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SafetyLast

This image is probably the best known still from any Hollywood film. It features Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock, after climbing a tall building in Los Angeles. Harold Lloyd was a comic actor. Did he actually climb the building? Of course not. But who did?

In the third week of January, 1919, a notice appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal. Two days later, a corresponding ad appeared on the theater page. The next day, a story appeared in the Journal.

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It was the second time that Bill Strother had climbed the O’Hanlon Building within a year. Shortly after the building was completed in November, 1915, another man, George Gibson Polley, billing himself as The Human Fly, had attempted to climb the building and failed. Dr. Thomas Davis was in his office when he heard a call for help. He opened the window and pulled the exhausted Polley to safety.

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George Gibson Polley climbing the Burwell Building in Knoxville, April, 1918

Unfortunately, either no one thought to take any pictures of these adventures, or the pictures are still hiding in someone’s basement or attic. We have none.

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But who was Bill Strother and how did he become The Human Spider?

Bill Strother was born in Wayne County, NC around 1897. After completing school, he worked for a time as a clerk in a store, then got into the real estate business. In 1915-16, he had set up a real estate auction at the courthouse in Kinston.

He had ordered flyers to promote the sale, but they were running late. On the day before the sale, he went into a lunchroom and got into a conversation with the man sitting on the next stool. He jokingly said to the gentleman “If those flyers don’t arrive on the morning train, I guess I’ll have to climb the courthouse to draw a crowd.”

The next morning at breakfast he started reading the local newspaper. On the front page was an item headlined “Bill Strother Will Climb The Lenoir County Couthouse Today At 2 PM”. He hadn’t realized that he was talking to the editor of the Kinston Free Press.

Strother stopped by the railroad station. His flyers had not come, so he headed for the courthouse. As he approached, he heard an increasing rumble from that direction. As he rounded the corner, he saw a huge crowd, estimated at 5,000 people, waiting to watch him climb the courthouse.

As a boy he had had a reputation as a good tree climber, but he had never climbed a building. He had no choice. Wearing a suit and a straw boater, he climbed the building, then sold about $35,000 (close to $900,000 in 2014 value) in real estate, thus beginning a new way of promoting real estate auctions.

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Bill Strother’s first conquest…Lenoir County Courthouse, Kinston, NC

Eventually, he stopped selling real estate and went into the Human Spider business. Sometimes he climbed buildings for a set fee to promote the business in the building. But he came up with a better way of making money. He made films of some of his climbs, then partnered with a local theater to climb a nearby building, then talk about his film at the theater. Business boomed.

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Back of Bill Strothers’ business card

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Bill Strother in New Orleans, 4-22-1922…he climbed the Interstate Bank, the Macheca Building & the Hibernia Bank
—The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library

On September 7, 1922, he had four cameras filming his climb of the International Bank building in Los Angeles. The famous silent screen comic actor Harold Lloyd happened to walk by. Lloyd started talking to Strother, and the next year released “Safety Last” with Strother co-starring as Lloyd’s roommate. Strother’s International Bank footage became the core of the film. It was Strother’s only Hollywood role.

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In 1930, he had a bad fall. While recuperating, he fell in love with one of his nurses, a vivacious older woman from Tennessee. For a time they lived in San Francisco, then acquired a large house in Petersburg, Virginia, which they turned into a home for military veterans. She managed Strother House and he was the cook. Eventually the business evolved into a well known tourist court.

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Strother House, Petersburg, Virginia

In 1942, Richmond’s leading department store, Miller & Rhoads, held auditions for the role of their store Santa Claus. Bill Strother got the job. He and the store’s management took the job seriously. They had Max Factor design his makeup. And he developed a routine  in which he would emerge from a chimney, take children onto his lap, and, using a concealed throat-mike on an assistant who eavesdropped on the children in line, would greet the little ones by name, surprising them with his knowledge of their Christmas wishes. Crowds flocked to the store every year.

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Strother became one of the most famous and best paid department store Santa’s in the nation. He was still cooking at Strother House and playing Santa when he was killed in an automobile accident in 1960.

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Jug Reynolds atop the Lansburgh Furniture Store, 9th Street, NW, Washington, DC  1917

—Shorpy.com

Before the advent of tall commercial structures in the late 19th century, the tallest building in almost every town was the county courthouse or a church, with most of the height being a spire or bell tower. It was just a matter of time before someone started climbing the new skyscrapers.

Several people became famous building climbers between around 1905 and the 1930s. Most of them adopted the moniker “The Human Fly”, while Bill Strother chose “The Human Spider”, which, if you think about it, makes far more sense. Flies are known for flying around and annoying people; it is spiders who perform monumental climbing feats every day.

A few of the best known using the “Human Fly” nickname:

Harry Gardiner (active 1905–ça 1923)
George Polley (active 1910–1920)
Henry Roland (active 1924-1937)
John Ciampa (active 1942–1952)
George Willig, who climbed New York City’s World Trade Center in 1977.

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