The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

by Jacob Smith

View All Available Formats & Editions

Well before Evel Knievel or Hollywood stuntmen, reality television or the X Games, North America had a long tradition of stunt performance, of men (and some women) who sought media attention and popular fame with public feats of daring. Many of these feats—jumping off bridges, climbing steeples and buildings, swimming incredible distances, or doing tricks with

…  See more details below


Well before Evel Knievel or Hollywood stuntmen, reality television or the X Games, North America had a long tradition of stunt performance, of men (and some women) who sought media attention and popular fame with public feats of daring. Many of these feats—jumping off bridges, climbing steeples and buildings, swimming incredible distances, or doing tricks with wild animals—had their basis in the manual trades or in older entertainments like the circus.
In The Thrill Makers, Jacob Smith shows how turn-of-the-century bridge jumpers, human flies, lion tamers, and stunt pilots first drew crowds to their spectacular displays of death-defying action before becoming a crucial, yet often invisible, component of Hollywood film stardom. Smith explains how these working-class stunt performers helped shape definitions of American manhood, and pioneered a form of modern media celebrity that now occupies an increasingly prominent place in our contemporary popular culture.

Read More

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Thrill Makers

Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

By Jacob Smith


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95236-2


The Adventures of the Bridge Jumper

On July 22, 1886, a figure was seen falling from near the center of the Brooklyn Bridge. The body was in the air for about three seconds as it traversed the 135 feet from the bridge to the water, and after striking the East River it disappeared from sight for nearly half a minute. A man was soon pulled from the water into a tugboat and brought to shore, where he was promptly arrested for attempted suicide. By the time the jumper, named Steve Brodie, emerged after a brief stint in a police court cell, he had become an instant celebrity. Brodie was shown newspaper illustrations of his jump and signed a contract to appear in dime museums across the country. Newspapers around the United States published accounts of Brodie's leap, and tourists were soon crowding into Brodie's New York saloon in order to catch a glimpse of him. Within a decade he was a traveling performer on the stage, serving drinks in a stage replica of his Bowery Street saloon and reenacting his famous jump from the bridge.

Brodie's career has much to tell us about the emergence of modern media celebrity and the kinds of spectacular stunt performances that could be mobilized to create it in the years just before the cinema. Bridge jumpers like Brodie took the modern urban landscape as their stage and in so doing reinterpreted the city and reinvented themselves. During the same years that stunt performers like Brodie were transforming the cityscape into a backdrop for their own entertainments, representations of the urban environment became attractions on the spectacular melodramatic stage. Brodie's jumps from both actual steel suspension bridges and stage representations of them collapsed distinctions between indoor and outdoor entertainment, just as the cinema would soon bring images of the world into theatrical spaces. Though I will argue that Brodie and the cast of stunt celebrities with whom he was associated point toward a distinctly cinematic entertainment and stardom, they also continued two older traditions: a workingmen's entertainment subculture whose center was the saloon, and a tradition of popular spectacle that took place along the canals, rivers, docks, and waterfalls that drove the commerce of nineteenth-century industrial mill towns and shipping ports. In regard to the latter, stunt jumping as a mode of American popular performance began earlier in the nineteenth century with another man who used dangerous stunts as a vehicle for a new kind of celebrity. We begin then, sixty years before Brodie's leap from the Brooklyn Bridge, at the construction site of a bridge that was being built thirty miles to the northwest of New York City.


In 1827, a builder and sawmill owner named Timothy B. Crane was overseeing the completion of Forest Garden, an elite resort on the north bank of the Passaic Falls in Paterson, New Jersey. Paul E. Johnson describes the class tensions surrounding this project: Crane's Forest Garden was built on what had once been a "public playground," and his upscale developments had aroused the anger of many of the working people of the area. Conflicting emotions therefore existed amid the crowd that gathered to watch as the bridge to Forest Garden was moved into place. Suddenly, a log that was being used in the operation fell into the water and the bridge lurched precariously. At that moment a young man named Sam Patch, dressed in the parade uniform of the local mill spinners, appeared on a ledge high above the falls. He told the crowd that "Crane had done a great thing," and now he meant to do another. He then jumped into the water below, a spectacular feat that effectively stole the thunder from Crane's celebration.

