I don’t suppose there is any way of knowing exactly when the idea was born, but at some point in early 1881 it occurred to New York City actress Miss Jennie Rhett that she needed to stand out from the chorus. My guess is that she read a newspaper story about two young women who had recently fallen off an excursion barge into the East River. And from that chance news story, and from her own ambition, the actress hatched a very bad idea. Miss Rhett searched amongst the piers of the lower east side of Manhattan until she found the young swimmer who had saved the two women. He was handsome, smart and just as ambitious as she was, and Irish too. And that was when I suspect that this idea took its very first steps to reality.
Some time later Miss Rhett was discovered off Coney Island Beach near the new Iron Pier (above), floundering in the sea. Just in the nick of time a tough young Irishman pulled her to safety. Later, in front of a small crowd and a reporter, Miss Rhett presented the young man with a “gold locket” in gratitude for his bravery. The reporter did not think to ask what a young Irishman from the Bowery was doing swimming at Coney Island. In any case, it was a small news story. And sadly it does not seemed to have propelled Miss Jennie Rhett to the stardom she sought. After this publicity stunt she disappears from our story. But the young Irishman had learned an important lesson, and we will hear from him again.
New York City in the 1880’s was the kind of place where any idea seemed possible, even fame and fortune for those surviving on their wits in the Bowery or "Hell’s Kitchen". And even very bad ideas. The twin towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, begun in 1870 and nearing completion, were the highest structures in New York City. But as tall as they were, they still seemed human in size.
Standing at the foot of the Brooklyn tower it is still possible to feel the audacity of a world, still powered largely by horses and humans, which had dared to make the 5,989 foot long unsupported throw across the open expanse of the East River. So it was not surprisingly that the next step in the evolution in this very, very bad idea should leap into some lunatic’s mind even before the great bridge had been completed.
One night in 1882 a young man was detained by bridge employees on the unfinished center span of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was in the process of undressing. Eager not to be seen as a common pervert, the young man identified himself as “Professor” Robert Emmet Odlum, from Washington, D.C.; a self described well known and well named swimming instructor and author of pamphlets on diving.
"Professor" Odlum told the police he had made a $200 bet that he could safely dive from the unfinished bridge. After explaining to Mr. Odlum that he could not hope to survive the 175 foot drop, the “Professor’s” mother was notified and he was put on a train back to Washington. The New York City police made a note to never admit Mr. Udlum onto the bridge again, even after it opened in May of 1883. It was at this point in the evolution of the very, very bad idea that chance intervened, in the form of a love-sick 22 year old woman in far off Bristol, England.
On May 8, 1885 Miss Sara Ann Henley received a note from her boyfriend breaking off their engagement. In a fit of pique Miss Henley walked half way across the Clifton Suspension Bridge (above), high above the Avon River Gorge, and threw herself off. As she plummeted the 245 feet toward oblivion her crinolines petticoats caught the air like a parachute and slowed her descent. She was even more fortunate when she splashed down into shallow waters along the shore, where her landing was softened by thick forgiving mud. She was badly injured, but she lived. Her extraordinary survival made all of the English papers, and was picked up and republished extensively in America.
A week after Miss Henley’s great fall the New York police got word that ‘Professor’ Odlum had been inspired to give the Brooklyn bridge another “go”. They alerted the toll collectors, and on Sunday afternoon, 19 May, 1885 (ten days after Miss Henley’s plunge) a collector reported a suspicious cab lingering on the bridge. Police officers found it parked against the railing, half way across the span. But it was a decoy. While they were searching the cab, hidden within one of a pair of "vans" further back on the bridge, "Professor" Odlum clambered out from beneath the covered flatbed wearing a swimsuit emblazoned with his name. He clambered over the railing and before the cops could reach him, threw himself into space.
