JULY 2012 UPDATE: I’m sad to report that Edward Harrigan Jr. has sadly lost his battle with emphysema as he passed away this past weekend. I feel very grateful that I had the opportunity to interview him for this story. May he rest in peace. ~Mackenzie
A member of my family was in the circus.
Seems like an interesting way to start a conversation. Although I guess it’s better than saying that my family was founded on The Jerry Springer Show. Typically when a person hears the word circus, they start thinking about bearded ladies, contortionists or just freaks in general. This might be mixed up with the carnival.
My great uncle Edward Harrigan Jr. (my grandmother’s brother) was once a member of the famous Flying Wallendas, the legendary high wire family. Since the 1940s, The Wallendas have been walking tightropes for The Ringling Brothers, The Shrine Circus and the Barnum & Bailey Circus. They are the most consistent and dominant high wire troupe in American history. As a kid, Ed’s dad used to take him to watch The Ringling Brothers’ circus when it came through Wheeling, WV (just across the river from Martins Ferry, OH, our hometown), and he’d take them to watch the train be unloaded. Ed was fascinated with all of the cats, the production and everything involved. Growing up, all he ever wanted to do was be a part of the circus.
One summer, between freshman and sophomore year, The Shrine Circus was in town and Ed went down to talk to them about possible employment and wound up hired as a laborer, making $75 a week. When he didn’t come home that evening, as 10pm rolled around, his dad went out looking for him. Driving Southbound on Zane Highway, he saw his son walking North, so he picked up along the side of the road. When they got home, Ed told his parents that he had a job in the circus. Naturally, his parents’ reaction was “We’ll go talk to them tomorrow.”
The next day they learned that the circus folks were very nice people and were assured that when school started back up, Ed would be out of there. Once there, Ed became intrigued with the large animals on the crew, and he asked if he could learn how to train them. The main animal trainer told Ed that when he graduated high school, if Ed brought him his diploma, he’d teach him how to train the tigers.
Two days after he graduated high school (in 1956), Ed brought his diploma back, and he was ready to go. That year, The Flying Wallendas were on the tour with the circus. Ed took a bus trip to Texas to meet with the whole crew. He was aware of the Wallendas, but had never seen them perform. “Once I did see them perform, I just knew I had to be one of them.”
One day his curiosity got to him: he waited for the Wallendas to leave the area after practice, he grabbed a balancing pole, and climbed up to the wire that hung 40 feet above the ground, without a net. He stepped out onto the wire and, as he says it, was absolutely scared to death. “Being that scared right then probably saved my life.” He was only about a foot or two out on the line, but he might as well have been halfway across. “You can’t see behind you. The platform was only about two steps behind me, and I knew that. So I very carefully and slowly took about three or four steps backwards just to be safe.”
After trying to make it all the way across the wire under secrecy for about three weeks, someone had tipped off Karl (Wallenda, the leader of the family) that Ed was going up on the wire once in a while. One day, in secrecy, Karl had been watching him try to make it across the wire, and when Ed got back to the platform, Karl yelled and said he was coming up. The first thing he told Ed was that he’d been using the wrong balancing pole and that he needed a heavier one (which helps provide balance). Next he told Ed that he was going to follow him out onto the wire, put his hands on Ed’s shoulders, and talk him through it. “He told me to look all the way across the wire and to not look down at my feet. Look at where the wire crosses the platform on the other side, and zero in on that point. So I did that. That almost acts like a magnet to you; it just draws you towards it. I couldn’t believe it.”
The wire does not go between any toes. Your feet are at a slight angle so they cover the whole wire. They are not straight. Your heel is rounded, so if you stood straight on the wire, your heel would be unbalanced, whereas when angled, more of your foot can rest on the wire.
So Karl had Ed just go across without stopping as he talked him through it. “Oh man, that felt good! You talk about an adrenalin rush!” He told Ed that if he really wanted to learn how to walk the wire, they would be taking a break for a few weeks soon in Oklahoma, and they could teach him how to properly walk there. There they would set him up with a practice wire that was ten feet high. Ed was seventeen at the time. For these few weeks, Ed was put through some pretty vigorous training. “I would do about 20 round trips back and forth across that wire. Non-stop. Then I’d take a break and do about ten more trips, and stop for the day.” Next, Ed graduated to the task of carrying Karl’s 185-pound son Mario on his shoulders while walking the wire. “You have to keep your hips stiff, or they’ll break to one side or the other. Hips stiff, and keep the pole pulled into your gut. Don’t rock the pole back and forth (which is usually a show trick).” Over time he built up the skill to carry a person on his shoulders.
