Dakota Datebook

Jack Williams, the Human Fly

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

 

Novelties always seem to sell well, a fact as true today as it was in the distant past. One of the odd novelties from about one hundred years ago was a fellow named Jack Williams, who called himself the “Human Fly.”

On this date, in 1921, the Grand Forks Herald reported that Williams had successfully climbed to the top of the local First National Bank building. So many people gathered to watch that five police officers were assigned to handle the throng.  It was so crowded that some of the spectators climbed the sides of nearby buildings to find a vantage point.

Jack Williams said that the “smooth walls” of the bank building made this climb the “most difficult he ever made.”  When he got to the roof, he “straddled the top of the flag pole,” and slapped the golden ball above the flag.

After scaling the bank’s walls, the Human Fly went to the Fotoplay Theater to appear in a vaudeville review, where the delighted audience gave him a “five minute ovation.”

Much hype surrounded the Human Fly’s appearance in Grand Forks.  His advance man, C.C. Brown, informed newspapermen that Williams had been climbing buildings for over eleven years.  He was said to use the smallest indentations as hand holds, and had such strong hand muscles that he could crush a “raw potato into pulp” with one squeeze. Promoter Brown boasted that Williams was the “original human fly” and that over 500 men who wanted to be a “human fly” had died trying to match Williams’ accomplishments, which included climbing all 60 stories of New York City’s Woolworth Building – the tallest building in the world at the time.

Doubters had scoffed at this boasting, informing Mr. Brown that previous “human flies” had failed to perform in Grand Forks – one “Fly” saying the weather was too cold and stormy before slinking away.  Immediately, promoter Brown told Jack Williams to climb the Herald’s building, and the Fly scrambled up four stories in less than four minutes, silencing the “Doubting Thomases” and building anticipation for his climb of the bank building.

After Grand Forks, Williams took his death-defying feats west, clambering up tall buildings in Minot and Valley City, keeping North Dakotans buzzing over his stick-to-it-ive-ness and his dazzling disregard for dizzy danger.

 

 

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

 

Sources:  “Fly Made Good Climb,” Grand Forks Herald, May 28, 1921, p. 2.

“Human Fly To Climb First National Bank,” Grand Forks Herald, May 27, 1921, p. 5.

“Human Fly to Give Exhibition Here; Proves His Ability,” Grand Forks Herald, May 26, 1921, p. 10.

“Human Fly Will Demonstrate His Ability Saturday,” Grand Forks Herald, April 2, 1920, p. 4.

“Human Fly Climbs to Top of Fair Store Building,” Ward County Independent [Minot, ND], June 30, 1921, p. 1.

“The Human Fly,” Weekly Times-Record [Valley City, ND], July 7, 1921, p. 5.”

“Jack Williams, the Human Fly,” Weekly Times-Record [Valley City, ND], July 14, 1921, p. 3.

“Human Fly Falls To Death Climbing Court House Cupola,” Grand Forks Herald, August 10, 1918, p. 1.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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