The geography of industrial labor provided the setting for Patch's jump and charged it with class tensions. Johnson reminds us that waterfalls like the one in Paterson were an integral part of the emerging American industrial economy: the falls were the engines that drove the factory mills where Patch was a mule spinner. Patch's occupation is significant: as a mule spinner he was a skilled and respected manual laborer in a "craftsmen's empire" that "limited the power of employers," a holdout of autonomous work in an era that saw the "initial proletarianization" of American factory work. Indeed, Patch's distinctive jumping technique was a direct outgrowth of the context of factory labor, having been invented by young mill workers who gathered at the falls and then developed a style whereby they jumped "feet first, breathing as they fell," and stayed under water "long enough to frighten spectators" before shooting triumphantly to the surface. Patch's leap was thus "a kind of occupational skill," and class conflict continued to be a factor in his subsequent high-profile jumps: one was meant as an alternative to a private fireworks display at Crane's Forest Garden, and another coincided with a factory walkout.

In order to describe the subtleties of social meaning conveyed by the events at Passaic Falls, Johnson distinguishes between two types of artistry that were put on display there. Sam Patch stated in newspaper accounts that his act was "an art" that he had practiced from his youth. For Johnson, Patch's use of the term art is suggestive:

In Patch's world a man's art was his identity-defining skill ... the whole range of combined mental and manual performances by means of which trained men provided for the wants and needs of their communities. The word "art" affirmed the intelligence, learning, and dexterity that went into building a house, making a shoe, or raising a field of wheat.... [It] called up the yeoman-artisan republic and the ideals of manhood and individual worth that it sustained—ideals that Sam Patch and other workingmen had reformulated and extended into the industrial world of the nineteenth century.

We might say that Patch's art was a self-forming activity whose vehicle was his body, akin to what Michel Foucault calls a "technology of the self" or Marcel Mauss a "body technique." Johnson contrasts this definition of art with one represented by industrialists like Timothy Crane, for whom art was embodied in "works of technology and entrepreneurial vision," such as canals and bridges, that transformed nature and put it to human use. Notably, such industrial projects had "little to do with the skills practiced by ordinary men." Whereas Patch's art was based in manual skill, bodily action, and physical performance, Crane's was made manifest through engineering and the rationalized labor of capitalist mass production. Patch's was a body technique, Crane's an industrial technology.

To better understand the distinction between the "arts" of Patch and Crane, note that Patch's jump is an example of what Erving Goffman calls "action": "activities that are consequential, problematic, and undertaken for what is felt to be their own sake." As noted in the introduction, Goffman uses the term action to refer to tasks in which the consequences of one's decisions are felt immediately, and events inundate "the momentary now with their implications for the life that follows." Action is to be found in occupations where one's activity is "a practical gamble voluntarily taken," such as high construction work, test piloting, and soldiering. Following Goffman, we can see that the risks and consequences of Sam Patch's dangerous jumps were made manifest in the "same heated moment of experience." By contrast, the "art" of Crane's bridge was the result of a long period of planning, the labor of many workers, and a considerable passage of time between the project's undertaking and its completion. Compared to the immediacy of action, the bridge was the site of frozen time and petrified labor. We might understand Patch's jump, then, as an act that unleashed or reconfigured the frozen cultural meaning embedded in the bridge, redirecting it through individual action. To put it another way, a single working-class person could not design, fund, and build the bridge, but he or she could jump from its span, and in that moment appropriate and redirect some of its cultural power.

