Born in Greece, George Stathakis arrived in the United States in 1910 at the age of twenty-six. Working as a short-order cook, he lived in St. Louis for a time before moving to Niagara Falls, New York, and then Buffalo.
Stathakis was much more than a cook, however. He was also a self-styled mystic and philosopher whose writings stated he had actually been born “a thousand years ago on the banks of a river in central Africa called Abraham.” He also maintained that he was the first person to stand at the North Pole. While there he proclaimed himself as “king and master of the earth and from this summit I am going to rule and direct it.”
Stathakis’s version of his life and his philosophy were detailed in a book he authored entitled The Mysterious Veil of Humanity through the Ages. Much of the book, which was available in both Greek and English, has Stathakis interviewing ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.
Another of his writings described how, in a previous life, he had visited the future site of Niagara Falls: “Walking to the southeast, I arrived where the falls now is. They were not formed at that time.”
By the spring of 1930, George Stathakis had decided on a bold move – he would go over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. He explained his decision by stating that such an experience would help him in his search for truth. As he bounced through the rapids and over the Falls, he could analyze his emotions and detach his mind philosophically for future meditation. What all this meant was a mystery to most.
Following his plunge, Stathakis was sure plenty of money would flow his way from lectures and newsreels. These funds would finance a new book he was writing. It was to be titled From the Bosom of Niagara.
The wood and steel barrel a Buffalo cooperage built for him weighed almost a tonne (1 ton). One end was a steel cap while the other had a steel hatch secured with 16 bolts.
With Stathakis stowed inside, the barrel was cut loose just downriver from Navy Island, about 4.8 kilometres (3 miles) above the falls, at 3:20 pm, Saturday, July 5, 1930. Going along for the ride was his pet turtle Sonny Boy that, according to his owner, was 105 years old and could talk. Supposedly venerated by a Greek cult, Stathakis said if the turtle survived and he didn’t, Sonny Boy would “carry the secret of the trip and would reveal it at the proper time.”
At 3:35 the barrel slipped over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls and plunged into the gorge below. Waiting in a rowboat was famed river-man William “Red” Hill Sr. But there was no sign of the barrel. It was trapped behind the wall of water and remained there for about 14 hours – until just after dawn the following morning. When the barrel finally shot out into the main stream, Hill managed to bring it ashore. Hours more were needed to remove the many bolts that held the hatch in place.
As expected, Stathakis, lying on a soaked mattress, was dead. He had suffocated since there had only been a three-hour supply of oxygen in the barrel.
Sonny Boy, however, was found alive and well.
Within a few days, ‘Red” Hill was exhibiting the sacred turtle, Stathakis’s barrel and one of his own in a tent behind the Lafayette Hotel. The hotel was on River Road, close to where the Rainbow Bridge is now. Hill also operated a taxi business from the tent.
At first, everything went well. Then the unthinkable happened. Around noon on Thursday, July 10, the turtle was stolen. As the local press reported, “A little boy in the tent told Hill that he had seen a man reach down, put the turtle under his coat and walk out.”
From the boy’s description, Hill was sure he knew the man’s identity since he had met and talked to him earlier. The visitor, Hill remembered, was from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and was staying at a Buffalo hotel. Hill jumped into his taxi and raced to Buffalo, but the turtle thief had eluded him.
Authorities in Uniontown were then asked to be on the lookout. They eventually recovered the turtle and shipped it back to Hill in a small wooden box.
Sonny Boy died the next year without ever revealing “the secret of the trip.”