Wednesday 28 October 2009

Samuel Scott, leaper and diver

In November 1840, Deptford had an unusual visitor: the American 'leaper and diver' Samuel Scott. Posters for his show, performed from the mast of a ship moored at Lower Watergate, promised that he would
DIVE with his Head Foremost and Feet Foremost,
The HEIGHT of 167 FEET!
with his Face striking the water first, and will go through many Feats of Agility aloft, and in the water, he will LEAP with TWO CATS, one on each side of the body, upon the above-mentioned days. - S. S. having gone through the same Performances at Liverpool, Brighton, and many other parts in Great Britain, feels confident, from the patronage he has been honoured with by the Nobility, Gentry, and Inhabitants who witnessed him, that the will be found deserving of the kind support of the Public, upon these occasions.
Scott called himself an American and had apparently already leaped from Niagara Falls. However, it was widely thought that he had in fact been born in Deptford.

Scott's publicity was full of hyperbole: he challenged 'any person in the Universe, for Swimming a RACE.' However, the dangers of his act were not illusory. Part of it involved hanging from a rope looped around his neck; it nearly killed him in Deptford, but he managed to save himself - and took twice as much money as usual from the spectators! However, the same stunt proved fatal the following year at Waterloo Bridge. A newspaper report of the time records both the scene and the measures - some odd to modern eyes - intended to revive him:
On his arrival there could not have been less than from 8,000 to 10,000 persons assembled upon the bridge and along the banks of the river to witness his extraordinary performance. Immediately over the second arch on the Middlesex side and nearest to Somerset-house, was erected a species of scaffolding, composed for two upright poles, and three others crossing them at intervals of about four or five feet, the entire height of which above the balustrades being about 10 feet.

Scott appeared as usual, firm and undaunted, and made several jocular remarks to those around him. Having ascended the scaffolding, he attached the rope he carried with him, which was about 10 feet long, to the uppermost cross pole and after placing some tin boxes round the necks of several of his friends who were to collect money for him, proceeded to commence his performance, observing, "Why you all appear to be cranky." He first put his head into a noose of the rope, and suspended himself for a minute or two; after which he placed his feet in a similar position, and swung with his head downwards. He again mounted the top beam of the scaffold, and, taking a handkerchief off his head, placed it on the top of one of the perpendicular poles. He then seized the rope, and placing it round his neck, exclaimed at the top of his voice, "Now I'll show you once more how to dance upon air before I dive."

The unfortunate man again let himself down to the extremity of the rope with his head in the noose, but had scarcely hung more than three or four minutes when a person named Brown observed that he much feared the man had hung himself in reality, as animation appeared suspended. To this one of Scott's friends replied, "Oh, he has not hung half his time yet." In two or three minutes after, however, shouts were heard in all directions of "Cut him down." Mr. Brown immediately ascended and raised the poor fellow's arm, which on being let go fell heavily back to its original position by his side. This gave convincing proof of the suspension of animation, and renewed cries were raised from all quarters of "Cut him down, cut him down." Some time elapsed before a knife could be procured, and then two persons ascended the ladder, and with the aid of some of the F division of police, succeeded in cutting the man down.

Mr. Havers, surgeon of the York-road, and another medical gentleman who happened to be upon the spot, immediately stepped forward and opened the jugular vein, and also a vein in the arm, but only a few drops of blood followed; and to all appearances Scott was lifeless. A cart was then procured, in which he was conveyed with all possible speed, followed by hundreds of persons, to Charing-cross Hospital. On his admission, it was ascertained by Dr. Golding, the senior physician of the institution, that life was not quite extinct. Under that gentleman's direction, the unfortunate man was, in the first place, subject to the galvanic process; secondly, cupped between the shoulders; and then, lastly, placed into a warm bath, in which he had been but a few seconds when it was ascertained that the vital spark had fled.
After Scott's death, his widow settled in Deptford.


Minnie said...

Oh, how grisly. Am intrigued though as to just how he contrived to make the knot (a) strong enough to hold for the required time, and (b) loose enough to be slipped. But in the end he even defeated himself with his own 'cleverness' ... But honestly: opening the jugular would certainly finish the poor chap off!

CarolineLD said...

I wonder whether it was just a loop, without a knot - it's hard to picture quite how this worked. It's a shame he didn't learn from his near-hanging at Deptford that hanging by the neck is never a good idea!

I was astonished by jugular-cutting as medical treatment, too; the answer is in Cassell's Household Guide, reproduced on Victorian London:

In cases of hanging, it may be necessary to bleed the patient from the jugular vein or temporal artery, in order to relieve the congestion of the head, but [this operation cannot] be safely undertaken except by a medical man.