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By Mike Hudson

Memorial Day traditionally marks the beginning of the suicide season in Niagara Falls, but in recent years, the addition of the Seneca Niagara Casino has rather extended the period that a life-ending tumble over the mighty Cataract seems like a viable option for many hopeless souls here.

Just last week, authorities fished a pair of stiffs out of the Lower Niagara. Appropriately enough, each of the bodies had been spotted by fishermen out for a relaxing day on the water.

Each year, between 20 and 25 people decide to end it all at Niagara Falls, which is second only to San Francisco's fabulous Golden Gate Bridge as the nation's top suicide destination. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the dead are locals, though the out-of-towners seem to grab the lion's share of the publicity.

Local historian Paul Gromosiak once wrote that 2,780 known suicides occurred here between 1856 and 1995, having compiled his grisly list from newspaper accounts of witnesses seeing someone jump or of bodies recovered in the lower river. The actual number, he acknowledged at the time, is probably much higher, as many of the bodies are never recovered.

According to Gromosiak, the most popular day for someone to kill themselves at the falls is Monday, and the most popular time is 4 p.m. Traditionally, the gore starts picking up in April and increases as the weather gets warmer, culminating in a veritable orgy of death during the month of September.

An exhaustive study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1991 showed that 59 percent of the jumpers are male and 41 percent female, which is highly unusual, in that female suicides account for just 24 percent of the nationwide total. Perhaps Oscar Wilde's famous quip about disappointed brides at Niagara Falls was truer than most people give it credit for.

The most suicidal women are 38 years of age, the study showed, while the men are most likely to be 39. Let's face it, nobody likes to celebrate their 40th birthday.

For years, the operators of the Maid of the Mist excursion boats enjoyed a lucrative sideline pulling bloated corpses out of the deep water directly below the falls, and that "Master Hero of Niagara," Red Hill Sr., launched a famous family dynasty performing similar work from the Canadian side of the river with his sons.

While most would-be suicides prefer the classic leap into the upper rapids near Prospect Point, others go with a spectacular 202-foot dive from the Rainbow Bridge. Other popular jumping-off points include various spots around Goat Island and Three Sisters Islands, the Whirlpool Bridge and the rapids at Devil's Hole. No one has ever survived a plunge over the American Falls, a fact noted by the famous mother-murderer and serial rapist Billy Shrubsall in the fake suicide note he left for authorities to find after he fled the United States to avoid imprisonment.

The Canadian Falls have proven to be marginally less fatal, in that 7-year-old Roger Woodward survived going over wearing a life preserver after a 1960 boating accident and, more recently, sad sack Kirk Jones stumbled over under mysterious circumstances in 2003.

At first, Jones said he did it as a stunt, later changing his story and alleging a botched suicide attempt when he discovered that fame and fortune were not to be his in the aftermath of his idiotic act.

The Redhead and I always get a kick out of showing visiting guests the emergency telephones scattered about in various locations close to the falls. For some reason, they never believe us when we tell them that the phones are linked directly to the county's Suicide Prevention Service.

With not a lot to do in the way of actual police work, the state park cops make it their business to stop people they see standing in the same place for long periods of time or walking about aimlessly, muttering to themselves or looking distraught. This actually describes quite a lot of the individuals who congregate near the spectacular natural wonder each day, and the cops are kept quite busy. On occasion, one of these people is genuinely contemplating his or her own death, and is taken into custody.

In all, around 20 potential jumpers are referred to the area's various loony bins each year, finding themselves suddenly in the hands of an entire bureaucracy that is paid to care about them. While this might constitute a fate worse than death for some, others can find it comforting.

The psychologists like to babble on about their own pet theories for people deciding to kill themselves here. They discuss the "mystique" of a falls suicide in terms of "committing one's body back to the force of nature," or the way in which the plunge somehow romanticizes their most desperate act.

Clearly, the shrinks haven't spent much time in the city of Niagara Falls. For local residents, living as they do in the shadow of the poisoned Love Canal, driving on streets so badly paved as to guarantee a snapped axle or at least a broken ball joint each year, laid off from their jobs and losing their unemployment checks at the casino, suicide can often seem like the best way out.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 27 2008