The Knievel effect
Stunt motorcyclist Robbie Knievel’s jump across the Ohio River, currently planned for the end of September, won’t be the first daredevil feat performed in the Marietta area, according to local historian Louise Zimmer.
Knievel announced earlier this month that he plans to make the jump across the river from Marietta to Williamstown the final feat of his career in the U.S.
“I heard someone say this was the first daredevil stunt in Marietta, but I begged to differ,” Zimmer said Sunday. “While going through some old newspapers, researching a completely different subject, I found at least three accounts of past daredevils who came to town, and two of the three were just kids.”
She said the earliest stunt was a balloon launching reported in the Sept. 19, 1860 edition of The Marietta Intelligencer.
“The proposition of Mr. W. J. Shotts, to ascend in his balloon on Wednesday last, attracted a large crowd of people of both sexes, big and little, from far and near, to witness the daring feat,” according to the newspaper reporter at the time.
“The setting for all this drama was the lawn at the Second Street side of the (Washington County) court house, about where the bus stop is located today,” Zimmer said, adding that inflation of the balloon turned out to be an all-day affair due to windy weather conditions.
She said after climbing into the balloon’s “precariously-attached” basket, Shotts gave a signal and the inflated cotton structure rose rapidly into the air, hovering above the town’s highest buildings.
“The crowd roared with admiration,” Zimmer said.
But the stunt soon went awry after a high burst of wind tilted the balloon to an angle of approximately 40 degrees, leaving Shotts dangling from the basket, holding on for dear life.
The newspaper reported Shotts eventually re-entered the basket, but then the balloon began climbing again, rising ever higher into the sky until the unthinkable happened-the balloon split in two.
“(The crowd) could see him, still on his feet, standing in that ridiculous basket, gripping the ropes, attempting to steer the remnants of his errant air craft toward some open spot,” Zimmer said. “He struck the ground a few feet from the river, where half the town rushed to extract him from the balloon, expecting to find (in the words of the horrified reporter) ‘a mangled mass of humanity, smashed to a jelly!’ But in this, he said, they were fortunately disappointed.”
Shotts miraculously survived the fall, but suffered from two breaks below the knee of his right leg and some scratches to his face.
Later that same year another daredevil, 16-year-old Charlie Alford stretched a cable from the roof of the National House (a hotel then located at the corner of Greene and Second streets) to a pole at the corner of an alley more than 300 feet away, according to the Nov. 3, 1860 edition of The Home News.
Quoting from the newspaper article, Zimmer said “At the appointed time, Charlie made his appearance on the roof of the hotel, in colorful costume, seized his balancing pole, and marched out on the line with the stately and heroic tread of a warrior. He reached the other end of this journey without difficulty, amid the hushed stillness of the largest crowd we ever saw in Marietta. Resting a few moments, he retraced his steps to near the National, fastened his pole to the cable and guy wires, and gave an illustration of how a man would look pointing his pedals to the sky, hanging by his feet, at that distance above terra firma.”
Zimmer said the performance was repeated before a huge crowd that evening with a torch fastened to each end of Alford’s balancing pole.
“Seems like life in our town just produced one amazing feat after another,” she said.
The third stunt article Zimmer found, in the July 15, 1905, Marietta Daily Times involved another young man named Jesse Malone who reportedly wanted to become a professional “bridge-jumper.”
“Jesse Malone was from Brighton, Pa., who traveled with a carnival that was in Marietta at the time,” Zimmer said. “How would you parents and grandparents of teenage boys like it if your darling heir announced (bridge jumping) was his ambition and intended career?”
The Daily Times reported that-after a week’s delay due to inclement weather-at 3 p.m. on the last day of July, Malone leaped backwards off a wooden plank he had erected on top of the Putnam Street Bridge, dropping 70 feet into the Muskingum River.
“He surfaced quickly, swam ashore, and passed the hat,” Zimmer said. “The payoff for this daring act: $7.50. The next day, the carnival left town and Jesse went with it, with the promise that he would return soon for another jump.”
But she added that Malone’s luck ran out while attempting a similar feat from the Fifth Street Bridge in Zanesville about a month later. His first jump from that bridge apparently went perfectly, but the following day he collided with a log floating in the river, suffering a severe concussion as well as a large laceration on his head and back.
Zimmer said two days later Malone was making plans for another jump from the bridge, but Zanesville’s chief of police at the time ordered no more diving from the bridge. She added that Malone’s Zanesville jump only earned him $3.20 from the crowd.
He eventually moved on to Charleston, W.Va., where Zimmer said he jumped from a 100-foot-high bridge.
But Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews believes Knievel’s stunt will cap them all.
“I think this will be bigger than the Riverfront Roar and Ohio River Sternwheel Festival put together,” he said. “We’ll probably have several television crews here, and I’m already getting calls from many people asking about this event. Our local hotels will be filled.”
Matthews talked to Knievel earlier this month and the daredevil-son of infamous stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel-said the jump was doable.
“I asked how many jumps he plans to make, and he told me this would probably be his last in the U.S.,” Matthews said.
Knievel is, however, reportedly considering one more jump outside the U.S., at Wembley Stadium in London, where his father crashed after jumping 13 double-decker buses.