If you were going to hold a Christmas fair a century ago, it was a good idea to hire some vaudeville acts — let’s say a xylophone player and perhaps a magician and some fancy dancers to keep things moving.
In Bangor, a daredevil was always a good addition to the mix, and Jack Murphy, the man known in the press as “the most sensational parachute jumper ever seen in Maine,” was a safe bet even if ice floes were starting to run down the Kenduskeag Stream.
The Big Moose Fair got underway on Dec. 6, 1915, at City Hall (the old one on Hammond Street), promising a week of fun and prizes, as well as lots of items for Christmas gifts. The spacious auditorium was “beautifully decorated with bunting and electrical effects” by the men from the local chapter of the Loyal Order of Moose, Lodge No. 791.
“Hand painted booths” contained “teddy bears, dolls, clocks, umbrellas, pillows, pennants, shirt waists, silk hose, candy, bath robes, sweaters and many other useful articles” worthy of putting under the Christmas tree, explained a piece in the Bangor Daily News.
Of immediate interest were the prizes offered just for coming. Topping the list was a five-passenger Chevrolet touring car, “fully equipped with self starter and electric lights.”
The winner of the Queen of the Carnival contest would receive a diamond ring and a crown at an elaborate ceremony on closing night, Dec. 11. The diamond ring and other prizes were on display at Bryant’s Jewelry Store at 46 Main St.
The “real thriller” of the week’s events, however, would be Murphy’s plunge — make that plunges — into the Kenduskeag Stream.
Murphy was no stranger to Bangor. The previous summer, he’d performed at the Eastern Maine State Fair as professor C.C. Bonnette’s assistant. Bonnette had been the fair’s “balloon man” for years, but he was thinking of retiring. That enabled Murphy to earn his own reputation. He grabbed the opportunity, making several balloon ascents, including a particularly spectacular one in which he jumped from the balloon into the Penobscot River.
More recently, Murphy had been featured in a news reel at the Park Theater hanging from a crane by his teeth before jumping into the Merrimack River at Haverhill, Massachusetts. This occurred shortly before his appearance with the Moose folks.
“An assistant cut the rope and I shot down 100 feet into the river,” Murphy told a reporter for the BDN on Dec. 6. “I turned in the air so that I struck the water head first, and it came near being the end of me because I just missed a coal barge.”
The press expected Murphy to create quite a sensation at the Moose Fair by jumping into the frigid Kenduskeag, “that is provided he isn’t killed somewhere in the meantime,” a BDN reporter warned Dec. 1.
That was no joke. Daredevils got killed a lot back then.
Daredevils were seemingly multiplying as fast as the technology that allowed them to risk their lives flying in aeroplanes, climbing skyscrapers and diving from absurd heights, and spreading their fame in the movies.
In the realm of aquatic daredevils was F. Rodman Law, who plunged over Stillwater Falls in 1913 in what was described as the first movie ever made in the Bangor area. Law, a former steeplejack who also was known as the Human Fly and the Human Bullet, leaped out of airplanes and off high structures such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty depending on parachutes for safe landings. Just six years after his “race with death at Stillwater,” he died of tuberculosis.
“As a provider of thrills, Murphy seems to have Rodney Law beaten a hundred ways,” a BDN reporter commented, pumping up the Great Moose Fair. Murphy was still something of a newcomer nationally in the daredevil game, but his “fire dive” was definitely attracting attention.
At about noon Dec. 7, Murphy and at least one reporter from the Bangor Daily Commercial climbed to the top of the R.B. Dunning warehouse alongside the Kenduskeag. The temperature was 36 degrees. Murphy dove head first about 60 feet into the water — not a record for him (that was 106 feet at Camden, New Jersey), but “as a thriller it certainly was worth seeing,” the reporter noted.
The crowd yelled its approval for his “nervy stunt,” as a large motorboat glided out to pick him out of the water and wrap him in a blanket. Back in the men’s dressing room at Dunning’s, he got “a rub down with witch hazel.”
That night, the Moose Fair’s vaudeville show warmed up the audience. Musical George played “operatic and popular airs” on the xylophone, while professor Wells, a master of “black magic,” broke loose from “a large number of chains in which he was securely bound by volunteers from the audience.” Bert Weston and Miss Billie Marian proved “foremost exponents of the terpsichorean art” performing dances “that have never been seen in this neck of the woods.”
Murphy proved his versatility beyond dare-deviltry that evening by entertaining the audience “with some clever comedy and songs done in black face.” Clearly, however, the audience was looking for some more death-defying stunts — most notably his famous “fire dive.”
Two days later, just after noon, he was back on the rooftops looking over the Kenduskeag Stream. The bridge was “black with spectators” who also lined the wharves on both sides of the stream, which was considerably wider back then than it is today. This time he was on the J.N. Towle roof about 50 feet over the water.
After jumping in, he swam to the bridge. Donning a “water-soaked pumper,” he wrapped himself in gasoline-drenched newspapers and set himself on fire. Things didn’t go quite right, however, and before the papers had the opportunity to erupt into flames, Murphy had landed in the water — about 12 feet down — for a soggy ending.
“It was worth seeing, however, and the crowd gave him a cheer,” commented a loyal, if disappointed, reporter for the Commercial (who may have been slipped a few dollars for such persistent coverage).
The Loyal Order of Moose concluded their all-week fair Saturday night. P. Boudreau of Lewiston won the Chevy touring car. A half-dozen other people won cash gifts. One Mrs. Richards of Bangor was elected carnival queen and recipient of the diamond ring with 9,000 votes.
The vaudeville acts reignited after the prizes were handed out and Musical George and the others returned. Murphy had apparently left town, and the rest of his story will have to await a later date.
After the entertainment, the crowd danced to the melodies of O’Hara’s orchestra. “At 12 the music ceased, the dancers left and the Big Moose Fair became a thing of which memories are made,” the scribe for the BDN wrote. Christmas was just around the corner.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.