William Leonard Hunt (1838-1929) disappointed his parents who wanted him to become a doctor. Fascinated by the circus as a child, he trained himself to become an extraordinary acrobat. At 21 he felt ready for his first professional high wire performance. He changed his name to Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini and became known widely as The Great Farini.
The Great Farini challenged The Great Blondin who was the first person to tightrope cross Niagara Falls. In the summer of 1860, The Great Farini did it with a washing machine on his back. He might have disappointed his parents, but this Victorian Era thrill seeker surpassed expectations of his audiences. Following are just a few highlights of the extraordinary life of a man who listened to no one and followed his own heart.
Hunt first trained himself in funambulism (tightrope walking) when he was still a child. His first high wire act was across the Ganaraska River in Port Hope, followed by a series at town fairs through Ontario. He joined Dan Rice’s Floating Circus as a funambulist and strongman.
Hunt began challenging the Great Blondin in 1859. Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet) might have been the first man to cross Niagara Falls, but Hunt was determined to be the most spectacular. According to Shane Peacock’s riveting biography The Great Farini, The High-Wire Life of William Hunt, the series of thrill-seeking stunts on the tightrope included carrying a person on his back, doing somersaults, and hanging by his feet.
Hunt made his first crossing of Niagara Falls on August 15, 1860. At the midpoint, he dropped down about 100 feet to the deck of the Maid of the Mist. He sipped wine with the passengers then climbed back up the rope to complete his high wire walk.
In one of his most publicized acts he dressed as a washerwoman with an Empire washing machine strapped to his back. He lowered a bucket to retrieve water in which he washed the handkerchiefs of several female admirers.
Blondin never publicly recognized Hunt’s challenges. While Hunt might have remained number two, he was definitely number one in profits. Like P.T. Barnum, he was a man with great business acumen. Hunt knew how to promote himself and make money. He even made a deal with a railroad ensuring him a percentage of ticket sales from passengers who traveled just to see his act.
Hunt married Mary Osbourne in 1861. On December 6, 1862, he was tightrope walking at the Bullring Plaza Torres in Havana, Cuba with his wife on his back. They had nearly reached the other side when she loosened her grip to wave at the cheering audience with one hand. She lost her balance and fell. Hunt instantly caught her skirt. He nearly pulled her to safety when the fabric tore. She plummeted to her death. The Great Farini disappeared for a few years, presumably into South America.
Hunt reappeared in Europe in 1866.This time he was performing with Samuel Wasgatt (sometimes spelled Wasgate), his adopted 10-year-old son. Hunt presented Samuel as ‘El Niño Farini, the Wonder of the Age.’ Together they performed as The Flying Farinis. They were extremely popular with audiences at important venues including their first at the Chelsea Pleasure Gardens.
The boy’s act was called “Le Tambour Aerial, or the aerial drummer. He would swing through the air, balancing by his neck on a trapeze while playing a drum. Hunt utilized a safety net below the boy in the first recorded use of the device.
In 1870, El Nino emerged in Paris as Mademoiselle Lulu. She was also called Beautiful Lulu, the Girl Aerialist and Circassian Catapultist. She was at one point billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” In the highlight of her act she performed the Lulu leap. The Great Farini catapulted her from his device on the ground (invisible to the audience) to a trapeze. She made three somersaults in mid-air.
The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1 March 1871):
‘The Royal Amphitheatre, Holborn, may confidently lay claim to the possession of the Eighth Wonder of the World in the person of the fearless and graceful Lulu, who is indeed the very empress of gymnasts, accomplishing the most surprising feats with an ease and dexterity that can only be described as marvelous. The attraction of her extraordinary performances is heightened by her youthful and prepossessing appearance’.
Lulu was a major hit on stage and off. She received countless marriage proposals from her male fans. As Lulu matured, it was more difficult to hide her true gender. Her secret was revealed when she was rushed to a hospital after a serious accident occurred during her performance in 1878. She re-emerged as a male after that, but continued wearing Lulu’s costume.
Hunt stopped performing stunts when he was 31. He turned his energies toward creating and promoting other acts. One of his most famous was Zazel, his teenage protégé who was considered by most to be the first human cannonball.
One of Hunt’s most famous inventions was the apparatus he used for the purpose of launching performers in circus acts. The first “launch pad” was used most successfully by his son, then known as Lulu. The act gained fame as the “Lulu Leap.”
On June 13, 1871, Hunt was issued Patent No. 115837. His apparatus was designed for “Projecting Persons and Articles into or through the Air” for the purpose of entertainment. The device was designed to look like a cannon, but it was not. It was more of a platform that catapulted a gymnast through the air to a designated height or distance.
Among Hunt’s many famous acts were:
Krao the Missing Link
Captain Costentenus, The Worlds Most Tattooed Man
Strongman Eugen Sandow.
Vesta Tilley, The Male Impersonator
In 1885, Hunt traveled across the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. His son, by then known as Lulu, photographed their travels. The photos were published in Hunt’s book, Through The Kalahari Desert. The work can be seen on The National Archives UK.
“Lulu’s images include images of the local Baster and Griqua peoples, mining in Kimberley and the extraordinary landscapes of the region. Many of these photographs seem to have been taken from difficult vantage points and appear to demonstrate Lulu’s physical as well as artistic skill.”
Hunt claimed to discover the ruins of an ancient kingdom on this trip. He mounted a show in London featuring Lulu’s photographs of The Lost City of the Kalahari.
In addition to devices for circus acts, Hunt had many inventions to his name. Among them:
-the modern parachute (one of his acts was parachutist Thomas Scott Baldwin)
-folding theater seat
-Improvements to steam engines
-improvements to gun cartridges
In the Civil War, he was employed by General McClellan to design a rope bridge that could allow troops to easily cross rivers. He also devised a pair of pontoon-style shoes that would allow men to walk across water.
Hunt became a painter and sculptor. His works were included in an exhibition in Toronto in 1908 beside works by C.W. Jefferys and G.A. Reid.
Throughout his career, people mused about how The Great Farini would die. Ironically, he died in his bed at the age of 90 from the flu. Fortunately for us, he chose to walk on the wild side.
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