WZTV: The story of the ‘Human Fly’

November 1, 2019, Dennis Ferrier, WZTV (Channel 17)

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WZTV) — The Rutherford County Courthouse on the square in Murfreesboro is pure southern charm. One of just a handful of pre-Civil War courthouses left in the state of Tennessee. Imagine the stories the building could tell … We’re going to tell one of them, the true story of the “Human Fly.”

“Back in the 1920s all over the country there were itinerant performers, daredevils some of them, who would go into a town, stir up the audience and pass their hat and do whatever their things was,” said Rutherford County Historian Gregory Tucker.

In 1923, a young dark-haired daredevil and his partner showed up on the Murfreesboro square.

“They went all round the business soliciting the business owner to help work up the crowd. They were going to do some bicycle stunts but the centerpiece was the ‘Human Fly’ was going to free climb the clock tower on top of the courthouse and go up to the flagpole and wave to the crowd,” Tucker said.

According to newspaper reports at the time, they got $12 dollars in advance as a crowd of 200 people gathered in the square – a huge crowd for a city with a population of only 5,000.

“He climbed up the side of the clock tower got all the way to the flagpole and waved to the crowd,” Tucker said. “He got down to the level of the top of the clock, and we don’t what happened, a lot of performers would do a little bobble and pretend to fall, maybe he was trying to do that but he really did fall, 40 feet on the top of a hard roof.”

The loud thud on the metal roof warned the crowd this was no stunt – the human fly was dead with a broken neck and crushed skull.

The story goes the human fly’s body was put in the window of the Sweeny Funeral Home because no one knew his identity. The hope was someone would come and collect him, but no one did and so several days later he was buried in a pauper’s grave in nearby Evergreen Cemetery.

But Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker didn’t believe it. He had heard the story since childhood, but a couple parts of the story bothered him.

One if he had a partner wouldn’t the surviving partner know his name? And then there was the part about the pauper’s grave at Evergreen Cemetery.

“That’s one of the first things that made me suspicious of the story. I am a board member there and there are no pauper graves. At least not at that time,” Tucker explained.

Tucker discovered the man was actually 28-year-old James Dearing from St. Louis. He was collected by his family and buried back home.

Nothing like ruining the end of a local legend, but still what a courthouse and what a story.

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