The American Diver: Philadelphia man dies performing a daredevil feat in London

On the 11th January 1841 a shocked crowd were horrified at the death of an American daredevil on Waterloo Bridge. Samuel Gilbert Scott, (known as Sam Scott and to the best of my knowledge not a direct relation of the Gilbert Scott dynasty of British architects) had become well known for his hair-raising feats of diving from the masts of tall ships.

Young Sam was born probably in 1813 in Philadelphia. He joined the United States Navy and became known for his bravery in jumping or diving from the high masts of sailing ships. On leaving the Navy he set himself up as a stuntman where his acts of bravery were rounded off with a passing of the hat for contributions.

Aged about 24 he had left the Navy and sought a self-made career in showbiz and by 1837 had arrived in the UK at the North-West port of Liverpool. Here he was to publicise his next show of derring-do by printing hand-bills that were spread around the good folk of Liverpool. This also attracted the local press of whom at least one correspondent was left seriously underwhelmed by the experience of seeing Scott’s exploits. On the 1st December 1837 the Liverpool Echo wrote; “ Foolhardy and totally useless display”, then went on to predict his early demise.

Undaunted by such criticism Scott continued to entertain the crowds all over England. He leapt off Telford’s Menai suspension bridge in North Wales. As well as high dives in Manchester, and Brighton, he is said to have jumped from the top mast of the captured Spanish warship HMS San Josef, a 114 gun First Rate ship of the line, at Devonport.


HMS San Josef

Somewhere in Cornwall, it is claimed that Scott had leapt off a 240 foot high cliff into shallow water, which if true would comfortably dwarf the current world record for such a jump.

Scott had by 1840 set up home in the old maritime town of Deptford on the River Thames and it was there that he almost killed himself while preparing to jump from the upper top gallant of a visiting American ship. He would warm the crowd up by swinging from a rope before his jumps first by his feet and then by his neck. Tragedy had almost struck at Deptford as the rope accidentally tightened and began to strangle him, saved only by a quick-thinking sailor who grabbed his feet, taking his weight and allowing Scott to free himself. Then Scott announced to his shocked onlookers “The hemp that is to hang me is not grown yet!”

Then in January 1841 his final act of bravery, some might call it folly, came before the enormous crowd that had gathered around Waterloo Bridge. The figure being put at up to 10,000, which does seem to be rather fanciful amount. However, the following report tells the tale of the day’s tragic turn of events.

The Times of Tuesday January 12th 1841 published this account.

“Yesterday afternoon, shortly after 2 o’clock, great excitement pervaded the western portion of the metropolis by a rumour that Scott, “the American diver,” who had of late become so notorious by his extraordinary feats, had met with his death during the performance of his customary evolutions prior to taking his dive from the summit of Waterloo-bridge into the Thames. It appears that in the morning a placard, of which the following is a copy, had been posted throughout the metropolis:-

‘Challenge to the world for 100 guineas! Monday next, Jan.11th, 1841, and during the week, Samuel Scott, the American Diver, will run from Godfrey’s, White Lion, Drury-lane, to Waterloo-bridge, and leap into the water, 40 feet high from the bridge, and return back within the hour every day during the week, between 1 and 2 o’clock. S. Scott will be in attendance every day at the above house, open to any wager.’

This notice drew, long before the time appointed, thousands of persons to Waterloo-bridge, and at five minutes past 2 o’clock Scott, accompanied by several persons, arrived on the bridge. He was merely attired in a blue striped shirt and white canvass trowsers, and had on neither shoes nor stockings. On his arrival there could not have been less than from 8,000 to 10,000 persons assembled upon the bridge and along the banks of the river to witness his extraordinary performance. Immediately over the second arch on the Middlesex side and nearest to Somerset-house, was erected a species of scaffolding, composed for two upright poles, and three others crossing them at intervals of about four or five feet, the entire height of which above the balustrades being about 10 feet. Scott appeared as usual, firm and undaunted, and made several jocular remarks to those around him. Having ascended the scaffolding, he attached the rope he carried with him, which was about 10 feet long, to the uppermost cross pole, and after placing some tin boxes round the necks of several of his friends who were to collect money for him, proceeded to commence his performance, observing, ‘Why you all appear to be cranky.’   

He first put his head into a noose of the rope, and suspended himself for a minute or two; after which he placed his feet in a similar position, and swung with his head downwards. He again mounted the top beam of the scaffold, and, taking a handkerchief off his head, placed it on the top of one of the perpendicular poles. He then seized the rope, and placing it round his neck, exclaimed at the top of his voice, ‘Now I’ll show you once more how to dance upon air before I dive.’

The unfortunate man again let himself down to the extremity of the rope with his head in the noose, but had scarcely hung more than three or four minutes when a person named Brown observed that he much feared the man had hung himself in reality, as animation appeared suspended. To this one of Scott’s friends replied, ‘Oh, he has not hung half his time yet.’  In two or three minutes after, however, shouts were heard in all directions of  ‘Cut him down.’ Mr. Brown immediately ascended and raised the poor fellow’s arm, which on being let go fell heavily back to its original position by his side. This gave convincing proof of the suspension of animation, and renewed cries were raised from all quarters of  ‘Cut him down, cut him down.’ Some time elapsed before a knife could be procured, and then two persons ascended the ladder, and with the aid of some of the F division of police, succeeded in cutting the man down.

Mr. Havers, surgeon of the York-road, and another medical gentleman who happened to be upon the spot, immediately stepped forward and opened the jugular vein, and also a vein in the arm, but only a few drops of blood followed; and to all appearances Scott was lifeless. A cart was then procured, in which he was conveyed with all possible speed, followed by hundreds of persons, to Charing-cross Hospital. On his admission, it was ascertained by Dr. Golding, the senior physician of the institution, that life was not quite extinct. Under that gentleman’s direction, the unfortunate man was, in the first place, subject to the galvanic process; secondly, cupped between the shoulders; and then, lastly, placed into a warm bath, in which he had been but a few seconds when it was ascertained that the vital spark had fled.

 Scott was a remarkably fine young man, about 30 years of age, and, although he called himself an American, was supposed to be a native of Deptford, where, he, together with his wife, was residing. She was not, as was her usual custom, with him on the present occasion; but information, however, of the melancholy affair was immediately despatched to her on its result becoming known.

The cause of the occurrence is not to be attributed, as it was generally rumoured, to the unfortunate man having indulged in drinking prior to his undertaking his perilous exhibition, but to the mere accidental circumstances of the knot in the noose having slipped from under his chin in such a manner as to produce suffocation. It will be remembered, that a similar accident occurred to the celebrated Blackmore, and which almost terminated fatally, a few years since, whilst performing his evolutions at Vauxhall-gardens.

The body awaits a coroner’s inquest.”

An engraving of the scaffold erected by Scott on Waterloo Bridge

An engraving of the scaffold erected by Scott on Waterloo Bridge

The author of this post, Ray Coggin, is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.