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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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mysteries of John Childs

In September 1757, John Childs told Bostonians that he would “fly” from Old North Church. He really meant (and most people probably assumed him to mean) that he would slide head-first down a rope pulled taut on a slant. He did so three times in two days, according to the Boston News-Letter. And then, as far as I can tell, he vanished.

I’ve tried to track John Childs on two continents, and come up with nothing. He was said to be an Englishman, and he claimed to have “flown” off the Monument in London. In London’s Guildhall Library (shown here), I found reports of other men doing the same daredevil feat from that tower, but no John Childs. He dropped the name of the Duke of Cumberland, son of the king, as his patron; that’s led nowhere. So, I’m sorry to say, one may not be able to believe everything that traveling performers say about themselves.

We can sometimes trace itinerants along the North American coast through reports from each major port, as with dentist John Baker. But Childs the rope flyer doesn’t pop up in other newspapers of the time. Perhaps if John Childs were a less common name, it would be possible to spot him as an ordinary citizen, soldier, or sailor—a man who did acrobatics on the side. But there were a lot of men named John Childs in colonial America, and even more in Britain. I’ve chatted with Christopher Child, a genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society with an obvious interest in that family name, but we unearthed no leads. So Childs himself remains a mystery.

The other mystery of this episode for me lies in this line from the News-Letter: “As these Performances led many People from their Business, he is forbid flying any more in the Town.” Boston’s selectmen were the officials who usually took such action against disruptive entertainers. They enforced laws against theatricals, including even Punch & Judy shows. There’s no mention of Childs in the selectmen’s official records, but those were often selective.

No, the real mystery is that no one prohibited Childs from doing his act until he was done. Before he flew, he told the town, through the Boston Gazette, exactly what he was going to do “this Day, and two Days following.” He slid down his rope three times over two days. Then, and only then, was he “forbid flying any more in the Town.”

So I sense the town’s politicians doing a little balancing act of their own: not actually interfering with people’s entertainment while it went on, but making a show of putting a stop to it afterwards so as to reassure the more traditional elements in town.

4 comments:

SwirlyGrrl said...

Did he construct any infernal devices based on caracatures of the time?

J. L. Bell said...

Not that I know of. But then the point of this posting is that I know a lot less about John Childs than I'd like.

Yankee Flyer said...

John Childs,Tower-jumper as aviation historian Charles H. Gibbs-Smith referred to him in his "Aviation, A Historical Survey" (Science Museum 1985),stated that Childs did not try to fly in England or from a tower in Boston in 1757. "This belief is now known to be untrue and was based on a misinterpretation of early records". Gibbs-Smith does not reference the source of this finding but perhaps learning of the tethered descent, the firing of the pistols, the mention of the rope attached to a leather vest in one account- Childs was not technically in free flight. However he was here and he was as close as anyone would get in 1757 to "flying".

J. L. Bell said...

My full analysis of John Childs and his act starts here. I think it’s no coincidence that the audience for “rope-flying” seems to have dried up soon after ballooning became a spectacle. Once people could see actual flight, the approximation of it on a rope wasn’t so exciting.