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Excerpt from Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The Adventures of the Bridge Jumper

On July 22, 1886, a figure was seen falling from near the center of the Brooklyn Bridge. The body was in the air for about three seconds as it traversed the 135 feet from the bridge to the water, and after striking the East River it disappeared from sight for nearly half a minute. A man was soon pulled from the water into a tugboat and brought to shore, where he was promptly arrested for attempted suicide. By the time the jumper, named Steve Brodie, emerged after a brief stint in a police court cell, he had become an instant celebrity. Brodie was shown newspaper illustrations of his jump and signed a contract to appear in dime museums across the country. Newspapers around the United States published accounts of Brodie's leap, and tourists were soon crowding into Brodie's New York saloon in order to catch a glimpse of him. Within a decade he was a traveling performer on the stage, serving drinks in a stage replica of his Bowery Street saloon and reenacting his famous jump from the bridge.

Brodie's career has much to tell us about the emergence of modern media celebrity and the kinds of spectacular stunt performances that could be mobilized to create it in the years just before the cinema. Bridge jumpers like Brodie took the modern urban landscape as their stage and in so doing reinterpreted the city and reinvented themselves. During the same years that stunt performers like Brodie were transforming the cityscape into a backdrop for their own entertainments, representations of the urban environment became attractions on the spectacular melodramatic stage. Brodie's jumps from both actual steel suspension bridges and stage representations of them collapsed distinctions between indoor and outdoor entertainment, just as the cinema would soon bring images of the world into theatrical spaces. Though I will argue that Brodie and the cast of stunt celebrities with whom he was associated point toward a distinctly cinematic entertainment and stardom, they also continued two older traditions: a workingmen's entertainment subculture whose center was the saloon, and a tradition of popular spectacle that took place along the canals, rivers, docks, and waterfalls that drove the commerce of nineteenth-century industrial mill towns and shipping ports. In regard to the latter, stunt jumping as a mode of American popular performance began earlier in the nineteenth century with another man who used dangerous stunts as a vehicle for a new kind of celebrity. We begin then, sixty years before Brodie's leap from the Brooklyn Bridge, at the construction site of a bridge that was being built thirty miles to the northwest of New York City.

The Art of the Jump

In 1827, a builder and sawmill owner named Timothy B. Crane was overseeing the completion of Forest Garden, an elite resort on the north bank of the Passaic Falls in Paterson, New Jersey. Paul E. Johnson describes the class tensions surrounding this project: Crane's Forest Garden was built on what had once been a "public playground," and his upscale developments had aroused the anger of many of the working people of the area. Conflicting emotions therefore existed amid the crowd that gathered to watch as the bridge to Forest Garden was moved into place. Suddenly, a log that was being used in the operation fell into the water and the bridge lurched precariously. At that moment a young man named Sam Patch, dressed in the parade uniform of the local mill spinners, appeared on a ledge high above the falls. He told the crowd that "Crane had done a great thing," and now he meant to do another. He then jumped into the water below, a spectacular feat that effectively stole the thunder from Crane's celebration.

The geography of industrial labor provided the setting for Patch's jump and charged it with class tensions. Johnson reminds us that waterfalls like the one in Paterson were an integral part of the emerging American industrial economy: the falls were the engines that drove the factory mills where Patch was a mule spinner. Patch's occupation is significant: as a mule spinner he was a skilled and respected manual laborer in a "craftsmen's empire" that "limited the power of employers," a holdout of autonomous work in an era that saw the "initial proletarianization" of American factory work. Indeed, Patch's distinctive jumping technique was a direct outgrowth of the context of factory labor, having been invented by young mill workers who gathered at the falls and then developed a style whereby they jumped "feet first, breathing as they fell," and stayed under water "long enough to frighten spectators" before shooting triumphantly to the surface. Patch's leap was thus "a kind of occupational skill," and class conflict continued to be a factor in his subsequent high-profile jumps: one was meant as an alternative to a private fireworks display at Crane's Forest Garden, and another coincided with a factory walkout.

