Major Lloyd Hill was not a real major. He did not mind being called "the Major," but he appreciated it being made perfectly clear that he was not a real major. It was not because he was not fond of officers. He just preferred his old rank of private in War II; by some circuitous reasoning he believed it to be more individual. "I could have become a real major," he would say quickly, admitting that he often pondered the sound of Major Major Lloyd Hill. He said he would have become a real major had he not ingloriously dropped a case of ammunition on his big toe, which later led to the Major being separated from his right leg; the incident irritated him. He really had wanted to be gassed like his father, Old Red, a private who had wanted to be a major in War I.
It was a soft, cool day on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, almost soundless except for the sullen roar of the white, mean waters below and the Major's voice. He had been trapped amid the ghosts of some lost regiment or other, but now seemed to be emerging with a wistful lament of never having had the chance to become a "crack mercenary" in Africa. It was suggested to the Major that his military past did not seem pertinent; whereupon, a bit struck by such irreverence, he said he was only trying to show the spirit and backbone behind the saga of the Hills of Niagara. He then moved on to the subject for which he was best known: Niagara mania, and how to invest $1,000, draw 300,000 people and then kill yourself by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel—presuming they ever found a piece of you to prove that you were killed.
The Major was not just a mere historian or weaver of tales about the Niagara and its deadliness. He was the last of a legendary clan that believed the river to be its own, a people drawn to the Falls for over half a century by its rage and beauty. It went much deeper than peculiar fascination. It had been a fatal obsession, one that was visible in the eyes of the Major's old, old mother who sat and rocked from dawn to dusk, listening to the hypnotic thunder of the Falls. The obsession also could be heard in the words of the Major, who spoke of the Niagara as if it were flesh and blood, a beckoning enchantress who embraced you and then dissolved into a toothless witch begging for another life. "We have been generous to her," said the Major, pointing to a copper plaque that read:
The Hills of Niagara
William (Red) Hill Sr.
William (Red) Hill Jr.
The plaque spoke plainly—next to the first three names were crosses: these were the dead. Following the Major's and Wesley's names were horseshoes, for the lucky and alive. Wesley planned to stay that way, and he restricted his river fever to hunting and fishing. The Major was of a different disposition. Sometime in the next few months, on a day (as some say) suitable for dying, or a day when he felt the police were ripe for deception—for they have always viewed the Hills as a public menace—the Major would discard his crutches and be strapped into a contraption far up the Niagara. It might be a barrel, some sort of capsule, surely something worthy of so consummate a death wish. Its nomenclature aside, the object would measure five feet in width and seven feet in length. It would be made of stainless steel with an inner casing of ‚⅛th of an inch and an outer casing of [1/16]th of an inch; there would be four to six inches between the casings and the interior would be packed with Styrofoam.
The Major was ecstatic as he probed deeper into the esoterica of his invention. His mother just shook her head, never missing a rock. She was very sick, but she had seen too often the river spit back her men, seen too much of Niagara death not to be still torn by the wolf-like madness that continued to trail her family. She knew what the bodies looked like with their backs snapped as easily as if they had been dry twigs, and she knew what they looked like after they had been trapped behind the force of 25 million tons of water an hour and had run out of oxygen. "I'll be strapped inside in a standard parachute harness," continued the Major, "and I'll ride in a sitting position. I want to go straight over the middle. I figure when I hit, the capsule will plunge 50 feet under water, and I'll come back to the surface 200 feet downstream." The creaking of the rocker was suddenly the only sound in the room.
"All my life," said Mrs. Hill, still facing the window, "all I ever had was that river. It took my men, and I never want to see it again."
"Mom's been the main one to suffer," said the Major. "She never could understand the way it was with us and the river."
"All I ever had was the worry," said Mrs. Hill. "Just nights walking the floor. Two weeks after Wesley was born in 1930 they rolled my husband's barrel past my window. And I wrapped the baby up and carried him down to the river in my arms. It was so cold that day. I stood down by the whirlpool, and I watched Red's barrel be stuck there for six hours. I passed out three times. One time a doctor caught my baby falling out of my arms."
"We made 11 barrel runs in all," said the Major.
