Third daredevil to survive Niagara Falls plunge had a real ‘ball’

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Published May 5, 2023 at 12:49 pm

In this photo, Jean Lussier's ball is visible just to the right of the 'L' in his signature.

Jean Lussier wasn’t the first daredevil to successfully survive a plunge over Niagara Falls but he was the first to have a real ‘ball’ doing it.

He was actually the third to survive a Niagara Falls trip, preceded by Annie Taylor and Bobby Leach, who ironically later died after slipping on an orange peel. (It’s a little more complicated – his leg became infected, had to be amputated and he died of medical complications.)

However, we can safely say Lussier, who was born in 1891 in either Concord, New Hampshire or Quebec, was the first to have, well, a ball because that’s what he used. Whereas both Taylor and Leach used heavily fortified barrels, Lussier used a big round – also heavily fortified – rubber ball.

On July 4, 1928 – some 95 years ago – Lussier survived his plunge inside a bright orange rubber ball, heavily lined with a steel framework and 32 interconnected inner tubes that would be filled with oxygen for the journey.

A 150 pound weight acted as a ballast, meaning the ball would land with him upright inside, gave his ball some heft at 760 pounds. In total, it cost Lussier $7,000 or $123,558 in today’s dollars.

Of course, since he had announced his illegal stunt to draw crowds, that also meant the Niagara Falls police were on high alert in an effort to stop him, driving up and down the Niagara River shoreline. After all, the ball was bright orange and six feet in diameter so spotting it should have been easy.

With 150,000 people on both sides of Niagara Falls gathered for the spectacle, Lussier and his team continually eluded the police until finally launching him into the river 3.2 kilometers (two miles) away from the brink.

As he closed in on the falls, the largest external stabilizer was ripped out by rocks on the river bottom. Regardless, his round contraption – with him inside – went over the falls at 3:35 pm. However, spectators feared the worst as it completely disappeared.

As it turned out, the ball had been pushed behind the falls and wasn’t at all visible. Eventually, the current grabbed it and he was soon in view. At 4:23 pm, the ball was recovered and Lussier emerged relatively unscathed, with only minor bruising from the impact.

He was fortunate as the ball was basically trashed – the equivalent of walking away from a head-on collision injury-free.

Naturally, Lussier moved to Niagara Falls, New York to capitalize on his fame, selling off bits of the ball at 50 cents a pop. However, demand was high and before long, he had sold it all. That didn’t deter him and he simply bought more rubber and passed it off as part of the original ball.

At the age of 61, Lussier wanted to duplicate the feat by going over the American Falls in an even more elaborate ball – thus becoming the first to do both falls – but the second plunge never materialized. He would later die of natural causes in 1971 at the age of 80 in Lewiston, NY.


Courtesy of the Niagara Falls Public Library in New York, a poster from one of his post-exploit
meet-and-greets. 

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