At night, Horseshoe Falls is illuminated for tourists by fantastically colored spotlights that give it the impression of a once-majestic beast dressed up for a circus. Looming above, the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario, does the circus metaphor justice, with its hotel-casinos, wax museums, and strip clubs, popular among the many bachelor parties that visit the area.

On the evening of October 19, 2003, a man with an uncanny resemblance to Ron Jeremy — mustache, paunch, receding hairline — stopped into one of those clubs for what was, given its context, a pretty notable drinking session.

The man’s name was Kirk Jones. He was a 40-year-old out-of-work auto parts salesman from Canton, Michigan. The next morning, he planned on heaving himself into the cold waters of the Niagara River and plummeting over the 188-foot precipice of Horseshoe Falls, the more dramatic of the two cataracts that make up Niagara Falls. Moreover, he intended to perform the stunt without a life-supporting device of any kind — not a barrel, not even a life jacket. Nobody in the history of Niagara Falls had ever accomplished such a feat.

In the circus world of Niagara Falls, the Kirk Jones story is the most bizarre of all.

Eight weeks earlier, Jones had traveled to the falls with his parents, Ray and Doris, with whom he lived in Michigan. Ray was planning on shutting down his auto parts plant, where Kirk worked in the gauge manufacturing department. Ray and Doris were retiring to Oregon, leaving Jones without a job or home. Jones was single, constantly feuding with his older brother Keith, and was, by all accounts, a bit of a sad sack, but an affable and well-liked one.

Horseshoe Falls at night. Photo: Rex Montalban Photography/Getty

Jones had long been interested in the Falls and during the family trip found himself thinking about making the leap. He spotted a place where the water fell away from the rocks and reportedly tested it by dropping chunks of Styrofoam in that general direction. He told friends and his parents about his plan. Ray wired him $300 for the trip.

For the second trip, Jones asked his friend Bob Krueger to drive him from Michigan. Krueger, who was 52, unemployed, and living with Jones and his folks at the time, agreed. (“I’m not gonna lie, we were partying,” is how Krueger describes his relationship with Kirk at the time.)

They paid two visits to the waterfall to gauge the crowds and figure out where and when Jones could jump so he wouldn’t get busted. Jones bought a cheap video camera from a pawn shop and enlisted Krueger to be his videographer. They practiced using the camera — focusing, zooming, etc. — in the parking lot of the fleabag Alpine Motel, where they were staying.

At dawn, Jones consumed another pint of vodka for “liquid courage” and then went to the river with Krueger. Wearing jeans, white sneakers, a red sweater under two thick winter jackets, and a baseball cap, Jones hoisted his leg over the railing mere meters from the precipice. In his pocket was a sealed plastic bag with his Social Security card, birth certificate, and a piece of paper with his address and parents’ phone number on it. Jones had written a goodbye note to his friends and family, just in case, and left it in Krueger’s car with the remaining $30 of his dad’s money.

Jones held on tight to the railing, not sure if he could do it. Krueger handled the camera.

A concerned woman passing by saw Jones on the wrong side of the railing and asked, “You’re not going to jump, are you?”

Jones replied, “I think I will.”

Krueger’s video, later recovered by police, completely misses Jones entering the water. Instead, it shows a blur of pavement as he runs some 300 yards along Table Rock, a large shelf at the falls’ edge, to a spot where he could see to the bottom.

“Kirk, goddamn, Kirk!” Krueger screamed. “My buddy just went over the falls!”

Onlookers can be heard gasping as they spot Jones entering the river and falling, feet first, over the drop, among the 600,000 gallons of water that spill over Horseshoe Falls every second. One witness later reported seeing a smile on his face as he went.

Jones’ body spun like a corkscrew as he fell. Below, hidden beneath the mist, was violent water, enormous underwater boulders, and a crevice that goes nearly as deep as the falls are high. Bystanders assumed they had witnessed one of the 25 or so suicides that occur at Niagara Falls each year.

But then, down below, a miracle: A heavyset man emerged, crawling onto the rocks. Dazed, he tossed off the two winter jackets and lay down for a moment. Then he stood and looked up at the stunned audience above. He raised his arms in a V as the crowd cheered.

“I left every problem I had at the bottom of the gorge that day,” Jones said later.

Rescuers descended to his rescue and found he had two broken ribs and a bruised vertebrae but was otherwise unharmed. A surveillance camera caught the police escorting Jones away in handcuffs.

