William Leonard Hunt went by the stage name of the Great Farini was well known in the 19th and 20th century was a Canadian Funambulist, what is a Funambulist you ask, it is another word for tightrope walking along a thin wire or rope commonly associated with the circus, entertainment promoter and inventor, and was well known as well as Guillermo Antonio Farini and Signor Farini. Hunt was born June 10, 1838 in Lockport New York to parents Thomas and Hannah Hunt and moved to Port Hope and the former Hope Township area on a farm west of Canton where he spent his youth. Hunt later in life admitted his parents were strict disiplinarians, but he “took great pleasure in disobeying their commands.” It was while here he discovered a circus was coming to a nearby town, he knew he had to see it. This started his career to become one of the greatest figures in Canadian show business. Learning to walk a tightrope, he developed muscles and practised carrying heavy objects on his back, he was now on his way to become an excellent tightrope walker and entertainer.
More than a showman, Hunt was the genius behind many inventions from folding theatre seats to the modern parachute. In later years as an inventor he rigged a cannon capable of firing a person high into the air and went on to work for the famous showman P.T. Barnham. As an explorer his journeys in Southern Africa brought about the myth of the Lost City of Kalahari, he spoke seven languages, wrote several books, was an expert botanist and was even an accomplished artist whose paintings were shown among those of contemporary Canadian masters. It is even said that he worked as a spy in the American Civil War early in his life. He was also the first white man to cross the Kalahari Desert on foot and survive.
During the summer of 1859, Hunt was offered $100 to perform at the Agricultural Fair in Port Hope Ontario. Hunt demanded $500 on the condition that he would stand on his head, while on the rope, above the Ganaraska River. This was Farini’s big debut, he was to walk on a rope strung between two buildings about eighty feet across the river. He walked back and forth across the river without a balancing pole, he stood on his head, did somersaults and walked blind folded as he had promised. At the age of 21 after the great Port Hope show, Hunt’s father on returning from an extended stay in England disowned him for the embarrassing tightrope walk. William Hunt left home and changed his name to Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini and quickly became known simply as “The Great Farini”. In another great feat, Farini challenged his legendary rival the Frenchman Blondin to a high wire act competition 180 feet above the Niagara Gorge near the falls.
One of Niagara Falls most famous daredevils was Jean Francis Gravelot, The Great Blondin.”. He was born February 28th 1824 in St. Omer, Pas de Calais in Northern France. Blondin first came to Niagara and immediately became obsessed with crossing the Niagara River on a tightrope which he accomplished on June 30th 1859. During the summer, he completed eight additional crossings. Blondin’s most difficult crossings occurred on August 14 when he carried his manager Harry Colcord on his back. For this crossing, Blondin used a 335 metre long with an 8 centimeter manila rope. The rope stretched from the current site of Prospect Park in Niagara Falls New York to the current site of Oakes Garden in Niagara Falls Ontario. He began on the American side and completed the crossing in 20 minutes using a 40 pound, 9 metre long balancing pole.
During the summer of 1860, Blondin returned to Niagara Falls for a second successful year of rope walking across the river for several thousand sightseers. One of his acts included pushing a wheelbarrow as he crossed. On September 8th 1860, Blondin completed his final tight rope crossing of the Niagara River, many followed Blondin’s acts but few were more daring or famous.
Farini’s first performance at Niagara Falls occurred on August 15th 1860 and began by walking the tight rope while carrying a balancing pole and an additional coil of rope strapped to his back. On reaching the mid-point, Farini tied the pole to the tight rope and actually lowered himself to the deck of the Maid of the Mist, over 61 metres below, here he drank a glass of wine before climbing back to the tight rope above. The task of climbing was very demanding and he nearly fell several times. After making it to the other side and a short rest, Farini made the crossing blindfolded and wearing baskets on his feet!
Farini went to on to match or surpass each of Blondin’s acts. This he did by balancing on his head, hanging from the tightrope by only his toes and by carrying a person on his back. When Blondini took a real stove on the tightrope and cooked an omelette, Farini carried a washtub to the rope, lowered a bucket to the river below and obtained water to wash handkerchiefs! In 1864, Farini returned to the Falls for his last death defying feat, planning to walk to the brink of the Falls on specially made stilts. One of the stilts caught in a crevice in the riverbed causing it to break. Farini made it safely to Robinson Island where he was rescued. After this disaster Farini left Niagara Fall’s forever a deflated man.
In 1866 Farini toured the United States and went on to London England where he soon became a legend as the most celebrated acrobat in Europe and even performed for the Prince of Wales. By 1869 Farini now in his thirties and concerned about his health he ended his acrobatic career to become a manager and trainer for other performers. In his later years, Hunt lived in Port Hope at 36 North Street and his final residence was at 77 Dorset Street. William Hunt, “The Great Farini” died in1929 of old age and was buried in Union Cemetery. He still has descendants in the Port Hope area.