Skip to main content

Steve Brodie

Artist's rendering of Brodie's famous bridge jump.




In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, connecting what were at the time the separate cities of New York, New York and Brooklyn, New York.  Naturally, it didn’t take long before people started to think it was a good idea to jump off of the bridge.  In 1885, Robert Odlum, a swimming instructor from Washington, DC, was the first to attempt the jump, and died when he hit the water.  The bridge is very high, over 100 feet in most parts of it, and when a human being hits the water while falling from that distance, it doesn’t make for a soft landing.

Odlum’s ill-fated jump may have killed him, but it also made him famous.  Or, more to the point, he made the idea of jumping off the bridge popular.  In 1885, when Steve Brodie, a 24-year-old local newsboy, said he wanted to be famous, it’s said that a shopkeeper suggest that he jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.  Then he’ll be famous.

Brodie liked the idea.  He started telling everyone he knew on the Bowery that he was going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.  This was met with quite a bit of skepticism, too.  It’s said that Brodie had $200 riding on a successful jump from the side of the bridge, which is a lot more than a guy selling newspapers at 2¢ a copy is going to make in less than a month, to say nothing of an afternoon.  So… Brodie jumped.

Obviously a jump like that, dropping fourteen stories to the river, would have killed him.  According to Brodie, he wasn’t killed that day, and that’s the only detail we can really be sure is true at this point.  Some speculated that Brodie didn’t actually make the jump, though Brodie himself insisted that he did.  The stunt wasn’t filmed, nor could it have been, since the motion picture camera still hadn’t been invented yet.  But Brodie was in the East River that day, so how did he survive?

One idea that was put forth in the 1933 movie The Bowery was that Brodie’s friends had tied a number of sandbags together and dressed them in clothes.  They carried the dummy out to a spot on the bridge and, when there were no pedestrians on the bridge who were close enough to see what was going on, they pretended to argue loudly with Brodie, begging him not to jump, and then pushed the dummy over the edge, screaming in agony as they watched their friend fall to his certain death.  Meanwhile, Brodie had already swum out to an appointed spot under the bridge, and when the dummy hit the water, Brodie waited a few moments, and “emerged”, then swam to the riverbank and lived the rest of his life as the man who survived jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

No one really thinks that jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge is a good idea, but New York City police say that several people do jump off the bridge every year, and sometimes one of them does survive.  Brodie was young and fit, so it’s not impossible.

What is certain is that this launched Brodie’s career as a celebrity.  He appeared in musicals in New York, and eventually opening a bar.  Sometimes politicians in other cities and towns would capitalize on Brodie’s fame by hiring him appear at the opening of a newly-constructed bridge, and Brodie would jump off of it—for a small fee, of course.

Brodie died in 1901 at the age of 39.  It wasn’t bridge jumping that killed him, but rather a combination of diabetes and tuberculosis.  His memory lived on for years.  He was often used as an icon of the Bowery and of his times.  His name even made it into the English language, for a while.  Long after his death, the phrase “to do a Brodie” meant to do something unnecessarily risky, whether a bridge was involved or not.


The quickest route to fame and fortune: do something needlessly risky and dangerous, or at least convince everyone you have.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Halley's Comet Panic of 1910

If you were around in 1986, you might remember the excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet.  Halley’s Comet hadn’t been seen since 1910, and 76 years later, it was getting ready to make another pass by Earth.  Many who were excited probably wound up feeling a little disappointed. I’ll admit I was. I was sixteen, and was eager to see a bright ball in the sky with a burning tail lighting up the night.  All we got to see was a small, faint, comet-shaped light in the sky. It turned out that in 1986, the comet passed when the Earth was on the other side of the sun, so there wasn’t much to look at. We knew it was coming, though.  We’ve known this since 1705, when Edmond Halley predicted the comet would return on Christmas night, 1758.  Halley died in 1742, so he never got to see that he was correct—but he was correct. Halley’s calculations show that the comet will pass by Earth every 74 to 79 years, and these passes are predictable. When Halley’s Comet isn’t near Earth, …

43-Man Squamish: An Innovation in Athletics

For some people, one of the most tantalizing challenges is being told, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t do something.  In 1965, MAD magazine writer Tom Koch laid down one such challenge.  He wrote an article laying out the rules of a sport he invented called 43-man squamish.  The article was illustrated by artist George Woodbridge, and judging by the mail MAD received from its readers, it was a huge hit.  Of course, Koch didn’t really intend the article to be a challenge.  His idea was to invent a sport that was complex, convoluted, absurd, and ultimately unplayable.  It featured the kind of text readers of MAD, not athletes, would expect.  It’s an uncommon sport that has instructions like, “The offensive team, upon receiving the Pritz, receives five Snivels in which to advance to the enemy goal.  If they do it on the ground, it’s a Woomik and counts as 17 points.  If they hit it across with their Frullips it’s a Dermish which only counts points.  Only the offensive Niblings a…