Goffman notes that social maneuvering takes place during moments of accelerated consequence, making action a powerful mode for the performance of self. In other words, action constructs character. It is during moments of action that the individual has the opportunity to display his or her "style of conduct when the chips are down," Goffman writes. "Character is gambled; a single good showing can be taken as representative, and a bad showing cannot be easily excused or reattempted. To display or express character, weak or strong, is to generate character. The self, in brief, can be voluntarily subjected to re-creation." Patch's jump re-created the self in a dramatic way. Patch soon remade himself as a traveling showman and entertainer: he exhibited himself at a Buffalo museum; he made appearances in silk scarves and a sailor's jacket, accompanied by a pet black bear; and his jumping career reached its zenith with a well-publicized leap at Niagara Falls in 1829. For Johnson, Patch was a pioneer of modern celebrity whose fame went against the grain of a social world governed by "inheritance, fixed social rank, and ordained life courses." Patch was "born into obscurity," Johnson writes, "and he did nothing that classicists considered worthy of renown. Yet he wanted to be famous and he succeeded." The famous jumper thus represented a new kind of celebrity, one who departed from the model of a hero who embodied the ideals of duty, order, and social obligation, and indexed modern conceptions of the individual that resulted from the freedom from feudal obligations, kinship customs, and vocational ties. In this sense, we might say that the thundering chasm into which Sam Patch leaped was modernity as much as the mists of a New Jersey waterfall.

The notoriety created by Patch's "art" was still resonant fifty years after his death, at least among young working-class Americans like Steve Brodie. After his 1886 leap from the Brooklyn Bridge, Brodie indicated his debt to Patch with a number of direct references to Patch's career. Brodie visited Genesee Falls, in Rochester, New York, where Patch had died in November 1829. In May 1889, Brodie jumped into the basin below the Passaic Falls in Paterson, where Patch had begun his public career. Three months later Brodie took what the New York Times called a "leap for sentiment," at Pawtucket Falls, Rhode Island, his "chief motive" being that Sam Patch had jumped there. But Brodie sought to outdo Patch as well as pay tribute to him, announcing that his drop was from a point thirty feet higher than Patch's had been.

Brodie may have become familiar with the highlights of Sam Patch's career by reading about them in newspapers, which were an important part of what Johnson calls the "new apparatus of publicity" that packaged Patch's feats for a mass audience. Patch's entrance on the public scene had been timed fortuitously in this regard, as it coincided with a revolution in the "penny presses" in the 1830s, when newspapers began to reflect "not the affairs of an elite in a small trading society, but the activities of an increasingly varied, urban, and middle-class society," and whose focus increasingly became news items that were actively sought out by reporters. Sensational stunts like Patch's provided the kind of content that reporters needed and that appealed to a broad readership. Brodie would have had plenty of opportunities to become familiar with Patch's career, which was still a topic of newspaper coverage decades after his death, since he had worked as a newsboy. In fact, Brodie's career is closely tied to both the tactics of publicity in newspapers and the culture of the boys who distributed them.


Steve Brodie was one of seven boys raised by his single mother. Brodie never knew his father, who was killed in a gang-related street fight three weeks before his birth. By one account, his father died in a battle between iconic New York gangs, the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits. Like many other urban working-class boys, Brodie grew up "in the shadow of the great newspaper buildings" and made money selling their afternoon editions along Park Row and the Bowery. Brodie was part of a generation of "newsies" who helped to facilitate a boom in afternoon newspaper circulation during the 1880s. The culture of the newsies overlapped with another working-class boys' social club, one that received extensive coverage in the same papers Brodie was selling: the New York Amateur Life-saving Association. The group was initially composed of four boys who patrolled the wharves along the East River at night. The group's leader was named William O'Neill, but he was known as "Nan, the Newsboy." Nan was, in fact, twenty-three years old when he achieved fame as a Life-saver, but he was described as "an overgrown boy in appearance," and he sold newspapers and blackened boots on the Sylvan Line of Harlem steamers in order to support his widowed mother. Other Life-savers included Gilbert Long, age twenty, who was a tinker; Edward Kelly, age sixteen, who worked in a leather manufactory; and Patrick Marr, age ten, also known as "little Patsey" and by trade an apprentice painter. The boys were credited with saving numerous lives and were hoping to upgrade their operation through the purchase of a life buoy, rubber capes for rainy nights, and perhaps a boat.

