Bangoreans were used to celebrities a century ago. These celebrities were usually solid folk like Teddy Roosevelt, Ethel Barrymore, Jack London, Alexander Graham Bell — people who are still famous today. The commotion in the newspapers, however, over the arrival of long-forgotten F. Rodman Law to make what was described as the first film in the area in June 1913 gives an idea of the changing nature of celebrity brought about by the rapidly growing movie industry. Law’s fame lasted about 15 minutes, as the saying goes.
The large headline in the Bangor Daily News on June 3 told the story: “AN INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS DARE-DEVIL ARRIVES IN BANGOR: Rodman Law, With a Company of Actors here to Perform Big Feat for Moving Picture Thriller — He Is the Man Who Has Startled the Whole Country Many Times.”
Law, a former steeplejack, performed death-defying stunts for newsreels and, later, narrative movies. He was routinely featured on the front pages of newspapers. Known as the Human Fly, the Human Bullet or simply Dare-Devil Law, he had climbed up the sides of New York’s Flat Iron Building and jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. He had leaped from the Statue of Liberty with a parachute, as well as out of airplanes, including one flown by his famous sister, Ruth, the record-setting aviatrix. He had narrowly missed being killed when he was shot into the air with a giant rocket that exploded. These were just a few of his stunts.
“He is the man who has done more daredevil feats than anybody in the world, and a combination of sheer nerve and good luck has thus far kept him out of the obituary column,” wrote the reporter for the Bangor Daily News. “Within forty-eight hours, in or near Bangor he will have another little flirtation with death, and the chances seem against him. But last night as he talked to reporters in the Windsor Hotel, he didn’t appear to have a care in the world.”
Law told reporters, “I haven’t any nerves and I don’t know the meaning of the word fear.” He may have been serious. Law was dying anyway, and he may have known it. Six years later he would succumb to tuberculosis.
The film crew from the Reliance Company ended up in Bangor by default.
Sent to St. John, New Brunswick, to shoot a scene that called for jumping off a bridge and swimming through the famous reversing falls in the St. John River, the group retreated to Maine after local officials refused to sanction the dangerous feat. New orders quickly came from company headquarters in New York City.
“‘The only instruction I got,’ said Mr. Law last night, ‘was to do something that no man had ever attempted — or dreamed of — in the State of Maine. Well, I think I know what it will be.’”
“And it is … ?” asked an eager reporter.
“Oh, I can’t tell you just now,” replied Law. “Of course, we can’t have a big crowd present.”
Law and William C. Thompson, a “moving picture operator,” had spent the day scouting up and down the Penobscot River looking for a good place to perform a death-defying stunt. Eager readers would have to wait to find out where it would be.
The next, day, June 6, the newspaper trumpeted this bold headline: “TO MAKE A SHEER DROP OF TWENTY-FIVE FEET. Dare-Devil Law to Flirt with Death on the Penobscot Saturday.” A circus was playing in town, but the newspaper promised Law’s performance would “Beat Any Circus Feat.”
The exact location of this coming attraction still had not been revealed. Law, however, moved to a hotel in Old Town, a city where waterfalls, sawmills and other signs of the area’s logging activity abounded.
The Bangor Daily Commercial that afternoon claimed Law would be “riding a log through the big sluice of the Milford-Old Town Dam.” But we can imagine even Dare-Devil Law might have found jumping out of an airplane with a parachute a more congenial task than balancing on a slippery log through serious white water.
A sawmill had become part of the movie script, and during the day, the film crew shot scenes at the George W. Barker & Son mill in Milford. “Back and forth through the piles of lumber dashed the actors in their stage costumes,” said the Commercial.
The cast’s only female member, Beryl Bouton, “quick on her feet as the proverbial cat, skipped airily about over big piles of lumber, in the stick and manufactured, as if to the manner born.” The plot of this epic, however, remained a mystery, assuming a plot had even been written yet.
On Monday, June 9, the newspapers unveiled Law’s death-defying feat.
“PLUNGED TWENTY-FIVE FEET ONTO BED OF JAGGED ROCKS: Thrilled Spectators Saw Frederick Rodman Law Go Over Stillwater Falls Saturday Afternoon; Smile as He Took the Sheer Drop Which Courted Instant Death – Escaped with a Few Bruises, and Returned to New York,” reported a Bangor Daily News headline.
Law entered the water, “the current lightning swift,” just above the dam located on the Stillwater River on Stillwater Avenue in Old Town. He had “smeared his body with grease,” tied an “air-belt” around his waist and donned his movie costume — “the rags of a tramp.”
The three other actors were described as being “on the ragged edge of anxiety.” Ms. Bouton, who does not appear to have been featured in another film, was said to be “white-faced and almost trembling” — whether for real or for the camera is hard to tell.
The most dangerous-looking spot had been chosen for the stunt. “Just look at that whitewater,” Law grinned to a reporter. “I bet there are plenty of rocks down there.”
The valiant daredevil moved into the center of the river and then went over the falls in a bateau that broke apart when it hit the rocks below, landing on top.
“For a moment the little crowd on the river-bank wondered if he was dead,” recorded the newspaper. “Then they saw his lithe form leap clear of the rocks and splintered wood, and a few seconds later he was struggling in the swift current two hundred feet below.” Blood trickled from several small wounds, but no bones had been broken.
Law “had performed a feat unparalleled for cool audacity in the history of Maine,” the reporter assured readers. Old time log drivers might have had something to say about that, but I have yet to find their comments.
I checked the Internet Movie Database and found that Rodman Law made four movies in 1913. The only one that included the cast and staff listed in the Bangor newspapers was “Death’s Short Cut,” a short feature released on July 5, less than a month after the events described here.
Sure enough, in early July the New Central Theater in Old Town began placing advertisements in the newspapers in Bangor and Old Town. The theater’s manager was “posting high colored lithographs” of Law’s thrilling trip over the dam. “Any riverman will tell you it was wonderful that he escaped with his life,” said the Old Town Enterprise on July 5.
“Death’s Short Cut” would be shown that week on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, said the Commercial on July 8. A big display ad promised viewers would see “LAW’S RACE WITH DEATH AT STILLWATER.” I have yet to discover anything about how local people reacted or if they attended. Whether this fragile bit of celluloid still exists somewhere is also still a mystery.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com.