Maria Spelterini was the only female funambulist (tightrope walker) in history to cross Niagara Falls. She did it in celebration of the U.S. Centennial week in 1876. Spelterini did everything her male counterparts did, except she did it like Ginger Rogers—backwards and in high heels.
In truth, she was wearing peach bushels on her feet on one of the runs. But she did walk backwards the entire way on another and reportedly never looked back. Maria Spelterini did not carry a human on her back like a few of the male funambulists did, but she did add a few twists of her own.
It was a time when many believed that a woman’s place was in the home. When she was out of the home, she should remain in the background. Clearly, Maria Spelterini did not agree.
Maria Spelterini (July 7, 1853 – October 19, 1912) came to the Niagara Gorge for a long weekend engagement as part of a celebration of the U.S. Centennial in 1876. On July 8 she crossed just north of the lower suspension bridge, gliding gracefully across a two and a quarter inch wire. At 23, she was the first and only woman ever to cross the gorge.
She crossed again on July 12, 1876, this time with peach baskets strapped to her feet. She crossed blindfolded with a paper bag on her head on July 19. On July 22 she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.
The New York Herald said, “She is gifted with wonderful nerve combined with cool daring.”
The Niagara Falls New York Gazette was more interested in her appearance than her performance.
“The signorina made the cross and return trips attired in flesh-colored tights, a tunic of scarlet, a sea green bodice and neat green buskins (boots). The lady is 23 years of age, with dark Italian features, superbly built and weighing in the neighborhood of 150 pounds. She made no attempt to walk against time, merely traveling the gossamer web with a graceful, confident step, with soon allayed all apprehension of impending disaster.”
She also did this treacherous trek backwards, and used the thin wire as a stage, dancing and skipping across its 1000-foot length. Her elegance in these endeavors was described by a local paper as “traveling the gossamer web with a graceful, confident step, which soon allayed all apprehension of an impending disaster.”
Maria Spelterini was born in Livorno, Italy. Little is known about her personal life, other than she first performed with her father’s circus troupe at age three. Later, she appeared through Europe, performing at Moscow where she crossed the Moskva River, St. Petersburg where she crossed the River Neva, Saint Aubin on Catalan and several others.
After her performance at Niagara Falls, local papers reported that she went to Philadelphia, presumably to perform at the Centennial Exhibition.
On May 5, 1877, she survived a fall during a performance in Rosario, Argentina when her velocipede malfunctioned on a tightrope.
Between 1850 and 1950 many people attempted various stunts crossing Niagara Falls.The first tightrope walker was the French Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet) was the first man to cross Niagara Falls. He did back flips and crossed on a special bicycle. He later carried his manager on his back.
While not the first, The Great Farini 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. He 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.
There is now a $10,000 fine for anyone attempting to perform a stunt on the Niagara Gorge.
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