ODLUM: A LEAP OF FATE

The Brooklyn Bridge holds the dubious distinction as being New York City‘s bridge of choice for jumpers. Stretching 5,989 feet (1825 m) and 135 feet (41m) high at midspan over the East River, the bridge connects the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. When it opened on May 24, 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and became a legend almost immediately, attracting crowds from all over the world. What better locus for one’s death-defying or death-seeking plunge than the Brooklyn Bridge? However, the first jump from the bridge was, I think, its most spectacular and most poignant.

The person holding the dubious distinction as the Brooklyn Bridge’s first jumper was a man named Robert E. Odlum, a long distance swimmer and swimming instructor. Born in Ogdensburg, New York he was employed as a teacher at swimming schools in Washington and at Fort Monroe, teaching the children of Presidents Hayes and Garfield. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, “he was a man of fine physique, standing nearly six feet in height, and proportionately framed. He had superb muscular development.”

From the moment the bridge was opened Odlum was possessed with a desire to jump from it. Similar to Philippe Petit‘s impulsive obsession to tightrope-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Odlum desired to jump from the bridge. He studied it in all its “bearings” and claimed that he knew the Brooklyn Bridge as well as he knew himself; indeed, stating that “I am convinced that I can jump from the bridge with as perfect safety as you can jump from the chair on which you are sitting.”

Odlum had made an earlier attempt to jump but was prevented by bridge police. However, he remained in the New York and patiently awaited another opportunity. This came on May 19, 1885 when the East River was at flood tide, there was no (or little) wind, and Odlum was feeling in “excellent trim.” Far from keeping his imminent jump a secret, he publicized the exact time when it would take place. Of course, police were on the lookout for Odlum who, to ballast his publicity, had devised a deception. Arriving at the mid-span of the bridge in a convoy of wagons, one of his cohorts, James Haggert, riding in the lead assumed Odlum’s identity, leaped out of his wagon, and ran toward the bridge suspenders. While police were busy with the decoy Haggert, Odlum, riding some distance behind, stripped off the old clothes he was wearing and majestically appeared on the bridge in a red swimming outfit.

Before bridge police even knew what was happening, Odlum made his way to the guardrail and, holding one arm to his side and pointing toward the sky with the other, leapt from the bridge. He hit the water in three seconds but his position had changed in the descent and he landed almost horizontally. Odlum disappeared beneath the waters. Friends stationed in a boat immediately rowed to the spot where one Paul Boyton jumped in after Odlum, quickly surfacing with (as was soon obvious) the critically injured daredevil. Odlum regained conscious for a brief time and, with blood oozing from his mouth and nose, asked, “Did I make a good jump?” Less than thirty minutes later, Odlum was pronounced dead.

Brooklyn Eagle (May 20, 1885)

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