In order to describe the subtleties of social meaning conveyed by the events at Passaic Falls, Johnson distinguishes between two types of artistry that were put on display there. Sam Patch stated in newspaper accounts that his act was "an art" that he had practiced from his youth. For Johnson, Patch's use of the term art is suggestive:

In Patch's world a man's art was his identity-defining skill ... the whole range of combined mental and manual performances by means of which trained men provided for the wants and needs of their communities. The word "art" affirmed the intelligence, learning, and dexterity that went into building a house, making a shoe, or raising a field of wheat.... [It] called up the yeoman-artisan republic and the ideals of manhood and individual worth that it sustained-ideals that Sam Patch and other workingmen had reformulated and extended into the industrial world of the nineteenth century.

We might say that Patch's art was a self-forming activity whose vehicle was his body, akin to what Michel Foucault calls a "technology of the self" or Marcel Mauss a "body technique." Johnson contrasts this definition of art with one represented by industrialists like Timothy Crane, for whom art was embodied in "works of technology and entrepreneurial vision," such as canals and bridges, that transformed nature and put it to human use. Notably, such industrial projects had "little to do with the skills practiced by ordinary men." Whereas Patch's art was based in manual skill, bodily action, and physical performance, Crane's was made manifest through engineering and the rationalized labor of capitalist mass production. Patch's was a body technique, Crane's an industrial technology.

To better understand the distinction between the "arts" of Patch and Crane, note that Patch's jump is an example of what Erving Goffman calls "action": "activities that are consequential, problematic, and undertaken for what is felt to be their own sake." As noted in the introduction, Goffman uses the term action to refer to tasks in which the consequences of one's decisions are felt immediately, and events inundate "the momentary now with their implications for the life that follows." Action is to be found in occupations where one's activity is "a practical gamble voluntarily taken," such as high construction work, test piloting, and soldiering. Following Goffman, we can see that the risks and consequences of Sam Patch's dangerous jumps were made manifest in the "same heated moment of experience." By contrast, the "art" of Crane's bridge was the result of a long period of planning, the labor of many workers, and a considerable passage of time between the project's undertaking and its completion. Compared to the immediacy of action, the bridge was the site of frozen time and petrified labor. We might understand Patch's jump, then, as an act that unleashed or reconfigured the frozen cultural meaning embedded in the bridge, redirecting it through individual action. To put it another way, a single working-class person could not design, fund, and build the bridge, but he or she could jump from its span, and in that moment appropriate and redirect some of its cultural power.

Goffman notes that social maneuvering takes place during moments of accelerated consequence, making action a powerful mode for the performance of self. In other words, action constructs character. It is during moments of action that the individual has the opportunity to display his or her "style of conduct when the chips are down," Goffman writes. "Character is gambled; a single good showing can be taken as representative, and a bad showing cannot be easily excused or reattempted. To display or express character, weak or strong, is to generate character. The self, in brief, can be voluntarily subjected to re-creation." Patch's jump re-created the self in a dramatic way. Patch soon remade himself as a traveling showman and entertainer: he exhibited himself at a Buffalo museum; he made appearances in silk scarves and a sailor's jacket, accompanied by a pet black bear; and his jumping career reached its zenith with a well-publicized leap at Niagara Falls in 1829. For Johnson, Patch was a pioneer of modern celebrity whose fame went against the grain of a social world governed by "inheritance, fixed social rank, and ordained life courses." Patch was "born into obscurity," Johnson writes, "and he did nothing that classicists considered worthy of renown. Yet he wanted to be famous and he succeeded." The famous jumper thus represented a new kind of celebrity, one who departed from the model of a hero who embodied the ideals of duty, order, and social obligation, and indexed modern conceptions of the individual that resulted from the freedom from feudal obligations, kinship customs, and vocational ties. In this sense, we might say that the thundering chasm into which Sam Patch leaped was modernity as much as the mists of a New Jersey waterfall.

The notoriety created by Patch's "art" was still resonant fifty years after his death, at least among young working-class Americans like Steve Brodie. After his 1886 leap from the Brooklyn Bridge, Brodie indicated his debt to Patch with a number of direct references to Patch's career. Brodie also visited Genesee Falls, in Rochester, New York, where Patch had died in November 1829. In May 1889, Brodie jumped into the basin below the Passaic Falls in Paterson, where Patch had begun his public career. Three months later Brodie took what the New York Times called a "leap for sentiment," at Pawtucket Falls, Rhode Island, his "chief motive" being that Sam Patch had jumped there. But Brodie sought to outdo Patch as well as pay tribute to him, announcing that his drop was from a point thirty feet higher than Patch's had been.

