The dynamic San Francisco fog was beginning its creep across the Bay, as it does most summer afternoons, when the bus doors swung open and Harold B. Wobber stepped off on August 7, 1937.
“What’s that?” the passenger, Lewis Naylor, asked him.
“You’ll see,” said Wobber, a World War I veteran.
They disembarked at the turnstile leading to the gleaming new Golden Gate Bridge, a spectacular marvel of engineering and design. At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. More than 200,000 people had flocked to the bridge to celebrate its opening on May 27, 1937.
But what Wobber was about to do on a Saturday 80 years ago would change the Golden Gate, making it not only a destination for those seeking inspiration but also a place for those haunted by despair.
Wobber, a descendant of one of California’s pioneer families, and Lewis, a professor from Connecticut, began their walk across the bridge. The fog closed in on the bridge as they covered just over a mile and half, reaching the Marin headlands and turning back, according to the story that Naylor told an Oakland Tribune reporter that day.
Halfway across the bridge, Wobber handed the professor his coat.
“This is where I get off,” he told the professor. And he began to climb over the railing. Lewis tried to stop him grabbing his belt.
But Wobber told him to “go along about your business and leave me alone.” Then he broke free and plunged 260 feet to his death, according to the story in the Oakland Tribune the next day.
A crowd gathered as Coast Guard boats and harbor patrols searched for Wobber in the churning waters below, fighting the outgoing tide. His body was never found.
In the pocket of that coat the professor was left holding, there was a sealed suicide note to Wobber’s 16-year-old daughter, Barbara. There was also a diary, and his entry that day said: “Worked in the garden this afternoon, then went to San Francisco.” And there was also a slip for his one-day leave from the Palo Alto Veteran’s Hospital, which expired at midnight that day.
Wobber was the first known suicide on the bridge.
And soon after he jumped, hundreds and hundreds more followed him. Not only San Franciscans, but people from all over came to end their lives at such a celebrated place.
The Golden Gate Bridge became the second-most popular suicide spot in the world, outranked only by the Nanjing Yangstze bridge in China.
Local media kept a running count, reporting on the famous cases. A five-year-old girl and her father, the son of Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s press secretary, Roy Raymond, the founder of Victoria’s Secret. In 1995, a local shock jock offered a case of Snapple to the family of the 1,000th jumper.
When the count reached 1,600 in 2012, most media stopped keeping count.
Wobber and all those who followed him confounded bridge officials. They hired patrol officers trained to spot the signs of a likely jumper before he or she even climbs the railing, and put a team of negotiators on call who are experts at talking people back onto the bridge. There are suicide hotlines and phones. This year, as the bridge marked its 80th anniversary, bridge officials finally began construction of a steel mesh net 20 feet below the California landmark’s sidewalk. The suicide barrier will be built over four years, according to the Golden Gate Bridge website, with an expected completion date in 2021.
There are a few survivors. Ken Baldwin is one of them. He was 28 when he jumped from the bridge on Aug. 20, 1985. He had a three-year-old daughter and was suffering from depression.
“The moment I saw my hands leave the railing, I knew I wanted to live,” he said.
He didn’t come to the bridge to romanticize his suicide. It was his second attempt — the pills he’d swallowed hadn’t worked — and he wanted to be done with it. No blood, no body. “I just wanted to disappear,” he said.
But he surfaced as soon as he hit the water. Bruised and broken, but alive.
“The net will definitely make some people think twice about it,” Baldwin said. But he’s less concerned about the 30 or people who leap from the Golden Gate than “the thousands and thousands of people every year who commit suicide in other ways who need help.”
Like so many people who take their own lives, Wobber had struggled with despair for years. He’d been a bargeman before serving in France from 1917 to 1918. He returned to California with PTSD, or what was then referred to as shell shock.
He’d gotten a job running a lunchroom on the Oakland waterfront. But he abandoned that job in 1930 and checked into the veteran’s hospital, where he remained for seven years. His wife had divorced him, he missed his daughter, and he found his only solace in the hospital gardens.
The medical community was still trying to understand shell shock. They’d seen the same symptoms in Sigmund Freud’s studies of women who were “hysterical.” The common link Freud and his contemporaries found among these women? All had been sexually assaulted, said Mary Catherine McDonald, an assistant professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, whose work concentrates on the trauma suffered by combat veterans.
McDonald said that given the dates of his hospitalization and his service history, Wobber may have been subjected to the shock therapy treatment pioneered by Lewis Yealland, which viewed war trauma as a personal failure and included electric shocks to the neck, cigarettes on the tongue and hot plates placed on the back.
“You will not leave this room until you are talking as well as you ever did; no, not before … you must behave as the hero I expect you to be,” Yealland told his patients.
Suicide rates were likely high, but were rarely reported, McDonald said.
Wobber’s very public act marked the beginning of the Golden Gate’s transformation into “a suicide magnet.”
But, just as significantly, it showed the nation the lasting, hidden wounds of a war that the rest of the country had left behind 20 years earlier.
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