A while back, I wrote about Topsy, the elephant that was executed by electrocution in 1903 at the brand-new Luna Park in Coney Island. In this post, I’m going to tell you another old tale of Coney Island that would make most animal lovers cringe today, and, I hope, would lead to an arrest on charges of animal cruelty.
In August 1899, Captain Paul Boyton, the owner of Sea Lion Park and the famous Shooting-the-Chutes aquatic toboggan slide, introduced a new act to Coney Island. Billed as the amazing high diving horses, King and Queen were two pure white Arabian horses who had a knack for diving on their own from great heights into almost any body of water.
According to one report, King and Queen were the direct descendants of Linden Tree and Leopard, two Arabian horses that were presented as gifts to President Ulysses S. Grant by Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, in May 1879. Another more reliable source – The Strand Magazine, an illustrated monthly published in London – says the horses grew up wild and free in the Everglades of Florida. I don’t know if I believe that one either.
What we do know, as confirmed by both The Strand and Brooklyn’s own Daily Eagle, is that King and Queen were born sometime around 1895 and were trained and owned by George Frederick Holloway, an avid horse breeder with 80 acres of pastureland in Bancroft, Iowa. As George Holloway tells the story in a Daily Eagle article dated August 30, 1899:
“When King and Queen were small colts they were kept in one pasture and their mothers in another. A river and a high bluff intervented (sic) and it was considered that no animal could get from one pasture to another, so no fence was built. The colts had not been in the pasture many days before I found them one morning in the lower pasture with their mothers.
It was such a puzzle to me as to how they got there that I decided to watch King and Queen one night. I found that the colts jumped from the high bluffs into the river below and swam the shallow water.”
Recognizing a potential money-making opportunity, George began training the colts to dive from gradually increasing heights. “The most remarkable thing about the performance was that the horses came to like it, and on more than one occasion when the door of their stable had been left open they escaped from their loose boxes and remounted the chute and took the dive on their own accord,” George told the Eagle. He said no whips or prodding had ever been used and he rewarded the horses only with kindness.
When Paul Boyton heard about the diving horse act, he immediately got in touch with George and his nephew John Whalen, who was now managing the horses and taking the act on the road. The horses made their Coney Island debut in August 1899, performing twice a day for thousands of people at Sea Lion Park by diving from a 32-foot tall platform into about 20 feet of water in the Shooting-the Chutes lagoon.
It was during one of these performances that King almost lost his life. As the story goes, Paul kept several huge turtles in the lagoon – along with the sea lions – and one day a turtle popped up only a few feet away from where King had just struck the water. Had King’s head hit the hard shell, it may have been lights out for both horse and turtle.
Oh, but it gets better. When the turtle refused to budge from that spot in the lake, they lowered a dynamite cartridge directly over where they turtle had sunk and fired away. The poor turtle was blown from its home, and although it supposedly was not physically harmed, it was an emotional wreck for about a week. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company Scores a Hit With the Diving Ponies
That summer, New York cinematographer Frederick S. Armitage directed a short film for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (AMB) featuring the diving horses at Coney Island. In 1902, the AMB Picture Catalogue said of the film:
“This picture has created a sensation wherever it has been shown. It is one of the popular ‘hits’ of the Biograph. Taken at Paul Boynton’s chutes at Coney Island, and shows Prof. G.H. Holloway’s trained horses diving into the water from a platform 35 feet high. Their action is purely voluntary, there being no mechanical aids or impulses whatever.”
The AMB Company was founded in 1895 by William Kennedy Dickson, an inventor who worked at Thomas Edison’s laboratory and who helped pioneer the technology of capturing moving images on film. In its early years, AMB produced “actualities” or documentary footage of actual persons, places and events. Each film was usually less than two minutes long.
Originally headquartered in New Jersey, the company’s first studio was located on the roof of the Roosevelt Building at 841 Broadway (also known as the Hackett Carhart Building, for the menswear company that occupied much of the building at that time).
In 1906, the company moved to a brownstone at 11 East 14th Street near Union Square (the brownstone was torn down in the 1960s), and in 1913, AMB relocated again to 807 East 175th Street in the Bronx (now the site of a New York City Department of Sanitation garage.)
The Roosevelt Building
The Roosevelt Building was constructed in 1893 on land that was once a garden on the Broadway estate of Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt’s grandfather. (And prior to that, the land was part of the 40-acre Elias Brevoort farm.) Cornelius Roosevelt’s mansion, located on the southwest corner of 14th Street, was demolished following his death in 1871 and replaced by the Domestic Sewing Machine Company building.
Back to the Diving Horses
After starring in the AMB documentary filmed at Coney Island, King and Queen spent many more years touring the country and performing their high-dive feat at numerous parks and arenas. Sometime around 1902 the horses were sold to William H. O’Neill of Boston. By 1906, they were owned by J. W. Gorman, who signed them up to perform at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, Revere Beach in Massachusetts, and many other venues.
Over the years, other diving horse acts came and went, but none of the horses ever dove head-first into the water on their own accord as did King and Queen. Today, there is still a diving horse show at Magic Forest Amusement Park in Lake George, New York, but these horses “dive” only nine feet — and it looks like they go feet first.
Incidentally, in October 1915, the S.P.C.A. charged several employees of the Fox Film Corporation in New York — including renowned veterinarian Dr. Martin J. Potter (of the Thespian Horse College at Ben Hur Stables) — for filming a horse and rider diving 83 feet from the Ausable Chasm at Lake Placid, New York. The rider broke his leg. The horse was not injured.
According to Jane Petersen, a distant relative of the horse’s caretaker, Fred Lane, King died in 1924 and was buried on her family’s property in Falmouth, Maine. She sent me a photo of his carved headstone, below.