The three man pyramid was the next step, where you have a person in front, one in back, a shoulder bar in between, and then a person on the top. Once you get to the middle of the wire, you have to pause. Gunther Wallenda would often be the guy on top and he would do tricks like a head stand, or come forward then roll backwards. “You really knew it when he did that because you could feel the weight and it would really shake you.” Ed was moving into his role of being the lead person in the front. By about four months, Ed was good enough to lead the seven man pyramid. “Oh, it’s a lot of weight! You wouldn’t believe that weight on your shoulders! You have to walk really slowly and when you hit the pause point in the middle, we all would spread our feet a little more to get a better stance. That trick probably lasts about seven to ten minutes.”
The biggest moment of Ed’s time with The Wallendas was his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They had set up their wire out behind the studio for the performance. “I’ll never forget. Across the street was this bar and one afternoon (they practiced there for several days) the bar let out and there was chaos going on. A man and a woman got into a fight. She slapped him and he knocked her out. The crowd cheered like mad and then the lady got back up and hit him again. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I guess that’s just New York.” He claims that he never felt intimidated by being on the show. Sullivan wasn’t even there when they performed, as he was on vacation, so Ed never got to meet him.
Harrigan claims that the stereotype of the circus being filled with odd-balls and freaks is not exactly true. Alcoholics, drug addicts and general goofballs would show up from time to time, but they wouldn’t last two days. “You just can’t have them around because they’ll get somebody killed. Most circus people are like regular people walking down the street. The only difference is that they walk high wires and get shot out of cannons instead of selling insurance or working in a steel mill.”
All things come to an end, and so Ed eventually had to leave the circus, but he didn’t leave how he would have liked to. He had been seeing a woman for a while and when that relationship eventually wore off, Ed says he “just went to hell. I can’t tell you how bad it was.” (You could hear his voice tremble just speaking those words). He started getting shaky on the wire. One night in Mexico City he came apart on the wire. While doing a seven man pyramid, everyone on the wire could feel Ed shaking. When he eventually got down, he turned to whiskey to calm his nerves. While the alcohol did calm him down, it was the start of something terrible. The problem was that now his confidence and especially his adrenalin rush to perform were gone (his voice really got weak as he said this). “I didn’t know why. I still don’t know.”
Karl still had faith in Ed and encouraged him to build himself a ten foot high wire and to practice on that. But with his drinking, Ed finally got to a point to where he knew that he was going to cause somebody to fall. Heartbroken, he had to walk away from the circus. (He must have repeated that he loved the circus nine times).
You could hear the pain and sadness in Harrigan’s voice when he talked about the tragic fall on January 30th, 1962 in Detroit where several members of the high wire act were either injured or killed. Ed was not working with them at the time. The person who took his place had let go of his balancing pole after walking poorly, and eventually fell to his death. Once that happened, it was like a chain reaction. Mario fell and landed in a sitting position, putting him in a wheel chair for life. Dick (Richard) Faughnan died. Karl fell onto the wire and happened to reach out and catch the girl who was at the top of the pyramid. (The weight from holding them both did give him a double hernia, though.) Ed found out about the fall from a newspaper the next day. He immediately called there and got in touch with Gunther Wallenda, offering to come and help. He told Ed not to come in as they had former members there to make the show go on, though they would not do the seven man pyramid again for a while. He also said it was a very sad scene and that Ed would not want to experience it.
He had moved back to Martins Ferry, and though he got married, his drinking still increased. Not long after, they moved to southern California, mostly for employment opportunities in the real world.
Speeding through the years, Ed eventually found recovery, got cleaned up from the substance abuse issues and lived a decent life. He has now been sober for over 41 years. Today Ed is 73 years old, residing in Glendora, CA. His health is not in good condition though as he is suffering from emphysema, due to many years of smoking cigarettes. He has to use an oxygen machine all day.
Often during the phone interviews, he would take drags from the machine, and it sounded like Darth Vader breathing. Ed is extremely regretful for the condition he let himself get into with the smoking and he’s sure it will be the cause of his fate. This could be many years from now, or possibly even soon. His body might not be in the condition that it once was, but his mind and memories are still there.
Ed Harrigan was once a member of the famous Wallenda family and I felt like his story needed to be told. Though most in Martins Ferry probably don’t know him by name today, he is an unsung hero to that little town along the Ohio river. I’m proud to call him family.