10,000 Miles in a Rubber Suit

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Modern entertainment options sometimes pale in comparison to how people spent their free time in the past. Take Rhode Islanders in the summer of 1880*, for instance, who had the opportunity to enjoy the "most curious and intensely interesting Exhibition ever given in Rhode Island." The topic of this most curious exhibition was Paul Boyton and his rubber suit, and this is the brochure he used to advertise the event:

Boyton's story (a portion of which is offered inside the brochure) reads like the ideal resume of a nineteenth-century adventurer: By the time he'd begun his career as the "Fearless Frogman", Boyton had fought in three wars, toured South African diamond mines, and spent much of his time as an aquatic life-saver (water was his element). But it was his dramatic leap from a steamship (and subsequent survival) that brought Boyton the public attention he was looking for and set him on the aquatic path he followed from that moment on. The brochure describes it like this:

On the 10th of October, 1874, Captain Boyton sailed from New York on the National Line Steamship "Queen," with the intention of casting himself into the sea when 250 miles from the American shore, but was frustrated in his desires by the officials of the vessel, who declared the attempt suicidal, and forcibly prevented it. He was taken across, a reluctant passenger, but JUMPED FROM THE STEAMER When off the coast of Ireland, on the night of the 21st...

Boyton's life was certainly entertaining in itself, but what kinds of things took place at his exhibitions? The final leaf of the brochure offers a list of the events he had in store for his audience:

It's hard to imagine how some of the activities listed were demonstrated, or how the audience would have received them (how long would you watch someone "smoking, reading, etc." while floating in Narragansett Bay, for instance), but the finale looks like a definite attention-grabber, and one with echoes of the destruction of the Gaspee in nearby waters.

It sounds like a captivating afternoon's entertainment. And it even came with a soundtrack  (Note the similar cover illustration).


For more information about Boyton:

A biographical sketch (caveat lector) is available online via the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/stream/appletonscyclo01wilsrich#page/343/mode/1up

The text of Boyton's own memoir, The Story of Paul Boyton, is available through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19230

* 1886 is something of a guess. The brochure references Boyton's "new book," Roughing It in Rubber, and describes it as "now in course of preparation, and shortly to be issued." The book is elsewhere mentioned as having been published in 1886, but the WorldCat database doesn't actually list a book by that title. It does, however, list The Story of Paul Boyton, first published in 1892. Happily, the brochure also mentions that the exhibition will take place on Wednesday, July 21st and the two days following. July 21 fell on a Wednesday on the following years between 1869 and 1897: 1869, 1875, 1880, 1886, and 1897, so while 1886 still seems the most likely, it could have also been one of the others. UPDATED: Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader familiar with Boyton's exploits, it now seems clear that the actual date of publication was 1880, rather than 1886.

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Jordan Goffin

Special Collections Librarian Jordan Goffin has been mining the wonders in the Library’s Special Collections since early 2011. If you’d like to stop in and spend some time with the historic and noteworthy books, manuscripts and ephemera at PPL, contact him by email at jgoffin@provlib.org or by phone at 401.455.8021. Also, visit the Notes for Bibliophiles blog (http://pplspcoll.wordpress.com/) to read more about the exciting materials in Special Collections and to keep up with events and announcements.


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