Nathan enjoys researching forgotten and unusual historical events.
The Stories of the Human Fly
One of the strangest phenomenons of the twentieth century began as skyscrapers first began to tower over cityscapes across the country. During that era between 1905 to 1929, the first daring adventurers known as human flies began to pop up around the country to scale building with their bare hands (usually to promote various businesses). A few wore special suction gloves to help with their ascent, but many of the better known building climbers used only strong fingers, and their feet to hold grips on the building.
Fame of course was always a strong lure for the human flies. It could also be somewhat lucrative, as business would pay to see their wares advertised to the sometimes large audiences below. The climbers would advertise banks, movies, and life insurance companies (always a favorite). With the publicity and fame for well known steeplejacks (as they were often referred to) such as Harry Gardiner, and George Polley, others followed in their footsteps and before long there were dozens of human flies ascending buildings all over America and Europe.
Many got a taste of fame and fortune themselves, while others met with a more grisly fate. While the human flies climbed buildings, some daredevils went the other way, jumping from bridges and high places. Many of these risk takers were able to catch fleeting fame, and rise above the common populace if only for a brief time.
Harry Gardiner: The First Human Fly
Far and away the best known human fly was Harry Gardiner. Gardiner climbed his first building in 1905, and ended up having topped over 700 by the time he ended his unusual career. By midway through the second decade of the twentieth century, he was famous, and even ascended buildings during the height of his fame to sell war bonds.
Gardiner would often draw thousands to observe his ascents. In December of 1916, over 30,000 people gathered to watch him climb the Omaha World Herald building, 30,000 more came to thrill over his climb in Terre Haute Indiana, and 22,000 watched him climb to the top of a building in Denver. However, the highlight of his career was in Detroit in September of 1916 when Gardiner drew over 150,000 citizens to watch his successful ascent of the 14 story Majestic Building.
Gardiner was still performing as a steeplejack as late as 1926, whereupon he suddenly disappeared. It is said that a man matching his description was found beaten and deceased in Paris France at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in 1933. But it's unknown whether it was actually Gardiner, or just an unlucky tourist.
Human Fly Tragedies
The underlying problem this line of work detailed was, there was no room for error. One big mistake would be your last as you plummeted back to earth. More than a few human flies would meet with a tragic ending in their quest for fame and notoriety.
In 1920, a human fly named Frank Kadolph fell three stories to his death while trying to climb the five story Murray building in Streator Illinois. Witnesses stated that Kadolph seems to be trying to warm his hands by blowing on them before continuing his ascent, only to slip and fall to his death shortly thereafter.
Hundreds of observers witnessed the final moments of Charles Miller, a 28 year old human fly, who lost his grip while scaling the Hamburger department store building in Los Angeles on June 21, 1910. Miller had been denied permission to climb up the side of the store, but did it anyway. He fell from the fourth floor while the onlookers watched in horror. Miller had scaled numerous buildings before this, but all it took was one misstep which cost him his life.
A somewhat ironic accident happened in 1923, when a man named Harry F Young fell to his death while ascending the Martinque Hotel in NYC, while publicizing the Harold Lloyd feature “Safety Last”, the famed silent film which features Lloyd as a human fly in the grand finale. While making the film, Lloyd was only three floors high with a safety net below him. The real human fly Young did not have that luxury, lost his grip, and fell nine floors to his demise. After his death laws began to be passed all over the country making it illegal to climb buildings.
The Yankee Leaper
On October 17, 1929, crowds gathered at Niagara Falls to see the latest daring exploit of the “Yankee Leaper”, Sam Patch. This daredevil had made the same jump ten days before, but disappointed by the small crowd due to bad weather, he decided to up the odds. He announced that the platform would be raised to 125 feet, making the death-defying leap into more of a challenge. The shaky platform was built on two ladders, and extended from Goat Island. Patch was successful (and the crowd was much larger), which brought him a great deal of fame over the next week.
Patch was a young man who worked for the various mills in Rhode Island, and New Jersey. To alleviate boredom during slow periods, Patch and the other workers would jump off the mill's dam into the water. Patch began looking for higher and higher places to jump off of, ending in a number of jumps off of Passiac Falls in New Jersey. After that he bounced around the northeast publicizing his jumps, and collecting money form the curious. The leap off of the platform at Niagara Falls was the culmination of Patch's notoriety for his death-defying jumps.
Patch began looking for another challenge to match Niagara, and settled on the High Falls of the Gennesee River in Rochester New York as his next life threatening leap. He completed the jump on November 7, but similar to Niagara, Patch was dissatisfied with the money collected. He announced another jump on November 13th from a higher platform, and with better promotion had a much larger crowd of 8,000 the second time around. However something went wrong, and Patch did not hit the water with his body straightened out like an arrow as he normally would. Instead he seemed to lose control and landed in the water as if he was already unconscious. His body was found a few days later. Sam Patch was only 22 years old when he died.
Risktaking for Fame and Fortune
These daredevils were able to leave humdrum lives behind and find a measure of success and fame. They stood out from the crowd even if only briefly, and entertained thousands of people. Although technically illegal in most places around the world, there are still daredevils climbing buildings here and there when they can divert the eyes of security for a moment or two.
Human flies now use suction cups, and other modern aids in the climb. However in today's society, they are usually arrested before they can finish their ascent. And judging by all the fatal accidents that happened before safeguards were put in place, may be for the best.
Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last"
Smith, J. (2012) The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, masculinity, and Stunt Performance: University of California Press
Largo, M. (2007)The Portable Obituary: William Morrow Paperbacks
K S Lane from Melbourne, Australia on January 17, 2018:
Interesting to see the parallels between this and the modern day people who do parkour. I suppose that if there are high buildings there'll always be people trying to climb them!