Slide for Life

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The story of the Slide for Life, the death of Clara Rasmussen and what happened to the people involved in this tragedy will continue here.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 6, 1903

(Editor’s note: None of the local papers published on major holidays or Sundays. The Messenger didn’t go to a full seven-day-a-week schedule until the 1980s. In addition, this occurred on a Saturday, so there was no paper that year until July 6. Be aware, some of the article lists specifics of injuries to Clara Rasmussen and a spectator who was injured when she fell. The details are rather gory. William H. Wheeler, the man who was injured by Clara Rasmussen falling on him, is later referred to as Martin Wheeler. )

“Slide For Life” Artist Falls Sixty Feet to Death.

Clara Rasmussen Meets an Awful Death – Members of Amusement Company Are Held Criminally Negligent by Coroner’s Jury.

Information charging manslaughter against Mr. and Mrs. L. De Etta and J.F. Mangels, respectively manager of the Shelby amusement company, his wife and high diver with the company was filed this afternoon, as a result of verdict returned by the coroner’s jury this afternoon, after a lengthy examination conducted by County Attorney Hackler. The coroner’s jury held the accident which caused the death of Clara Rasmussen, the slide for life performer, as being due to criminal negligence on the part of the persons mentioned.
The verdict of the coroner’s jury in full, is as follows:
An inquisition at Fort Dodge on the body of Clara LaBelle Fox, identified as Calra Rasmussen, there lying dead, by the jurors wh os names are hereto subscribed. The said jurors, upon their oaths do say that said Calra Rasmussen came to her death, July 4, 1903 at about 11 a.m. by falling from a wire attached to the Webster county court house, located in the First Ward of the city of Fort Dodge, said accident being due to criminal negligence on the part of L. DeEtta, Mrs. Millie De Etta and John Mangels.
M.J. Rodney,
C.H. Smith,
E.H. Johnson.

In the full sight of the thousands of spectators who had gathered in the expectation of witnessing the thrilling “Slide for Life,” advertised as one of the Fourth of July attractions, Clara Rasmussen, whose stage name was Calra Fox, fell head long to her death on Saturday morning.

William H. Wheeler*, a spectator, who conducts a boarding house at 1308 First avenue south, who stood with his eyes fixed on the end of the wire, stretched from the top of the court house to the the point in the center of Seventh street, north of Central avenue down which the performer was expected to slide, was struck by the girl’s falling body. He was picked up and later removed to the city hospital, where he now lies. With a fractured skull and a broken collar bone. In spite of his terrible injuries, it is states by physicians, that Wheeler has a chance for recovery. He passed a comfortable night and rests easily today. When examined it was found that a piece of bone, half an inch by three quarters, had been crushed to powder, slivers of the bone being washed down with the blood which trickled down the face of the injured man. The inner plate was splintered and crushed in, and brain matter protruded from the wound. A crack extended up the skull for some little distance. An operation was at once made to raise this depression, to put the protruding brain tissue back in place and to remove all splinters of bone. This was successfully done, and as a result, the patient has recovered consciousness and is perfectly rational. His chances for recovery cannot be determined fully until several days have gone by, as time is required in case of injuries to the brain. Wheeler’s collar bone was broken on the left side. It is the supposition that the girl’s falling body struck him on the left shoulder breaking the collar bone, and that in falling, the right side of his head struck either the curbing or a hydrant which was standing near.

No one imagined the dreadful tragedy which was impending when the girl, clad in her flimsy costume appeared on the court house roof, altho many shuddered as they looked along the pathway down which she was supposed to travel. As soon as the industrial parade had passed, preparations for the slide were made. The girl was seen to take the leather billet in her mouth. Then she was swung off the edge of the roof, but was pulled back again for a moment, apparently while something was repaired, then again she was swung off on her perilous slide. She had scarcely gone six feet, when suddenly her body shot downward. She struck the cornice of the building, rebounded, and then shot straight down toward the paving, while a groan of horror went up from thousands of spectators.

