The Story of Law-School-Student-Turned-Parachutist Mamie Rhea (Part 1)

Those who read the Sunday paper couldn't help but notice that in Knoxville, life was pretty cheap. Early spring, 1933, had already seen several freakish deaths. Just in the three days since Thursday, one pedestrian had been killed by a train; a teenager died in a car wreck. A woman was shot to death while visiting friends; her host would later explain that he was using his pistol to demonstrate how he almost accidentally shot somebody, the day before, at the downtown post office. There was the civilian who thought he was helping a bootleg-liquor bust shot and killed a sheriff's deputy.

Aviation, exciting and new, was adding a whole new category of accidental death. The Sunday before, Knoxville had seen its first plane-crash fatality in spectacular fashion, when aviatrix Bettie Lund, famous for her stunts as well as for her marriage to jazz orchestra leader Blue Steele, took off from the original McGhee Tyson Airport on Sutherland and crashed near Kingston Pike, on the edge of Bearden. She survived, but her passenger, Barney Forester, a young Knoxville cub reporter she'd taken up for the thrill of his life, did not. A week later, the agent from the Department of Commerce was still in town investigating.

Maybe the daily news stories of plane-crash deaths throughout America just made aviation more thrilling to lively, awkward Mamie Rhea. A bit of a character, she grew up in Coal Creek, before it was renamed Lake City. At 22 the restless student had already attended five different colleges, including the University of Tennessee and Draughon's Business College, but in recent months she'd been living at the YWCA on Clinch Avenue and serving meals at a boarding house on Summit Hill. She'd also been attending eccentric attorney John R. Neal's School of Law, a sort of unorthodox alternative path to a license to practice. Said to be a legal genius, Neal had assisted in the Scopes defense at Dayton but had been fired from UT law school for insubordination. Rhea was said to be a diligent student.

In the days to come, only a few who read about what happened to her that Sunday recalled that she'd been in the news once before, two years earlier. She first got Knoxville's attention when she announced she'd marry any man who'd give her $7,000. It was a lot of money during the Depression, and no one ever took her up on it.

By early 1933, Mamie Rhea surprised and worried old friends when she announced she was giving up the study of law to become a stunt parachutist.

The first weeks of Roosevelt's administration found Knoxville a strange mixture of the old and the new. Beer, with a 3.2 percent maximum alcohol content, was about to be re-legalized, but hard liquor was as easy to come by as it had been during Prohibition. The city still strove to legislate morality, and entertainments like vaudeville and movies were strictly forbidden on Sundays. Some theaters, like the notorious Roxy on Union Avenue, responded to Knoxville's blue laws with extravagant late-Sunday shows, at one minute past midnight—like Clifford's Musical Revue, "a Lively Pepper Pot of Personality and Pep," with 22 performers who were a "parade of youth and beauty."

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 27, the Knoxville Smokies were home at Caswell Park, playing an exhibition game with Casey Stengel's old club, the famous Toledo Mud Hens. Its only competition for the Knoxvillian's attention was the parachute jump over at Knoxville's other landing field, the one on Dickinson Island known as Island Home.

Billy Bomar was a barnstorming Texas aviation stuntman, famous for having hung from the struts of a biplane high above Manhattan in 1925. Accompanying him was a woman named Eris Daniels, the "tiny Norwegian jumper." She'd broken several records on her American tour, but in Knoxville, she nearly broke her left leg. Two weeks before, she had landed wrong after a jump and required some expensive medical attention. The word was that the Sunday event was a fund-raiser to help pay Knoxville doctors.

During her unexpectedly long stay, Daniels found affordable accommodations at the YWCA, where she befriended an impressionable neighbor, Miss Mamie Rhea. Inspired by the acquaintance, the law student suddenly wanted to be an aviator. She met Billy Bomar, who agreed to train her and take her up for an unusual stunt: dropping a first-time amateur out of a plane for thousands of paying customers.

"If I can get that one thrill," Rhea told one of her roomies at the YWCA, "I'll be ready to die."

For a week Bomar coached her about parachute jumping. That Sunday afternoon, she went to Island Home and met Bomar and the pilot Gene Fricks, the celebrated pioneer air-mail pilot from Chattanooga. His plane was a Curtiss Robin, a classic early monoplane still modern in 1933.

Bomar charged the audience a dime apiece to come out onto Dickinson Island and watch him drop Mamie Rhea from an airplane. He was disappointed that not many were willing to pay the admission, but thousands lined the shore, by the main road, and by the streetcar tracks to watch.

Bomar marked a big circle on the ground of the landing field; the idea was that she was to land in the circle. The management of Island Home demanded Bomar sign a form holding the airport blameless for whatever might happen. The airport seemed to want nothing to do with it, but then they cleared the stunt team for takeoff.

Friends would later claim it was the first time Mamie Rhea had ever been in an airplane. At 1,800 feet, Fricks told her to go ahead and jump out of it. She hesitated. He repeated the command. She still didn't go. Then he realized they were past the target point. Bomar reached toward her, he'd say later, to pull her back in. At that moment, she slipped out, pulled, he claimed, by the wind.

And Mamie Rhea, law-school student, fell through the air above Island Home, six football fields above the Tennessee River. m

[to be continued...]