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When ‘The Human Fly’ thrilled a downtown crowd

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Phil Egan

The crowd lined Front Street from Lochiel Street south and reached its zenith in front of the Belchamber Hotel, at 178 Front St. N.

All were eager to see “Daredevil Jack – the “Human Fly” – cheat death on this Saturday night in July, 1922.

Jack Reynolds was 31 years old and he’d been doing this type of stunt for a long time. An acrobat and juggler, the Philadelphia daredevil was known by many names – Daredevil Johnny, the Climbing Wonder, and The Lizard, to name a few.

The son of a steeplejack, Reynolds began performing at the age six in Buffalo, balancing on one foot from a flagpole 140 feet in the air. His first major stunt came at age 12 when he climbed up the side of the Old South Building in Boston in a hair-raising act, balancing atop four chairs and five tables on a plank projected over the side of the building.

He gave similar performances in New York on its iconic Flatiron building, and at home in Philadelphia. Returning to that city in 1916 after a cross-country tour, he scaled the city hall tower from the base of the dome, and stood in the palm of the outstretched hand of William Penn, appearing to the 5,000 people in the street as a tiny object in Penn’s hand.

Jack Reynolds was one of those death-defying risk-takers who appeared to be fearless. In 1916, he sat on a chair tilted back and balanced on a broomstick suspended between two planks extended over a 27-storey building.

He fell only twice, both times saving himself by leaping to the building from a chair or table as it collapsed.

And so when he arrived in Sarnia, Reynolds had been performing stunts for more than two decades. The Belchamber and its four and a half-storeys must have seemed like child’s play.

“I only get inspired above thirty storeys,” he was known to have said.

The Sarnia crowd applauded wildly as Reynolds scaled the hotel, then used three tables and two chairs to balance on the edge of the roof.

He was reported to have had some difficulty navigating his way around the cornices that overhung the windows on the building’s front. Those cornices are gone today, having been removed in Sarnia’s 1953 tornado.

Daredevil Jack wowed Sarnia but he never did achieve his life’s goal. He always wanted to scale the Washington Monument in the U.S. capital, balance from the apex on one foot and wave the American flag.


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