At once, in an act that was both incredibly brave and unfathomably stupid, Kirk Jones became the first person in recorded history to survive a drop over Niagara Falls without any form of safety device. Gone was the hapless schlub from suburban Michigan; arrived was the fearless conqueror of Niagara Falls.

“I left every problem I had at the bottom of the gorge that day,” Jones said later.

In local parlance, the men and women who go over the falls for sport are called “stunters” and suicides are called “jumpers.”

The first stunter was Annie Edson Taylor, a broke and disillusioned teacher who went over the falls in a barrel in 1901 on her 63rd birthday and emerged, bloody but otherwise unscathed. There was Steve Trotter, a bartender from Florida who twice went over in a barrel and lived. One man died going over on a jet ski when his parachute failed to open. Another paddled over in a kayak, so confident of his success that he had booked a dinner reservation for later that night. He didn’t need the reservation; five of the 15 known Niagara Falls daredevils ultimately died in their attempts.

Jones wasn’t the first person to survive the falls without a barrel — in 1960, a seven-year-old named Roger Woodward was swept over the falls after a boating accident. But unlike Woodward, who was wearing an adult-sized life jacket, Jones was the first to go over without any protection at all.

Michael Clarkson, who grew up near the falls and participated in rescues when he was younger, is the author The Age of Daredevils, about Niagara Falls stunters, and The River of Lost Souls, about suicides. He says people have long been drawn to jump at Niagara Falls, for death or glory. Clarkson was a bit actor in the 1980 movie Superman 2, in which the superhero saves a boy from falling into the water. During filming, Clarkson remembers Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane, saying “that there was this huge draw to the falls, that she wanted to jump in.” (Kidder committed suicide by overdose in May.)

When Clarkson first heard about Jones, he was stunned; it is estimated that as many as 5,000 people have died at Niagara Falls. “In the circus world of Niagara Falls,” Clarkson says, “the Kirk Jones story is the most bizarre of all. He seemed like such a sad sack, but he did the impossible. Something nobody’s done before. He survived.”

Just after noon on the day of Jones’ jump, Niagara Falls Police Department detective Rick Berketa received a phone call from a park police officer asking him for help to lay charges against Jones, who had been taken to a psychiatric ward for examination and treatment. At the ward, Berketa learned, Jones had already irritated the nurses by hogging the ward’s only phone, on which he was conducting interviews with any media outlet that would have him.

Two days later, Berketa met Jones. During the interview, Jones described the events leading up to the jump. He had been bragging to the media that his performance was a stunt, but during the interview, Jones maintained that it was actually a suicide attempt. He described his struggles with depression and discord with his older brother, which left him in despair. “How would a normal man feel that he could make it above all others when everyone else has died already going over that stupid thing?” Jones told Berketa. “I knew in my mind there was no damn way I could make it.”

Berketa was unconvinced. “In Kirk’s case, there is no doubt,” he says today. “He had a plan to document it. He talked about it to his family. He intended to survive. The only thing that fucked up his plan is Bobby Krueger didn’t do his job.” (As Berketa describes the two, “They both had an elevator that only went halfway up the shaft.”)

Jones was banned from the park for two years, and he paid a fine of $3,000 Canadian for the stunt and was ordered to pay Niagara Parks an additional $1,408 for lost revenue sustained by the Journey Behind the Falls tourist ride. But that must have seemed like a small price to Jones for the instant fame he received. He appeared on Inside Edition and Good Morning America, where he was interviewed by Diane Sawyer. He met his idol, Alice Cooper, who reportedly paid for Jones’ hotel room after the stunt, where Jones and his buddies reportedly racked up a bar tab totaling several thousand dollars. Publications from the Chicago Tribune to the New York Times to Outside wrote about him.

In Jones’ telling, he saw the falls as a way out, a means of escaping the mundanity of his life. “I was a 40-year-old man with no purpose,” he told Outside. One friend described him as “a likable schlub.” He struggled with drugs and alcohol, and he lived off his parent’s largesse. “I never thought anyone would be interested in me,” Jones told the Tribune.

Few Niagara Falls stunters were able to benefit financially from their jumps — hoping to get rich, Annie Taylor instead died in the poorhouse — but for a time, it looked like Jones just might. Not long after his jump, Dick Garden, the owner of Toby Tyler Circus, offered Jones a $50,000 contract and a percentage of photograph sales if Jones would join his troupe. “He had a lot of media attention,” Garden says. “I thought he might be a draw — the World’s Greatest Stuntman sort of thing.’”

Jones found a home with the circus. He lived in a trailer that was divided into eight rooms, with neighbors like Khan, an eight-foot-tall man from India, and Chuy, the “Wolf Boy” from Mexico who was covered head to toe in hair.

