Few people have heard of Harry Rich today, but for a brief stretch of the early part of the 20th century he was a major attraction in the upper midwest, even claiming the title of "Demon of the Air."
According to some sources, Rich was a magician, but his enduring claim to fame came as one of those young barnstorming daredevils of his era. The Davenport (Iowa) Democrat and Leader newspaper described Rich's stunt of performing dangerous trapeze tricks from the top of a high bank at a homecoming performance as "foolish ... because anything of that kind, which is done merely to make folks shudder, we deem foolish."
Born in Imperial, Nebraska, on January 24, 1888, Rich likely fell into the orbit of a pair of legendary Nebraska entertainment moguls, brothers Walter and Arthur Savidge. In 1906, the Savidges started what would become the Walter Savidge Amusement Company, a traveling sideshow that had as many as 125 employees and traveled in its own train, mostly between New York and Nebraska, setting up shop with its tents, freak shows, dramatic productions and daredevils wherever there was a chance to make a buck.
The brothers had a falling out just before World War I and Arthur created his own troupe under the pseudonym of Elwin Strong. When Rich registered for the World War I draft, he listed his occupation as an aerial performer for the Elwin Strong Company. By that time, Rich had been married - to another performer, Lillian Hawkins - and had fathered a child. The marriage reportedly took place on stage between performances at one of the troupe's stops.
Rich apparently built his career around balloonist skills, trapeze prowess, raw nerve and extraordinarily strong teeth.
As a balloonist, Rich would soar to heights unimaginable in those days before giving the nervous crowd a brief scare by tumbling from the gondola, only to arrive safely back on earth via parachute. On one such occasion, however, a gust of wind caught Rich shortly before touch down and dragged him through the trees of an apple orchard, where the trees' branches shredded most of his clothing, inflicted numerous lacerations from head to toe and fractured both of his ankles.
As a trapeze artist, Rich rigged his equipment high above the ground, usually atop a building. When no building was available, he erected a tower that stood nearly 100 feet tall. From his lofty perch, Rich would swing out over the huge crowd that inevitably gathered on the street below, performing various feats, all without benefit of nets or any safety devices of any kind. The climax came when Rich pretended to lose his grip, catching the bar with his feet while his head dangled toward the alarmed crowd.
Not satisfied with the trapeze act alone, Rich brought his teeth to center stage, firing a 200-pound cannon while it was suspended from his mouth or pulling as many as three automobiles by his teeth alone.
But none of that compared to his signature act, his "Slide for Life." While it is hard to know when Rich perfected "the slide," it was the dramatic finale to his appearances after 1919.
In the "Slide for Life," a tightwire was strung from the top of a building to the ground. Early accounts had Rich riding the wire to the ground while resting on the small of his back, but later reports described a trick far more dangerous. One description claims that Rich fastened a special contraption to his head, went into a headstand on the tightwire atop the building and slid the length of the wire to the ground while inverted. Another (and probably more likely) description has Rich making the descent while dangling from the wire while attached through a specially designed mouthpiece.
On July 1, 1925, Rich prepared for an appearance at State Fair Park near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rich, who had recently arrived from an appearance in Houston, Texas, spent part of the day doing a splice repair on his tightwire. That evening, he began his "Slide for Life" from the top of the fairgrounds' horse pavilion.
As he neared the end of the descent, the wire snapped and Rich tumbled some 30 feet to the ground, landing on his left side. He broke his left arm and left leg and suffered a fractured skull. He died in a Milwaukee hospital four hours later. He was 36 years old.
A ring once owned and worn by Rich showed up on the PBS program, Antiques Roadshow, 85 years after his death. Here's a video of that segment:
Harry Rich, magician/aerial performer
Born: January 24, 1888
Died: July 1, 1925, age 36