J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

John Childs, Rope Flyer

Yesterday I quoted John Childs’s announcement that he planned to fly from the steeple of Christ Church in Boston’s North End, the church we now call Old North. The 15 Sept 1757 Boston News-Letter duly recorded:

Tuesday in the afternoon, John Childs, who had given public Notice of his Intention to fly from the Steeple of Dr. Cutler’s Church, perform’d it to the Satisfaction of a great Number of Spectators; and yesterday in the Afternoon he again perform’d it twice.

The last Time he set off with two Pistols loaded, one of which he discharged in his Descent; the other missing fire, he cock’d and snap’d again before he reached the Place prepared to receive him.

It is suppos’d from the Steeple to the Place where the Rope was fix’d was about 700 Feet upon a Slope, and that he was about 16 or 18 Seconds performing it each Time.

As these Performances led many People from their Business, he is forbid flying any more in the Town.

The said Child says he had flown from the highest Steeples in England, and off the Monument, by the Duke of Cumberland’s Desire.
So what did Childs actually do? The important technical information is his “Rope was fix’d about 700 feet upon a Slope.” The steeple of Old North is 190 feet tall. So even if the rope were tied to the tippy-top, it must have formed a fairly gentle slope to the ground, far from the vertical. Furthermore, despite the newspaper’s clear interest in the speed and angle of Childs’s descent, its printers didn’t describe him as flying with any apparatus. Finally, to fire off two pistols during his second descent, Childs had to have both hands free.

All those clues, I’m sure, helped scholar Peter Benes connect Childs’s feat to a form of entertainment that daredevils had been offering in England for centuries: rope-flying. (Benes’s discussion appears in the article “Itinerant Entertainers in New England and New York, 1687-1830,” in the Dublin Seminar volume Itinerancy in New England and New York.)

A rope flyer started by stretching a long, strong rope from a steeple or other tall structure down to the ground on a slant. Then after making as big a deal of the event as he could, he went up the tower and waved to the assembled crowd. And then...

William Hogarth depicted a London rope flyer in his painting and engraving titled Southwark Fair. The painting is now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, but the online image is too small to see this detail clearly. Instead, I direct you to Benjamin N. Ungar’s thorough dissection of the engraved image [click the X to get rid of the ad if need be] and particularly its close-up of the “flying man.”

As you’ll see, a rope flyer slid down his rope head-first, arms and legs on either side of the cord. To protect his torso, he wore a board with a groove cut vertically down its center. His dangling limbs helped him keep his center of mass close to or even below the rope, so he didn’t fall off. And at the bottom? Samuel Breck’s memoir of growing up in Boston adds the detail, recalled by his mother, that Childs landed on a stack of feather mattresses.

So what John Childs did wasn’t really “flying” at all. It was, as Woody the Cowboy says in Toy Story, “falling with style.” But this was a quarter-century before the Montgolfier brothers sent up their first balloon. Sliding head-first down a rope, pistols blazing, was the closest anyone had seen to a man flying. Only after balloonists like Jean Pierre Blanchard really did fly for the public was that verb taken away from the rope-flyers, and their feat disappeared from the collective memory.

TOMORROW: Lingering mysteries about John Childs, the “flying man.”

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