10 Incredible Daredevils in History

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This summer, Austrian Felix Baumgartner will attempt the skydive to end all skydives. From the edge of space, 120,000 feet high, the 42-year-old will leap into free-fall, breaking the speed of sound before hopefully parachuting to safety. Baumgartner and other current thrill-seekers on this list are redefining what it means to be a daredevil. And unlike the daring figures famed for a singular death-defying stunt, such as pitching over Niagara Falls in a barrel, most of these individuals have devoted their lives to consistently pushing the limits of what’s mortally possible.


10. Ethel Dare

Ethel Dare died in a parachuting exhibition.

Ethel Dare earned the nickname the Flying Witch for her aerial prowess.

Dare (born Margie Hobbs) started as a trapeze artist, and while in her teens became the first woman to transfer from the wing of one plane to another in midair. Her wing-walking prowess earned her the nickname “The Flying Witch.” One of her trademarks was the “iron jaw spin,” in which she was suspended in midair by a special harness placed between her teeth. Dare’s career was cut short when the U.S. banned wing walking below 1,500 feet following numerous fatalities. She later died parachuting in an exhibition.


9. John Holtum

John Holtum lost three fingers perfecting the art of catching a cannonball.

John Holtum’s cannonball-catching exploits thrilled audiences.

Holtum toiled at backbreaking jobs in his native Denmark and California to create the physique that eventually earned him the name “The Human Target.” After practicing as a professional strongman in the mid-1800s, Holtum somehow got the idea to catch a cannonball — yes, the way that you might catch a basketball. Two years, and three lost fingers later, Holtum had perfected his strange craft. Using only gloves, a pad fastened to his chest and cat-like reflexes, Holtum would quickly drop the cannonball to the ground to avoid burns. Eventually, Holtum opted for a less dangerous lifestyle and died peacefully in his 70s.


8. The Flying Wallendas

Now in their sixth and seventh generations, the Wallendas owe their intricate feats of balance and strength on the high wire to their ancestors in late 18th century Austria-Hungary who started the tradition of family circus performing. Led by Karl Wallenda, the family began performing increasingly more dangerous high-wire stunts in the 20th century, including a seven-person pyramid. The Wallendas performed “The Seven” for 15 years without the use of a net until tragedy struck in 1962 when the pyramid collapsed, sending two of the men on the lower wire 35 feet to their death, and paralyzing Karl’s son from the waist down. To prove that the “show must go on,” the Wallendas performed the next night. Karl himself continued to perform headstands on a high wire suspended 700 feet in the air into his 70s. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren have continued to perform not only The Seven, but secured the Guinness record in 2001 by assembling an eight-person pyramid, followed by the first (and only) 10-person pyramid.


7. Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini's stunts seemed otherworldly to many observers.

Harry Houdini, 1899.

Before Houdini became the “Great Houdini,” he was Ehrich Weisz, a Hungarian immigrant who came to the U.S. in the 1870s. He adopted the stage name Harry Houdini and by age 20 was performing throughout New York. Houdini gained worldwide fame for his escape acts. One of his most daring acts was the “Chinese water torture trick,” in which he was suspended in restraints into a cabinet filled with water. Contrary to popular belief (helped along by Hollywood cinema), Houdini didn’t die while trying to escape this water-filled chamber; his death is actually far stranger. After a show in 1926, a college student who had heard Houdini could withstand all blows to the stomach tested the theory for himself and began pummeling his idol. Houdini refused to seek medical help and eventually died from a ruptured appendix and peritonitis.


6. Felix Baumgartner

The Austrian has been pushing the boundaries of BASE jumping for years, with leaps from the tallest bridge in the world (the Millau Viaduct in France) and the tallest building (Taipei 101 in Taiwan) among his many stunts. But in early 2012, he performed an otherworldly feat in Roswell, N.M. — parachuting to Earth from 71,581 feet. This was just a test for the “real deal.” Baumgartner hopes to complete the highest sky dive on record in the summer of 2012, freefalling faster than the speed of sound from a height of 120,000 feet, nearly 23 miles. That is literally the edge of space. If successful, this would shatter the record set by decorated military pilot Joseph Kittinger, who in 1960 jumped from 102,800 feet — some three miles shy of Baumgartner’s goal. Like Kittinger, Baumgartner’s adrenalin-fueled bid to break the record also has a scientific purpose in mind — to advance aeronautical research.


