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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.


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