Arts and Leisure

Rodman and Ruth Law Take Their Sibling Rivalry to Crazy Heights

Rodman and Ruth Law rocketed to fame just before World War I with daredevil movie stunts and breathtaking aeronautical feats. Their father attributed their success to the strong strain of sailor blood that ran through the family.

Rodman, nicknamed the Unkillable Actor, starred in feature films. Ruth, called the Queen of the Sky, smashed height and distance records set by men.

Their father, Frederick Law, told a newspaper in 1919 that the Laws of New England were noted for their fearlessness in the rigging during the days of sail.

Rodman and Ruth Law.

Rodman Law was born Jan. 21, 1885 in Lynn, Mass. Ruth Bancroft Law came two years later, on May 21, 1887. Even as small children, they brought their father and mother, Sarah Bancroft Breed, to the verge of prostration.

“Rodman and Ruth always were daring one another to do something dangerous. If they were not jumping from a barn or climbing a tall tree they were riding our cattle or doing something equally hair-raising,” their father said.

Rodman Law

As a young man, Rodman worked as a sailor, a detective, an ironworker and a circus rider, but his work as a steeplejack launched him on his path to fame and fortune. In 1909, on a bet with another steeplejack, he climbed the Flatiron Building in New York with his bare hands.

He kept performing daredevil stunts even after he married Florence Kimball. To his wife’s dismay, life insurers wouldn’t cover him. They had three children and lived in Brooklyn.

In 1912 he walked into the Pathe film production company offices in Jersey City and suggested they film him parachuting off the Statue of Liberty.

Rodman Law in 1917

Pathe was then a two-year-old company hungry to fill its silent newsreels. A Pathe executive saw the possibilities in the daredevil stunt and agreed, according to Jacob Smith in The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance.

On Feb. 12, 1912, Rodman Law and an assistant climbed to the top of Lady Liberty’s arm. A small crowd of cameramen, reporters and photographers watched from below. Law, who had never used a parachute before, stepped outside the rail and noticed his assistant crying.

Then he looked down. “I must admit that just then I didn’t enjoy the prospect of dropping 345 feet,” he recalled. But he jumped anyway, his chute opened and he landed unhurt on the cold ground. Newspapers and newsreels brought his thrilling stunt to an eager audience around the country.

A film star was born.

Ruth Law

Five months after Rodman jumped off the Statue of Liberty, little sister Ruth flew a plane for the first time. She had tried to enroll in the Wright brothers flying school, but Orville refused her because of her sex. He sold her an airplane, though, a 26-foot-long Wright Model B, which could reach speeds of 45 mph.

She took flying lessons from the Burgess Company in Marblehead, Mass. In August she soloed and in November she earned her commercial pilot’s license. She also took lessons from a German mechanic so she could fix her own plane.

Ruth Law in Daytona Beach

Ruth then went to work in Florida ferrying passengers from the Sea Breeze Hotel and barnstorming in aerial exhibitions.

Her father first saw her fly in an aerial show in Columbus, Ohio. He almost fainted. “I had to hang on to a fence,” he said.

The Unkillable Actor

In one of Ruth’s exhibition flights, she had a passenger – Rodman. Of course he jumped out of the plane. The Ryno Film company recorded the jump, during which he dislocated his neck.

Rodman had quickly made a name for himself, first appearing in newsreels about his exploits and then in feature films as a stunt performer. He scaled skyscrapers and climbed across a ravine on a 250-foot cable. He jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, and his parachute didn’t open until his feet nearly touched the East River.

In 1913, Rodman climbed into the nose of a 44-foot skyrocket loaded with 900 pounds of gunpowder. He planned to shoot himself into the air and parachute to earth. Instead, the rocket blew up and threw him 30 feet, burning him badly and knocking him unconscious.

Rodman the year before had starred in a feature film, At the Risk of His Life. The next year he appeared in the Daredevil Mountaineer, followed by Fighting Death. His daring stunts earned him the nickname “The Unkillable Actor.”

His father disapproved. “I could not see why he should risk his life merely to send cold chills down the backs of spectators and to please ‘movie’ men,” he later said in a 1919 newspaper interview.

