afloat regarding how he met his death, amongst them one that he suicided, there being, it is said some trouble between himself and his wife. The general belief is that he attempted to walk out on the cable.
THE CONTENDER (Rod Lurie, 2000) 126 mins
Lundy’s Lane Historical Society Presents: Dr. Richard Merritt
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