5. Evel Knievel

It’s been almost four decades since the late Evel Knievel peaked in popularity, yet some of the latter-day daredevils on this list are still being compared to the motorcycle legend (i.e. “The Evel Knievel of BASE Jumping”). Born Robert Craig Knievel, the future icon always had a wild streak. During a stint behind bars in his youth for stealing, he earned the name “Evil” from a jailer, (he later changed the spelling, in part, because it “looked better”). Knievel went on to co-own a bike shop, and early stunts such as jumping over boxes of rattlesnakes laid the foundation for the big ones — such as his highly publicized attempt to fly over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974, or his clearing 14 buses at Kings Island theme park in Ohio a year later. His televised stunts represent four of the 20 most-watched episodes in the history of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Knievel paid a terrible physical toll for his stunts; prior to his death in 2007, he talked about the 15 major operations and his shattered ribs, skull, pelvis, shoulders and hips, saying that even his metal parts (pins holding together the “real” body parts) were broken in falls. Knievel’s name lives on not just in legend, but also through his son, Robbie, who at the age of 49 continues to perform the types of stunts he learned from his dad.


4. Jeb Corliss

This New Mexico-born BASE (for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumper is about as close as humans will ever get to flying of their own devices. Donning a suit with bat-like wings, Corliss jumps off mountains, out of helicopters, and off skyscrapers, flying through the air before parachuting to safely. In 14 years, the 36-year-old has made more than 1,000 jumps, including from the world’s tallest twin towers, Petronas in Malaysia. Because Corliss isn’t content to simply leap from the tallest landmarks or natural wonders (not challenging enough!) he also performs acrobatic maneuvers in midair, veering near the sides of mountains and ridges most of us would want to stay as far away from as possible while in free-fall. Things don’t always go as planned — Corliss was seriously injured early in 2012 when he crashed on Table Mountain in South Africa, breaking both ankles and his tibula and suffering other gruesome injuries. (If you’re not faint of heart, Corliss has posted photos of his injuries on his website, jebcorliss.net.) After noting on his blog that he can walk without crutches, in true daredevil fashion, Corliss vows, “Very, very soon I will be in the air again.”


3. Mercury 7 Astronauts

The goal of the Mercury space program was simple, to see if man could survive spaceflight.

The original Mercury 7 astronauts; NASA

Though many of today’s daredevils get some serious air, it’s hard to beat the original U.S. astronauts, plucked from obscurity to become national heroes at the dawn of the space age. The application process itself was daunting enough: After extensive tests that included subjecting “finalists” to hours on a treadmill or tilt table, the original 500 applicants were whittled down to seven men considered to be the finest human physical specimens with genius-level IQs: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom (later killed during a pre-launch test), John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton. Spaceflight today may seem routine, with private companies offering spots on space flights to civilians, but at the time, the Mercury program’s goal was simple: to see if man could survive spaceflight.


2. Alain Robert

The Frenchman has scaled more than 100 of the world’s tallest buildings, including Dubai’s 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa, and many notable landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House. No wonder Robert’s known as the French Spider-Man, scrambling like the superhero with seeming ease hundreds of feet up over slippery glass and steel or protruding rocks. He’s also a climbing purist, usually navigating challenging terrain with only his bare hands and climbing shoes. Did we mention that falls many years ago left him with permanent vertigo? He’s been arrested many times for his stunts, but he’s parlayed his celebrity status into paid climbing performances that draw thousands of spectators. Robert was seemingly made to climb. As the story goes, as a tween, he came home one day to find himself locked out of the family apartment. He scaled the eight floors up to his home and climbed in.


1. Alex Honnold

In the world of “big wall free solo climbing” (it is what it sounds like — ascending mega-rock faces without the aid of ropes, harnesses and safety devices), the 26-year-old Honnold has, fittingly, been dubbed a “rock star.” He makes climbing thousands of feet up a vertical rock formation look easy. And the numbers indicate, to him at least, it is easy; Honnold once ascended the northwest face of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, some 2,500 feet high, in two hours, 50 minutes, one of many climbing records he currently holds. Honnold’s achievements in Yosemite alone would be enough to put him atop this list. At the age of 22, he made two legendary Yosemite climbs, Astroman and The Rostrum, in one day. Climbs have taken the Sacramento native around the world, from the 2,500-foot cliffs of Borneo to never-before-climbed faces in Central Africa’s Ennedi Desert. You may have seen him recently and not even realized it — Honnold and female rock climber Katie Brown appeared in a 2012 Citibank Thank You Card commercial, climbing a rock formation in Utah.

So you’d think that Honnold is absolutely fearless, but even this daredevil has his limits. He always does traditional rope climbs to scout out his planned routes, as opposed to some free soloists who let it rip and “onsight solo” their first visit. As Honnold told PlanetMountain.com in 2009, “I have a ton of respect for people who onsight solo at a high level, and I might push myself in that way in the future. But honestly, I don’t really want to kill myself. It’d suck to fall …”

Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.