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Bridge Jumpers

Science fiction writer Douglas Adams’ famous quote, “It’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the end,” is a modern cliche. But at one time, it was unheard of. In New York, in the late 1800’s, when tall buildings and skyscrapers began to appear, some caught fire. Their occupants were beyond the reach of fire department ladders, but they were afraid to jump into safety nets held below, believing that plummeting from a height would suffocate them.

Enter Robert Emmet Odlum, a swimming instructor from Washington, DC with a passion for safety. He believed that everyone should learn to swim, and learn to jump in a high-rise fire. He made it his mission to prove that you could breath while falling. He did so successfully from a series of ever-greater heights. At least for awhile.

By 1885, the Brooklyn Bridge had become an object of fascination. Having previously jumped from 110 feet, expectations grew that he would become the first to jump 130 feet from this famous bridge, into the East River. It didn’t work out well. Evading police efforts to prevent it, with thousands of onlookers watching, he jumped at approximately 5:30 on May 19. He held one hand high above his head as a rudder to try to control his descent. But he began to slant. His right side impacted the water and he disappeared. When he surfaced, he was floating face down. He was rescued from the water, unconscious. He briefly showed signs of life, opened his eyes and asked if he had made a good jump. However, he had ruptured his kidneys, liver, and spleen, and died of his injuries less than an hour after his jump. Despite the sad outcome, Odlum became famous. Others then tried to capitalize on it by taking the same leap into the East River, or at least pretending to.

The second bridge jumper was Steve Brodie, described by the New York Times as “a newsboy and long-distance pedestrian.” Either he jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge, or a dummy did so while Brodie fell out of a row boat, on July 23 in 1886. His motives were not nearly as altruistic. Either he wanted to win a $200 bet, or he wanted to be famous. That, he did accomplish. He also opened a saloon at 114 Bowery near Grand Street, which he fashioned into his own bridge-jumping museum. His fame lives on today: in the slang phrase, “do a Brodie,” meaning to take a suicidal leap; and in the 1965 musical Kelly, inspired by Brodie’s story, so bad that it flopped on opening night – a sudden stop if there ever was one.

— Carol Cofone


1885 Robert Emmet Odlum jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and dies
1886 Steve Brody does or doesn’t jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and lives