Riding the Wall of Death

Written by Pauline Cockrill | July 28th, 2015

History SA volunteer Michelle Toft has just got her motorcycle licence, so we asked her to ride the Wall of Death… after doing some research. Here’s what she found:

When it comes to riding a motorcycle I am proud of myself for making it over a stick on the road without falling off, so riding in circles around a ten-metre high barrel-shaped wooden cylinder probably isn’t my thing. But that’s exactly what the ‘Wall of Death’ is. And for the last one hundred years there have been men and women who willingly ride around the Wall, performing all sorts of tricks and acrobatic manoeuvres (at speeds of up to 95 kilometres per hour) to the delight of excited crowds.

High speed is important to stay horizontal in the dome; I don’t want to bore you, but it has something to do with centrifugal force which holds the motorcycle in place. Riders show off their skill and balance in their performances; for example they remove their hands from the handles, or ride with their legs swung to one side. Not exciting enough? Some riders have tackled the Wall with a lion in their sidecar! (watch this video, it’s great).

The Wall of Death apparently made its public debut in 1911 at the Coney Island amusement park in New York. Its original name was the ‘motordome’, but it wasn’t long before it was nicknamed the ‘Wall of Death’ because of several deaths among participants and spectators (an extreme sport even for spectators!)

Given The Wall’s popularity in the United States, it wasn’t surprising that it spread quickly to other countries. There is evidence of The Wall featuring in Australia as early as 1928. It was described in the Tasmanian Advocate in 1928:

‘The performance holds the audiences spell-bound, the riders passing and repassing one another at 60 miles per hour, and giving thrill after thrill.’

What I was most excited to learn about in my research was that women participated in The Wall of Death events. And I don’t just mean the male riders’ glamourous assistants; there were plenty of women who rode the motorcycles around the dome! Una Langemead was one of the most experienced of these stuntwomen, but during a performance at Melbourne’s Luna Park in 1952 she fell off the wall and the bike landed on top of her. She was taken to hospital but died of her injuries.

It wasn’t just the pros that tackled the Wall. In Boulder, Western Australia, well-known stunt rider Jim Barcola advertised that he would give £5 (more than a factory worker earned in a week) to any amateur that was able to complete three laps of The Wall. As a poor uni student, I might have even given it a go (sorry mum)! Currently there are fifteen Walls of Death around the world. Maybe we should set one up at the Museum? £5 if you can do three laps!

So what about the bikes? What was the daredevils’ bike of choice? The Indian Scout was considered by many to be the best motorcycle to face The Wall of Death. Lightweight, manoeuvreable, and with a low center of gravity that is ideal for balance, the Scout was perfectly suited to the Wall. So when the Indian Motorcycle Company revived the Scout model earlier this year, they tested the 2015 model on The Wall of Death at the unveiling as a tribute to its daredevil heritage.

Michelle concluded she would only attempt to ride the Wall if we let her do it on one of the Indian motorbikes we have in the latest Pole Position display, which traces the history of the legendary Indian Chief (sorry Michelle, not an option). Which would you try it on?

TYou can see the three Indian Motorcycles on display at the museum in the Pole Position area near the entrance until 20 September 2015.


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