This is a maelstrom.
Indeed the very definition of such, as it’s the whirlpool at the base of Niagara Falls. It’s where Captain Matthew Webb tragically died on this day, July 24th, 1883. It was taken by a photographer zxo and it grabbed my attention immediately I saw it and they gave me permission to use it here.
After his historic, (in a real sense), first ever successful solo of the English Channel on August 24th, 1875, Captain Webb was unable to parlay his global fame into anything more substantial, despite investments of his prize and an overseas lecture tour.
He’d become known as a swimmer, so he swam more.
Exhibition races in Boston and Manhattan, a “world championship race” against his arch-rival to be first across the Channel, Irish-American US Champion Paul Boynton. Boynton had worn and championed the use of an inflatable rubber suit, and had he been first across, marathon swimming would likely be quite different today. (Boynton did an exhibition swim in Dublin down the Liffey river wearing the suit which was watched by 30,000 people). Webb won the championship race also, but a stunt at the Boston Horticultural Show where he floated for 128 hour in a tank didn’t suffice to provide for his young wife and two young children.
His family knew nothing about the Niagara swim. In desperation Webb took up the challenge on a promise of $12,000, a considerable sum in those days. Thousands of spectators were brought by train to watch.
Wearing the same swimming costume as that in which he had swum the Channel, he stepped into the huge current. He started strongly but very quickly the current took him. He threw his arms in the air and was pulled under, where he hit his head on the rocks and died, his body being recovered four days later. Prior to the swim he had expressed his hope that “If I die they will do something for my wife“.
A friend of his, Robert Watson, the journalist who had accompanied him in the boat on his Channel swim, also traveled with him to Niagara. Watson reported: “As we stood face to face I compared the fine handsome sailor I had first met with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who now courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide but money and imperishable fame“.
Any English Channel swimmer cannot but think of Captain Webb, both his feats and his tragedy. We celebrate most commonly the date of his Channel crossing.
But he was a man, more than just a swimmer. It is often said by Channel swimmers that the English Channel changes us. It is rarely mentioned that those changes are not always positive. We cannot but think that out of such achievement came such sadness. And yet also motivation for so many. But we can at least say he achieved his second goal of imperishable fame.
It is not known whether anyone did anything for his wife or if his fame or achievement sustained them in any way. Captain Webb has no living descendants.