It was over in an instant. Two bodies lay helpless on the pavement. A general rush was made to help the injured ones. Wheeler’s body was picked up and as soon as he was found to be alive, he was removed to the hospital, where the operation necessary if his life was to be saved was performed by Dr. R. Evans and Dr. H.G. Ristine.

The girl’s heart action had not entirely stopped. She was taken inside the court house and Dr. J.W. Kime and Dr. W.W. Bowen endeavored to inspire artificial respiration. Her injuries were mortal, however, and she died in about twenty-five minutes, without having regained consciousness. She had sustained three fractures of the skull, her collar bone was broken on the right side, and her left thigh was fractured in several places. The injures to the head alone were sufficient to cause death.

Corner (sic) McCreight at once impannelled (sic) a jury, consisting of M.J. Rodney, C.H. Smith, and E.J. Johnson, which has ever since that time been endeavoring to fix the responsibility for death. The jury is making an exhaustive examination, and up to the time of going to press has returned no verdict. The task of finding out just how the accident has been one of great difficulty. On the girl’s body, when picked up, was a harness, consisting of two belts around the waist, another under the arms. These were of blue belt material, and were connected by two bands of red, running up the sides. What is known as the safety wire, used by all performers in making these slides, remained attached to the wire, having evidently become detached from the harness worn by the girl, to which it was supposed to have been fastened. The question presented to the coroner’s jury was to decide who was negligent in fastening the safety wire.

Mr. and Mrs. Leon DeEtta, at the head of the Shelby Amusement company, which included all the special amusements brought to the city for the Fourth, stated before the jury that the wire had been brought under the belt which passed under the girls armpits, and that if it had been suffered to remain where they had placed it, the accident could not have happened.

They hinted that the girl must have changed the position of the wire herself, either planning suicide or from a desire to make the trip hanging by her teeth, out of pure bravado.

The discovery of a third red band Sunday evening, by C.H. Smith, a member of the jury, may change the aspect of the whole case. It is now argued that the belts were buckled behind, that this third band was run down the front, and the safety wire slipped under it. The supposition is that when the girl’s full weight was committed to the wire, this flimsy contrivance was torn off, letting the girl fall to an awful death.

The use of any such band was strenuously denied by Mrs. De Etta, when the extra strip was brought out this morning. She insisted that the belts were buckled in front, and that the third band, which she had not mentioned at all in her examination on Sunday afternoon, was sewed on behind.

The testimony of J.F. Mangels, the high diver with the company, taken on Sunday afternoon, was corroborative of that given by the De Ettas. Mr. De Etta, when later brought in and questioned, made known the fact that he is practically the whole Shelby amusement company himself. It had been given out when he first came here that Mr. Shelby was in New York and that the man who calls himself De Etta was the manager of this branch of the company. De Etta stated under pressure that the entire company were the people in Fort Dodge, including himself and wife, the girl Clara Rasmussen who was killed, the high diver J.F. Mangels, Mr. and Mrs. Hart, and a man named Wilson, who was to have done the slide for life, but was prevented by a burned hand.

De Etta said that his real name was McLane, but that he had used the names Von Lear and Hi Wallace. He said that he had taken the name Shelby for his amusement company because he had at one time been partnership (sic) with a man named Shelby, who had died leaving him with a lot of stationery on his hands.

The witnesses to appear before the jury on Sunday were J.M. Preston, janitor of the court house, who was on the roof when the girl made her fatal slide, Dr. J.W. Kime, who was the first physician to reach her, L.DeEtta, the head of hte amusement company, Mrs. Millie DeEtta, his wife, who was also on the roof with the dead girl, Dr. W.W. Bowen, J.F. Mangels, the high diver, Mrs. M.E. Hart, property woman, Dr. T.E. Devereaux who was present when the harness was cut from the woman’s body and R.P. Rasmussen, the girl’s brother. this morning Mr. and Mrs. DeEtta and Mrs. Hart were recalled and Mr. Hart’s testimony was also taken.

