Over the past few months, I've been slowly making my way through a book called Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, by Charles Sprawson. If you love swimming, you'll find it fascinating, as I have. It's a hard book to describe-- Sprawson traces the history of recreational and competitive swimming from its earliest days, to the Victorian era's fascination with sea bathing, to modern times. He explores the obsession with swimming that runs through literature, and visits famous waters that have beckoned to swimmers, sometimes luring them to their death. It's more of a meditation on the spirituality of swimming than a straightforward history.
Towards the beginning of the book, Sprawson tells the story of Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel. His swimming exploits made him a celebrity in the late 1800s, on a level probably far surpassing Michael Phelps's fame today. Not surprisingly, one of the things that drove Webb, aside from a love of adventure, was a need for money, as it seemed to slip through his fingers easily and he had a family to support. Eventually, he was desperate enough that he decided to attempt a swim through the rapids below Niagara Falls, hoping this extraordinary exploit would end his swimming career by earning him enough money to retire on. A friend warns him that the feat is impossibly dangerous:
We discussed Niagara. "Don't go," I said. "From what I hear, you will never come out alive." "Don't care," was the reply [from Webb], "I want money and I must have it." As we stood face to face, I compared the fine handsome sailor, who first spoke to me about swimming, with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide, but money and imperishable fame.
Webb's last words before he entered the water were supposedly "If I die, they will do something for my wife." He did indeed die in the Niagara rapids that day. The book doesn't say whether anyone took care of his wife.