Bridge jumping isn’t the career it used to be. Time was, a man could build a solid career by leaping from America’s river spans.
The classic case was Steve Brodie, who may (or may not have) been the first man to survive a jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. Although it remains a matter of contention whether Brodie really did jump from the brand-new bridge on 23 July 1886, he parlayed his notoriety into a saloon and a minor stage career. Tough-guy actor George Raft portrayed Brodie in the 1933 movie, “The Bowery.”
Cincinnati had our own bridge jumpers, for better or worse. Dan Wilcox tragically demonstrated the risks involved when he dove from the Newport Bridge (now known as the Purple People Bridge) on Sunday, 8 June 1890. Before diving into the Ohio River, Wilcox, a longtime river boatman, lowered a rope to determine that the water surface lay 117 feet below the bridge. The Cincinnati Enquirer relates the outcome: “The dive was as pretty a one as ever was seen. When a little more than halfway down he seemed to lose control of himself. His feet fell faster and faster, and when he struck the water his body was nearly horizontal. The contact was like the sudden crack of a pistol.”
Wilcox was pulled from the water and rowed to shore. He managed to stand up and walk to his home on Front Street, and to sit down in his big rocking chair. There, he gave a few labored gasps and died from fatal internal trauma.
Meredith Stanley had a longer career and greater fame. Stanley had learned the value of publicity when he dramatically rescued two young ladies from the Ohio River in May 1888. Out for an evening cruise, one of the women fell into the stream and was drowning while the other fainted. The boat drifted uncontrollably downriver. Stanley stripped, dove in, hauled the drowning girl back into the boat and towed the boat back to shore by gripping its mooring chain in his teeth as he swam. The parents of the two rescued damsels chipped in and gave Stanley $100 and a gold medal.
On a five-dollar bet, Stanley made his first bridge jump on Tuesday, 3 July 1888, leaping from Cincinnati’s Suspension Bridge into the Ohio River. Unlike the doomed Wilcox, Stanley always leapt feet-first. Although instantly famous, Stanley wanted more.
Next spring, Stanley traveled to Lexington for the big one. His Suspension Bridge leap was probably 110 to 120 feet. Steve Brodie’s (in)famous alleged leap from the Brooklyn Bridge would have been more like 135 feet. Just south of Lexington on the Cincinnati Southern railroad line is the High Bridge, 285 feet above the Kentucky River.
Accompanied by witnesses, Stanley made the jump on 11 April 1889. The Cincinnati Post reported that a small group of friends from Cincinnati was augmented by a dozen or more curiosity seekers as Stanley perched on the bridge railing: “Stanley bounded far out into the air, contracting himself into a mere ball and drawing his limbs together. Like a shot he fell down, down. It seemed an age to the eager spectators, though but a few seconds to the bold bit of humanity below. High into the air like a suddenly awakened fountain the water rose as with a tremendous splash the human meteor cut the surface.”
Although the Kentucky River was only 12 feet deep at the High Bridge, Stanley survived the plunge and took the train back to Cincinnati that evening. Bystanders recalled that he spit up a fair amount of blood, but he claimed no ill effects.
Word about this jump got back to a very impressed Steve Brodie. According the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [14 April 1888], Brodie offered to pull a purse together so he and Stanley could jump together and see who was the best.
“I never heard from or saw the man in my life, but if he wants to jump he can win a thousand dollars cold cash from me . . . but he must jump first.”
That competition never came to pass. Stanley continued to jump from Cincinnati’s bridges for small bets, often chased off by the police. In April 1891, he hurled himself from three local bridges in one day – the Suspension Bridge, the C&O Bridge and the Southern Bridge.
Imitating Brodie, Stanley made a few vaudeville-style appearances, including a stint at the Kohl & Middleton Dime Museum on Vine Street, sharing the bill with the China Sea Devil Fish, Huber the Armless Mouth Artist, and the Wooly Woman. The Highland House, up at the top of the Mount Auburn Incline, hired Stanley in 1890 to entertain revelers by leaping from a 115-foot tower into a net. He also got some work diving for the crowds at Chester Park.
After some years as a solo performer, Stanley tried to bring his wife, the former Blanche Mason, into the act. It appears that Meredith and Blanche really did leap off the Suspension Bridge together on New Year’s Day 1892. Even though the newspapers reported in some detail about Blanche Stanley’s training regimen, in which she stripped naked while her husband poured buckets of ice-cold water over her, no one stepped forward to act as manager. It appears Stanley mostly did vaudeville and sideshows in Cincinnati, and was never a regular on the national circuit.
Eventually, the public’s taste for bridge jumping waned and attention diverted to other novelties, like the Nickelodeon. Stanley had to go to work for a living and became a steeplejack, painting church spires and smokestacks around the city. That’s what killed him, aged 74 on 12 April 1938, when he fell 30 feet from a smokestack at the old New York Laundry building on Hamer Street.
Compared to the plunges he survived in his heyday, it was nothing to brag about. But for his final plummet, Stanley found only solid pavement below.