Little could be learned about the girl’s history or home life. The DeEttas stated that she had joined them with the intention of coming here to put on a vaudeville show in connection with the celebration, and that her sister and several other girls were also coming, but had later disappointed them, but that Clara came anyway. The only name she had ever given to the DeEttas was Clara Fox, Coroner McCreight learning that the girl’s sister, named Louise, was supposed to be workign at the Prague hotel, corner Thirteenth and Williams street, Omaha, telegraphed to that point. The girl showed the telegram to her brother who at once wired Dr. McCreight and appeared himself in person on Sunday afternoon.

He stated before the jury that the girl’s right name was Clara Rasmussen, and that she was sixteen years of age. He said that she and her sister had made their home with their father until three months ago, and that after that the girls had gone to work at the Prague hotel, where Clara held a position as dishwasher. He himself is married and in the grocery business. He did not know that the girl had left home until he received word of her tragic fate.

The brother took the body back to Omaha on the Sunday night train.

On account of the morning tragedy, City Marshal Ed Welch stopped the high dive which was to have been given in the afternoon.

The girl appeared for her fatal slide in a hastily manufactured homemade costume, improved out of cheap materials, hastily purchased at Fort Dodge stores. A portion of the harness which she wore was also purchased in this city.

This was the first time she had ever made the slide, but the preponderance of evidence went to show that she was very courageous about it, and was determined upon taking the risk. It was stated that she herself urged the De Ettas to let her do it.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 8, 1903

Property Man Was Placed Under Arrest

M.E. Hart, Member of Shelby Amusement Co. Lodged in Jail But Later Released.

M.E. Hart, who came to the city as general helper for the Shelby Amusement company, of which the De Ettas, now detained on a charge of manslaughter were the managers, was arrested Tuesday afternoon and after spending a night in the city jail was released this morning.

Landlord Sperry, of the Merchants’ hotel where the De Ettas had stayed up to the time of their arrest, was responsible for Hart’s arrest. He had received no money from the De Ettas, and was holding their clothes as surety. He had forbidden hart to come to the hotel, and had taken the key to the room away from him, but on Tuesday afternoon found him in the room, about to carry away some of the clothes. Sperry had the man arrested, but as there was no charge upon which he could be tried he was released again.

The De Ettas and Mangels, the high diver are still in jail, awaiting their hearing Thursday morning.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 9, 1903

The Hearing Was Begun Today

L. De Etta, Mrs. Millie De Etta and J.F. Mangels are Charged With Manslaughter

First Step in Prosecution

Hearing is to Determine Whether Or Not Defendants Will be Held to the Grand Jury – Mrs. De Etta’s Case is Taken Up First.

The preliminary hearing of L. De Etta, Mrs. Millie De Etta and J.F. Mangels against whom an information charging manslaughter has been filed, on account of the verdict of the coroner’s jury, declaring them guilty of criminal negliegence in connection with the death of Clara Rasmussen, killed while attempting a “slide for life” in this city on July 4, was begun today.

M.F. Healy, attorney for the defense, asked for a separate hearing for all the defendants, and accordingly the hearing of Mrs. Millie De Etta was first taken up. The hearing was held in the supervisiors’ [sic] office before Justice of the Peace James Martin. It is to determine whether or not the defendants shall be held to await the action of the grand jury. County Attorney, C.W. Hackler appears for the prosecution, and M.F. Healy for the defense.

The hearing was strictly private, the only ones admitted being the participants in the action, the attorneys, officers and witnesses, as their testimony was taken.

A man named Wilbur, a member of the Shelby Amusement company which came to Fort Dodge for the Fourth, and H.M. Preston, who was on the roof of the court house at the time when the girl made the fatal slide, were the witnesses before the court this morning. Both were called by the prosecution. The prosecution also contemplates calling as witnesses, Dr. T.E. Devereaux, Dr. Nelson, Dr. A.H. McCreight, County Coroner, C.H. Smith and Mr. and Mrs. Hart, the latter being also of the amusement company.

The  hearing is expected to be protracted, and will probably continue well into Friday.

R.P. Rasmussen, brother of Clara Rasmussen, who met her death in attempting the “slide for life” arrived in the city today to attend the hearing.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 9, 1903

Martin Wheeler Will Recover

Man Desperately Injured in Accident Which Caused the Death of Clara Rasmussen, Will Get Well.