Brodie may have become familiar with the highlights of Sam Patch's career by reading about them in newspapers, which were an important part of what Johnson calls the "new apparatus of publicity" that packaged Patch's feats for a mass audience. Patch's entrance on the public scene had been timed fortuitously in this regard, as it coincided with a revolution in the "penny presses" in the 1830s, when newspapers began to reflect "not the affairs of an elite in a small trading society, but the activities of an increasingly varied, urban, and middle-class society," and whose focus increasingly became news items that were actively sought out by reporters. Sensational stunts like Patch's provided the kind of content that reporters needed and that appealed to a broad readership. Brodie would have had plenty of opportunities to become familiar with Patch's career, which was still a topic of newspaper coverage decades after his death, since he had worked as a newsboy. In fact, Brodie's career is closely tied to both the tactics of publicity in newspapers and the culture of the boys who distributed them.

The Life-savers and the Captain

Steve Brodie was one of seven boys raised by his single mother. Brodie never knew his father, who was killed in a gang-related street fight three weeks before his birth. By one account, his father died in a battle between iconic New York gangs, the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits. Like many other urban working-class boys, Brodie grew up "in the shadow of the great newspaper buildings" and made money selling their afternoon editions along Park Row and the Bowery. Brodie was part of a generation of "newsies" who helped to facilitate a boom in afternoon newspaper circulation during the 1880s. The culture of the newsies overlapped with another working-class boys' social club, one that received extensive coverage in the same papers Brodie was selling: the New York Amateur Life-saving Association. The group was initially composed of four boys who patrolled the wharves along the East River at night. The group's leader was named William O'Neill, but he was known as "Nan, the Newsboy." Nan was, in fact, twenty-three years old when he achieved fame as a Life-saver, but he was described as "an overgrown boy in appearance," and he sold newspapers and blackened boots on the Sylvan Line of Harlem steamers in order to support his widowed mother. Other Life-savers included Gilbert Long, age twenty, who was a tinker; Edward Kelly, age sixteen, who worked in a leather manufactory; and Patrick Marr, age ten, also known as "little Patsey" and by trade an apprentice painter. The boys were credited with saving numerous lives and were hoping to upgrade their operation through the purchase of a life buoy, rubber capes for rainy nights, and perhaps a boat.

Nan and company's lifesaving work was an outgrowth of a working-class boys' culture along the New York City docks. In 1879, the children's magazine St. Nicholas described the boys' Cherry Street neighborhood as a place of "tenements, sailor boarding-houses and drinking saloons," where "idle urchins" found a "hundred ways to amuse themselves among the boxes and bales":

The fish-dock and the old "dirt" dock in Peck Slip on summer evenings are white with the figures of bathers. Often, too, even when the law was more stringent against it than now they found means to swim in the day-time. They wrestle and tumble over one another, remain in the water for hours, swim across the swift stream to Brooklyn and back, and dive to the muddy bottom for coins thrown to them by spectators. This was the training-school of our life-savers. Accidents were very frequent here, and the boys made many rescues without thinking much of them.

Steve Brodie took part in pursuits such as these: his first rudimentary lessons in bridge jumping came from "diving for silver quarters from the piers along South street." Brodie and his fellow newsboys also enjoyed jumping into the water from the vessels docked along the wharves. Brodie worked his way up the ships, culminating in leaps from "the third cross-bar," an eighty-foot drop that attracted the attention of commuters riding the ferry. As in Sam Patch's era, practices associated with working-class boys' culture and the spaces of industry were becoming spectacular public entertainment.

