American Pioneers of Amusement, Part 2: The Fearless Frogman, a Collector of Human Oddities and a Roller Coaster Engineer

Paul boytonCaptain Paul Boyton

This is a guy who at 15 lied about his age so he could join the Union Navy and fight in the Civil War. This is a guy who swam across the English Channel in an inflatable rubber suit, feet first. This is a guy who took a job with the Peruvian government that involved swimming offshore and trying to plant torpedoes on the Chilean ships that were embargoing Peru.

Paul Boyton was probably born in Ireland in 1848. But it might have been Pittsburgh where he grew up. The “Captain” might have come from his adventure in Peru or it might have been bestowed on him for his involvement with the United States Life-Saving Service, a predecessor to the Coast Guard, in Atlantic City.

Capt. Paul Boyton

Boyton in his rubber suit

Known as the “Fearless Frogman,” Boyton was once credited with making 71 life-saving rescues during a two-year stint as a lifeguard in Atlantic City. But it was the English Channel crossing that made him an international celebrity in the late 19th century. He toured Europe for five years with his rubber suit, putting on exhibitions that included going down waterfalls and through rapids. He did the same in the U.S., going down the Mississippi in 1876 from Alton, Ill., to St. Louis.

The rubber suit had inflatable tubes. Boyton likely was hoping to sell it as a life-saving device but had no luck with that. It appears that Boyton spent most of what he received and thus was almost always in need of a way to generate cash.

He managed an aquatic show as part of the Barnum circus for a while then settled in Chicago in 1885. It is there that he began to make his mark in the amusement business.  In 1894 he opened Paul Boyton’s Water Chutes. This park is the first amusement park in America to rely solely on mechanical attractions, as opposed to places like Coney Island and Atlantic City where there is beach and ocean.

Boyton also brought the Chutes ride to England (Earlscourt World’s Water Show) and to Belgium (1894 Antwerp World’s Fair). But if you were into building and promoting amusements in the 19th century, Coney Island was the place to be. And Boyton opened Sea Lion Park in Coney Island in 1895. In addition to Shoot the Chutes, Boyton still did swimming exhibitions in his rubber suit and there were as many as 40 sea lions who juggled and competed in races.

Boyton sold Sea Lion Park in 1902 after a difficult, rainy season. It was incorporated by the new owners into Luna Park. Boyton’s Chutes ride kept going at Luna Park until 1944. Boyton himself settled in Brooklyn and lived there until his death in 1924.

Samuel W. Gumpertz

While George Tillyou and Paul Boyton was instrumental in making Coney Island the birthplace of American amusement parks, Gumpertz contribution was to add the sideshow. Gumpertz took the amusement park and added a little circus and a bit of carnival.

Gumpertz was born in Washington in 1868 and moved to St. Louis at an early age. By the time he was nine, he had run away with a circus. Given his size he became the “top mounter” in the pyramid of acrobats. A variety of entertainment related gigs followed. At one time he was a child actor at the Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco, but lost that position when his voiced changed. He left a ranching engagement to run away with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His resume also included producing some Shakespearean plays and he was manager for a young Harry Houdini.

Gumpertz eventually settled into Coney Island and shifted his focus to the display of human oddities. One of his best known creations was Lilliputia, part of Dreamland, another Coney Island amusement park. Lilliputia was set up as a miniature city populated by some 300 small people, many of whom Gumpertz had recruited from various expositions. They had their own parliament and their own fire department, the latter of which staged a false alarm every hour for park guests.

Midget City

Lilliputia, or Midget City, at Dreamland, Coneyland

Dreamland, like its other wood-structured neighbors burned down in 1911. Gumpertz kept going, setting up the Dreamland Circus Sideshow, operating out of a tent on Surf Avenue. One of his lead attractions was the pinhead “Zip What Is It.” And there was two-foot tall Baron Paucci and Lionel the dog-faced boy. Gumpertz’ freaks were real. He traveled to Asia, Africa and Europe and it is estimated that he imported 3,800 unusual people. For his Wild Man of Borneo exhibit he leased 19 “wild men” from a tribal chieftain in Borneo. He also paid the government of French Equatorial Africa $3,000 a week to bring over 12 “platter-lipped” women. The women were part of a tribe where it was custom to stretch their lips on wooden platters, sometimes as much as 10 inches wide. They were accompanied by their husbands, although not all the husbands made the return trip as a couple ran off with normal lipped African-American women.

