Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Hazel Marion Eaton was a South Portland teenager when she first made the news. The local paper took notice when Eaton swam from Willard Beach to House Island in Casco Bay. She swam from Portland to Peaks Island, too — rare feats for a girl in the first decade of the 20th century.
But she was just getting started.
In the 60-odd years that followed, Eaton cheated death a thousand times. She thrilled carnival audiences while shooting pistols, training monkeys and leaping from high-dives. Before she was 20, at a time when women weren’t trusted to vote, she rode a motorcycle to stardom on the wall of death.
It all started 122 years ago this week, when she was born on July 4, 1895.
Eaton was born inside the lighthouse — not the living quarters — at West Quoddy Head near Lubec. Her father was the keeper there. When she was five, she moved with her family to South Portland where her father served on the lightship.
In 1910, at the age of 15, against her family’s wishes, she ran off and joined the circus in Bangor. Within two years, she met showman Ira Watkins. He ran Watkins’ Wall of Death traveling motordrome. By 1917, they married and she was his star performer.
The Wall of Death was a barrel-like track with steep walls made of wooden boards. Audiences could look down from the top. Inside, defying gravity, horizontal motorcycles spun around at 60 miles per hour. Only speed and guts held the riders in place.
Eaton rode a twin-cylinder, 1912 Indian on the Wall of Death. Even though mistakes could have ended her life, sometimes she’d zig-zag or ride inches from the top rim — sometimes with no hands. She once told a Portland newspaper reporter that she rarely thought about the danger.
Eaton survived several crashes. Once, when her rear brake froze, she flew off her bike, landing at the bottom of the barrel. She suffered a serious head injury and broken ribs. After several weeks in the hospital, they shipped her home in a lidless wooden coffin. Her brother met her at the train station and took her home to South Portland. She pulled through and went back to the Wall of Death within the year. Headaches would plague her for the rest of her days, though.
In 1927, after 15 years of stunt riding, Eaton divorced Watkins and started her own traveling wall of death motordrome show. In 1928, Eaton married Jesse Reis, a traveling circus auditor. They visited every state in the union, and several foreign countries, in an elegant train car of their own.
They retired from showbiz in 1942, settling in Yarmouth on a spread they called Rainbow Farm. They threw fabulous parties with best friends like Beatrice Houdini, widow of the famous escape artist. At her request, on Halloween night, 1936, they held a seance and tried to contact Houdini himself.
Eaton remained in Yarmouth until 1958, when she moved to Florida for her health. She died Dec. 22, 1970. She was 75.
Time finally got Hazel Eaton but the Wall of Death never did.
Here’s your soundtrack for this story: Richard and Linda Thompson
Note: This week’s story and photos are brought to you in large part by Hazel Eaton’s great grandniece Julia Ellsworth.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.