Posted by: downtothesea | April 21, 2009

The Unsinkable George Callinan, Part 1.


Somewhere in this photo of the Niagara Falls Police Department from 1910 is one of the more colorful characters in my family tree, Detective George H. Callinan.  He was my great-great grandfather Michael Gavin’s sister Mary (Gavin) Callinan’s son.*  I still don’t know what he looks like, though I know someday I will.  In the history of the city of Niagara Falls, he’s unavoidable.

Leaf through any Niagara Falls Gazette from the 1920s or 1930s and it’s nearly a certainty a mention of George Callinan will be there.  In a time of Prohibition and Depression, when desperate men turned away from the law, Callinan was Niagara Falls’ very own Dick Tracy: larger than life, ever ready with his revolver, always “getting his man.”  He was free and easy with the local media, perennially candid and a delight to interview: a reporter’s dream.  The story of his greatest case in 1921 deserves a post of its own, and that will come.

But even before he became a local celebrity, back around the time when the above photo was taken, Callinan still managed to make the papers in what would become a familiarly dramatic fashion in the decades to come.  Any introduction to this article from the New York Times on June 24, 1907 will only detract from its delightful bizarreness, and so for your perusal I simply present:



Subdues Policeman Who Would Have Jumped Into Niagara Rapids


NIAGARA FALLS, N. Y., June 23—Detective Callinan and Patrolman Roeder faced death for twenty minutes to-day 400 feet up in the air in the basket of a captive balloon.  The mechanism which brings the balloon to earth went wrong, and the gasbag shot skyward.

      A sudden gust of wind carried the balloon out over the rapids of the Niagara River just above the Falls, and the anchor went tearing through chimneys and roofs, which were considerably damaged.  Roeder, crazed with fear, wanted to jump, but Callinan drew his revolver and threatened to shoot him if he attempted to go over the side of the basket.

      As the last effort was being made to bring the wild bag down to earth, the basket ran against the high-power cables which carry electricity from the power-houses across the gorge, and the men narrowly escaped being shocked to death.

      The rope which held the balloon to earth threatened to burn against the cables, but by careful handling of those on the ground the bag was finally brought down and the two men were released.




(This ballooning image can be found in its original context on this webpage.  The text below the image is not my own.)


*His mother herself had begun life in a colorful fashion, as she was, according to her 1915 obituary, “born at sea, when within ten days of the shores of the U. S., on one of the old time sailing vessels.”


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