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Original Gene masters the East River

If you’d been anywhere near New York City’s East River on June 15, 1890, you might have seen a remarkable sight: a young man trussed up with rope, holding iron dumb bells in both hands, swimming from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Pier 19 at the foot of Dover Street in Manhattan.

He was a 24 year old “exhibition swimmer” from St. Louis named Eugene “Original Gene” Mercadier. Mercadier was born in 1866 in St. Louis to French immigrant parents Benjamin, a mail carrier, and Claudine; here they are on the 1880 census. He had won several swimming races in St. Louis, and also held the American record time for a 20 mile swim – 4 hours, 59 minutes, 46 seconds. His route was from Alton, Illinois to St. Louis “with strong current, but in rough water and against a high wind,” notes The Young Folks’ Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports (1890, p. 796).

The drawing of Original Gene illustrating several of the articles about his East River exploits shows a grim-faced young fellow tied up entirely in rope – arms and legs bound tight right down to wrists and ankles. This drawing appeared in several newspapers across the US – you can see one here at the Library of Congress Chronicling America site, from the Daily Yellowstone Journal. But as Mercadier told the New York World before his swim, that he’d never swum in salt water before and was not familiar with the tides and currents of the East River. So he planned to swim with his legs free below the hips and his arms free below the elbows, so that he could shift the 2 pound dumb bells around a little.

A guy in Sydney, Australia tried this and got charged by police for breaking city laws – lawyers in Sydney got him out of it.

Paul Boyton in his suit; NYPL Digital Gallery

On that June day in 1890 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Original Gene propelled himself from a “vessel kept an eye on by a team of his admirers.” These included in all honesty Steve Brodie, wearing (as the Brooklyn Eagle noticed) “his Paul Boynton [sic]* elastic suit.” Brodie, as you most likely know, was renowned for his indicated jump from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886.This would empower him to go with Original Gene all the more intently and “encourage him how to dodge the flows.”

The admirers’ vessel was joined by a few different pontoons, including a steam pull and a vessel from Brooklyn’s own Varuna Boat Club. I’d prefer to imagine that my extraordinary distant uncle Daniel Hicks – age 23 of every 1890, and an eager individual from the Varuna – was along that day.

It took Mercadier around 45 minutes to make the swim. At the point when he (and Brodie, and the vessels) got to the Dover Street dock, Gene felt somewhat nauseous, he said. And furthermore, since the ropes had been dry when put on, they contracted in the water and cut Mercadier, who was draining when he rose up out of the waterway. Yet, Brodie reported that in seven days’ time Gene would do it again – just this time, he’d be bound up to the wrists and lower legs, much the same as in his image. Brodie added that he’d pay $1000 to “any man on the planet” – tied or unfastened – who could beat Original Gene. I haven’t found any notice of the subsequent swim, however. Mercadier had enough, and who could accuse him?

Sources

“Bound Arms and Legs,” New York Sun, May 25, 1890, p. 17.

“He Swims In Harness,” New York World, Jun. 16, 1890, p. 6.

“Mercadier’s Big Swimming Feat,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun. 23, 1890, p. 1.

*Paul Boyton [not Boynton], otherwise called the “Bold Frogman,” was a swimmer/entertainer who (among his different endeavors) had concocted elastic swim wear that was part drysuit, part close to home kayak. See here at the Providence Public Library, “10,00 Miles in A Rubber Suit” – there is an incredible picture at the connection.

Note: Awhile back I composed a post about a Brooklyn clinical man of the 1860s called Professor Angelo Balbo. His widow, Mary (Clayton) Balbo, was a companion of my third distant Aunt Rachel Van Duyne; they lived respectively during the 1880s. On the off chance that you click on the connection, you’ll locate my underlying post about him and his “volcanic showers.” But the Professor’s enthusiasm for water wasn’t restricted to his remedial showers. The New York Sun article about Mercadier makes reference to Professor Balbo as “an expert swimmer” who “a few years prior… prevailing with regards to swimming the East River at its tightest point with arms and legs tied.” His arms were tied behind his back “however the rope was bound in such a way as to permit the hands a lot of scope, adequate to keep him above water.” Researching Balbo, coincidentally, is the thing that drove me to Original Gene’s story.

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