"Eleven too many," said Mrs. Hill, still looking out of the window as the first signs of evening moved across her face. "I tried, I did. I tried to talk them out of it. But they never listened. The morning Red Jr. went over, he walked out of the house and I pleaded with him, right up until a big car scooped him up and took him away. I went and said a prayer. Then I went down to watch him come over. I've seen every trip every one of them made. But when I saw his barrel come over, I screamed. It was already ripped open. I knew he wasn't in it."
"He'd been thrown out in the upper rapids," said the Major, "before he ever got to the Falls."
"He knew," said Mrs. Hill. "He knew it was going to happen."
"We all knew," said the Major. "He didn't want people to think he was a coward if he waited to put in a metal lining."
"So...a dead hero," said the mother.
"Better than a dead coward," said the Major.
"Once you're dead, who cares?" said the mother, turning to look at her son, who at 52 and with one leg and a neck injury would not even let her die in peace.
The painful neck, which often had to be supported by a brace, came from one of the Major's five trips (more than any other man in Niagara history) through the various Niagara rapids. Even after you knew every whip of the water, every biting tooth of rock just under the surface, the possibility of death or severe hurt was hardly diminished. "No matter how much you know," said the Major, "it's never enough. The one thing you must never do is panic. You have to control your breathing and the movement of your body. Get all tense and stiff, and it will break every bone you've got. You go through those lower rapids, you know, at a speed of 1½ miles in 1½ minutes—until you hit the whirlpool." It was in the whirlpool, a monstrous freak of nature, that the Major had come closest to being rubbed out. He was trapped there underwater for an hour. He did not know how far down he was, except that it was as if he were lost in some eerie dimension of the universe, and the sound of the water was like a million fiddle strings.
Long before that incident, in 1950, the Major had taken a crack at the Horseshoe Falls, which is on the Canadian side and the only one that is ever tried; the American Falls attracts only amateur suicides. It was the year before Red Jr.'s death when the Major climbed into a 10-foot stainless-steel barrel and began his rush down the upper rapids toward the precipice of the Falls like a Ping-Pong ball caught in a violent wind. Hundreds of thousands encrusted the river's shores. The Major was 200 yards from the edge when the current propelled him to shore and, while disparate voices hawked souvenirs of barrelmania nearby, he was pulled out unconscious. He had suffered a bad concussion and his body was horribly bruised. The barrel was freed, and it went over the Falls like a riderless horse. The thought of that empty barrel still stalked the Major's dreams.
"A curse," said the Major's mother. "That's all it's ever been. All life ever meant to any of 'em was conquering that river. They didn't conquer it. That river will run forever."
The king of river rats, a man who knew the Niagara's every mood, Old Red Hill, the Major's father, would not have tolerated such mysticism from his widow, even though he knew that the Falls, with its ghostly veil of mist and macabre drone, could draw persons on the edge of insanity to their death. Could draw them, and then at some godless hour Old Red would hear the knock on his door and know that it meant another lost soul floating somewhere beneath the dark river. Often, intuitively, he did not wait for a knock, and in the middle of the night he would awaken and start dressing, and his wife would ask him where he was going, and he would say quietly, "To work." Work for Old Red meant another body. It was as if the river had called out to him, and as Mrs. Hill noted, "He was never wrong."
It was said at the warped bars in the river saloons that Old Red had some dark pact with the Niagara. If so, one ancient riverman remarked, it was a bloody poor one, for the day never dawned that Old Red did not have to scratch for a dollar. His payment for retrieving bodies was meager, but it was unlikely that he even considered the money. He viewed himself, apparently, as a self-appointed sentinel of the river. Over the years he pulled nearly 200 corpses out of the river, and nobody in Canada ("or on this planet," said the Major) had ever saved more lives: 28 people from the river and thousands of wild birds trapped on the ice. The Canadian government awarded him four medals, which he liked to wear on Sunday.
It was obvious the old man could never satiate his appetite for heroism, and if the real connoisseur of heroes is the one who pursues death, that was Old Red. But the old man was not as expert on stripping clean the gullibility of tourists, though he and his family partially survived from them after he shot the rapids three times. He painted one of his barrels red and decorated it with an advertisement for himself in bold yellow letters—SAVED A GIRL FROM A BURNING HOUSE 1896. TAKEN OUT OF THE NIAGARA 177 BODIES. ONLY MAN IN WORLD WHO CAN WEAR 4 LIFE SAVING MEDALS. SNIPER IN 75th BATT. WORLD WAR. GASSED. WOUNDED—and displayed the barrel in the family's souvenir shop. Old Red lived to die in bed. They said he died from the effects of having been gassed, but his widow, as well as those in the dim, hidden saloons who talked of him, believed that "he was too sick to run the river, and he died because he couldn't."
