The greatest daredevil Bristol ever produced was Charlie Stephens aka The Mad Barber of Bedminster. Here are some of the daring feats he became renowned for:
- Shaving himself with a cut-throat razor in a cage full of lions.
- Fathering ten children.
- Having sugar cubes knocked off his scalp from a distance of 250 yards by a crack-shot with a rifle….although this was because he was fed up with waiting to have them removed on the NHS.
- Holding the longevity record for having a ferret stuffed down his trousers: 21 days, 14 hours and 53 minutes set in 1919.
- Holding the record for the longest continuous high pitched scream: 21 days, 14 hours and 53 minutes set in 1919.
- Being fired by a canon in Redcliffe….although Stephens swore he was innocent and hadn’t dipped into the collection plate as he passed it around as part of his duties during Sunday morning service.
The feat Stephens is most associated with is his attempt to ‘shoot’ Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1920. For this venture he had a custom built barrel constructed by a Bath cooper with specially strengthened wooden staves it was thought would be capable of withstanding the battering it would receive in the choppy waters, and rocky terrain it was set to negotiate. This special strengthening process was achieved by adding an extra coat of varnish. The barrel’s interior incorporated state of the art technology – for 1920 – in navigational aids, those being a shelf on which to place an A-Z of the Niagara area and a peephole.
Before leaving for the Canadian border with the USA, Stephens put his barrel on display in Bristol. The consensus of opinion was that it would be better for him if he put it on a bonfire instead.
Upon his arrival in North America, Stephens set up a base camp in Buffalo and put his barrel on show there charging one cent for spectators to look inside. It was a great relief for the American press when a decent crowd assembled to view the strange contraption as it proved that Stephens did have some cents after all.
It was during one of these public viewings that the famed American stuntman Bobby Leach voiced his concerns about the barrel being too heavily weighted. Stephens was so irked by this that he added extra weight via a couple of full pots of paint. Leach dismissed this as a cynical attempt on the Bristol daredevil’s part to gain more female interest in his endeavour to ‘shoot’ Niagara Falls by aiming for the emulsional impact. Stephens simply brushed the jibe aside.
Charlie Stephens courted further publicity by setting up home in his barrel in the days leading up to the attempt. This elicited much sympathy from around the world as well as a letter from Bristol City Council informing him that he’d now been placed a band higher on their list of those in need of social housing.
The Mad Barber of Bedminster was aware of the money making opportunities his daring attempt upon the Falls presented. He obtained a healthy payment for exclusive film rights. This was because the fee was counted out inside his barrel which he’d made a no smoking zone.
The night before the attempt a barrel of ale in a Buffalo bar, where Stephens was drinking, fell from its shelf and smashed to pieces on the hard, uncarpeted floor. Then the bartender explained that they were out of whisky so he couldn’t fulfil an order of scotch on the rocks so the customer had to make do with Harveys Bristol Cream on the rocks instead. However, the weather forecast seemed promising so the omens looked good for the following morning.
In the night Stephens started expressing some doubts which caused him a sleepless night in his barrel. To allay his growing fears he hired the services of a clairvoyant who, with the assistance of a crystal ball, foretold that the Bristol daredevil would die as his barrel smashed to pieces on the rocks of Niagara. This was bad news for the clairvoyant because it was a home visit.
This didn’t deter Stephens as he reminded himself that he was an Englishman and made of sterner stuff…he just wished his barrel was too. On the morning of July 11th, 1920 he set off in his barrel. The ravenous cataract soon claimed his life. Leach had been correct as Stephens’ too heavily weighted barrel simply fell through the water and smashed into smithereens on the rocks below. All that was recovered of Stephens was a severed arm chained to a fragment of barrel. The arm was returned to Bristol and given a decent burial. Thankfully the hand contained more than two fingers otherwise it would’ve been an indecent burial.
As a result of this tragedy there was an emergency sitting of Parliament and a new law was passed which meant that any barrel designed to convey a human had to carry the following message on its side, ‘HM Government Warning: Shooting Niagara Falls In A Barrel Can Seriously Damage Your Health’. Fortunately, the occurrence of people dying in barrels has been a rare phenomenon since 1920, so Charles Stephens’ death was not in vain.