Gumpertz kep his show going through the 1920’s. In 1929, at age 67, he once again ran away with a circus, leaving Coney Island to join Ringling Brothers.

Lina Beecher

Not just an engineer, Lina Beecher has gone down in history as a roller coaster engineer. His contribution to the science was the creation of the looping, gravity force type of coaster.

Beecher was born in Byron, N.Y. in 1841. He was a lieutenant in the Union army during the civil war. He was an inventor and among his creations were the flangeless railway system, the Monorailway and the acoustic phone, a predecessor of the mobile phone. In between inventions he held a number jobs that included working in the railroad business in Tennessee and the orange industry in Florida.

Beecher’s signature creation was the Flip Flop Railway, a circular vertical loop coaster that Beecher sold to Paul Boyton to be moved to Sea Lion Park in Coney Island. Beecher had initially tested the coaster with sand bags and then with monkeys before trying it out on human beings. There were no seatbelts on Beecher’s coaster, you were held in your seat by gravity alone. The Flip Flop Railway lasted a few years at Sea Lion Park. There are no reports of anyone completely falling out of their seat but there were lots of complaints about whiplash due to the g-force generated.

Loop the Loop

Beecher’s Loop the Loop coaster at Olentangy Park

Beecher modified his design and built a Loop the Loop coaster for Olentangy Park in Columbus, Ohio. He built this one out of steel rather than wood and the loop was elliptical rather than circular. While seemingly less dangerous than its Coney Island ancestor, the riders weren’t buying it. The Loop the Loop had a short life before being taken out of services.

Beecher gave it one more try. He built a looping coaster for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901. Fair organizers, however, deemed it too dangerous and refused to allow it on the grounds.

Little information is available about Beecher after that. He died in 1915 at age 75. His concept of the looping roller coaster obviously lived on, albeit with seatbelts and some neck protection.


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17 Responses to American Pioneers of Amusement, Part 2: The Fearless Frogman, a Collector of Human Oddities and a Roller Coaster Engineer

  1. Donna Janke says:

    Fascinating stories. I can’t imagine what made Gumpertz even think of creating something like Lilliputia.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing these interesting people. I think whiplash is probably a risk people would take to ride the roller coasters.


  3. There was a headline on a Swedish newspaper today that in the year 1900 one amusement park in Stockholm put a dead cow outside its competitor. Can’t help wondering if that kind of behaviour happened in the US as well in the old days.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Didn’t find any stories like that but if things like that happened it likely would have been in Coney Island where there were three or four parks in close proximity.


  4. heraldmarty says:

    These are wonderful stories of colorful characters in American history. Boyton is especially fascinating to me because his stunts were actually quite daring for the time. The sideshows must have really been something to see. I’ve come across old photographs and they are a little creepy, but I can see where they served a purpose for the audience as well as the participants.


  5. Phoenicia says:

    What character Paul Boyton had – it appears he enjoyed the challenge! He stepped outside of the ordinary in order to pursue greater things.

    Well thanks to Lena Beecher, I have enjoyed riding on loop the loop roller coasters at theme parks in the UK and USA.

    It all starts with one idea and someone passionate enough to execute it.


  6. My stomach flipflops every time I read these blogs, Ken! I am amazed about the lengths Gumpertz went to in bringing the “unusual” to the parks. He must have made a lot of money with his shows to be spending that much to bring them here.


  7. All great material for fictionalized characters. Those early amusement park contraptions do put a bit of fear in my heart though, but someone always has to be the trailblazer 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. BroadBlogs says:

    Roller coasters scare the crap out of me!


  9. Erica says:

    I can’t believe the upside down roller coaster was invented in the 1800s. I always thought that was an invention that came out of the last few decades. Those were some brave people who tested that new roller coaster without any seat belts. Some days I still do want to run away and join the circus.


  10. Great article on these two men. As for the “Frogman” his idea of the rubber suit was just to ahead of its time. Today, because of numerous advances in cloth manufacturing, we have survival suits, which do what his rubber suit did over 100 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Andy says:

    The Samuel W. Gumpertz section reminded me of a short story I read (and had to write a term paper on) in high school, Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”. Have you read it? Did Gumpertz or any other American amusement-eer present a hunger artist exhibit? Or was that a European thing?


  12. I’m not really a big fan of roller coasters. The first time I went on a roller coaster that spun me upside down was at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park; and even though it wasn’t as uncomfortable as I’d thought, I have yet to experience my second time… Guess I have Lina Beecher to thank for that experience!


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