The strange, cruel spectacle of horse diving once drew big crowds in Maine

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  • William Frank Carver
    American entertainer

Jan. 10—At the Maine State Fair in 1925, Dr. Carver's Diving Horses made a splash.

People flocked to the fairgrounds in Lewiston to see "The Girl in Red" make a "suicide jump" clinging to the back of a huge horse as it leapt from a 40-foot tower into a pool below.

The Lewiston Evening Journal called it a "Stunt With a Real Thrill" in its front-page headline highlighting an act that had pulled in big crowds from Texas to London for a generation.

While it may seem a cruel spectacle to watch a horse plunge off a tall platform into a pond or a pool below, in those days before radio and television, horse diving held a special place in the American imagination.

The Philadelphia Record called one early display "unquestionably the greatest act before the public today."

Never a regular feature of Maine life, diving horses nonetheless made the trek to the Pine Tree State on at least a handful of occasions, including a 1915 exhibition in Litchfield, the state fair show in 1925 and a 1929 visit to the Eastern Maine State Fair.

"There can possibly be no more thrilling moment than when the horse, a very beautiful animal, stands on the edge of the great tower and paws at the brink," the Lewiston Evening Journal said in its description of the scene at the state fair.

"The girl on his back sits crouched like a jockey. She is dressed in a bathing suit of flaming red," it said. "Then he steps across, falls like a plummet and the girl emerges from the water waving her hand."

Sonora Carver was likely the "Girl in Red" who created such excitement among fairgoers in Lewiston.

At the age of 20 in 1923, working in a department store, she answered a want ad in a newspaper in Savannah, Georgia, seeking an "attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel."

She found Dr. William Frank Carver, an old man by then, at the Savannah Hotel. He'd made his fortune decades earlier as a famed sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and gotten into horse diving when it started to catch on.

When the young woman heard about the job, she told him she had no interest.

Then, that very night, a boy took her to the fair "and we watched the horse dive. I asked this boy whether he would do that and he asked me if I thought he was crazy. Well, that's when I decided to try it," Carver told the Chicago Tribune decades later.

The old showman must have liked her spunk because she soon had one of the most unusual jobs in the world, taking the place of a predecessor who had decided to move on.

His new hire in Savannah proved a hit with his son Al at least as much as she did with the public. She married him and became not just an employee but a part of the family.

Carver's diving horses, and the "Girl in Red" who added to the spectacle, toured constantly, making appearances at fairs, parks and other venues where people gladly forked over 50 cents or more to see something recklessly unusual.

The Shreveport Times explained why it was so breathtaking to see in its account of the 1914 Louisiana State Fair.

First, it said, Carver's animals were taught to dive head-first from what it claimed was an 85-foot-high platform. It was really about half that high.

"Most anyone would think this is sensational enough," the story said. "But when the wild and woolly, frenzied, fury girl rider was introduced to the public, sensational reached the limits of hair-raising, death-defying dips of death."

"All other stunts of a dangerous nature disappeared, and the high-diving girl on horseback holds the center of the stage as the most daring, nervy, fearless, flirting-with-death proposition ever looked upon by human beings," it added.

When the horse jumped, the account said, "The Girl in Red" looked like red lightning as she and the beast plummeted from a platform high in the air into a 12-foot-deep pool on the ground below, emerging soon after to cheers and applause. The horse got some sugar. The girl got a towel.

Riding a diving horse wasn't easy.

In 1906, the St. Joseph News-Press in Missouri assigned one of its reporters, Frank Wright, to take the plunge with one of Carver's equines and see if he could hang on. He could not, emerging from the water intact and chagrined.

Other riders, though, broke bones and suffered other injuries.

Carver wound up blinding herself in 1929 when she forgot to close her eyes as she hit the water after the horse shifted unexpectedly, detaching both her retinas simultaneously.

It didn't take long, though, for the family-run show to bill her as the blind girl who could ride the horse down through the air, a stunt so malignant that it's hard to believe. Yet Disney somehow managed to make a feel-good film about her back in 1991, "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken."

Carver claimed to have invented horse diving after a bridge collapsed under him while he rode along, forcing his mount to take a dive with the cowboy. That's not how it happened.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune tied to the release of the Disney film, Sonora Carver remembered that her father-in-law said the inspiration came when friends played a prank on him in Nebraska, where he'd been riding over to the far side of the Platte River regularly to visit a woman.

His friends "took the boards out of the middle of the bridge," she said, and "he and the horse went right into the river. That gave him the idea."

Even that, though, isn't true.

George Holloway was the first successful purveyor of horse-diving exhibitions. He claimed he got the idea in Iowa after watching frolicking horses repeatedly jump off a bluff into the Des Moines River for their own amusement.

He trained two of the water-loving horses to leap from a platform, named them King and Queen, then hit the road with them, finding fame and fortune along the way.

By the time Holloway's act got to Coney Island in 1899, where inventor Thomas Edison filmed it, people jammed the venue to see for themselves the milky white, lively and seemingly fearless horses.

Housetops in the vicinity "were black with struggling humanity," the New York Evening Telegram said.

"Tens of thousands are present at every performance," the Brooklyn Eagle noted. "Visitors to Coney Island seem mad over the diving horses."

Seen in England at Christmastime that year, the Sportsman proclaimed King and Queen "something new under the sun" and the St. James's Gazette said the horses had become the talk of London.

They didn't remain the hot new act for long, of course, though it doesn't appear that the American Humane Society's declaration in 1900 that making horses dive was cruel made any difference.

In the years to come, King and Queen frequently toured smaller venues in New England and New York, jumping at amusement parks like Lake Compounce in Connecticut and entertainment venues such as the Tacoma Inn, erected in Litchfield, Maine, in 1909 on the strip that separates Woodbury and Sand ponds to take advantage of crowds delivered by the Lewiston, Augusta and Waterville Street Railway.

A postcard from 1915 shows King or Queen leaping from a tall, wooden platform into Sand Pond.

Though there doesn't appear to be an account of the pair's appearance in Litchfield, the Berkshire Eagle provided one from the diving horses' visit to western Massachusetts in 1909.

The two horses each walked up a long, wooden incline to a spot 30 feet above Pontoosuc Lake, the paper said.

"Without a word of command," it said, "they dive from this platform into the water" to the thrill of the crowd gathered to watch.

As ridiculous and cruel as the jumps into the water no doubt were, neither Holloway nor his successor, a Boston amusement park owner named J.W. Gorman, ever followed Carver's lead in having a woman ride the horse from the platform through the plunge.

It's not clear when King and Queen's career stopped, but the last mention of them may have been in a Boston newspaper in 1919 that said the two famed horses could be seen at Gorman's amusement park.

Carver's shows, though, carried on, featuring celebrated riders that included The Girl in Red, Two Feathers and Sonora Carver.

Carver's horse-diving show came back to Maine in 1929 for the Eastern Maine State Fair in 1929, where it was billed as "the greatest of horse-diving acts."

It, too, fizzled out eventually, and the horse-diving spectacle finally petered out in 1978 when the last regular horse-diving exhibition in the nation took place in Atlantic City.

With dwindling numbers of customers and growing pressure from animal rights activists, the owners of the pier on the Jersey shore stopped having horses fling themselves into a pool beside the ocean.

An era ended.

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