Will Not Be Double Tragedy.

Stated This Morning that in Spite of Critical Nature of Injuries, Wheeler Has Every Prospect for Speedy Recovery – Is Resting Easily.

Dr. Evans, who has had the care over Martin Wheeler, the Fort Dodge man who was struck by the falling body of Clara Rasmussen, who was killed while attempting a slide for life in this city on July 4, and who has since been lying at the hospital with a fractured skull and broken collar bone, stated this morning that there was no doubt in his mind that the patient would from this time on, experience a speedy recovery.

Mr. Wheeler is now considered to have passed the critical stage of his injury. He is still forced to lie flat on his back, and must continue to do so for some little time to come, but his life is no longer considered in danger.

His pulse and temperature are normal, he suffers no pain, sleeps well and appears in every way perfectly rational. Mr. Wheeler’s bright prospects for recover are considered due to the promptness with which the pressure on his brain was removed. When it was discovered that he was alive, he was taken at once to the hospital and the operation performed. He was injured at 11 o’clock on the morning of the Fourth. At 12:30 the wound had been dressed, the fragments of bone removed from the spot where the skull had been broken in, and the depression existing along a crack in the skull several inches in length, had been relieved.

Mr. Wheeler is a man fifty-five years of age, and has shown remarkable recuperative power, in thus coming out of an injury which bade fair to terminate fatally.

Altho it is still too early to state at just what time he can be removed from the hospital, it is expected that if no untoward symptoms develop, his recover will be rapid from this time on.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 10, 1903

Mrs. De Etta Under $2,000 Bonds

Held to Await Action of Grand Jury on Charge of Manslaughter Preferred against Her.

Change of Venue was Taken

As a Result Hearing of L. De Etta Was Brought up Before Justice Mcgowan This Afternoon, Charge  Against J.F. Mangels Dismissed.

Mrs. Millie De Etta was this morning held under $2,000 bonds to answer to the grand jury to the charge of manslaughter preferred against her on account of the finding of the coroner’s jury that she was guilty of criminal negligence in connection with the death of Clara Rasmussen, whose tragic fate while attempting the “slide for life,” fro the top of the court house building, cast a shadow over Fort Dodge’s Fourth of July celebration.

Mrs. De Etta’s hearing, which was begun on Thursday morning, was concluded this morning. The defense introduced no witnesses, but made a motion to dismiss on the state’s evidence, and when this was not allowed, waived further examination. Justice of the Peace James Martin held Mrs. De Etta as stated.

Immediately after the conclusion of the hearing of Mrs. De Etta, M.F. Healy, attorney for the defense, introduced a motion for a change of venue. He wished to have the hearing taken before an out of town justice, but this was not allowed by Justice Martin, who made a transcript transferring the case to the court of Justice of the Peace S.N. Magowan, where it was taken up this afternoon. The charge against De Etta is similar to that against his wife.

The information against J.F. Mangels, the high diver, who was also (taken) on a charge similar to that against the De Ettas was dismissed this morning on the motion of County Attorney C.W.  Hackler.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 15, 1903

DeEtta Expects to Furnish Bonds

The Manager of the Ill Fated Shelby Amusement Company May Obtain Liberty in a Few Days.

Forepaugh Fish Interested

And It Is Said Will Put Up Amount to Secure His Release – J.F. Mangles, High Diver, Leaves City to Join the Captain Collins Carnival Co.

L.D. De Etta, manager of the Shelby Amusement company, who is in the county jail awaiting action of the grand jury on the charge of mansalughter [sic], brought aganst [sic] him following a hearing and post mortem examination over the body of Clara Rasmussen, the young woman killed in the “Slide for Life” act on the Fourth of July, expects to obtain his liberty within a few days. It is understood that the management of the Forepaugh-Fish Wile West shows which was in the city last week has become interested in De Etta’s case and expects to furnish his bonds which are fixed at $500. It is said that bonds may be given tomorrow or perhaps not until Saturday.

Providing he obtains his liberty De Etta intends making an effort to furnish the $2,000 bonds under which his wife, Mrs. Millie De Etta is being held.

