Steve Brodie and the Brooklyn Bridge

Brodie's Leap From Bridge Was Disputed, But Another Jumper Had Many Witnesses

Postcard image of Steve Brodie's saloon in New York City.
Postcard of Steve Brodie's saloon, which became a popular attraction for visitors to New York City in the 1890s. Getty Images

One of the enduring legends about the early years of the Brooklyn Bridge was a wildly famous incident which may never have happened. Steve Brodie, a character from the Manhattan neighborhood adjacent to the bridge, claimed to have jumped from its roadway, splashed into the East River from a height of 135 feet, and survived.

Whether Brodie actually jumped on July 23, 1886, has been disputed for years.

Yet the story was widely believed at the time, and the sensationalist newspapers of the day put the stunt on their front pages.

Reporters provided extensive details about Brodie’s preparations, his rescue in the river, and his time spent in a police station following the jump. It all seemed quite credible.

Brodie's leap came a year after another jumper from the bridge, Robert Odlum, died after hitting the water. So the feat had been assumed to be impossible.

Yet a month after Brodie claimed to have jumped, another neighborhood character, Larry Donovan, jumped from the bridge while thousands of spectators watched. Donovan survived, which at least proved that what Brodie claimed to have done was possible.

Brodie and Donovan became locked in a peculiar competition to see who could jump off other bridges. The rivalry ended two years later when Donovan was killed jumping from a bridge in England.

Brodie lived for another 20 years and became something of a tourist attraction himself. He ran a bar in lower Manhattan and visitors to New York City would visit to shake the hand of the man who had jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Brodie's Famous Jump

The news accounts of Brodie's jump detailed how he had been planning the jump.

He said his motivation was to make money.

And stories on the front pages of both the  New York Sun and New York Tribune provided extensive details of Brodie's activities before and after the jump. After arranging with friends to pick him up in the river in a rowboat, he hitched a ride onto the bridge in a horse-drawn wagon. 

While in the middle of the bridge Brodie got out of the wagon. With some makeshift padding under his clothes, he stepped off from a point about 135 feet above the East River.

The only people expecting Brodie to jump were his friends in the boat, and no impartial witnesses claimed to have seen what happened. The popular version of the story was that he landed feet first, sustaining only minor bruises.

After his friends pulled him into the boat and returned him to shore there was a celebration. A policeman came along and arrested Brodie, who appeared to be intoxicated. When the newspaper reporters caught up with him, he was relaxing in a jail cell.

Brodie appeared in court on a few occasions but no serious legal problems resulted from his stunt. And he did cash in on his sudden fame. He began appearing in dime museums, telling his story to gawking visitors.

Donovan's Leap

A month after Brodie's famous jump, a worker in a lower Manhattan print shop showed up at the office of the New York Sun on a Friday afternoon.

He said he was Larry Donovan (though the Sun claimed his last name was actually Degnan) and he was going to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge the next morning.

Donovan claimed he had been offered money by the Police Gazette, a popular publication, and was going to ride onto the bridge in one of their delivery wagons. And he would jump with plenty of witnesses to the feat.

Good to his word, Donovan did jump from the bridge on Saturday morning, August 28, 1886. Word had been passed around his neighborhood, the Fourth Ward, and rooftops were crowded with spectators.

The New York Sun described the event on the front page of Sunday's paper:

He was steady and cool, and with his feet close together he leaped straight out into the great space before him. For about 100 feet he shot straight downward as he had leaped, his body erect and his legs tight together. Then he bent slightly forward, his legs spread a little apart and bent at the knees. In this position he struck the water with a splash that sent the spray high in the air and was heard from the bridge and on both sides of the river.

After his friends picked him up in a boat, and he was rowed to shore, he was, like Brodie, arrested. He was also soon free. But, unlike Brodie, he did not want to display himself in the dime museums of the Bowery.

A few months later, Donovan traveled to Niagara Falls. He jumped off the suspension bridge there on November 7, 1886. He broke a rib, but survived.

Less than a year after his leap from the Brooklyn Bridge, Donovan died after jumping from the Southeastern Railway bridge in London, England. The New York Sun reported his demise on the front page, noting that while the bridge in England was not as high as the Brooklyn Bridge, Donovan had actually drowned in the Thames.

Later Life of Steve Brodie

Steve Brodie claimed to have jumped from the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls three years after his purported Brooklyn Bridge leap. But his story was immediately doubted.

Whether or not Brodie had jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge, or any bridge, didn't seem to matter. He was a New York celebrity, and people wanted to meet him. After years of running a saloon, he became ill and went to live with a daughter in Texas. He died there in 1901.

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McNamara, Robert. "Steve Brodie and the Brooklyn Bridge." ThoughtCo, Oct. 16, 2016, thoughtco.com/steve-brodie-and-the-brooklyn-bridge-1773925. McNamara, Robert. (2016, October 16). Steve Brodie and the Brooklyn Bridge. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/steve-brodie-and-the-brooklyn-bridge-1773925 McNamara, Robert. "Steve Brodie and the Brooklyn Bridge." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/steve-brodie-and-the-brooklyn-bridge-1773925 (accessed November 19, 2017).