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It’s time we talk about the pros and cons of the Good Old Days.
In that more innocent age, did people flock to the streets in their thousands to watch dull things happen? Sure. Did people get their thrills in antiquated ways? Definitely.
But were people also doing stupid shit without thought for safety, and absolutely zero OH&S to speak of? Absolutely.
Case in point: look at that maniac up top. From the evidence before us, he is wearing a sensible outfit and a nice little cap and does not have the obvious appearance of a man with a death-wish. And yet, here we are and there he is, going down the steps of the Capitol on a penny farthing with the little wheel at the front.
Although this picture was most recently published in a 2018 photography book titled ‘Not an Ostrich’ (fact check: true; he has no feathers), it was originally taken in 1884. Because of these factors, it is not the crispest jpeg you’re likely to encounter, and our guy’s face is more of a silhouette of where a face should be. Consequently, we can’t see the extent to which he is shitting himself, and those details are lost to the mists of time.
Maybe he had some sense that he had done something silly. Maybe he began to experience a deep existential regret the instant he set sail down the very long, very steep stairs. Maybe he broke his neck the second he went out of frame. Probably.
We don’t know everything there is to know about this cooked unit because the Library of Congress does not have that information. What we do know is that in 1884 a handsomely dressed man on a bike did something profoundly reckless, while a second handsome lunatic watched on, one fist balled handsomely on his waist. We do not know anything else about these men, but I promise you this:
They are both now dead. But when they lived, they were absolute madaxes.
Now, here is another absolute maniac (deceased). We know a little more about him – he was a stuntperson with a stage name of Diavolo, although his real name was the much-less-arresting Conn Baker. He, too, had a bicycle and a death wish.
This picture, by G. Fred Matthiessen, captures him at the apex of his piece de resistance, which the Library of Congress describes drily as “a loop and topsy turvy somersault”. His posters at the time were a bit more florid:
The veritable cap-sheaf of all hazardous exploits!
The extreme and absolute limit of sensationalism reached at last. Beyond the tremendously terrible temerity and illimitable, inimitable intrepidity of Diavolo, no man may go.
… which sure seems like a string of spicy statements that would get the people going in 1904.
Did Diavolo absolutely nail himself on this occasion? Maybe! We don’t know. We do know, however, that the same year, the Kingston Daily Freeman reported that Diavolo had – and I quote – “an off night” in which “his loop took on unexpected ‘English’ [and] he was diverted directly downward and into the net. The performer landed in the net as if ‘stunned or dead’, but the bicycle cut through and crashed to the ground.”
“A tense silence was followed by hysterical female cries,” the Daily Freeman writes, a bit sexistly, before noting that Diavolo woke up suddenly. To which, the report sexistly concludes, the “men cheered, but many of the women, some still hysterical, left the tent.”
Your move, Red Bull Rampage.
We press on …
Here is another old-timey maniac. He is a sailor, he is called Tony Pizzo, and in 1919 he rode across America on a bicycle because he was dared to by the actor, Fatty Arbuckle, for a cool $3,500. At the completion of his journey in New York, Pizzo told the New York Times that he wouldn’t make the journey again for a million dollars.
I’m calling bullshit on the NYT’s reporting here, because months later, he rode from New York to Los Angeles and back for $5,000, which is conspicuously less than a mill even when you take inflation into account.
Astute observers will note that he is handcuffed to his bike. This is, the Library of Congress tells us, part of Pizzo’s whole schtick: “The Handcuffs were sealed by Mayor Hylan in New York April 24th and are not to be opened until his return to that city.”
Pizzo – and Arbuckle, and Handcuffs Hylan – are now, obviously, long dead. But hey, it’s fun to imagine a time when any of this seemed like a good idea.
We will round out this article with four Ashton Lambies (c. 1898) riding nowhere in a hurry:
I don’t know who was going out of their way to buy the bike advertised here, but it was a different era.
In the lifespan of these gents, they could have – if they were fortunate enough – watched a maniac go down the stairs of the Library of Congress on a backwards penny farthing; seen another maniac in a devil costume absolutely poleaxe himself on a loop-the-loop; pose unsmilingly on a bicycle made for four; and watched a harrowed Tony Pizzo glide by in handcuffs.
What a time to be alive.
As for the models: they are, inevitably, now all deceased. Prior to crossing that final finish line, however, I trust that they had rich fulfilling lives flexing their quads on the OrientQuad.
Thank you, Library of Congress Public Domain images. It’s been educational.