The old man left only a $420 insurance policy, despite the fact that he had been a desultory smuggler during Prohibition. His sons, though, did not need money to confront the river. The old man had given them his instinct, his fierce independence and his lust for the heroic moment. They were a hard lot, especially Red Jr., a brazen smuggler who was contemptuous of any law that came between him and the river. He lived purely for and off the Niagara, and his special haunt was the deep basin below the Falls, an otherworldly place with sheets of white spray and mad eddies filled with hundred-pound sturgeon, tenacious bass, marauding gar and giant lamprey eels. That was his sanctuary from creeping reality and restriction, and that would be where they would one day find parts of his body.
As the Major told it, when his father was dying he made Red Jr. promise that he would one day go over the Falls in a barrel; the old man should have saved his breath. The idea had always burned in his eldest son's mind, and long after his father had died and he himself had escaped death several times while shooting the rapids Red Jr. one day glowered over mugs of ale and said, "I'm through waiting. This shooting the rapids has been practice stuff. I'm going over the Falls. Not in a barrel or a ball or a cylinder. I've given it a lot of study. I'm going over in rubber inner tubes. I'm as good a man as my father was. Now it's time to prove I'm a better one." The inner tubes, he thought, being light and buoyant, would not be dragged under and hammered down by the water. "It's the tons of water pounding you down that does the damage," he said.
"But even if that does work," said a friend, Bud Sinclair, "you can't fall 165 feet without being seriously injured or killed. Give this suicide up and grow old and fat drinking ale."
"No, I've got it all figured," said Red. "The inflated inner tubes will act as a cushion when I hit. The long and wide inner tubes will be like shock absorbers. I won't go deep, and that way I'll miss the rocks down there that are the real danger."
"You're crazy," said Sinclair.
"Maybe so," said Red. "But you've got to admit that if I go through with it I'm a better man than my father."
"If your father was still alive," said his friend, "he'd disown you for a fool."
"My old man would go over with me," said Red.
Probably 300,000 people lined the Niagara by noon on the day Red Hill Jr. chose to die. Far away, upriver, Red lounged calmly in a place of secrecy sipping an ale until someone ran in and shouted, "Somebody's tipped off the law!" "Use the decoy," Red said. A man with red hair and built like Hill slipped out of the room and the rest waited. Bud Sinclair recalls the moment: "Downstairs, there were sudden shouts. A door closed, and there was a great commotion of grinding car gears and slamming car doors, and then sirens began wailing. Hill waited for the sirens to fade, and then he got up swinging the football helmet he was going to wear. 'Let's go,' he said. I tried once more to argue him out of it. I said, 'Don't be a fool, Red.' He said, 'Not a chance. See you down below when they haul me out.' " The last thing he did was flip a coin. "Heads I win, tails I lose," he said wryly. He turned his palm up, looked at the coin and then shrugged. It was a long time before they found what was left of Red Hill Jr.
"Just plain suicide," says Sinclair. "You didn't have to know the river to know that. But Hill had to do it. He couldn't stop himself. He was driven by an urge that was bigger than himself, bigger than Niagara. If he'd succeeded, it would have proved nothing. Losing like he did proved nothing, either. Except that maybe Red was a brave but tormented and foolish man."
The death of Red was traumatic to his brother Norman, and he tried to flee the river and all its madness. He began to see the river in his dreams, shaped like the vast shadow of some prehistoric animal. He took a job out of town as a steeplejack. He found it dull, and slowly he made his way back to the river, where a power plant was under construction, and hired on. His second day of work, a year after Red's death, he was killed. A stone three inches in diameter dropped from 300 feet above and crushed his skull.
"Maybe the first man who ever saw the Falls had the right idea," said the Major. "I think his name was Hennepin, a priest. He fell down on his knees in prayer, they say."
