Bob Odlum had died two days earlier, the first person to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
But this was not an act of suicide. The 33-year-old Odlum fully expected he would survive the leap and in so doing assure his fortune and his fame.
Fame he gained, if briefly. Fortune? That was not to be. The irony was that Odlum had been killed by the thing he loved the most: water.
Growing up in Tennessee, he was drawn to the Mississippi River. He learned to swim before he could read. Once, Odlum chased a wild duck that had been shot through the wing and was unable to fly. For seven miles, he pursued the bird in the river.
“The duck would dive, and young Odlum would follow suit, until at last he captured and bore the duck home in triumph,” said an acquaintance. “The water seemed to be his natural element.”
Odlum was determined to translate his affection for swimming into a career. After stints in St. Louis and Chicago as a journalist, he moved to Washington, where, on Aug. 20, 1878, he opened the city’s first indoor pool. It was on the north side of E Street NW, between Sixth and Seventh streets, and was called the Natatorium.
Odlum believed that anyone could learn to swim and that everyone should learn to swim, if only to prevent drowning. He would teach them. The Natatorium is where Odlum gained the title “Professor.”
The pool ranged in depth from three feet to 10 feet, the water heated by immense steam boilers. The deep end featured a diving board. There were changing rooms and, eventually, athletic equipment.
Men and women took classes separately — ladies in the morning, gentlemen in the afternoon and evenings. Fannie Hayes, daughter of President Rutherford B. Hayes, learned to swim at the Natatorium. So did the sons of Maine senator James G. Blaine and of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
Odlum believed women were easier to teach than men. A journalist from Iowa described his technique: “A strap is belted around the chest, attached to a pole, with a hook inserted into this belt, and, when the Professor pulls her along in the water, she looks like a frog, but with red legs, as most of the ladies wear red stockings.”
Odlum created a series of exercises to be done on land to familiarize students with the motions needed for swimming. Students, for example, would lie on a bench and imitate the movements of a breaststroke.
In addition to instruction — 75 cents for a single class; 12 lessons for $6 — the Natatorium hosted displays of “artistic swimming,” along with races and diving matches. Odlum would show off, too, diving into the pool, sinking down, then floating to the surface wearing a completely different outfit. He had changed while holding his breath at the bottom.
Despite such attractions, the Natatorium was a failure. It had been expensive to build — $20,000 — and was costly to maintain. It closed in 1882.
Odlum moved to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., where he worked as a lifeguard at a summer resort called the Hygeia Hotel. Among the bathers he rescued there was the son of Schuyler Colfax, vice president under Ulysses S. Grant.
Odlum was handsome — tall, with a strong build and a fine mustache — and he was a good talker. For a while after the Natatorium’s closure, he helped run a museum that toured small towns in the Mid-Atlantic, displaying artifacts related to President James Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau: photographic scenes of the tragedy, a plaster life mask by sculptor Clark Mills, the clothes of the killer, a piece of the executioner’s rope . . .
But the public’s taste was fickle, and the museum failed. Odlum returned to Washington to live with his mother and sister. He took tickets at the National Theatre, then worked as a night clerk at the Willard Hotel. He believed himself capable of greater things. On May 19, 1885, Bob Odlum stepped off the Brooklyn Bridge.
He wasn’t pushed. No one had held a gun to his head and forced him to jump. Even so, Catherine Odlum knew who had killed her son.
It was the person who had egged him on, who had promised him riches and fame, who had even wagered on her son’s jump — and encouraged others to do so. It was someone who had pretended to be Bob’s friend, but in reality was his arch enemy.
It was Paul Boyton, the man in the rubber suit.
In tomorrow’s column: Paul Boyton, the man in the rubber suit.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.