Old West had not been wild in a long time, but a dentist-turned-performer
called Doc Carver kept the memory alive well into the 20th century.
A former partner of Buffalo Bill Cody, the dead-shot Carver started
putting on shooting exhibitions in the late 1870s. After becoming
world champion trap shooter in 1883, he decided to organizer his own
Wild West show.
His shooting skills carried the act, but in the mid-1880s he added
a crowd-pleasing new bit: a diving horse. Carver claimed he got the
idea from personal experience, once having been forced to jump his
horse from a partially collapsed bridge. No matter what inspired Carver,
he soon found that the prospect of seeing someone dive 40 feet on
horseback into a tank of water kept ticket sales robust.
Since San Antonio was
the biggest city in Texas during the
early 1900s, the Carver show probably came to town regularly. In February
1907 “The Great Carver Show” opened at the new Electric Park, a lighted
pavilion and park long since vanished.
came to San Antonio
from all over South Texas,
more than eager to pay 50 cents a head to see a member of Carver’s
troupe ride a horse off the four-story platform the show’s stage hands
had erected. But on Sunday, February 17, the crowd witnessed much
more than it had bargained for.
Something went terribly wrong when 18-year-old Oscar Smith made his
leap. The fall killed the young man, though the horse survived.
The city’s four scrappy daily newspapers — the Express, the News,
the Gazette and the Light — all went crazy with the story. The Light
scored a major scoop – a stop-action photo of the unfortunate rider
on his way down.
“It is not often that a newspaper is enabled to print an actual photograph
of a man within three seconds of accidental death and while in the
act leading to it,” the newspaper bragged tastelessly in a page-one
story. “Every newsy had sold out his entire supply of The Light yesterday,
bought more and sold out again in an hour.”
“The Light was in demand yesterday afternoon to the exclusion of all
other forms of newspaper literature,” the boast went on. “The people
wanted the paper with the picture of Oscar Smith diving to his death
in the pond at Electric Park, and they got it.”
C.J. Overman took the photo at 1-300th of a second with “one of the
two cameras in the city capable of taking a snap shot so quickly.”
Overman, who worked for the Roach-Barnes Co., “has made a study of
catching views of this kind, which is an art in itself.”
The story continued: “An ordinary camera would have caught merely
a blurred outline of the horse and man. The photo from which this
plate was made is clear as though made from a stationary subject.”
Strictly to accommodate a deserving public, the management of the
Light saw fit to publish an extra run of the paper containing the
picture. “Apply at the business office for the papers,” the story
The show went on. Two days after the accident, the Light published
a large display ad placed by Carver’s publicity man. The ad made no
mention of young Smith’s tragic demise, promising “The Five High Diving
Horses will all dive.”
The ad also touted “The Girl in Red, the Bravest Girl in the World.”
Not to be missed, of course, was “Dr. Carver, the Champion Shot of
the World, in his wonderful exhibition of Rifle Shooting, using solid
[as in real] bullets.”
At least one country newspaper editor viewed all the hoopla differently.
Commenting a few days later on Smith’s death, the editor of the Karnes
County News said, “It does seem that people would...learn to quit
being so fool-hardy.”
The horse-jumping rider soon was forgotten by all but his family and
friends, but Carver kept the horse act. The West had no shortage of
cowboys game for a fool-hardy stunt, especially if they got paid for
it. Cowgirls, too.
1924, a young woman named Sonora Webster joined the show as a horse
jumper. She eventually married Carver’s son, Al, and continued her
life on the road.
After Dr. Carver’s death in 1927, the show settled down as a permanent
fixture at Atlantic City, N.J.’s Steel Pier. The diving horse act
continued in popularity, especially when Sonora made the leap on her
horse, “Red Lips.”
But one day in 1931, “Red Lips” lost its balance on the platform.
Sonora survived the fall, though the impact blinded her. As soon as
she recovered, she continued the act. Her being sightless added another
layer of thrill to the show and she kept jumping until World
autobiography, “A Girl and Five Brave Horses,” came out in 1961. With
new riders, the horse-jumping act made it into the 1970s before pressure
from animal rights groups finally shut it down. Times had changed,
but a good story endures. In 1991, the Disney Company released a movie
based on Sonora’s life, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.”
Sonora couldn’t see the film, but she got to hear it. She lived until
Sept. 24, 2003, dying at the age of 99.
“Bad things happen to people,” her nephew said after Sonora’s death,
“but you can’t let them get you down.”