By William F. Hanna
George G. Polley had a breathtaking view over Taunton in the twilight hours of September 19, 1921, but to fully enjoy it he had to overcome several nagging distractions, each demanding his immediate attention. Not least of these was that he was doing a hand-stand on the torch atop the Bristol County Superior Courthouse, about 185 feet above the Green. Another was the more than 20,000 excited people packing the adjacent Common and most of downtown, each hoping to get a glimpse of an authentic “human fly.” A third was the necessity of trying to keep an eye on the several volunteers who were passing the hat among the spectators below, soliciting and collecting contributions. Polley knew he’d have to pace the show; it couldn’t end until the crowd had been fully canvased. Most of the proceeds of this climb, like all of his shows, would go to charity. He was exceedingly generous toward disabled veterans organizations and other worthy causes.
Such was the daily grind of one of the better known daredevils of the “Roaring Twenties.” Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1897, Polley said that he first tested his peculiar talent for climbing tall buildings when he was just 10 years old, when the owner of a clothing store promised him a new suit if he could climb to the roof of the mercantile building. Polley accepted the challenge and it changed his life. Leaving the pavement as a mere boy, he successfully gained the roof shortly afterward, and by then he was a deeply committed “human fly,” willing to push his luck as far as he could.
As a teenager in the years before World War I, Polley honed his climbing skills on smaller buildings. He also found work on the periphery of show business as a stuntman in two Hollywood movies, The Span of Life (1914) and Dare-Devil Dan (1917).
After serving in the U.S. army in France during World War I, Polley returned to a nation hungry for frivolity and raucous entertainment. He and his wife Helen Stillman owned a home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, but in fact they lived out of suitcases for much of their time together. During the winter months, George and Helen toured the vaudeville circuit, he as a magician and friend of Harry Houdini, and she as a popular singer. It was in spring and summer, however, that George polished his reputation as the world’s most fearless “human fly.”
Depending on the weather, Polley’s life hung in the balance of a grueling work schedule. During the last two weeks of September 1921, for example, he climbed the tallest buildings in Quincy, Brockton, Taunton, Fall River and Fitchburg. That came just days after similar performances in Springfield and Lynn. Each of these appearances was well publicized and tens of thousands turned out to see the man the Fall River Evening News called “the pioneer and most famous building climber in the world.”
That is what put the hand-standing Polley on top of the Taunton courthouse on that beautiful fall evening. Earlier, before entering the building, the “fly” had cheerfully bantered with people in the crowd, which included many children as well as adults with binoculars. He explained that volunteers would pass among them accepting donations, and he urged everyone to contribute as much as possible toward the American Legion, which was that evening’s worthy cause.
Polley had fully scouted the building earlier in the afternoon, but show biz prevailed for the sake of the crowd. With thousands watching, the “fly” appeared to study all aspects of the rough granite front of the courthouse. Apparently satisfied, he entered the building through the front door, only to reappear in one of the second-floor windows. Gingerly climbing out onto the sill, he made his way slowly from one window to the next, often stopping to feel the texture of the granite. This was actually a stall to give the collectors in the crowd more time to work. The delay also raised the level of anticipation among the spectators.
The “fly’s” first challenge was getting to the roof of the main building. He did this by running his hands along the granite shelf, groping for projections on the rough surface, and then pulling himself slowly upward. This strategy — and brute strength — brought him to the roof of the main building amidst the wild cheering of thousands. Moving quickly, he then climbed straight up toward the tower, still using the granite projections, as well as rain gutters when they were within reach. He enjoyed a momentary respite by entering one of the small terraces located at the base of the copper-sheathed dome. After planning his attack, he left the safety of the terrace and climbed to a place where the granite face and the copper dome were joined. Seizing one of the vertical seams in the copper, Polley literally ran up the side of the dome and, upon reaching the top, grabbed ahold of the base of the 15-foot torch with both hands. The torch began to sway dangerously. It “rocked from side to side,” said the Taunton Daily Gazette. Many in the crowd turned their heads away but Polley was just beginning. He climbed to the very top of the torch, 185 feet above the ground, and stood on his head. Not done yet, he then stood on his hands and rotated his body so that he turned through a complete circle. Still not finished, he finally stood on just one hand. He was met by thunderous applause and cheers from down below, and what a strange sight it must have been to see the tiny human figure silhouetted against the sunset.
Polley descended quickly using the same route over which he had made his ascent. When he reached the ground he was mobbed by admirers and needed a police escort to walk just the few yards over to the City Hotel. As he retired for the evening, he learned that he had risked his life for only the $400 collected by the volunteers.
Polley was back in Taunton exactly one month later to climb the flag pole atop City Hall, and from there his career continued uninterrupted for the next few years. He maintained an exhausting schedule as he became a familiar figure in both the eastern and southern states.
Throughout the early and mid-1920s, Polley became more press savvy, cheerfully holding court with reporters in every city where he performed. Some of his remarks were interesting. In 1924, for example, in an interview with the student newspaper at Yale University, he professed to getting no personal satisfaction from climbing. Risking his life daily, he said, was “purely business.” “After each performance I’m glad it’s over.” He was also often asked if he had ever fallen, and his answer added to his popular mystique. He confessed to falling only twice in his career. Once, the granite sill of a third-story window gave way under his grasp, but his fall was broken by an awning at street level. Another time, said Polley, he was pushed off of a second-story window ledge by a man who refused to let him scale the building. Potentially fatal mishaps, but in both cases he had walked away.
As the 1920s progressed, the “Human Fly” grew even more daring, staging last second recoveries from cleverly-devised “emergencies,” all to the grateful gasps of adoring fans. Polley’s resume likewise became more impressive. Among his most famous victories were his ascension of Boston’s Custom House Tower in 1926, and his earlier assault on New York City’s Woolworth Building. At 57 storeys, this was the tallest building in the world at the time, and though the “Human Fly” made it only to the thirtieth floor before being arrested for climbing without a permit, it sealed his place among the most famous dare devils of his era.
The end came too soon. Both in public and in private, Polley always boasted that he would never die in a fall from a building, no matter how dangerous the climb. That was a promise he kept, but just barely. Death came for the “Human Fly” not on a sidewalk but on an operating table in a Richmond hospital. Not long before, he had sustained a seemingly innocuous head injury while preparing for a climb in Palmer, Massachusetts. Although he tried to keep his frenetic schedule, his condition worsened. He was in Virginia visiting family when he had to be hospitalized, and there doctors discovered a brain tumor. They recommended immediate surgery, Polley agreed and died on the table. It was February 28, 1927 when newspapers throughout the country brought the sad news that the “Human Fly” was dead at age 29.