William Leonard Hunt
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William Leonard Hunt (June 10, 1838—January 17, 1929), also known by the stage name The Great Farini, was a well known nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canadian funambulist, entertainment promoter and inventor, as well as the first known white man to cross the Kalahari Desert on foot and survive.
Hunt, the second child of Thomas and Hannah Hunt, was born in Lockport, New York. His parents were strict disciplinarians, but their punishments had little effect on him; as he later recalled, he “took pleasure in disobeying their commands.” For example, he loved swimming and had an uncommon ability for it too. Of his frequent excursions, many of them would be to go swimming. His mother soon forbade him to and sewed up the collars and sleeves of his clothes so that he could not strip for swimming, but that did not stop him; he would just swim with his clothes on and run in the sun until he was dry or rip open his clothes and get some older girls to sew them up for him again. In 1843, Hunt's family moved to Hope Township in Canada, now part of Port Hope, Ontario, and then to Bowmanville, Ontario. While in Bowmanville, Hunt sneaked into a circus that came to town, and became infatuated with the idea of show business. He began developing his muscles and acrobatic talent in secret, and became surprisingly proficient. Soon, he had an idea. He decided to host his own circus, right in town! It was quite successful, complete with music and various circus entertainment, and he found himself with $6 in his hat, but it ended in a catastrophe. Just about it was going to end, a bunch of angry parents came storming in, including Willie's father. He claimed that young William had disgraced the whole family and started whipping him. But this just increased Willie's determination. On October 1, 1859, he undertook his first professional high wire performance above the Ganaraska River in Port Hope, calling himself Signor Farini. It was a resounding success, and was followed six days later by a show of strength in the town hall.
The Great Farini made his most famous tightrope performances at Niagara Falls during 1860, commencing on August 15. His feats included crossing a high wire with a man on his back or with a sack over his entire body, turning somersaults while on the rope, hanging from it by his feet, and other seemingly impossible manoeuvres. On one occasion, he performed for the Prince of Wales.
Farini then wandered the United States for some time before going to London in 1866. He quickly became a legend, and was one of the most celebrated acrobats in Europe. For some time he performed with a young child known as El Niño. He ended his acrobatic career in 1869, fearing that if he continued he would eventually be seriously injured.
However, he remained in show business, becoming a trainer and manager of acrobats, as well as an inventor. Circus historians credit him with the invention of an apparatus that eventually became known as the now famous "human cannonball". He arranged many of the entertainments at the Royal Aquarium in London. For the next few years he came up with many such acts, even partnering with the legendary P.T. Barnum for some time, before he left for Africa in 1885.
Farini purportedly overcame many obstacles when he traversed the Kalahari Desert on foot during his stay in Africa, allegedly becoming the first white man to survive the crossing. He also claimed to have found the famous Lost City of the Kalahari, but his claims have never been verified.
For the rest of his life, Farini continued to devise inventions. He died of influenza on January 17, 1929 in Port Hope, Ontario.
- Images from the collection of the Niagara Falls Public Library (Ont.)
- Time line for development of the "human cannonball" circus act
- Find A Grave entry