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.
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.
(Editor’s note: 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.)