Imagine the "Professor's" surprise when he discovered that the cops had been right. He entered the water feet first (as was the accepted diving position at the time) and shattered every bone in his frame from heel to skull. He was pulled from the river unconscious and died a half hour later. His friends shipped his body home. Ten days later Robert’s sister came to town, demanding that the coroner explain what had become of her brother’s liver and heart. She never got a satisfactory answer, but my guess is they had both been reduced to jelly by the impact. A little math shows that “Professor” Odlum hit the water going sixty-three and a half miles an hour. At that speed water is almost as fluid as cold concrete. But it was Robert Odlum’s tragic foolishness that was the catalyst for the return of the Irish hero to our story.
He was 23 years old by this time, making his living as a newsboy and a bookie amongst the denizens of the Bowery. Like a certain actress he had worked with, Steve Brodie now needed to escape the chorus; except in his case the chorus was a cacophony of poverty. The story that he later told police was that a friend, James Brennan, had dared him on a $100 bet that he would not jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. But I doubt that Mr. Brennan had ever seen $100 in his life.
Steve Brodie claimed to have made the leap on Friday morning, 23 July, 1886. Mr. Brennan claimed to have witnessed the jump. There was even a sworn affidavit from a barge captain who had pulled the daredevil from the river. Septics said Brennan had thrown a dummy off the bridge while Brodie had swum out from shore, but it didn't matter if the story was true or not. Overnight, daredevil or spinner of tall tales, everyone in New York City knew the name of Steve Brodie, the man who jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Brodie parleyed his 15 minutes of fame into his own bar, with a little theatre in the rear where he re-enacted his alleged dramatic plunge into the East River several times a week for the tourists. In 1891 promoters built a Broadway melodrama (“Mad Money”) around his dive, and another musical in 1894, (“On the Bowery”).
And on the wall next to a painting of his fabulous plunge, was displayed the following homely, “Cursing and swearing don’t make you any tougher in the eyes of people that hears you. Steve Brodie". Of course, Steve's success at selling the idea, did not make it any better of an idea.
In 1895 Mrs. Clara McArthur, married to a disabled railroad worker and mother of a young daughter, jumped off the bridge at 3:30 in the morning. She was seeking a share of Steve Brodies’ pot of gold for her destitute family. The desperate Clara was wrapped in an American flag. She had water-wings strapped under her arms and a punching bag tied to her back to keep her afloat after landing. Her socks were filled with sand to keep her feet below her head (again, the accepted, best attitude to enter the water).
But Clara landed on her side, spreading the impact over the length of her entire body. That is what saved her life. The shock ripped the water wings under her arms to shreds. She struggled to the surface, but the punching bag kept flipping her over onto her face, and the socks kept pulling her down. After struggling for several long seconds, Clara finally passed out, face down in the water. Two men in a rowboat waiting under the bridge finally managed to pull her to safety. She never made a dime from the effort, even though she had several reliable witnesses that she had actually made the jump. The Victorian public simply didn't want to know the details of a woman forced to risk her life to provide for her family. Clara McArthur is one of only ten people (two of them women) known to have actually jumped off the bridge since the 1881, and who survived the plunge.
Steve Brodie is not counted as one of those ten. He was always an agreeable fellow. If he had money, his friends and family shared in it. He gave generously to charity his entire life. But it is extremely doubtful that he actually made the jump. He tried to extend his fame by claiming to have leaped off a railroad bridge in upstate New York, and later claiming to have gone over Niagara Falls wrapped in inner tubes and metal bumpers. The Niagara stunt, real or not, almost killed him. He settled in Buffalo, New York, and operated a bar there for a few years before his asthma forced him to move to San Antonio, Texas, where he died in 1901 of complications of diabetes. Steve Brodie was all of 38 years old. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Woodside, Queens, New York. Thankfully the very, very bad idea of jumping from the bridge for fame and fortune died with him.
The longest living survivor of all these daredevils was the accidental one. Sara Ann Henley (below), the woman who tried to commit suicide in 1885 by jumping 240 feet off the Clifton Suspension bridge, finally earned her angel’s wings in 1948. She was 84 years old, married, but with no children, perhaps because of injuries sustained in her fall into the Avon River Gorge. Such silly feats, for fame or to protest fortune, are never good ideas. But jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge went further. It was a very, very bad idea.
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