Robert Donaldson Bridge Jumper


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Robert Donaldson from Tain "Jumps Into the Harlem River and Accomplishes the Greatest Jump on Record."

In the early 1880s, New York’s newspapers carried stories about Robert Donaldson’s proposed attempt to jump off the famous Brooklyn Bridge. Robert, who was then aged 24, was born at Tain, in 1856. He lived in Stafford Street with his mother Anne until emigrating to America sometime in the late 1870s. Robert first makes the headlines after jumping from High Bridge in New York, which he claimed he did for a $25.00 bet. 

 

JUMPING FROM HIGH BRIDGE
National Police Gazette: New York, September 4th 1880.

Donaldson Jumps Into the Harlem River and Accomplishes the Greatest Jump on Record.

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Robert Donaldson, a young Scotchman, Jumped from the center of High Bridge a few days ago, a distance of one hundred and twenty-six feet, and landed in the Harlem River in safety. Long before the time was announced for the performance crowds of people flocked in from every quarter, and took up every available position where a good view of the starting leap could be gained.

At 6:55 o'clock Donaldson was seen to walk rapidly across the bridge, and directly behind him came a youth with an overcoat on his arm. They passed along until the middle of the bridge was reached, when they paused over the center archway. Taking off his coat, the man handed it to the boy, and springing over the rail, stood before the numerous and curious spectators.

He waved his arms around his head, and, drawing a handkerchief, held it forth to the breeze. This seemed to be the signal of readiness, for in another moment whistles from passing steamers screamed forth, and the crowd below cheered loudly. Suddenly there was a lull, and for a moment each person held his breath, with eyes anxiously fixed on the almost naked figure on the bridge. Donaldson returned the handkerchief to his companion, and facing the multitude he once more stood erect. He seemed at first to hesitate about taking the fearful plunge, but in a moment he was seen to spring out into the open air and rapidly descend like a ball to the river below. His legs he held tight together, while his arms he used like the flapping of a bird's wings until he reached within twenty feet of the water. Then he drew his arms suddenly close to his breast, his head inclined forward, and he struck the water almost in a stooping position.

Anxious eyes scanned the surface of the water for his reappearance, and in about thirty second3 he was seen to rise and swim for the shore. A boat picked him up, and numerous friends bore him bodily to the hotel, where medical gentlemen were in attendance.

Donaldson is twenty-four years of age and of splendid physique. When seventeen years of age he jumped off Sunderland Bridge in England, a distance of over seventy feet. Donaldson attempted the feat for a voluntary contribution, but the High Bridge hotel people, after he succeeded, failed to keep their promise.

Donaldson says he is ready to jump from any bridge over smooth water in America for $500.

He can always be found at Johnnie Hampson’s saloon, 46 W. Third Street, and people who delight in perilous feats will always find him there, ready to gratify their desires. Donaldson is confident of his ability to Jump from the East River Bridge, and says that he will probably do it before he is through with the high-jumping business.

[Robert later made a second jump from this bridge which added to his growing fame.  Several articles and the following interview appeared about him in the American and British papers.]

A Wonderful Jumper
The Lititz Record, April 14th, 1882.

Among the remarkable athletes in New York is Mr Robert Donaldson, harness manufacturer, Mr. Donaldson was born in Tain, Highlands of Scotland, twenty-six years ago. He is 5 feet 7 inches high and weighs 154 pounds; he measures 36 inches around the chest and 38 inches around the waist. He is as compactly built as Edward Hanlan, the sculler, although his muscles are more flexible.

Mr. Donaldson was introduced to a reporter as a gentleman who was desirous of making a bet that he would jump from the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River. A glance into Mr Donaldson's eyes failed to reveal any gleam of madness or reckless daring. In fact, he was very mild-mannered and quiet. 

"Have you ever jumped from great heights, Mr Donaldson? 

"A hundred times."

"In public?"

"Only three times in public."

"Where?"

"Once in Sunderland and twice High Bridge."

"When did you jump from High Bridge?"

"August 12 and 18, 1880. When I appeared on the bridge, in tights, an excise commissioner of New York bet me $25 that I wouldn't jump. When he paid me the $25 afterwards he said the sight was worth the money. I would have bet him $500 that I would have made the jump safely. I am always perfectly confident, and confidence is nine-tenths of a battle.