Nan and the Life-savers emerged from this culture to achieve a degree of notoriety that must have astonished their working-class peers, a notoriety circulated by newspapers, national magazines, and even the melodramatic stage. St. Nicholas reported that the Life-savers had the "odd experience of seeing themselves and their work represented on the stage": "They went to see, at one of the cheap down-town theaters, a sensational piece entitled, 'Nan, the Newsboy,' which was acted to the satisfaction of quite a large audience." The boys spoke with "great disgust" of the melodramatic flourishes of the play: "There was river pirates and a milliner. A girl she comes singin' down the docks about twelve o'clock at night. There aint no girls comes singin' around us. The river pirates they stabbed the girl and throwed her in. Then there was another one throwed in. We had all three of {apos}em out in five minutes." Perhaps most galling of all, however, was the fact that the actor playing Nan was "about thirty years old," and the one playing Kelly had a mustache. Steve Brodie thus had Nan as well as Sam Patch as a model for modern media celebrity. There was, however, another important influence on Brodie's career, another person who helped to shape his notions of performance, publicity, and celebrity. Indeed, the Life-savers gained a considerable amount of their own renown through an association with another public figure who was adept at his own novel body technique, a technique that was intimately connected to the nation's waterways.

On December 29, 1878, the New York Times reported that Nan and the Life-savers ate "high pie" at the Fifth-Avenue Hotel with Captain Paul Boyton, who publicly promised to aid the boys and in return was made an honorary member of their "society." Who was this Captain Boyton?Born in 1846 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Boyton told one interviewer that ever since he could walk, he had felt an "irresistible desire to be in the water." Like the New York City dock boys, Boyton had spent much of his childhood in the water, diving not for quarters but for flat stones used in paving streets. He recounted how, at the age of eleven, he had saved a boy from drowning under a newly built suspension bridge on the Allegheny River, after which a crowd had gathered and filled his cap with money. "I was afraid to accept it," he said, "for I knew if it was discovered in my possession at home the fact that I had been playing truant and swimming in the river would surely be betrayed." After briefly attending college and then accompanying his father on trading expeditions among the Native American population, he joined the navy and fought in the Civil War. Water takes on an almost mystical, Melvillian quality in Boyton's description of sailing to the West Indies, where he was a pearl diver after the war: "I have seen in the deep water of the West Indies many peculiar things, and landscapes as beautiful as ever human eye rested upon. The coral banks, in the perfectly clear element, with the tropical sun shining down upon them, present a most wonderful sight." 

When he returned to the United States in the early 1870s, Boyton went to Atlantic City, where he served as a "submarine diver" and volunteer lifesaver on the New Jersey coast. In 1874, Boyton was hired to give public demonstrations of a newly invented "life-preserving apparatus." The centerpiece of this apparatus was a watertight rubber suit that covered one's entire body except the face. The suit, which had been patented by C. S. Merriman in 1872, contained air chambers behind the head, along the sides of the body, and under both legs, making the wearer float on the surface of the water. Wearing this suit, Boyton would recline on his back in the water and, equipped with a paddle, become a kind of human kayak, impervious to the cold in nearly frozen water and able to cover remarkably long distances. Reporters who encountered Boyton in the water referred to his uncanny, even semihuman, appearance; one writer noted that the captain took on "the aspect of some fabled amphibious monster." Along with his suit, Boyton's apparatus consisted of an array of remarkable accessories. Around his neck hung a shark knife, a horn, and a bottle of brandy, and on his aquatic excursions Boyton took with him a small floating craft that he dubbed the "Baby Mine," which contained an assortment of items that he might need in the water: rockets, fireworks, torpedoes, and creature comforts such as a pipe, food, and beverages. Dressed in his modern rubber suit and equipped with its various accessories, Boyton presented a picture of manly independence in a performance that combined the arts of Sam Patch and Timothy Crane, being both body technique and industrial technology. 

By the end of the 1870s, Boyton and his remarkable suit had become known throughout the United States and Europe. His international fame began when, in the autumn of 1874, he donned his suit and jumped from the transatlantic steamship that had carried him from New York, swimming the last leg of the journey to the Irish coast. Thousands of curious spectators gathered to see him demonstrate his suit in a public park in Dublin, and that night he appeared on stage at a local theater to narrate his adventures off the coast. In January 1875, Boyton traveled down the Thames River in London, where thousands are said to have "looked on open-mouthed" at "the gentleman who, encasing himself in an armour of indiarubber, walked into and along the river without touching the bottom." A stunning indication of how Boyton's act appealed across social classes, in April of that year the captain was invited to perform for Queen Victoria, who watched him from the deck of the royal yacht. Boyton received the queen's congratulations, as well as an order for one of his suits, which was to be made an "essential feature" of the royal yacht's equipment. One month after meeting the queen, Boyton became the first man to swim cross the English Channel. After spending twenty-three hours in the water, the captain received congratulatory telegrams from Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, the lord mayor of London, and President Ulysses S. Grant, who wired, "America is proud of you!"