It is stated by De Etta that his family resides in Columbus, Ohio, where they are in well to do circumstances and may assist him in his trouble.

His wife’s parents live in Pennsylvania.

J.F. Mangels, the high diver who was stranded with the Shelby Amusement company when that organization met with disaster on the Fourth, leaves tonight for Omaha, where he will join the Captain B. Collins Carnival company. His act will be a dive of seventy-five feet into thirty-six inches of water.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 18, 1903

De Etta To Try Habeas Corpus

Judge Evans Grants a Petition for Hearing Which will Take Place Next Week.

No Bonds are Forthcoming.

The Defendant Will Attempt to Show to Satisfaction of Court That in Preliminary Hearing Sate Failed to Produce Sufficient Evidence to Hold De Etta.

The latest move in the case of L.D. DeEtta, the manager of the Shelby Amusement company, now in the county jail under $500 bonds awaiting the action of the grand jury on the charge of manslaughter, is a petition for habeas corpus proceedings thru means of which the counsel for DeEtta hopes to obtain freedom for his client. Judge Evans has granted the petition, returnable next week, although the date of the hearing has not been set yet.

The grounds cited in the petition for a hearing is that in the preliminary examination the state has failed to produce sufficient evidence to  hold the defendant.

The merits of the case will be reviewed at a hearing before Judge Evans next week. The date for the hearing had been set for Tuesday, but on account of the absence from the city of County Attorney Hackler, another date must be decided upon.

The habeas corpus proceedings will be held at Hampton, or Lake Oboboji where Judge Evans is spending his vacation.

Nothing further has arisen in the report that the management of the Luella Forepaugh-Fish show would furnish bonds for DeEtta’s release.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 31, 1903

Grand Jury Must Hear D’Etta Case

Habeas Corpus Proceedings Fail to Obtain Liberty for L.D. DeEtta.

Prisoner Taken Back to Jail

Rock Island Says Report of its Taking ton – Sequel to the Tragic Death of Clara Rasmussen on July 4 Comes Before Grand Jury Next Month.

L.D. DeEtta must remain in jail until the grand jury considers his case the latter part of next month. His term of imprisonment will continue until that time unless he furnishes $500 bonds under which amount he was bound over to the grand jury at the preliminary hearing. District court convenes on Monday, August 24, and the grand jury, which will probably be called the following day, will consider the merits of the case of the state of Iowa against De Etta.

At Hampton, before Judge W.D. Evans, Tursday (sic) afternoon habeas corpus proceedings were instituted in behalf of De Etta. The grounds on which the prisoner hoped to obtain his liberty was that of insufficient evidence produced before the magistrate at the preliminary hearing. Before Judge Evans the minutes of that hearing were read and after due consideration the judge decided that the evidence was sufficient to hold the prisoner. The court declared that in every case such as the “slide for life act” which resulted in the death of Clara Rasmussen on July 4th, there is more or less negligence.

The prisoner, L.D. DeEtta, Sheriff Henry Oleson, Coroner McCreight, County Attorney Hackler and M.F. Healy, who appeared for the defense, returned tot he city last night.

DeEtta is being held to await the action of the grand jury on the charge of manslaughter. It is alleged that the death of Clara Rasmussen, the young woman whose tragic end was caused by her falling from the north side of the court house while attempting to perform the “slide for life act” during th eFourth of July celebration here was due to the negligence on the part of DeEtta and his wife, both of whom are being held to the grand jury. Mrs. DeEtta is under bond of $1,500 while her husband, for whom proceedings were instituted Thurday, is held under bonds of $500.

The death of Clara Rasmussen and the subsequent arrest of the DeEttas has attracted statewide attention and if indictments against them are rendered by the grand jury their trials will be followed with the greatest interest.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: Aug. 19, 1903

Sues County For $20,000 Damages

M. Wheeler, Man Injured in “Slide for Life” Accident, Wants Damages

Says County Was Negligent

In Permitting Wire to be Stretched From the Top of Court House to the Street Below, to the Danger of People on Sidewalks Below.

