Daredevil Tragedy Strikes!

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A Brief History

On March 22, 1978, Karl Wallenda of the famous “Flying Wallendas” family of risk takers and circus performers, tragically died during a daring high wire stunt, falling to his death from a high wire strung between 2 hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Digging Deeper

Born into a circus family in Germany in 1905, Karl founded the troupe that became “The Great Wallendas,” a name that was changed in the 1940’s when the popular press kept referring to the family by the “Flying Wallendas” tag.  The original crew included Karl, his future wife, his brother Herman, and a performer named Joseph Geiger starting in 1922.  Catching the eye of John Ringling, circus empresario, the troupe was brought to Madison Square Garden in 1928, marking their debut in the “big time.”  Fate had something to do with the evolution of the Wallendas, as their MSG act was sans net, not by design, but because the net was misplaced in travel.  Working without a net was thrilling to the crowd and became a trademark of the Wallendas.

A notable tragedy associated with the Wallendas was a circus fire in 1944, in which at least 168 people died, though the Wallenda family was unhurt.  The highly dangerous stunts performed by the Wallendas and their co-performers resulted in various tragedies to the performers themselves, including deaths, injuries and paralysis.  The cloud of danger would not deter Karl, even at the age of 73 when he performed in San Juan, 121 feet above the pavement!

Unfortunately, high winds complicated the high wire act, and Karl Wallenda fell to the pavement below, causing his instant death. While not broadcast on television, the tragic accident was videotaped by a local television station.  Despite the loss of their founder, the family continued to perform feats of daring and skill, and in 2011, Nik Wallenda, the great-grandson of Karl, successfully performed the stunt in San Juan between the 2 hotels, and this time accompanied by his mother!

Nik Wallenda has become the face of the Wallendas, having beaten Karl’s previous world record by walking 1800 feet on a high wire above a volcano in Nicaragua.  Nik has other notable feats, including being the first person to walk a high wire over Niagara Falls, riding a bicycle for 260 feet while 135 feet above the ground, and other incredible stunts, resulting in recognition by the Guinness Book of World Records with 11 such records for high wire stunts.

While individuals such as Evel Knievel and his son, Robbie, have achieved fame as individual acts, the Wallenda family is probably the premier family known for such death defying and daring deeds.  Have you ever seen them?

Question for students (and subscribers): What is the most impressive daredevil stunt you have ever seen?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Morris, Ron. Wallenda: A Biography of Karl Wallenda.  Sagarin Press, 1976.

Wallenda, Nik. Balance: A Story of Faith, Family, and Life on the Line.  FaithWords, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by FloNight (Sydney Poore) and Russell Poore of a site marker at the remains of metal tower that daredevil Karl Wallenda used to tightrope walk across Tallulah Gorge in 1970, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.