The following year Boyton toured Europe demonstrating his lifesaving apparatus, and the Russian government was said to be so impressed that it was considering making his suit a mandatory piece of equipment for its coast guard. At the end of the 1870s, Boyton was back in the United States, where he made a variety of appearances to promote himself and his suit. In January 1876, he gave an exhibition in New York City's East River before a large crowd that "cheered lustily" in response to blasts from his horn. In Washington, D.C., Boyton floated on his back while a young boy sat on his chest, handing out glasses of wine to passing boating parties. The various resources in his "Baby Mine" became a central component of his act: "Among the captain's maneuvers in the water were cooking and preparing his meals on a raft constructed by himself, fishing, smoking, shooting, writing and signaling with flags and rockets. He also liberated two carrier pigeons, which never returned to him, and concluded his entertainment by blowing up with a torpedo a miniature sailing vessel. The torpedo did its work in good style, for after it was fired there was little to be seen of the sailing craft. The exhibition was greatly enjoyed by the children." Boyton also embarked on several well-publicized long-distance swims. In February 1879, he went down the freezing Allegheny River from Oil City to Pittsburg accompanied by a "sleighing party, largely composed of members of the press." That same March, he swam down the Ohio River to Cincinnati. In later years Boyton traveled to the Western states, in 1882 taking a trip down the Arkansas River and in June 1886 drawing 3,500 spectators to view his performance on Palmer Lake in Colorado. 

By the end of the 1870s Boyton was an international celebrity who fired the imagination of the public through personal appearances and sensational coverage in the popular press that detailed his encounters with sharks, his engagement in naval battles, and his epic voyages down icy rivers. It was this Captain Boyton who suddenly appeared in the lives of the Cherry Street Life-savers, took them out for an expensive meal, and promised them jobs and equipment. It is clear that Boyton had big plans for remaking Nan's organization and saw himself as more than an "honorary" member of the Life-savers. First, Boyton compelled the boys to quit their day jobs and become regular employees of the city earning fixed wages. Boyton also promised to "devote all his spare time" to instructing the boys in lifesaving methods and to oversee the construction of several floating rescue stations that were to be fitted with lifelines, a lifeboat, a stretcher, and "every description of restorative, including galvanic batteries."

Despite these optimistic prospects, the Life-savers disbanded in a flurry of recriminations only a few months after their "high pie" with Boyton. Nan claimed that the boys had not been "properly encouraged" by those who promised to support them, nor had they been kindly treated, and he traced their trouble to Boyton. Though Boyton had claimed in a newspaper interview that he had found the boys "ragged and starving," Nan said that they had been better off before they met him. The dinner at the Fifth-Avenue Hotel had been the only time he had fed them, and even that, claimed Nan, was only "to advertise himself." One small life station had indeed been built, but it was far from the elaborately outfitted one that had been promised: "The front door of the establishment, as it might be called, is through a hole in a dilapidated fence; then down a ladder, and perhaps across a canal-boat or two to where it lies wedged in the crowded basin. They have a row-boat, and a life-saving raft of the catamaran pattern. Inside, the station has three bunks, some lockers to hold miscellaneous articles, a small stove in a corner, and a small case of books." With the loss of their day jobs and paltry new salaries, the boys claimed that they had to spend long hours at the station which, being anchored near a sewer, was "hot as an oven" and filled with poisonous sewer gas. Boyton, the boys reported, had been aloof and unresponsive to their complaints.

