The Wall of Death & Its Traveling Troupe of Daredevils

Ah….Coney Island, 1911, a time when the smell of motor oil began to intermingle with the scents of popcorn on the carnival midway. The reason? Moto driven side show attractions, from Monkeys driving cars to men on motorcycles. One of the most thrilling of those side show attractions? The “Wall of Death”.

Wall-of-death-photos-1 from american pickers

What is The “Wall of Death”

The Wall of Death, or motordrome, originated as sloped wooden tracks for bicycle racing. As happens with transportation progress, once motors were introduced, the Wall of Death grew faster, taller and more daring. The concept started in the early 1900s with the first carnival motordrome track at Coney Island in New York. Within a year, portable tracks became a staple at traveling carnivals, carrying the entertainment across the country. By 1915, the silodrome, which had 90 degree vertical walls, was introduced and by the 1930s, there were more than 100 of the tracks criss crossing the US as carnival and amusement park sideshow entertainment. Motorcycle and small car stunt drivers, using centrifugal force, began on the silodrome floor, driving in circles at higher and higher speeds until climbing the walls, offering death defying entertainment to audiences who were watching from above.

wallofdeathriders4 from american pickers

Riders of The Wall of Death

Wall of Death riders may have been adrenaline junkies before the phrase “adrenaline junkie” even existed. “Suicide” Bob Perry’s first career was with the motor squad of the New York Police Department. He must have needed more excitement. Not only did he become the ringleader of what was to become one of the first Wall of Death troupes that many people would ever see, but he was also most well known for “raising the hair of the crowd when he careened around without holding the handle-bar.” Bob Perry was joined on the wall by Fearless Billy Ward, whose specialty was his “dips of death”. As he circled the wall at top speeds, Billy Ward would travel up the wall to just below the safety line and then dip, almost instantly, to just above the floor before shooting up the wall again.

 

wallofdeathphotos2 from american pickers

wall of death newspaper american pickers

Women Are Daredevils Too

Never be mistaken in thinking that all the Wall of Death daredevils were men. Long before the era of Women’s Liberation, fearless motorcycle riding women had earned their place on the Wall of Death among the men. Women like “Suicide” Bob Perry’s sister, Marion, were just as death defying as he was. Every bit the equal to her male counterparts on the wall, Marion has been described as having “pluck and daring” while appearing to be “charming and kindly”.

Daredevils of the Wall Hit the Road

More than just daredevils, “Suicide” Bob Perry and his band of daring riders were nomads as well. Having toured the US with his death defying motorcycle antics, Perry eventually gathered together his trio for the purpose of touring overseas. For many years, as one more than 20 amusements in the Coney Island traveling amusement park, Bob and Marion Perry, joined be Fearless Billy Ward, toured England, France, Germany, and eventually South Africa. Pioneers of their attraction, their time in South Africa was met with rave reviews as they brought the Wall of Death to many towns that had never seen anything like it before.

The Wall of Death in the Modern Era

In the modern era, there are very few motordromes and motordrome stuntmen that remain active. Those that do, such the American Motor Drome Company, use early Indian Scout motorcycles to offer audiences a glimpse into how many of the shows appeared in their original glory days.

wallofdeath1 american pickers marion perry bob perry

12 Comments

12 thoughts on “Daredevils of the Wall of Death”

  1. Diane Vernon

    I used to babysit for Rusty Atkinson and his wife Joyce. Rusty was a rider back in the 60s, and I loved the shows. I just wonder if he’s still around. Their boys were Bobby, Billy, and Buddy. I believe Joyce’s brother became interested in the riding, too. I don’t remember his last name, but believe he was called A.J. My maiden name at the time was Tankersley, and I’ve not seen them in YEARS!! Wonderful people.

  2. Harold Allen Townley

    They were still doing this in the 50’s and 60’s . There was a lot of them doing this at state fairs and carnivals. It was really cool to watch when I was a kid.

  3. jim

    I am the grandson of Clay Gustine aka Captain Bob Perry. The people in the photo is not him. I have photos Of Bob and Jennie Lin ( from vaudeville} He passed away in 1980 and is buried in Hollywood Ca.

    1. Susan Ward-Bester

      The man in the photo´s is Billy Ward and he was riding with his wife Marjorie Ward, my grandmother who moved to South Africa after 1954. Anyone with information of what happened tp Billy Ward, please write.

      1. Dudley Ward

        Hi, this reply is for Susan Ward-Bester.
        Billy Ward was my father’s cousin and I was named after Billy’s father, William Dudley Ward.
        I would love to hear what happened to him or his wife – did he also move to SA?
        I have a few photographs of Billy & Marjorie but not sure what date they were taken.

        1. Susan Ward-Bester

          Hello Dudley. It´s wonderful to hear from you!
          Actually my Grandmother lost touch of Billy Ward in Caracus Venezuela in the 1950´s and was unable to trace him again after that. Did your father ever tell you where Billy Ward settled when he was in his thirties and in later years? Was he in the US or UK and did he continue to ride the Wall in later years? Any other information would be much appreciated. My father was born in England in 1930, son of Billy and Marjorie Ward, and I remember him taking us around art Galleries in London and looking for paintings by Dudley Ward whom he said was a well known British artist. Do you know about that? Marjorie Ward settled in South Africa with her mother and sisters in the 1950´s and passed away in the 1980´s.
          Kind regards
          Susan Ward-Bester

          1. Dudley Ward

            Hello Susan, i don’t know what happened to Billy Ward. I remember my father told me that Billy borrowed a car from my grandfather and never returned. The last he heard of him was that he went to Tel Aviv; I guess that would have been sometime in the 1930s. I have a poster which is a copy of a letter from Malcolm Campbell to Billy which tells about him seeing Billy ride the Wall of Death in South Africa in early 1929.
            I didn’t realise that he and Marjorie had any chlidren although my father said he had some relatives in South Africa so maybe that was the connection.
            Billy’s father (Dudley Ward) was certainly an artist; he emigrated to Canada around 1905-1910 and worked there until he died in 1935. He worked as a commercial artist and illustrator and I have a couple of his original watercolours. He is best known for the paintings he did for commercial calendars for a company called Frosst Pharmaceuticals – they featured gnome-like creatures called Dingbats. After his death other artists continued with the calendars up until the mid 1990s.
            If you drop me an email to dbw666@btinternet.com I will send you some details of the family tree as far as I have it.
            Dudley.

Leave a Reply to Alan Mercer Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>