The reason was simple: He was making scads of money. And spending it as fast as he made it.

Ruth Law, Queen of the Air

In 1915, Ruth became the first woman to perform an aerial loop the loop—like her brother, on a bet. On the morning of November 19, she took off from Chicago in her new plane, a Curtiss Pusher, and headed to New York. She intended to reach the city in a day, something no aviator had ever done.

People didn’t think she’d make it. No woman could withstand the cold or the long hours in the cramped, exposed cockpit. Plus she got a late start when a strong wind prevented her departure from Grant Park until 8:25 a.m. And in a scene that her brother would recognize, her mechanic started crying as she prepared to take off in her tiny wire-and-stick biplane.

She barely got off the ground in the gusting Chicago winds, but she then flew 590 miles without a stop.  At 2:10 p.m., she landed in Hornell, N.Y., smashing the record of 452 miles of continuous flight.

On the ground in Hornell, Ruth was so numb with cold she had to be helped into a waiting automobile. But she ate lunch while her plane was refueled, and then took off from Hornell. Her late start cost her, though, and it got so dark she had to land in Binghamton at 4:20 p.m. She tied her plane to a tree, asked a policeman to watch it and checked into a hotel.

Little Girl

The next morning she took off for New York City, encountering fog so thick she sometimes couldn’t identify any landmarks. She found the Hudson River as she started to run out of fuel, so she glided the last few miles. Finally she landed on Governors Island, where Gen. Leonard Wood and a large crowd greeted her.

“Well done, little girl, you’ve beaten them all,” Wood said to the 29-year-old woman. “We all feel proud of you.”

Arriving on Governors Island

She won a $2,500 prize for breaking the cross-country nonstop record, having gone 884 miles in 8 hours, 55 minutes, something no man or woman had done in America.

Now Ruth was a star, too. She continued to barnstorm and by 1917 she was making as much as $9,000 a week for her stunt flying.

Not So Unkillable

Rodman Law’s career had more or less ended by then. In 1914, he injured himself while parachuting from a balloon in Trenton, N.J.

“Rodman Law, the daredevil aviator whose hazardous feats have thrilled thousands throughout the country, is now paying the price of his recklessness,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Feb. 22, 1917.

What money he hadn’t squandered he spent on hospital bills. He had to give up his big home in Brooklyn and move his wife and three children to a furnished rooming house.

Eventually he recovered enough to join the Army Aviation Corps during World War I. He contracted tuberculosis while in the Army. Rodman Law, the unkillable actor, died Oct. 141919 at the age of 34 in a hospital bed in Greenville, S.C.

Ruth Law Returns to Earth

When the United States entered the war, Ruth declared her ambition to join the Army Aviation Corps as well. But the Secretary of War refused to give her a commission. He said, [it would] “let down the bars to women in the United States to seek commissions in the army.”

So Ruth Law instead performed aerial stunts for crowds to raise money for war bonds and the Red Cross. The army allowed her to wear a non-commissioned officer uniform as she flew around the Statue of Liberty and down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. She dropped Liberty Bond pamphlet bombs from her plane.

After the war, she returned to the barnstorming circuit. She started a flight school in Miami and formed Ruth Law’s Flying Circus. Her little aerial circus – a troupe of three planes – thrilled audiences at county fairs and race tracks. They raced cars, flew through fireworks and did stunts like wing walks, plane-to-plane transfers and loop the loops.

The stunts got increasingly dangerous, and in October 1921 a young stuntwoman died in an accident.

Ruth had married a mechanic and motorcycle racer, Charles Augustus Oliver. He supported her flying career—up until that point.

“It’s my husband’s turn now, I’ve been on the limelight long enough, I’m going to let him run things hereafter and me, too,” she told a newspaper reporter.

They moved to Beverly Hills, where she had a nervous breakdown 10 years later. In 1946, they moved to San Francisco. Charles died the next year.

Ruth Law died on December 5, 1970, and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, Mass.

With thanks to Ruth Law–Queen of the Air: Challenging Stereotypes and Inspiring a Nation by Billie Holladay Skelley and Jacob Smith in The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance.

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