That was in 1678. By 1882 Oscar Wilde noted: "Every American bride is taken there, and the sight must be of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life." He added that it would be much more interesting if the Falls ran backward. Already the place had become a reservoir of fakery and relentless enterprise; it was here that Indian chiefs "from Ireland" peddled white pebbles and promoted them as "congealed Niagara spray." In 1859 a Frenchman named The Great Blondin became an international figure by walking a 1,300-foot cable stretched high above the Niagara gorge. For two seasons Blondin performed on the cable, and millions gawked at what he did. In the middle of the rope he somersaulted, prepared a French dish (which he washed down with a bottle of champagne raised from below) and crossed the cable blindfolded. He once had a narrow escape while carrying his manager on his back; it seems some gamblers had been careless with a knife on a guy rope. To the amazement of all, Blondin succeeded in doing what no one thought possible. He left the Falls with his life—and a fortune. He also left behind him an atmosphere that would hover above the Falls for decades like a mammoth dark-winged bird, and he created an allure that would often lead men along trails of deep irony.
Annie Edson Taylor was the first to try the Falls. In 1901 she was teaching grade school in Bay City, Mich. when she suddenly announced to her students: "I'll go over Niagara Falls. Nobody has ever done that!" A few days later she headed east, a homely woman of 43 intent on making money honestly and quickly. Upon her arrival at Niagara Falls she went to a cooper by the name of Bocenchia and gave him her design for a barrel. It was to weigh 165 pounds, the same as her weight. Why did she need such a peculiar barrel? she was asked. "I'm going to ride it over Niagara Falls," she is said to have replied as she made her exit from the shop.
Annie got her barrel, and in it dropped over the Falls. For some time she was trapped behind the cataract before the barrel was ejected. When she was extricated she was bleeding from the ears and her face was cut. "Nobody ought ever do that again," she said dazedly to the men who fished out the barrel. That was the last of Annie's good fortune. The money she expected to draw from theater crowds never came. One reason was that she was boring and matronly, and audiences could not associate her with her deed. Even worse, according to one tale, she was seduced by a flimflam man who stole her barrel and shipped it West. He followed, stopping only long enough to romance a dance-hall girl and entice her to pose as Annie. With the real barrel and a pretty woman, he lived sumptuously ever after. As for the barrelless Annie, she died in Niagara Falls, a confused and lonely woman who wandered the streets selling autographed postcards and giving solitary orations about her feat.
An Englishman named Bobby Leach was the next one over the Falls, 10 years after Annie Taylor. "If a woman schoolteacher can do it," he kept repeating, "I can do it." Tired of hearing him, friends pressured him into building a barrel. One July day Leach was cajoled into setting out in it. It was Old Red Hill who reached him first after he had made the plunge. Leach was alive, but barely; his kneecaps were broken, his jaw crushed and he had a brain concussion that resulted in punch-drunkenness later in his life. Leach spent six months in the hospital, and when he was released he toured the world with his barrel. In New Zealand, while limping down a street, he fell and broke his leg. He had slipped on an orange peel. That was the end of Bobby Leach. He contracted gangrene and died.
Next, an English barber and a Greek cook were drawn to the Falls. The barber, one Charles Stephens, could not stand barbering. He walked around town wearing a yachting cap and medals he claimed to have won for his daring; he said that he had often put his head in the mouths of lions. Just before he went over the Falls he cabled his wife and 11 kids in Bristol, "Feat accomplished." Coming over the Falls, his barrel reared up straight and hung on the brink for 20 seconds. That was the last anybody ever saw of Charles. All Old Red could find was a stave from the barrel and an arm with a tattoo on it requesting: "Forget Me Not." After Stephens, the Greek cook, George Stathakis, arrived on the scene, and the first thing he did was hire Old Red as his assistant.
Stathakis, a bachelor with a cadaverous face and body, said his reason for attempting the Falls was purely a search for truth. This seemed to correspond with his behavior back home; when not cooking he would sit in the company of a 150-pound turtle named Sonny and compose metaphysical writings. "I plan to detach my mind philosophically," said Stathakis of his trip, "and store away each emotion for future reference." Looking at the cook's barrel, Old Red thought of the future, too. He requested the presence of two doctors and an undertaker. Stathakis' barrel, with Sonny aboard, came over the Falls and was caught behind the cataract. The man and the turtle were imprisoned for 14 hours. Stathakis died of suffocation, and the notebooks he had taken along were empty. The turtle survived. Old Red claimed the turtle and the barrel and exhibited them in front of the house. He made $150.