"Do you think you could jump from Brooklyn Bridge and live?"

"I'm certain of it. The bridge is only ten feet higher than High Bridge. Besides, the water is lumpy and safer. There is only ten feet of water under High Bridge. I prefer broken water to a smooth surface.”

"Do you practice before making a leap?”

"Always. I go to some retired place where I can get a jump of forty feet, so as to make sure of my position when I go down."

"What is your style of dropping?"

"I crouch with bended knees, and hop off with my elbows nearly a foot from my sides, with my forearms and palms of my hands flat in front of my breast. I work my hands a little like flutter of a bird's wing. The first fifty feet I drop like a shot, then the air catches under my hands, my arms, armpits, chin, and even my ears. It takes four seconds to drop 100 feet. I breathe while I am descending, and clap my hands over my chest and press my elbows to my sides just as I strike the water. All my vital parts are protected. My knees guard my stomach. I believe I could drop safely a distance of 1,000 feet if I could be sure of striking feet first in my crouched position."

"Did you jump from High Bridge the first time you visited it?"

“Oh, no; I always familiarize myself with a place from which I intend to jump. I went to High Bridge every morning for a week, and crouched with my toes on the edge of the wall. By that means I knew just where my body would catch the air, and just where I would breathe going down. Taking a long breath just before you start is all nonsense. You have to go easy and natural. If I should toss my head back at the start, it would land me on my head and shoulders and kill me. They told me at High Bridge that a man named Francis was walking on the bridge one day with two women, when he said: ‘Wait here until I go and get another drink, then I'll show you the greatest jump you ever did see.' He got his drink and jumped straight down. After that he laid ten weeks in a hospital before he died. A German and a negro also lost their lives by leaping there."

"Can you swim well?"

"Yes, ten miles if necessary."

What part of the year do you prefer for jumping?"

"May is the best time."

[Robert’s confidence was misplaced, however, after accepting a wager of $250 dollars to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge to the water below on the 11th May, at 12 noon; things didn’t quite go as planned.]

 

A SCOTCH MAN WHO DID NOT JUMP. 
The Evening Telegraph, June 8th, 1882


Some few weeks ago Richard K. Fox. of the Police Gazelle, made a wage:- of $250 that Robert Donaldson, of Tain, Scotland, would jump from the Brooklyn Bridge in New York to the water below on the 11th day of May at high noon, and when the day came, says the New York Herald, Donaldson was prepared and ready for the jump at the hour named. The affair was supposed to have been kept secret, but when the time arrived for Donaldson to go on the bridge for the jump the wharves on both sides of the river, together with the rigging of all the vessels were filled with anxious onlookers.

The interested parties had engaged a barge to take the backers of Donaldson and their friends out to the middle of the river and close to the bridge so that the passengers would have an uninterrupted view of the performance. At a few minutes after twelve o'clock Donaldson, accompanied by Billy Fields, was seen going up the bridge on the Brooklyn side and when they got to the first tower they halted. Donaldson then took off his outer garments and appeared in a maroon shirt on the front of which, in red letters were the words "Police Gazette." He also had on flesh-coloured tights. Thus thinly clad he ran too near the centre of the budge, where he halted and took a look down at the water. Donaldson appeared chilled by this time, and was seen to take hold of one of the upright rods of the bridge to keep himself on his feet.

After scanning the surroundings and taking another look at the water beneath him he concluded to give up the job for the day as the wind was blowing too strongly for him to keep in an upright position while descending to the water which in case of a turnover on the way down might prove fatal. Donaldson, after having made up his mind to abandon the jump for the time being then walked back toward Brooklyn, where he was met by half a dozen men who accompanied him to whom he had undressed, and after getting on his clothes they accompanied him off the bridge.

There is no doubt that Donaldson will jump from the bridge on some fine day not far off. The time, however, has not been determined on. Donaldson has jumped from nearly all the high bridges in Scotland and England and from many in this country— twice from the High Bridge in the Harlem River. He does not think there is any danger in jumping down any distance if the wind is not blowing too freshly and he can keep his equilibrium.   

[The story again made the newspapers, with less flattering headlines, on both sides of the Atlantic but it seems Robert's jumping days were over and there was to be no second attempt at the jump, as the stories in the newspapers fall silent about the bridge jumper from Tain.]