Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post, September 14, 2008
One of Murfreesboro’s best-known stories involves “The Human Fly” who met his untimely end scaling the historic Courthouse.
One of the best retellings of the all-too-true story is on the Chamber of Commerce’s Web site.
In 1923, a young man in his early twenties came to Murfreesboro, Tennessee and proclaimed that he was the “human fly.”
“He went to the officials at the Rutherford County Courthouse and asked if he could have permission to climb to the top of the building. He told them that he would not do any damage because he would only use his bare hands and feet, with no ropes or ladders.
“After careful deliberation, the officials granted him permission. The young man spent the next few days visiting with the merchants on the square securing sponsorships for his big climb.
“To this day, we have no idea who the “Human Fly” really was,” the story ends.
We are about to offer a difference conclusion to this 85-year-old mystery.
Some of confusion over the identity of “The Human Fly” may be due to the fact that the performer had two names – a real one – and a snappy sounding stage name.
Being snappy was important in the 1920s. The “Jazz Age” was an important time of revitalization in Murfreesboro.
With growth stymied for decades following the Civil War, Rutherford County began to boom once again in the 1890s as a major agricultural area. Thanks to the NC & StL railroad, Murfreesboro was a transportation hub and even served as a rallying point for soldiers volunteering for World War I. Some 1,177 county residents fought in that war with 44 of them dying.
Rutherford County was one of the top dairy producing areas in Tennessee prompting the establishment of the Rutherford County Cooperative Creamery in 1914. Famed for its Magnolia-brand, the creamery was producing 1.3 million pounds of butter by 1935. The Carnation Milk Plant was built on the former William Lytle plantation in 1927. Murfreesboro Pure Milk, founded in 1929, is one of the few remaining companies from that area.
On the Square stood the venerable City Cafe. It opened Feb. 10, 1900 on the spot where Bink’s Outdoors currently stands.
On the morning of Friday, April 6, 1923, two young men were making the rounds of the downtown businesses and the offices at the Courthouse, which had stood in the center of the Square since 1859.
Off the train from St. Louis, the men were barnstormers, traveling performers in the style of Harry Houdini. One performed stunts on a bicycle. The other was a steeplejack, billed as “The World’s Youngest Human Fly.”
Together they sought permission to scale the Courthouse.
The Human Fly had scaled taller and more impressive buildings in the past like the previous June when he climbed the outside of the new Kahl Building in Davenport, Iowa. It was the tallest structure in the Quad Cities area.
Headlines in the Davenport newspaper heralded his “daredevil and thrilling stunt.” The “perilous ascent” was performed without incident.
In 1923, human fly acts were nothing new. Daredevils had been climbing America’s buildings since 1916 or so.
Harry H. Gardiner was one of the most famous practitioners. On Oct. 7, 1916, a lunchtime crowd of 150,000 gathered to witness him climb Detroit’s Majestic Building. The Detroit News had hired Gardiner as a publicity stunt to advertise their new “ad taking office” in the building.
Gardiner was so famous that President Grover Cleveland proclaimed him “The Human Fly.” He had a long career climbing buildings in the U.S. and Europe.
Other human fly stuntmen weren’t so successful.
Slightly less than a month before the climb in Murfreesboro, another human fly lost his life in a highly publicized event.
Harry F. Young had been hired to climb the Hotel Martique in New York City to promote the silent movie, “Safety Last,” featuring early stuntman Harold Lloyd.
A huge crowd, including Young’s wife, was on hand for the March 5, 1923 climb. Young, wearing a placard saying “Safety Last” (promoting the film) lost his grip and fell nine stories to his death.
Meeting with officials at Murfreesboro’s Courthouse, the young human fly gave them his reassurances and assured them of his expertise, while saying this climb was one of the first of a long spring/summer season.
Permission was granted, and the two daredevils began to spread the word downtown.
Contemporary newspaper reports described the scene as some 200 people gathered on the Square at about 8 p.m. that Friday evening. A hat was passed, and only $12 was collected from the curious onlookers.
Despite the poor payday, the daredevils began their act with the Human Fly going first. Illuminated by a fire truck spotlight, he nimbly climbed the brick exterior of the building, up past the second floor courtroom and onto the flat roof of the structure.
Once there, he then tackled the metal cupola, which posed a problem due to its irregular shape, but the climber made it past the clock face and pulled himself atop the bell tower.
To the obvious amazement of the crowd, he stood astride the weather vane on top of the building some 200 feet from the ground.
“He descended to the ledge just under the courthouse clock where he stopped for a rest. Parties on the roof called to him there to come on down as the crowd was satisfied. Instead he started back to the top.
“After going only a short distance he seemed to loosen his grasp and fell backwards to the roof. His partner had not carried out his part of the program which was to have been staged on the public square,” a newspaper reported.
“Life was extinct when local citizens reached his body. His neck was broken and a hole was knocked in his head by the plunge to the roof.”
His body was carried across the square to Crafton-Sweeney’s undertaker parlors to be held pending word from his family in St. Louis.
In the decades that followed the “Human Fly’s” name was lost … perhaps because he had a stage name and a real name?
His “stage name” was the dashing sounding Ray Royce, 26, of St. Louis.
His real name was James A. Dearing. That was the name on his death certificate. The document reads:
James A. Dearing Male, White, Single, Birth Unknown, Age 26, Died April 6, 1926, Father is Dearing, Unknown, Mother is Unknown, Buried St. Louis, MO.
The legend says his remains were in the window of Crafton-Sweeney’s for days in the hope someone would identify him. And that he was buried in a pauper’s grave at Evergreen Cemetery.
That last bit of information partially refutes the Evergreen Cemetery part of the legend. Evergreen has no record of a Ray Royce or James A. Dearing being buried there, but the story has been passed down through generations of employees that he is buried in an unmarked grave.
St. Louis newspapers also carried his death notice.
News of his death was carried in Nashville and Atlanta newspapers as well.
From “Atlanta (Georgia) Constitution,” 7 April 1923:
‘Human Fly’ Falls Off Court House Steeple to Death
“Stunt” Performer Instantly Killed in 40-foot Drop to Roof.
Friday Murfreesboro, Tenn., April 6. — Ray Royce, 25, of St. Louis, Mo., was instantly killed here tonight at 8:30 o’clock when he lost his footing while doing a “human fly” climbing act on the steeple of the Rutherford county court house. He fell 40 feet to the roof below. His neck was broken and his skull was crushed by the fall.
Royce and another man, who is a trick bicycle rider, arrived in Murfreesboro this morning. They claimed to be daredevil steeplejacks and obtained permission for an exhibition tonight.
A collection of $12 was taken up for Royce among the 200 spectators before he started his fatal climb. He fell after he had reached the top of the steeple. He had descended part of the way and rested on a ledge. Then he started back to the top, but his grasp slipped and he fell backward to the roof below.