After Stathakis, three beat the Falls—a French Canadian named Jean Lussier, a mysterious Negro from New York City who called himself Nathan Boya and a 7-year-old boy in a life jacket who was swept over accidentally. Lussier made it in 1928 in a huge ball. "I not so much as dent a fingernail," said Lussier, who lived afterward in Niagara, alone and impoverished. "The photographers, they want to show blood on my face. So I daub on red paint. But the trip over Niagara, she was nothing. I do it again, by damn!"
Boya came out of nowhere to ride the Falls in 1961 in what he called a Plunge-O-Sphere. It had a 1,200-pound steel framework covered with seven layers of rubber and was equipped with seven canisters of oxygen. Only the police, shocked as if they were watching some creature rise from the river, and some old rivermen saw him do it. Boya turned down an invitation to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show and refused offers of money and exposure. Boya was not even his real name; he was believed to be one William Fitzgerald from Queens, N.Y. When he was pulled out of the river all he said to the police was, "Talk to my attorney. I've just integrated the Falls." He paid a $100 fine in a Niagara court—long ago it became a misdemeanor to go over the Falls—and disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
For a decade after, Niagara Falls sat quietly, encapsulated in the largess of its thousands of honeymooners who promenaded through town wearing new clothes and nervous grins, or sat in their hotels sipping a complimentary cocktail consisting of rye, cranberry juice and k√ºmmel. Many never looked at the Falls, spending their public moments wandering through Ripley's, with its Lincoln Memorial made of pennies and its bicycle made of matchsticks, or searching the hundreds of shops for curios, such as the statuettes of a pregnant girl stamped with the line, "I should have danced all night." Here and there were remnants of the madness that made the town famous: a barrel, a date, a name—all that was left of those many dead dreams.
The Major was seldom seen amid the imbroglio of bad taste. He stayed near the river, prowling it and plotting the return of the Hills. Besides, he and the law in town were not compatible. Once he had been involved in an altercation with a policeman, and the Major had turned the man upside down, taken his gun and thrown it into a passing garbage truck. Another incident occurred when the Major, while sitting in a saloon, had said he could stop time. A debate ensued, and the Major, by way of what he considered a brilliant demonstration, jimmied his way into a funeral parlor and stole its big clock. It was a while before the Major could return to the bar, one where he liked to spend his nights over a few glasses of Captain Morgan rum.
On those nights he would often be quiet as he sat, either thinking or scribbling bad verse about the Falls like, "If Old Red, my dad, could see/Just how his life's affected me." But he would become animated on the subject of guns and smoke and battle. He seldom spoke of himself, except to curse that case of ammunition. He would restrict his talk to his father, whom "they couldn't even kill with a ton of gas." It was only when a friend became too playful and accused the Major of pretending to be a real major that he would move toward a wall, drop his crutches and throw up his guard. He then would go home, and not be seen for a long time.
The Major had not been much in view for a few weeks, but he was proceeding with his plans for going over the Falls this September. He had raised the money for his barrel, and it was in production. He also was working with a Canadian television network on a documentary about himself and all the other Hills. Then on Monday, June 14, the same day old Jean Lussier suddenly died, the Major, for his own sake, was picked up by the police in downtown Niagara and taken to jail. He was drunk, and he had been shouting incoherently on the streets about Lussier and of how the river would never get Major Lloyd Hill. The following morning, when he was to be released, they found the Major dead of "natural causes." There was talk of cremating him and scattering his ashes out over the Falls, but nothing came of it. He was buried quietly, the last of the river Hills, and there were many who thought he would never have gone over the Falls because in his heart and mind and soul the river had long ago beaten him. He was in the end, they say, like one of the weary loons he occasionally rescued. They light above the rapids and are quickly dragged down to them. They cannot take off like smaller birds, and soon their necks drop listlessly into the water and they drown. It was not the way he wanted to die, not the way a Hill should die.
The Major, last of the river Hills, failed in his first attempt to go over the Falls, but he plotted another trip.
Red Hill Sr., head of a clan whose barrelmania is legendary, exhibited fatal capsule of Greek cook.
Red Hill Jr. waved goodby from raft of inner tubes that carried him to his death as 300,000 people watched.
Englishman Bobby Leach was cajoled by friends into a barrel. He survived the Falls, but met an untimely end during a world tour.
First to ride in a barrel over Niagara was Annie Taylor, a teacher who walked away with minor injuries in 1901.