How the iconic Diving Horses seashore act emerged from the Wild West
He billed himself as the “Champion Shot of the World” and the “Spirit Gun of the West.” The Indians, he proclaimed, dubbed him “Evil Spirit” for his uncanny marksmanship with rifle or pistol, on terra firma or in the saddle. He shared the initials and first name of his short-lived business partner and eternal rival, the iconic figure of the age, one William Frederick Cody — ”Buffalo Bill.” But for William Frank “Doc” Carver, lasting fame would be indirect. While his name receded into the charred annals of the Wild West, his quirky circus-style act commanded many a marquee over an extended run.
The act was the Diving Horses, which entertained crowds across the land for decades before roosting at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier for nearly half a century. The maker of the splash had died by then, and his exploits — both real and invented — with him.
Born in May 1851 in Winslow, Illinois, which remains a tiny village at the state’s northern border, Carver acquired dentistry skills somewhere by the age of 21 and practiced the trade (and apparently acquired his nickname) in Fort McPherson, North Platte, and other Nebraska locales for several years, even as he first made his name as a crack shot. Here in the Platte River Valley, according to his testimony, Carver slew scores of elk and buffalo, killed a Sioux chief, and met the likes of fellow longhairs Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok.
The dental deadeye, however, was not the most reliable of witnesses — his claim (in an 1878 autobiography) that he’d been abducted as a child by “savage captors” (i.e., Indians) after they had scalped his mother and sisters is pure invention, as is his stated birthplace of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1840. Other contentions also wither under the scrutiny of historians, even those filtered through a 1950s biography, which says that Carver’s father named him “Doc” for the youth’s propensity for restoring injured critters to health. That, and much else in the book, drawn principally from Carver’s own journals, is suspect.
When Carver was shooting up the plains, dime novels were mythologizing the West. “Lurid fictioneers,” as one writer put it, made a casualty of the truth; “[Buffalo Bill] had dripped from the point of a pen as a hero.” Carver, in effect, became his own dime novelist.
But his shooting prowess, reported in newspaper stories of the day, was genuine. Equally adept with a variety of weapons, he obliterated clay pigeons (and more than a few live ones), shattered glass balls flung into the air, and skewered flying coins. Based in California in the late 1870s, he challenged all comers, including celebrated trap shooter Captain Adam Henry Bogardus, whom he eventually ran to ground in a series of matches.
Carver toured Europe from 1879 to 1882, performing for kings and commoners. Back in the States, he crossed paths again with Cody, who was winding up a winter tour in New Haven, Conn., in 1883. That spring they joined forces in Omaha, Neb., for the “Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition,” which surrounded the flamboyant Cody and “eagle-eyed” Carver with a pageant of frontiersmen, cowboys, and braves in a bid to showcase “reality eclipsing romance.” The troupe traveled to St. Louis, New York, Boston, and Chicago. Among other set pieces, the exhibition simulated an attack on the Deadwood Stage Coach.
By tour’s end, the partnership was dead. One cause may have been that Carver sought a year-round show, while Cody wanted to spend time on the theatrical stage; other reports suggest that the two WFCs clashed in temperament. Cody picked up a new partner and created his Wild West show of lasting fame. While Carver’s rival show (at one point called “Wild America”) stayed in business into the 1890s, ultimately the market could sustain only one. Cody had the charisma to be the survivor. Carver sued his old partner over monies allegedly due and the use of the name “Wild West,” and the two remained at odds the rest of their lives.
But the sharpshooter had some ammunition left.
Booked into Madison Square Garden in the late 1880s, Carver’s show had featured a horse trained to walk a tightrope 30 feet off the ground. A few years later, he’d added melodramatic scenes of escape and pursuit, including a horse plunging into water. Lore has it that Carver traced the idea to his Nebraska period, when he and his mount had fallen off a creaky bridge and into the creek below.
Whatever its provenance, the Diving Horses act supplanted Wild West shows in Doc Carver’s show-biz life, touring the country at state and county fairs as the new century took hold. And soon after his son and daughter had inked a pact with Steel Pier honcho Frank Gravatt in 1929, the Diving Horses leaped onto a thousand program covers and the pages of Life magazine.
The old man had died two years earlier, before the Atlantic City act he had created reached its signature venue, ushering the Wild West to the Atlantic seashore.
In the movie Atlantic City, the aging gangster played by Burt Lancaster laments the end of the golden age of Atlantic City, the Prohibition years, when AC provided all the vices being denied Americans elsewhere. "The town was floy-floy then," he explains. From the floy-floy era to the hubba-hubba 500 Club, Club Harlem years, to the modern bling-bling era ushered in with legalized gaming, Atlantic City has remained a resort destination where people come to have a good time. And a good time always included superior entertainment. By the 1880s, Atlantic City was a bustling resort town, a place where both the working class and the upper crust came to escape the heat of the big cities to the north, south and west. Early entertainment options included circuses and sideshows, vaudeville, ballrooms, amusement piers and minstrel shows. The "world's greatest comic juggler" at one of the minstrel shows was W.C. Fields. Al Jolsen was also a regular performer in town, and Harry Houdini presented his death defying feats of remarkable escapism at the Garden Pier. John Young was the P.T. Barnum of Atlantic City. The first pier he bought featured a huge ballroom, a hippodrome, an exhibit hall and an aquarium....
Legend has it that the good doctor was out with his favorite horse one night when a country bridge collapsed, sending them both into the river. Horse and rider escaped in fine fettle, and Dr. William Frank Carver, a buddy of Buffalo Bill's and perhaps the world's finest rifle shot, had hit upon a business bull's-eye. Daughter Lorena was his first rider, as Deadeye Doc launched his "diving horses" at state and county fairs across the country. He died, however, before the act came to Atlantic City and its prime venue. Steel Pier owner Frank Gravatt built a tower and tank for the high-flying steeds in 1928, and an attraction that would become synonymous with the seashore for five decades wowed audiences over the ocean. The marquee diver was Sonora Webster, a Georgia native who interviewed for the job in 1923 when Carver brought his show to Savannah. She later married the boss's son, and dove in the act for 14 years - 11 without the benefit of eyesight. Completing a dive in 1931, Sonora sustained detached retinas that, left untreated, led to virtual blindness. Disney's 1991 movie Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken depicts a spooked horse causing the accident, but the reality...
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