Who is Charles Blondin?

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The Charles Blondin Connection
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His Gravesite
 


Genealogy

I've compiled this genealogy from newspaper reports, census records, and extensive reading:

Andre Gravelet  b.1790, France  d.1833

& Eulalie  b. 1794, France  d. 1834

Jean Francois Gravelet (aka Charles Blondin)

b.28 Feb 1824, Saint-Omer, France

d.22 Feb 1897, London

& Charlotte  b.1838, New York  d.15 Dec 1888, London

Adele  b.1854, New York

Edward  b. 1855, Louisiana

Isis  b. 1860, Ohio

m. 2nd

& Katherine  d. 13 Jul 1901


1860 United States Census

In the County of Niagara in the State of New York 30 Jun 1860

Page 40, Line 32-39

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House Name Age Sex Profession Real Estate Personal Property Born
285 John Blondin 35 M Rope Walker 3500 700 France
Charlotte 22 F Actress NY
Aele 6 F NY
Edward 5 M Louisiana
Isis 10/12 F Ohio
Harry Colcord 25 M NY
Mary Rentz 20 F Servant Baden
Ellen Tweedy 12 F Servant Canada


Biography


Jean Francois (or Emile) Gravelet, aka Charles Blondin, was considered to be one of the greatest funambulists (aerialists/tightrope-walkers) of all time.  He was born  in St. Omer, France on Feb. 28, 1824.

Blondin saw his first rope-walker at age five when a traveling circus troupe pitched camp near his home.  He came home after the show and immediately strung up a makeshift rope in his back yard between two chairs and started to practice rope-walking.  Blondin's father was a gymnast himself and took the rope-walking interest seriously.  He sent Blondin to the Ecole de Gymanse in Lyons that same year.  After only six months training, Blondin made his debut as "The Little Wonder".  At age 9 Blondin was orphaned and he began performing professionally.

In 1851 Blondin was recruited by the agent of Mr. William Niblo to perform with the Ravel Troupe at Niblo's Garden.  It was while he was with this company that he devised the show-name of Charles Blondin -- the troupe had two brothers with the last name Javell, and it was thought there would be confusion at the similarity.  He chose "Blondin" for the color of his hair.  Blondin was with the troupe for several years.  On their American tour he found his way to Niagara Falls, and his greatest fame.

Blondin became obsessed with the idea of crossing the falls the first time he saw them in 1858.  A year after his initial visit, he returned to accomplish the feat.  The stunt was not without controversy.  Many people felt that a stunt like Blondin's would trivialize the falls, turning them into a backdrop for a circus act, and should not be allowed.  Blondin's original plan was to string his rope to Goat Island, but the owners supported the opposition and denied him permission.  Eventually, Blondin was allow ed to string his wire a mile further down-stream and on June 30, 1859, he was the first man ever to cross Niagara Falls by tightrope.  A large crowd of 100,000 people watched him walk on a single three-inch hemp cord, 1,100 feet long and 160 feet above the falls at one side and 270 feet at the other.  You can read the details of the crossing on page 3 in the copy of the July 4, 1859, Chicago Tribune article.

Blondin made many more trips across the gorge during the next year and became popularly known as "the Prince of Manila" (the rope he used was made of Manila.)  Each time, he thrilled larger crowds with more exciting acts.  He balanced a chair on the rope an d stood on it.  He took pictures of the crowd while he balanced on the rope.  He cooked a meal on a small portable cooker and lowered it to amazed passengers on the Maid of the Mist below.  He crossed blindfolded, in a sack, on stilts, and trundling a wheel barrow.   On August 17, 1859 he increased the risk by carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, across on his back.  When the Prince of Wales visited in September, 1860, Blondin carried his assistant, Romain Mouton, across and performed antics on the way.  The prince, like other spectators, was left breathless and asked Blondin never to do it again.  Imagine the Prince's reaction when Blondin offered to carry him across on his back or in a wheelbarrow!

During his first few years in America, Blondin started his family.  He met and married his wife, Charlotte, in New York somewhere around 1853.  By Niagara Falls he had three children, all born on tour -- Adele was born in New York, Edward in Louisiana, and Isis in Ohio.  During 1860 (the year he performed at the falls) he bought a house and settled his family in the town of Niagara.  Harry Colcord and two servants are listed with them on the 1860 census.  Another alias appears for him on this record -- John F. Blondin.  I'm guessing it's the American version of Jean Francois.

Blondin remained popular for the rest of his life.  He continued to thrill audiences for many years after Niagara and was showered with medals, gifts, and money.  The Blondin March was even composed in his honor.  His fee was said to be $500 a performance and in his last two seasons, he reportedly made over $400,000.  Blondin retired to South Ealing, England (a suburb of London) a rich man.  He settled his family in a house he named Niagara Villa  -- but he did not remain there long.  In 1861, at the request of the Prince of Wales, he appeared in London at the Crystal Palace, reenacting all his Niagara Falls stunts before a backdrop of the falls.  His young daughter Adele accompanied him on high-wire acts during this engagement and it caused great controversy.  In spite of this, he received many more requests to perform and at the age of 64 he reappeared in the United States for a series of exhibitions on Staten Island, N.Y.  His final performance was given in Belfast, Ireland, in 1896 at the age of 68.

The French daredevil lived to be 73 years old and died peacefully in his bed in Ealing on February 22, 1897 of diabetes.  He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London next to his first and second wives:  Charlotte (died 1888) and Katherine (died 1901).  

One theme that ran through all I've read about Charles Blondin was his personality.  Everyone who encountered Blondin found him to be a charismatic, confident, powerful man.  He was a showman at heart and everything he did was dramatic.  He seemed to have a very large ego, but received only admiration for this quality.  Blondin loved his work, and the people loved "The Great Blondin".


Sources:

Everybody's Heard of Blondin by Ken Wilson.  Available at Amazon.com United Kingdom

Encyclopedia Britanica (1996 Edition)

Encyclopedia Americana (1996 Edition)

Two Hundred Years of the American Circus by Tom Ogden

Niagara by Ralph Greenhill and Thomas D. Mahoney

The Guinness Book of World Records

All About Niagara Falls by Linda Granfield

A Picture Book of Niagara Falls by Pierre Berton

Niagara by Pierre Berton

Daredevils of Niagara by Andy O'Brien

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. XII (listed under Gravelet)

The New York Daily Tribune Obituary 23 Feb 1897 Pg. 9 Col. 4

The New York Daily Tribune 1 July 1859 Pg. 5 Col. 3

The New York Times Obituary 23 Feb 1897 Pg. 7 Col. 4

The Chicago Tribune Obituary 23 Feb 1897 Pg.7

The Chicago Tribune 4 Jul 1859 Pg. 1




Copyright 2001 Melissa K. Slouber
Last updated 18 Jun 2001

Always under construction!



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