Garden dispatched his business manager, Phil Dolci, to track down Kirk Jones. Dolci hired a private detective, who found Jones living in Oregon, where he’d moved to be with his parents. The circus flew Jones to Texas for a trial run. When Dolci went to pick him up at the airport in Corpus Christi, Jones was surrounded by a phalanx of news reporters and cameramen who’d caught wind of the new hire.

Garden didn’t have much of a plan for Jones at first; basically he wanted him to help the circus attract bigger crowds. But Jones was an awkward fit. He was a heavy drinker and out of shape, not exactly fitting the bill of the World’s Greatest Stuntman. There was talk of having him be shot out of a cannon during the show. Jones was game, but there was an obvious problem: “It involved acrobatics, tuck and roll, but I’m not sure he was good for that,” Gordon says. “He was a little pudgy.”

Instead, Jones was dressed up in a white suit with gold sequins and rhinestones to lead llamas into the ring during an opening procession. Just before intermission, Jones would conduct a Q&A with the audience. “It felt like I was being swallowed by a living beast,” is how we would describe going over one of the world’s largest waterfalls. Later, Jones was tasked with cleaning elephants.

Although Jones wasn’t a great draw, Dolci says he found a home with the circus. He lived in a trailer that was divided into eight rooms, with neighbors like Khan, an eight-foot-tall man from India, and Chuy, the “Wolf Boy” from Mexico who was covered head to toe in hair.

Jones sobered up. He worked out. “He did situps, pushups, he ran in place,” Dolci says. “He viewed the circus as a second chance in life. I think he appreciated not being dead.” To promote himself, Jones would call up radio stations pretending to be a random caller — “kind of like Trump used to do,” Dolci says — and tell listeners to come out and meet the great Niagara Falls daredevil.

The good times didn’t last. The circus folded after a few months, and Jones was out of work again. He moved back to Oregon. He would, however, periodically return to Niagara Falls to try to cash in on his name, signing autographs, taking photos, and attempting to sell the clothes he wore during the stunt.

Louie Antonacci was the only souvenir shop owner who responded to Jones’ pitch to make personal appearances. He’d put Jones up in a hotel when he came to town and let him set up a photo booth. “We never really set the world on fire,” Antonacci remembers. “People liked to talk to him but didn’t want to pony up five or 10 dollars for a picture.”

The two became friends over the years. During one visit to Niagara Falls, Jones and Antonacci visited a section of Oakwood Cemetery where Annie Taylor is buried. Alongside her is Carlisle D. Graham, who made barrels for stunters, and Captain Matthew Webb, who gained fame swimming the English Channel before perishing in the Niagara rapids.

During the visit, Jones kneeled down beside what some have nicknamed the Stunters Section and asked Antonacci to take a photo. “In his mind and in his heart, he wanted to meet other people that were connected, mentally,” Antonacci says.

Jones thought about writing a memoir he would call You’re Kidding Me: A Knucklehead’s Guide to Surviving Niagara Falls. He mused about performing new stunts, like jumping off a building in Las Vegas into foam pads. But none of it happened, and back in Oregon, what was left of his good fortune ran out. In 2007, his father Ray died of a heart attack. And the next year, Jones and his brother Keith were caught selling cocaine out of the Salem home they shared with their mother.

Although it was the first time Jones had been arrested, friends say he had a long history of drug abuse. According to a friend from Michigan named Tony Fox, who once hired Jones for a short-lived painting job, the drug use went back years, as did his problems with Keith. “It’s a sad story,” Fox says.

Kirk Jones after his release from jail in 2003. Photo: Getty

With no criminal record, Jones received probation, but after failing to perform his court-ordered community service, he served five months in jail. When Jones got out, he and Keith moved their ailing mother, Doris, to Florida.

Keith died of a heart attack in 2015, at age 55, and Doris passed away the following year. Jones met and married a woman named Holly Marion, but the relationship fizzled. In 2014, he was caught shoplifting from a Walmart. He was fined $50 and ordered to perform 20 hours of community service.

In the years that followed Jones’ 2003 jump, the stunt lost much of its luster. Two more people survived the leap without protection, both suicide attempts. For his book, Clarkson spoke to experts who were at a loss to explain how it could happen: Maybe it was rock erosion under the water, they hypothesized, or, in a sheer fluke, the survivors all might have been saved by massive air pockets.

