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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The Old West had not been wild in a long time, but a dentist-turned-performer called Doc Carver kept the memory alive well into the 20th century.

A former partner of Buffalo Bill Cody, the dead-shot Carver started putting on shooting exhibitions in the late 1870s. After becoming world champion trap shooter in 1883, he decided to organizer his own Wild West show.

His shooting skills carried the act, but in the mid-1880s he added a crowd-pleasing new bit: a diving horse. Carver claimed he got the idea from personal experience, once having been forced to jump his horse from a partially collapsed bridge. No matter what inspired Carver, he soon found that the prospect of seeing someone dive 40 feet on horseback into a tank of water kept ticket sales robust.

Since San Antonio was the biggest city in Texas during the early 1900s, the Carver show probably came to town regularly. In February 1907 “The Great Carver Show” opened at the new Electric Park, a lighted pavilion and park long since vanished.

People came to San Antonio from all over South Texas, more than eager to pay 50 cents a head to see a member of Carver’s troupe ride a horse off the four-story platform the show’s stage hands had erected. But on Sunday, February 17, the crowd witnessed much more than it had bargained for.

Something went terribly wrong when 18-year-old Oscar Smith made his leap. The fall killed the young man, though the horse survived.

The city’s four scrappy daily newspapers — the Express, the News, the Gazette and the Light — all went crazy with the story. The Light scored a major scoop – a stop-action photo of the unfortunate rider on his way down.

“It is not often that a newspaper is enabled to print an actual photograph of a man within three seconds of accidental death and while in the act leading to it,” the newspaper bragged tastelessly in a page-one story. “Every newsy had sold out his entire supply of The Light yesterday, bought more and sold out again in an hour.”

“The Light was in demand yesterday afternoon to the exclusion of all other forms of newspaper literature,” the boast went on. “The people wanted the paper with the picture of Oscar Smith diving to his death in the pond at Electric Park, and they got it.”

C.J. Overman took the photo at 1-300th of a second with “one of the two cameras in the city capable of taking a snap shot so quickly.” Overman, who worked for the Roach-Barnes Co., “has made a study of catching views of this kind, which is an art in itself.”

The story continued: “An ordinary camera would have caught merely a blurred outline of the horse and man. The photo from which this plate was made is clear as though made from a stationary subject.”

Strictly to accommodate a deserving public, the management of the Light saw fit to publish an extra run of the paper containing the picture. “Apply at the business office for the papers,” the story concluded.

The show went on. Two days after the accident, the Light published a large display ad placed by Carver’s publicity man. The ad made no mention of young Smith’s tragic demise, promising “The Five High Diving Horses will all dive.”

The ad also touted “The Girl in Red, the Bravest Girl in the World.” Not to be missed, of course, was “Dr. Carver, the Champion Shot of the World, in his wonderful exhibition of Rifle Shooting, using solid [as in real] bullets.”

At least one country newspaper editor viewed all the hoopla differently. Commenting a few days later on Smith’s death, the editor of the Karnes County News said, “It does seem that people would...learn to quit being so fool-hardy.”

The horse-jumping rider soon was forgotten by all but his family and friends, but Carver kept the horse act. The West had no shortage of cowboys game for a fool-hardy stunt, especially if they got paid for it. Cowgirls, too.

In 1924, a young woman named Sonora Webster joined the show as a horse jumper. She eventually married Carver’s son, Al, and continued her life on the road.

After Dr. Carver’s death in 1927, the show settled down as a permanent fixture at Atlantic City, N.J.’s Steel Pier. The diving horse act continued in popularity, especially when Sonora made the leap on her horse, “Red Lips.”

But one day in 1931, “Red Lips” lost its balance on the platform. Sonora survived the fall, though the impact blinded her. As soon as she recovered, she continued the act. Her being sightless added another layer of thrill to the show and she kept jumping until World War II.

Sonora’s autobiography, “A Girl and Five Brave Horses,” came out in 1961. With new riders, the horse-jumping act made it into the 1970s before pressure from animal rights groups finally shut it down. Times had changed, but a good story endures. In 1991, the Disney Company released a movie based on Sonora’s life, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.”

Sonora couldn’t see the film, but she got to hear it. She lived until Sept. 24, 2003, dying at the age of 99.

“Bad things happen to people,” her nephew said after Sonora’s death, “but you can’t let them get you down.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 26, 2004 column

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