He was a hoaxster and a huckster, and the personification of what the Gay 90’s Bowery was all about. But no matter what the legend says, Steve Brodie did not jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Steve Brodie was born in New York City on Christmas Day 1861. Not getting much of a school education, Brodie became a newsboy and then a bootblack, who eventually earned his living on the Manhattan side of the newly-constructed Brooklyn Bridge, which connected downtown Manhattan and the southern end of Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, was originally designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling. It took 13 years to build, but Roebling did not live to see its completion. During the initial phase of construction, Roebling had his toes crushed, and after his foot was amputated, a tetanus infection caused his death. The project was completed by his son Washington Roebling, who, after he too suffered a debilitating injury during the construction phase, was helped by his wife Emily, who was basically the liaison between her bed-ridden husband and the construction crew on site.
When finished, the Brooklyn Bridge has a span of 1,595.5 feet, which at its grand opening, made it 50% longer than any other suspension bridge in the world. The bridge is 78 feet, six inches below water level, and 276 feet, six inches above water level. On the first day it opened, 150,300 people crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, along with 1800 horse drawn vehicles.
On May 30, 1883, one week after the bridge opened, a rumor spread that the bridge was about to collapse. People panicked, which led to a stampede in both directions. At least 12 people were killed and others were not accounted for. After this tragic incident, people were afraid to cross the bridge. So P.T. Barnum, of circus fame, removed all doubts, when on May 17, 1884, as a promotion for his circus, Barnum marched 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The first lunatic who tried to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge did not fare very well. In late May of 1884, right after PT Barnum’s successful stunt, swimming instructor Robert Emmet Odlum, who was, oddly enough, the brother of woman’s rights activist Charlotte Odlum Smith, took a flying leap from the Brooklyn Bridge and went splat into the water. When Odlum’s body floated to the surface, he was indeed quite dead.
Steve Brodie was a man down on his luck. After betting on inferior horses at the racetrack, Brodie decided to make a winner out of himself. But Brodie was no fool. He knew what had happened to Odlum and he took all precautions to make sure he didn’t suffer the same fate.
On June 23, 1886, at approximately 2 p.m., Brodie stood at the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge. According to the New York Times article the following day, which was re-printed by the Knickerbocker Village Blog, edited by David Bellel, Brodie had made a $200 bet, to clear up his race track losses. The bet was that he would be brave enough to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Brodie kissed his wife goodbye. She replied, “Good bye Steve and take care of yourself. And may you be successful and scoop us dose $200, so that we kin have a good time.”
According to published reports, Brodie then rode a wagon, which took him to the part of the Brooklyn Bridge just above the East River. In the water below, three men in a rowboat allegedly awaited Brodie’s jump, so that they could fish him from the river before he drowned. According to the Times article, Brodie took off his coat and hat, but not the rest of his clothes.
Someone yelled, “Police! Suicide! Look out! He’s going to jump into the river!”
What happened next has been disputed for years, but in fact, no one who wasn’t connected to the ruse had actually seen Brodie jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. What is certain, is that the three men in the rowboat rowed to where Brodie was floundering about in the East River. When they got to Brodie, they dragged him by his shoulders into the row boat. The men then rowed back to the pier on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge and were met by a Patrolmen Lally. Patrolman Lally immediately put Brodie under arrest.
“On what charge do you arrest me?” Brodie said.
“For jumping off the bridge and endangering you life,” Patrolman Lally said. “You better come with me.”
“OK, I’ll go wid you, but I guess I’ll get the $200,” Brodie said. “I can jump off de highest bridge in de world now.”
Immediately, there were skeptics as to whether Brodie had actually jumped off the bridge, or was it all a stunt? Soon word began circulating in the streets of lower Manhattan that Brodie had pulled off the caper, not for $200, but because a man named Moritz Herzberg had offered Brodie to buy him a saloon, on the basis that after the stunt – Brodie would be famous, and so would his saloon.
Even though the New York Times, (which employed two reporters who said they actually saw Brodie jump off the Brooklyn Bridge) reported Brodie’s jumping to be a fact, in fact, they were all in on the caper. What happened was this:
One of Brodie’s confederates on the Brooklyn Bridge, upon receiving a signal from another accomplice on the dock, dropped a dummy loaded with iron clippings into the water below. At this time, Brodie was hiding under a pier in a small rowboat. As soon as the dummy hit the water, Brodie dove from the rowboat into the water, and swam to the spot near where the dummy had sunk. Brodie’s three pals in their rowboat, rowed to where Brodie had swam and picked him up. The rest is history.
Suddenly, a nobody named Steve Brodie became an instant star in New York City. Trying to cash in on his fame as much as he could, Brodie became the centerpiece of an exhibit at Alexander’s Museum. To further inflate his fraudulent image, Brodie performed a series of stunts, similar to the one he staged at the Brooklyn Bridge. In each stunt, Brodie was pulled from the water after a purported jump from a severe height, but not once did anyone not involved with Brodie actually see Brodie make the jump. After each stunt, Brodie received more newspaper coverage, which further amplified his daredevil image.
Brodie pulled one stunt too many, when after one faked jump, he disappeared completely, leading the suckers who bought Brodie’s exploits in the first place, to believe that he had died by drowning. When Brodie resurfaced in a Bowery bar a few weeks later, the newspapers figured they had been had, and they refused to give Brodie any more press coverage.
Brodie tried to resuscitate his image by actually trying to perform a stunt he said he would do. Brodie considered himself a strong swimmer, so he announced to the world he would swim the rapids in Niagara Falls. Dressed in a rubber suit, Brodie was lowered by a rope in the frigid waters. As soon as his toes settled into the drink, panic set in. Brodie, in a frenetic state and figuring his daredevil days were over, begged to be pulled back into the boat by the rope. And that he was.