Nan and company's lifesaving work was an outgrowth of a working-class boys' culture along the New York City docks. In 1879, the children's magazine St. Nicholas described the boys' Cherry Street neighborhood as a place of "tenements, sailor boarding-houses and drinking saloons," where "idle urchins" found a "hundred ways to amuse themselves among the boxes and bales":

The fish-dock and the old "dirt" dock in Peck Slip on summer evenings are white with the figures of bathers. Often, too, even when the law was more stringent against it than now they found means to swim in the day-time. They wrestle and tumble over one another, remain in the water for hours, swim across the swift stream to Brooklyn and back, and dive to the muddy bottom for coins thrown to them by spectators. This was the training-school of our life-savers. Accidents were very frequent here, and the boys made many rescues without thinking much of them.

Steve Brodie took part in pursuits such as these: his first rudimentary lessons in bridge jumping came from "diving for silver quarters from the piers along South street." Brodie and his fellow newsboys also enjoyed jumping into the water from the vessels docked along the wharves. Brodie worked his way up the ships, culminating in leaps from "the third cross-bar," an eighty-foot drop that attracted the attention of commuters riding the ferry. As in Sam Patch's era, practices associated with working-class boys' culture and the spaces of industry were becoming spectacular public entertainment.

Nan and the Life-savers emerged from this culture to achieve a degree of notoriety that must have astonished their working-class peers, a notoriety circulated by newspapers, national magazines, and even the melodramatic stage. St. Nicholas reported that the Life-savers had the "odd experience of seeing themselves and their work represented on the stage": "They went to see, at one of the cheap down-town theaters, a sensational piece entitled, 'Nan, the Newsboy,' which was acted to the satisfaction of quite a large audience." The boys spoke with "great disgust" of the melodramatic flourishes of the play: "There was river pirates and a milliner. A girl she comes singin' down the docks about twelve o'clock at night. There aint no girls comes singin' around us. The river pirates they stabbed the girl and throwed her in. Then there was another one throwed in. We had all three of 'em out in five minutes." Perhaps most galling of all, however, was the fact that the actor playing Nan was "about thirty years old," and the one playing Kelly had a mustache. Steve Brodie thus had Nan as well as Sam Patch as a model for modern media celebrity. There was, however, another important influence on Brodie's career, another person who helped to shape his notions of performance, publicity, and celebrity. Indeed, the Life-savers gained a considerable amount of their own renown through an association with another public figure who was adept at his own novel body technique, a technique that was intimately connected to the nation's waterways.

On December 29, 1878, the New York Times reported that Nan and the Life-savers ate "high pie" at the Fifth-Avenue Hotel with Captain Paul Boyton, who publicly promised to aid the boys and in return was made an honorary member of their "society." Who was this Captain Boyton? Born in 1846 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Boyton told one interviewer that ever since he could walk, he had felt an "irresistible desire to be in the water." Like the New York City dock boys, Boyton had spent much of his childhood in the water, diving not for quarters but for flat stones used in paving streets. He recounted how, at the age of eleven, he had saved a boy from drowning under a newly built suspension bridge on the Allegheny River, after which a crowd had gathered and filled his cap with money. "I was afraid to accept it," he said, "for I knew if it was discovered in my possession at home the fact that I had been playing truant and swimming in the river would surely be betrayed." After briefly attending college and then accompanying his father on trading expeditions among the Native American population, he joined the navy and fought in the Civil War. Water takes on an almost mystical, Melvillian quality in Boyton's description of sailing to the West Indies, where he was a pearl diver after the war: "I have seen in the deep water of the West Indies many peculiar things, and landscapes as beautiful as ever human eye rested upon. The coral banks, in the perfectly clear element, with the tropical sun shining down upon them, present a most wonderful sight."


Excerpted from The Thrill Makers by Jacob Smith. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

Jacob Smith is Assistant Professor at the School of Communications at Northwestern University. He is the author of Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media, and Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures (both UC Press).

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >