THE WALL OF DEATH DAREDEVILS | LIONS & RIDERS & FAIRS — OH MY!

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Circa 1929, Wall of Death, Revere Beach, MA

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With the quickly improving build quality, speed, and more oil-tight engines, motorcycle racing was able to move from dirt tracks onto the motordromes of the 1910s– large wooden board tracks used for streamlined competition with banked turns of 70-80 degrees.  Riders soon learned a neat trick– that with a little speed, centripetal force made it possible for them to stick their bike sideways in turns on a completely vertical wall.

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Motordrome racer on an Excelsior motorcycle, circa 1914

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Motorcycle companies here and abroad (Indian and BSA, to name a couple) found that the public loved the thrill of peering down just a few feet away from the gunning biker beneath them, and thus it quickly became a highly promoted spectacle as manufacturers used it as a vehicle to advertise their brands, and daredevil riders upped the ante at breakneck speed to make a name for themselves and  solidify their reputations on the infamous Wall of Death.

With roots that can be traced back to New York’s own Coney Island, the Wall of Death attraction morphed into a motordrome on crack.  Motorcycles, carts and yep, even lions– simultaneously racing and criss-crossing in a raucous blur of fumes, fury, and fur inside the equivalent of an over-sized wooden barrel. The sport had a strong run from the 1930s- 1960s (with Indian Scouts being the over-riding bike of choice), but there are still hardcore enthusiasts to be found all over keeping it alive today.

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Dick Monte with two handsome-as-hell Wall of Death riders, circa 1945. The rider on the left is Elias Harris, and  on the right is Tornado Smith.  Photo from the late Carrie Tindale collection.

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Wall of Death motorcycle rider, circa 1930s

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“Wall of Death” AKA “Auto Drome of Death” motorcycle and cart riding crew, Stratford upon Avon

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Unidentified lion and female Wall of Death driver from back in the day

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“Fearless” Egbert of Collins Famous Death Riders & Racing Lion.

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Mr. “Fearless” Egbert taking his five year-old lion for a ride on the Wall of Death at Mitcham fair.

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Tornado Smith, the Wall of Death rider from Southend, and his wife having tea with their pet lion and lamb.  George “Tornado” Smith brought the Wall of Death from America to England in 1929, and featured such spectacles as”Briton the Wall-riding lion” and “Gymkhana Girls and Girl Protégées” in his billing.  Check out the skull-and-crossbones badge on his beret, he’s nowhere near as mild-mannered as he looks.  –Derek Berwin/Hulton Archive

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Tornado Smith posts a letter while riding penny farthing bicycle. He is wearing a learner plate and his bike is advertising his Wall of Death act. –Derek Berwin/Hulton Archive

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(Left) Circa 1935, Earls Court, London — Tornado Smith, who entertains the crowds at Olympia with his Wall of Death ride, is seen riding a penny-farthing on the Earls Court Road. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection

(Right) Circa 1936, Southend-on-Sea, England — Mr. “Tornado” Smith, a stunt motorcyclist, clips the toenails of his pet lion, at home. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection

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Circa 1949, UK — Sixteen year old Maureen Swift riding with ‘Tornado’ Smith around ‘The Wall of Death’ attraction in the Southend Kursaal to promote BSA motorcycles. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection

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Circa 1949, UK — Tornado Smith helps Maureen Swift ride a motorcycle around the “Wall of Death” to promote BSA motorcycles. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection

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Left- Female Wall of Death motorcycle rider Cookie Ayers-Crum on her Indian Scout, Right- Maureen Swift, circa 1949.

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Circa 1932, Wall of Death stylin’ Scarboro riders.

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Wall of Death– Proudly brought to you by the Indian Scout.

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Wall of Death motorcycle rider performing with arms crossed.

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The James E. Strates Show Cavalcade of Thrills– Wall of Death.

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Racing Car on the Wall crew– Now featuring Speedy Rube Knight & Daredevil Alma.

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Wall of Death Thrill Show with Fearless Lady Riders.

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21 thoughts on “THE WALL OF DEATH DAREDEVILS | LIONS & RIDERS & FAIRS — OH MY!

  1. There is an outstanding Wall of Death carnival sequence in an otherwise perfectly scandalous movie called “The Lickerish Quartet”.

  2. That first pic of the lion in the sidecar has been a favorite for a long, long time. Thanks for posting this entire series. I remember seeing the Wall of Death riders in Illinois in the ’50s, and the images (and sounds) definitely stay with you – open-pipe Harleys in an enclosed space.

    This is all great stuff, but for some reason the look on that lion’s face cracks me up. The pic lacks only the perfect caption to be a Gary Larsen cartoon.

  3. There are a few brilliant videos on youtube of a homemade wall of death. Just search ‘Colin Furze’.

  4. Saw my first Wall of Death a few years ago at Vintage Motorcycle Days at Mid Ohio. Pretty impressive. Never knew they took lions on rides though…that I’d love to see!

  5. on a daily basis you knock me out with the amount of effort,
    work and love you apply to the things you care about and that interest you…

    thanks, i really look forward to your missive every day!

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  7. My Great Uncle “Bones” used to ride the Wall of Death at Coney Island on his Indian Scout. I wish I had photos of him and his motorcycle to share with you JP. When I would go watch as a kid, my Great Uncle had long since retired his two-wheels, but it certainly got me interested in riding. I was fascinated by the riders. Still am.

  8. Great pictures! My neighbor across the street is a WWII veteran (survived both Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge) and after the war he rode the Wall of Death for years as Johnny Thunder. He was over last night telling us stories about his adventures. He said he’d regularly make $200 to $300 a night at the carnivals, starting out on a white bike, then going to a blue bike, and ending the evening on a black bike (color-matching his costume to the bike each time).

  9. it is mad seeing this on the internet as i found out about a week ago that George ‘Tornado’ Smith is my nans cousin, hence why i googled him. Makes me very proud that someone im related to achieved all this.

    • Hi Carrie,

      Can you tell me what your nans name is because I am also related to Tornado Smith and was wondering if I could link the names up.

      Be good to hear from you,

      Sophie.

    • Hello there, I’ve been told that our family is related to Tornado Smith but don’t know what the connection is…maybe some distant cousin…who’s your nan?

      • Hello Jane,

        I have not heard back from carrie but my dad tells me he’s heard of the king family name spoken about. Tornados youngest brother was my grandad and my nan was kathleen. I can’t answer for carrie as I don’t know the particulars! Does it mean anything to you?

        Sophie.

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  11. Awesome pix! I’m a long time Wall of Death rider and highly recommend you try it! Check out the attached video of ours in action!

    Ride well,
    Sonny

    Sonny Johns
    Austin, TEXAS
    Twitter: @SonnyJohns

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