The Death Of Tightrope Walker Karl Wallenda [VIDEO]

Published December 15, 2017
Updated November 7, 2023

Karl Wallenda's final – and tragic – tightrope walk was caught on video in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Karl Wallenda Performs

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Karl Wallenda walks the tightrope.

Karl Wallenda had been performing stunts since he was six years old. He was trained to walk on a high wire, cycle across a tightrope, and balance as one of a seven-man pyramid. Rarely was a safety net used. For him, it seemed, nothing was impossible.

Then, on March 22, 1978, the world watched in horror as Karl Wallenda fell to his death. As he attempted to walk across a high wire strung between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 73-year-old Wallenda lost his balance, teetering on the wire for 30 heart-stopping seconds before plummeting 10 stories.

Karl Wallenda’s death might not have been so highly publicized had it not been for his daredevil reputation and the fact that it was broadcast live on television.

The Flying Wallendas’ Balancing Act

The Flying Wallendas Pyramid

State Library and Archives of Florida
The Flying Wallendas perform their famous pyramid act in the 1960s.

Born in 1905 to a circus family in Germany, Wallenda began learning stunts as a young child. By 1922, he formed The Flying Wallendas after training with another performer while still in his teens.

He enlisted his brother Herman, girlfriend Helen Kreiss (who eventually became his wife), and school friend Joseph Geiger — all of whom had circus training — to join him in creating the traveling balancing act.

Also known as The Great Wallendas, the group toured Europe for several years, performing tightrope walking and high-wire bicycling, and perfecting a four-man pyramid act.

Eventually, they were noticed by American circus entrepreneur John Ringling, who immediately hired the Wallendas to perform at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1928, they debuted at Madison Square Garden in New York City to a standing ovation.

The Flying Wallendas soon gained international fame for their impressive acts, almost entirely developed by Karl Wallenda. One of the most death-defying stunts he came up with was the three-tier, seven-person chair pyramid, in which the group walk the tightrope with the top member balancing high in the air — often on a chair.

Over the years, Karl had gotten married and had several children, all of whom joined the family business, along with their respective significant others and their own children.

Daredevil Stunts Turned Deadly

The Flying Wallendas perform their death-defying seven-person pyramid.

As jaw-dropping as the Wallendas’ acts proved to be, they were dangerous as well.

During a performance at the Shrine Circus in Detroit in 1962, their signature seven-person pyramid caused mayhem when the frontman faltered and the entire group collapsed.

In the fall, Wallenda’s son-in-law, tightrope partner, and nephew were all killed. Wallenda’s son Mario was paralyzed from the waist down, and his niece sustained a head injury after bouncing out of the safety net.

During a performance a year later, Wallenda’s sister-in-law fell to her death from a tightrope. A few years after that, Wallenda’s son-in-law was electrocuted after accidentally grabbing a live wire during a stunt.

Despite all of the tragedies associated with his act, Wallenda soldiered on, continuing to perform with smaller groups, and even by himself as a solo act.

Wallenda made history several times, performing a high-wire walk across the Tallulah Gorge, and breaking a world high-wire record by walking 1,800 feet across Kings Island.

He performed stunts into his 70s, taking on every challenge with the same excitement he had all his life.

Karl Wallenda’s Final, Fatal Walk

A 1978 news report of Karl Wallenda’s tragic demise.

With a career that spanned over half a century, Wallenda was far from retiring when he headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978. He was there to promote a circus act he would be performing with his granddaughter.

Wallenda’s final stunt was captured on live television by a local film crew who had come out to watch the show. About halfway across the wire he can be seen struggling with his balance and then falling. He struck a parked taxi and was pronounced dead.

A later investigation revealed that a combination of high winds and the fact that the wire had been improperly secured was what led to Wallenda’s tragic death.

Though he’s long gone, Wallenda’s legacy lives on through his great-grandson Nik Wallenda. Nik followed in his great-grandfather’s footsteps, and continues to perform alongside his siblings, hoping to honor the legacy that Karl Wallenda spent his life building.

In fact, Nik has since outdone his legendary relative. He holds 11 Guinness World Records, including performing the longest and highest bicycle ride (at 250-feet long and 135-feet high), and the highest tightrope walk while blindfolded.

In 2011, Nik, alongside his mother Delilah (Karl’s granddaughter), recreated the same walk that had led to Karl’s demise some 33 years prior. The duo walked a tightrope between the two towers of the 10-story Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico.

Nik claimed he wasn’t scared during the performance, but was honored to be able to recreate the dangerous feat: “To be able to walk in his exact footsteps is an extremely huge honor, and I did this for him as much as I did it for my family to get some closure too,” he had said.

His great-grandfather certainly would be proud.

Next, read about a millennial daredevil whose stunt ended up being his downfall. Then, learn the story of Budd Dwyer, the Pennsylvania state official who committed suicide at a press conference.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
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Serena, Katie. "The Death Of Tightrope Walker Karl Wallenda [VIDEO].", December 15, 2017, Accessed May 25, 2024.