Jumping Joe

 Posted by at 12:25 am  Nick's Blog
May 012024
 

Note: Since I’ve spent most of my time writing lately, I don’t have anything new to blog about. So I thought I would repost a blog from 2018 about a small town museum where I learned some things abot my family that I never knew.

We have always loved exploring small town museums and have spent many delightful hours doing so over the years. Maybe it’s some kind of voyeurism to be able to look into the lives of people you never knew, in a community you’ve never been to before. We always come away feeling like we know some of those people.

But our visit to the small Ludlow Heritage Museum in Kentucky was a bit different, because we actually have a connection to the community and the people who lived there. My great-grandfather, John Sanders Stephens and his wife Laura lived in Ludlow and raised their family there. So we were looking forward to learning more about the town, and hopefully finding some information on my ancestors from Ludlow. Little did I know the story we were going to come up with!

Due to limited volunteer staffing, the Ludlow museum is only open on Saturdays for a few hours. We pulled up to the museum right at the 11 AM opening time to see somebody with a key in the lock. Terry said she hoped they weren’t already leaving, and I told her that I planned to chase the man down if he was. As it turned out, I didn’t have to go to that extent because Mark Mitchell, president of the museum, was just arriving.

Mark is a very friendly man with a keen interest in the history of Ludlow, and in genealogy. When I told him why we were visiting he really went out of his way for us, showing us all kinds of city records and periodicals and giving us free run of the archives to do any research we wanted to.

Like all small town museums, there were displays on local businesses that served the community and citizens who had served both the town and their country.

And, of course, there was a display honoring Ludlow’s firefighters and police officers.

Ludlow was originally established as a genteel retreat from the nearby big city of Cincinnati, Ohio, but that all changed when the railroad came to town in the late 1800s. The railroad brought industry to town, but also an influx of laborers, hard-working people who built modest homes and thrived in the riverfront community. One exhibit at the museum is dedicated to the railroads, with displays of the large tools used to maintain the equipment.

On a more personal level, I found this check drawn on the First National Bank of Ludlow interesting, because my great uncle, James A. Stephens, was the president of that bank.

This page from the city directory includes an ad for Stephens and Snyder, the real estate and insurance business that James A. Stephens was also a partner in, along with being the City Treasurer for many years.

While I found that information very interesting, it was something I learned about my grandparents while we were at the museum that made the whole trip worthwhile for me. Emma Stephens was the only sister of James A. Stephens, and she married my grandfather, Joseph Russell in May,1892. I was very young when my grandfather died, so I never knew him, but Grandma lived a few years longer and I do remember her.

What I did know of my grandfather, learned from my own father’s perspective, wasn’t all that positive. At one time he owned a large commercial painting company in Toledo, Ohio, and expected all of his sons to follow him into the family business. I remember my dad pointing out the tall smokestack at the old Willy’s Overland factory in Toledo and telling the story of how he and his brothers climbed to the top and painted that tower when they were young men working for their father.

It didn’t take my dad long to decide that the life of a painter wasn’t for him, which caused a rift between him and my grandfather that was never mended. So my image of my grandfather, right or wrong, was always of a stubborn “my way or the highway” kind of guy.

But while we were at the museum I learned about another side to the man, who became somewhat famous for his time and was known as Jumping Joe Russell. A while back I had come across a newspaper clipping from August, 1889 telling how at age 16 he had jumped from the 101 foot high Cincinnati Southern Railroad bridge across the Ohio River on a one dollar bet. At the time, I just figured that was teenage foolishness that he quickly grew out of. As it turns out, I was wrong.

His own father died while he was still a teenager, and apparently young Joe decided that he could make a lot more money jumping off of bridges to help support his family than he ever could working as an unskilled laborer. In those days the average hourly wage for labor was 15 cents per hour, while a machinist made 24 cents an hour, and a carpenter as much as 32 cents.

Back then there were people who actually went around the country organizing bridge jumps, charging people to come and watch a daredevil jump off of a high bridge. The jumper got a portion of the proceeds, and I’m certain there were many wagers won and lost on the outcome of a jump. According to several newspaper reports we found, Joseph Russell was rather successful at it. In August, 1890, a year after his first bridge jump, he won $500 jumping off the 169 foot high Cumberland Bridge in Pineville, Kentucky. He won the same amount in a jump from the Kanawa Bridge in St. Louis that same month. At a time when the average wage was six dollars a week, that was a huge sum of money! A newspaper article says that Jumping Joe was scheduled to go to New York City to meet with famous bridge jumper Steve Brodie to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge for $1000, but there is no record as to whether or not that event ever took place.

Of course, like everything in life, people’s opinions of bridge jumpers differed greatly. Anybody with a few years on them and some common sense probably thought it was insanity, or at least foolhardiness, not to mention not something “decent” young men would do. But if you were a girl from a small town on the Ohio River, it probably seemed daring and romantic. My grandmother Emma was just such a young woman when she fell in love with handsome Jumping Joe Russell. Her parents didn’t approve, so the starry eyed couple did what young lovers have done since the days of Romeo and Juliet. They eloped!

A newspaper article at the museum tells the story of how the bridge jumper made the jump of his life in May, 1892, when he stole away 17-year-old Emma Stephens, who was described as “pretty but giddy” and “one of Ludlow’s fairest girls” and a “foolish little girl.” Later in the article she is described as “a blonde of the purest type and as handsome as a flower.”

The newspaper was not as flattering to the young man from across the river, describing Jumping Joe as, “in addition to being a great bridge jumper, also entitled to all around distinction as a go-as-you-please liar.” (Yep, I can see the family resemblance already.) I love the flowery way they wrote things in those days, not trying to hide their bias in any way. The article went on to say that the combination of Joe’s talents won the heart of “little Emma, who believes Joe to be immeasurably greater than anybody who was ever allowed to live since the death of Adam.” The story also said that Emma’s parents were greatly distressed and planned to deal harshly with the young swain who had stolen their daughter.

I guess things worked out in the long run, because I know that my own father spent a lot of time with Emma’s family on summer vacations from school while he was growing up.

So obviously there was another side to the man I always thought of as the no-nonsense businessman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was quite the daredevil, and rather romantic in his younger days. Who knew?

And all of this leaves us with one burning question; why do I, the grandson of the great Jumping Joe Russell, have such a phobia about bridges? Maybe deep down inside I really want to jump off of one of them. Lord knows, more than one person has suggested I do just that!

Thought For The Day – On the other hand, you have different fingers.

Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

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