Faced with this blast of negative publicity from the unhappy Life-savers, Boyton fired back in the newspapers, claiming that he had "worked hard for weeks" getting the boys established and procuring them clothing with two hundred dollars of his own money. As to his alleged neglect of the Life-savers, Boyton said he had been "compelled to leave the City on business before the life-saving station was built." To counter Nan's complaint about their low salaries, Boyton stated that he had intended to give Nan a fourteen-dollar-a-week position in his own organization but would no longer consider it after hearing the Life-savers' "ungrateful and untrue story." The dispute came to a head when the two parties faced each other at a July 1879 meeting of the executive committee of the New York Volunteer Life-saving Society, where the issue of celebrity and self-promotion came to the fore. Nan said that Boyton's sole object in approaching the boys had been "to advertise himself," to which Boyton replied that "he didn't want advertising; that he had 'written his name across the face of Europe,' in swimming the Rhine, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, and other feats, before 'Nan' was even heard of." Nan and the boys maintained that Boyton had merely been using them as a way to publicize a swim down the Mississippi River. "Would you ever have taken us to dinner at the Fifth-Avenue Hotel," asked Life-saver Gil Long, "if it hadn't been for the reports in the newspapers next day?" Boyton "angrily retorted" that "this was his reward for what he had done," adding that he couldn't expect any more from "a bunch of wharf rats," who, when he had found them, "had not known enough to complain of the sewer-gas which rose into the life-saving station from the river," a gas that was, Boyton added, "far superior to the obnoxious odors that permeated the tenements in which they lived." The Life-savers, "with flashing eyes," denied that they had ever been "wharf rats."

Boyton's bad press with the Life-savers did not slow his rise to fame, and over the course of the 1880s he gradually transformed himself from lifesaver, adventurer, and military man to popular entertainer. That process was complete in 1887, when he traveled with P. T. Barnum's Circus. In a review of his act with Barnum, we are told that he walked to a water tank "with all the frisky grace of a young hippopotamus and disported himself in its waters with the joyful levity of a light-hearted sea lion." He then gave a ten-minute demonstration of the "wonderful things" that could be accomplished with his lifesaving suit: "He paddled about, set sail, fished, shot, signaled a supposititious steamer in the imaginary distance, cooked and ate supper, rescued from drowning a small boy who fell into the water, and finally lit his cigar and went to sleep." After his acrimonious parting of ways with Boyton, Nan did not fare as well. He told the press that he and the other boys would continue with lifesaving as before and recruit new members to the corps. By 1880, however, Nan had given up lifesaving to become a policeman in the Fourth Ward. He was dismissed for drunkenness not long afterward and could later be found giving testimonials titled "The Evils of Drink." In subsequent press accounts Nan's life was offered up as a cautionary tale about the dangers of undeserved fame: "The newspapers made him," wrote the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1883, "and rum unmade him."

The well-publicized dispute between Boyton and the Life-savers surely must have left lingering feelings of animosity and resentment among the boys and their supporters, as well as conveyed a lesson in the use of newspapers to shape public opinion and the utility of stunt performance as a mode of self-promotion. We should note that Steve Brodie was a lieutenant Life-saver himself, and he is also said to have appeared in a stage production of Nan, the Newsboy. It is safe to assume that Brodie, who was a part of Nan's milieu, felt a certain antagonism towards Boyton, and indeed it is hard to resist the temptation to see much of Brodie's subsequent career as either an oedipal conflict with Boyton (a stand-in for the father he never knew), or as a drama of class resentment, with aquatic arts the terrain of a struggle between "wharf rats" and a sporting man with aristocratic pretensions. What is certain is that Boyton was the motivation for many of Brodie's actions after his 1886 jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. Once on the public stage, Brodie quickly sought to make a name for himself as a long-distance swimmer utilizing a Boyton-style rubber suit: in the words of his biographer, Brodie resolved to win from Paul Boyton the "swimming championship of the world." The same year that Boyton was touring the country with Barnum's circus, Brodie was in Cincinnati, making a ten-mile swim up the Ohio River dressed in "a Boyton suit." Not only that, but he arrived equipped with a "little boat" from which he produced fireworks, a small gun, and an oil stove that he used to make himself a cup of coffee. In June 1888, Brodie swam down the Hudson River from Albany to New York wearing "a Boyton rubber suit," with the explicit purpose of besting Boyton's previous time on a similar swim. In fact, even Brodie's career-defining leap from the Brooklyn Bridge can be understood as a riposte to Boyton. It is quite possible that Brodie made that jump in order to take advantage of another public relations disaster that beset the captain soon after his run-in with Nan and the Life-savers.