Notice was served on the county auditor today of a suit for damages to the amount of $20,000 filed by M. Wheeler against Webster county for injuries received July 4. Wheeler it will be remembered was the man who was injured on the Fourth of July by being struck upon the head by the falling body of Clara Rasmussen, the young woman who lost her life in an attempt to perform the “Slide for LIfe” act from the north side of the court house. Wheeler sustained injuries of the head which were considered serious at the time besides other injuries about the body. He was taken to the hospital where he remained several weeks.

The following is the notice served on the auditor in which the plaintiff charges Webster county with negligence.

“To Webster county, Iowa, the honorable board of supervisors and the county auditor of said county:

You are hereby notified that I was badly injured and hurt while on the sidewalke immediately north of hte court house in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on the 4th day of July, 1903, by a person falling from overhead striking me and knocking me down, causing bones of my body and head to be broken, bodily pain and mental suffereing and injury that will be permanent. That said person with your knowledge and consent was authorized and permitted to fasten a line, wire or rope to the top of the court house for the purpose of crossing over Central avenue of Fort Dodge, Iowa, at said place and at said time, to the dange rof persons on the sidewalk of (sic) street immediately before. That I claim as damage against Webster county $20,000 for its fault and negligence in causing the injuries above set out at the time and place hereinbefore mentioned.”

M. Wheeler.

Aug. 19,.1903
Mack and McCreary of Manson, represent the plaintiff in the suit, wh ich will be tried in the October term.

More articles will appear here, about the court proceedings and so on.

The Fort Dodge Messenger: July 9, 1904

De Etta Back in Show Business

Man and His Wife Concerned in Sensational Case Back to Old Haunts.

De Etta Is Now Hi Wallace

Does The High Diving Act With The Texas Jack Show While His Wife is the Snake Charmer With The Same Show.

Just a year ago the coroner’s jury returned a verdict that was of much interest inasmuch as it was the result of an accident by which the Fourth of July, 1903, will be remembered in Fort Dodge for many years to come. The verdict charged Leon DeEtta and his wife with the responsibility of the death of Clara Rasmussen, the young woman who met death in a fall from the top of the court house in her attempt to perform the “slide for life” act, a performance put on by the carnival company here for the Fourth. The DeEtta case was without precedent in the history of local courts and probably in Iowa. Both DeEtta and his wife were indicted by the grand jury on a charge of manslaughter. When the case came up in court, a compromise was reached by which DeEtta pleaded guilty to save his wife, against whom the charge was really made. The husband was given six months in the penitentiary and the wife allowed her freedom.

Back in Show Business.

DeEtta served his time, completing his term a few months ago. While he was in the penitentiary his wife was employed at the Duncombe house and other hotels. Now the entire family consisting of DeEtta and his wife and little daughter, are once more in the show business. They are members of the Texas Jack Wild West show, a combination of the one ring circus and an abreviation [sic] on the original Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The DeEttas belong to that class who are not at home  unless with some kind of a show. It is the occupation they understand and which they can make the best living. While in the penitentiary DeEtta was employed in the printing department and made good progress learning the printer’s trade, but as was to be expected, he had no intention of setting type once he obtained his liberty. He came to Fort Dodge and at once began to cast about for employment in his profession. The result was that he and his wife and child became members of the Texas Jack show. Mrs. DeEtta is now Madam Somebody or another, and with her nine-year-old daughter follows the pleasant pursuit of handling several dozen big snakes at an open air performance given every afternoon and evening. The little girl also takes part in a song and dance feature of the performance.

DeEtta Changes His Name.

DeEtta himself is really the big card in the show. He is no longer DeEtta, but is now Hi Wallace, the “Most Daring High Diver in the World.” A little thing like a name does not bother persons of the DeEtta type. When held in jail here last summer it developed that he already had three names. He first gave his name as Leon DeEtta and  he continued to be known best by that name. He also gave the name of Leon VonDear and had still another name. Now as Hi Wallace, he has a fourth name.

Domestic Bliss May End.

The latest report from the DeEttas is that their domestic bliss is about to end. Mrs. DeEtta, it is claimed, is about about [six] to leave her high diving spouse because of an unusual interest it is claimed he took in a young woman in this city.