So much for Steve Brodie – daredevil.
Not being able to fool the public any longer, Brodie figured it was time take up Moritz Herzberg’s offer of buying Brodie a saloon. In 1890, Brodie opened “Steve Brodie’s Saloon” (what else?) at 114 Bowery near Grand Street. The saloon became an immediate success with the sporting crowd. Boxing celebrities like John L. Sullivan, Jim Jeffries, James Corbett and Tom Sharkey, who all later became world heavyweight champions, hung out frequently in Brodie’s joint. Brodie was always on hand to shake a hand, sometimes even tending bar himself. Behind the bar there was a huge oil painting showing Brodie courageously making his imaginary swan dive off the Brooklyn Bridge. To add veracity to a mendacious non-event, next to the oil painting was a framed affidavit signed by the “boat captain” who fished Brodie from the water.
Surrounding Brodie’s oil painting were nonsensical signs, spouting such inanities as,” The Clock is Never Right,” and “We Cash Checks For Everyone,” and “$10,000 in the Safe To Be Given Away to the Poor,” and “Ask the Bartender For What you Want,” and finally, “If You Don’t See What You Want, Steal It.”
Steve Brodie’s Saloon consisted of three separate rooms. The front room was reserved for the neighborhood rabble who might chance to stagger inside for a cool libation. The two back rooms were for Brodie’s pals and members of the press whom Brodie had on his pad. And there were plenty. The entire floor of all three rooms the saloon was inlaid with silver dollars, so as to give the impression that only the rich and mighty bended an elbow at Steve Brodie’s Saloon, which was certainly not the case. But image is everything, so Brodie kept the press up to their gills in booze, and he stuffed a few bucks into their pockets to boot.
Tour buses made Steve Brodie’s Saloon one of their must stops (Brodie paid the tour bus drivers well too). As soon as the tour bus arrived out in front, the tour guide would proudly proclaim, “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are seeing one of the most historic scenes in this great city. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Steve Brodie’s Famous Saloon. You have all heard of Steve Brodie, the man who made that terrible leap for life from the Brooklyn Bridge to the East River below and lived to tell about it.”
CA-CHING! And soon the entire tour bus crowd rushed inside Steve Brodie’s Saloon to see a piece of history, and of course, to spend a few bucks.
Every once and a while, when the mood hit him, Brodie would wear a tattered suit, which he claimed was the one he was wearing with he made his “fearless jump.” Then, if someone bought a round of drinks (and someone always did), Brodie, his chest puffed out a full two feet, would solemnly regale the crowd with a blow-by-blow description of his gallant leap into the murky waters of death.
Quite frankly, Steve Brodie had no shame.
In 1894, Steve Brodie, still trying to capitalize on his ill-founded fame, appeared in a play called “On the Bowery,” staring, of course – Steve Brodie. The play was originally conceived to star a local 5-foot-2-inch pugilist called “Swipes the Newsboy” (real name Simon K. Besser). However, Swipes accidentally killed a fellow boxer in the ring, which subsequently landed him in jail, because at the time, boxing was illegal in New York City. So in stepped Brodie, and the part was rewritten to accommodate Brodie’s interesting career.
The play originally opened in Philadelphia, made a stop in Brooklyn, then finally found it’s home at The People’s Theatre at 199 Bowery, right down the street from Steve Brodie’s Saloon. The play was basically a hokey mess of disjointed scenes, one of which took place in an exact replica of Steve Brodie’s Saloon. Predictably, at the plays climax, Steve Brodie jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge to save the heroine named Blanch, who had been hurled into the frigid waters of the East River by the wretched villain Thurlow Bleekman.
Brodie even got a chance to put his singing talents, or lack thereof, to use. His heart-rendering rendition of “My Pearl” caused tears to drip from theater-goers eyes. The words of which were:
My Pearl is a Bowery girl,
She’s all the world to me,
She’s in it with any girls ’round the town,
And a corking good looker, see?
At Walhalla Hall she kills them all,
As waltzing together we twirl.
She sets them all crazy, a spieler, a daisy,
My Pearl’s a Bowery girl.
Applause!! Applause!! No tomatoes, eggs, or shoes, please. This is a respectable establishment.
With the play a resounding success, Steve Brodie’s Saloon was even more popular than before. With his newfound wealth, Brodie substantially upgraded his manner of attire. Brodie now lorded over his saloon resplendent with a five-carat diamond ring on his finger, diamond studs instead of buttons on his shirt, and a gold watch and chain, hooked onto his belt loop and slipped into his front pants pocket.
But alas, Brodie’s wealth and success was short lived, because, on January 31, 1901, Steve Brodie died from complications due to diabetes. The man who “jumped” from the Brooklyn Bridge was only 40 years old when he expired.
However, after Brodie’s death he became more famous than ever. Not wanting to disparage a dead man’s name, the rumors of his chicanery concerning the Brooklyn Bridge dive became almost non-existent. In fact, a new American phrase was coined: “Pulling a Brodie,” or, “Taking a Brodie,” which meant doing something dangerous, or maybe even suicidal.
In 1933, Hell’s Kitchen actor George Raft portrayed Brodie in “The Bowery,” a film directed by Raoul Walsh. In the movie, Raft (Brodie) attempts to stage a fake jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. With a crowd of 100,000 people congregated at the bridge, and with a dummy all set to be thrown in the river, the dummy inexplicably disappears. Raft’s young accomplice, aptly named Swipes (played by child actor Jackie Cooper) tells Raft, “They were hip to us so they copped it.”
Raft shrugs his shoulders, and not wanting to disappoint the panting crowd, he makes the daring jump into the drink himself.
And, to the applause of the crowd, Raft (Brodie) survives.
Only in the movies.