Whatever the reason, in 2017, more than a decade after his historic feat, Jones was back where he began: broke, jobless, hopeless, and alone. Fame is fleeting, and he had lost it. So he plotted to restore his faded glory. At some point in Florida, Jones realized a way out of his predicament: He would conquer Niagara Falls again.

Presumably to make his second jump more newsworthy than the first, Jones brought along his pet, Misty, a seven-foot-long albino boa constrictor.

This time, however, Jones decided to do it in an eight-foot rubber ball with a zippered hatch that he bought online for $800, according to news reports. His inspiration might have been William Fitzgerald, who went over Niagara Falls in 1961 in a metal ball of his own design that he dubbed the Plunge-O-Sphere. (Fitzgerald, the first African-American to go over Niagara Falls, later said the stunt was an act of penance for a woman he had wronged.)

Jones regretted not capturing his first attempt on film, so he bought a camera-mounted drone, which he could control with a device on his wrist. Presumably to make his second attempt more newsworthy than the first, he also brought along his pet, Misty, a seven-foot-long albino boa constrictor. Jones created a website, now removed, and planned to sell T-shirts. They read, “Believe in the impossible. KIRK JONES + MISTY conquer Niagara Falls NY 2017.”

On the morning of April 19, 2017, Peggie Bastian and her husband, Ron, were having their morning coffee on the porch of the Parkway Condominiums in Niagara Falls, New York, when they spotted two men removing a large translucent ball from a flatbed trailer in the parking lot below. They then rolled the ball toward the river.

One of the men was stocky, wearing a large coat and, underneath, an outfit that featured prominent red-and-black socks. It looked like a costume, Peggie thought. The couple saw the two men disappear behind trees, and then, moments later, the ball appeared, floating in the water.

The rubber ball. Photo: Peggie Bastian

Peggie posted the photos on Facebook, inviting friends to comment. “Maybe it’s a modern-day barrel,” one responded. Peggie and Ron figured it might have been a promotional stunt for a nearby golf course. They didn’t give it much more thought.

Later that day, tourists spotted an empty rubber ball in the river, stuck on some rocks. Police discovered an abandoned 2001 Honda Minivan with open rear doors. Inside was an empty snake cage. They also found a camera-mounted drone on a small island in the river; video from the camera showed the drone taking off, hovering for a time over the river, and then falling to earth.

Niagara Falls, New York, is a stark contrast to its Canadian counterpart. The city is partly derelict, with homes and businesses shuttered and whole neighborhoods largely abandoned. Near the falls are a number of hotels, a towering casino that appears to be vacuuming up the last remaining dregs of the economy, and a defunct daredevil museum with a “for lease” sign.

Kirk Jones’ second attempt at Niagara Falls, from the American side of the river, was unsuccessful. On June 2, a boater discovered Jones’ body 12 miles from the falls, where the river flows into Lake Ontario. He was 53. Misty was never found.

Nobody knows what happened that day, but speculation abounds. Perhaps Jones struggled to get into the ball and was swept away in the rushing river. Michael Clarkson thinks the snake, panicked in the confined space and wild river, could have attacked him. “He might have been dead before he went over,” Clarkson says. No autopsy report was released. Jones’ accomplice in the stunt remains unknown as well. Jones had a close friend whom Kreuger speculated would have “a lot to say,” but that person failed to respond to numerous calls and messages.

A reporter called Roger Woodward — the man who went over the falls as a boy — and told him about Jones’ death. Woodward, now 65 and retired in Crested Butte, Colorado, was struck by sadness. He had never been able to identify with the daredevils who put their lives at risk at Niagara Falls and was left asking, Why?

“I’ve always tried to teach my children that life is precious, life is a gift,” Woodward says today. “There are so many thrills you can get out of life where you don’t have to test God in the process. If you’re going to push to the edge, you’re going to find it.”

For months after his death, Jones’ body remained unclaimed at the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office in Buffalo, New York. Eventually, the body was handed off to a funeral home, which cremated the remains.

Tim Baxter, director of operations at Oakwood Cemetery, a short drive from where Jones went in the water, followed the story closely. He felt bad for Jones: Here was a guy who just seemed to just want recognition but whose mortal remains were unclaimed and anonymous. Thanks to Baxter, Oakwood offered Jones a plot in the cemetery and a headstone.

Today, Jones’ ashes are stored in a small green box among stacks of documents in the back of Baxter’s small office, near the cemetery entrance. Baxter says he intends to bury Jones near Annie Taylor in the stunters’ section just as soon as the headstone is ready. Kirk Jones will then take his rightful place in history as one of the few, doomed daredevils of Niagara Falls, unrecognized no longer.