Sunday, May 20, 2018
Human Interest

Time Capsule: St. Petersburg, 1925

Before the Wallenda family took flight, forming human pyramids high above the ground, crossing tightropes strung between skyscrapers and traversing the Grand Canyon, there was the Human Fly. A swarm of them, actually: daredevils who traveled around gaining fame, though not necessarily fortune, climbing tall buildings freehand, with no special equipment. Just strong fingers and a whole lot of nerve.

Born in 1871, Harry Gardiner was dubbed the Human Fly around 1905 by President Grover Cleveland, who saw him scale the 159-foot flagpole at Grant's Tomb in New York. Hard to believe, but he had trouble convincing anyone to sell him life insurance; he at last secured a policy, swinging into an open window to sign the papers while scaling the Bank of Hamilton building in Ontario, Canada, on Nov. 11, 1918, to celebrate the end of World War I.

The preeminent of the Human Flies, Gardiner was sometimes hired to climb as a promotional stunt; other times he climbed to raise money for charity. Gardiner is said to have climbed more than 700 buildings in his career, and news reports show him climbing until at least age 59.

On Feb. 22, 1925, the buzz came to St. Petersburg, where he scaled the wall of the Princess Martha hotel to benefit the local American Legion post. The stunt went off without a hitch — maybe because he'd gotten all his falling out of the way earlier that morning, when he tripped crossing the street, injuring his hands and knee, and stubbing his toe.

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