Paul Boyton was a world famous adventurer and showman, known as ‘The Fearless Frogman’. He specialised in daring stunts and challenges across water and set up the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of today’s Coastguards. He also developed a water sports park that became the forerunner of the Luna Park centres.
Boyton was born on 29 June in Co Kildare in 1848. He moved to America after spending much of his teen years serving in the US, French and Mexican navies. He came across a rubber suit, similar to today’s wetsuits while in Atlantic City. It was to change his life.
The suit was designed as a flotation device as it could be inflated to allow the wearer to float to the surface. Boyton was extremely impressed, and realised its potential as a piece of life-saving equipment.
He toured the world showcasing the suit and its potential to save lives. Boyton was a shrewd commercial operator. He began swimming across many of the world’s major waterways, using only his suit for buoyancy.
His swimming feats were so remarkable that he became a global celebrity and was greeted by thousands of fans when he visited a new town.
Some of his extravagant swimming feats included crossing the English Channel in 24 hours, travelling 430 miles along the River Rhine, and floating down the Mississippi River from Alton, Illinois to St Louis.
Tragic death of his friend Odlum
Boyton was involved in the tragic death of his friend and fellow swimmer Robert Emmet Odlum. Odlum had decided he would jump from Brooklyn Bridge into the water below, to prove to people that falling from a great height would not kill you if done correctly. His motive was to save lives of people unwilling to jump from burning buildings into nets below, through fear of dying as they fell.
Odlum also hoped the stunt would make him a celebrity and offer him and his mother some financial security. The jump took place on 19 May 1885, but ended in tragedy. Odlum’s body was slightly turned by a strong wind as he fell.
Instead of hitting the water with his feet and his body in a vertical line, Odlum landed on his side which caused him terrible injuries. Boyton swam out to bring his friend to safety, but he died from severe internal bleeding after rupturing several major organs.
Odlum’s mother blamed Boyton for her son’s death, accusing him of being the one who persuaded him to do the stunt. Boyton denied this and sent her a letter disclaiming responsibility, which was also published in the New York Times.
Mrs Odlum claimed Boyton had destroyed letters he had sent to her son, convincing him to go ahead with the dangerous jump. Boyton denied this and had a lawyer and a judge warned Mrs Boyton that she had to stop her public accusations or face a slander charge.
Paul Boyton’s Water Chutes
Boyton continued his career as a celebrity and entertainer. He opened a water circus and toured the country.
Next, he opened an amusement park, called Paul Boyton’s Water Chutes. It was the first park of its kind and the first to charge an admission fee. A sea lion park soon followed, with the animals and trainers performing shows.
Boyton sold his sea lion park in 1902, and it was re-branded as the first of what would be the successful franchise of Luna Parks. Boyton was also forced to close his Water Chutes Park after major amusement parks were beginning to steal his customers, and he lacked the finances to compete.
Paul Boyton died on 19 April, 1924. His legacy was to have inspired public interest in swimming and water sports. He is remembered in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and was one of the first people to see the potential of water activities as a source of entertainment.