Fort Pierce daredevil thrilled crowd at inlet celebration a century ago

Madeline Davis
Madeline Davis poses aboard a seaplane, possibly the aircraft that took her over the new inlet on May 12, 1921, for Fort Pierce’s first parachute jump. JOANNE BLANDFORD

While the new inlet was supposed to be the center of attention on May 12, 1921, 24-year-old Madeline Davis stole the show.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of locals gathered to watch the daring young woman board a seaplane at Cobb’s Dock and take to the air over the water, gradually reaching a height of about 1,400 feet. Davis then slipped off the wing and floated gently to earth, tethered to her canvas chute only by a circus trapeze.

Spectators held their collective breath as Davis slid off the wing. The chute seemed to drag, but after a few tense seconds it opened perfectly, showering the area with newspaper pages inserted between the folds to stop the apparatus from jamming.

She floated down serenely and even entertained the cheering crowds with a few tricks on her trapeze.

Davis had long been fascinated by all things aviation-related. She’d always been a bit of a daredevil but it was seeing someone jump from a tethered balloon at a county fair in Nebraska that gave her the bug.

In 1918, her family relocated to Fort Pierce, where her mother became a cook for the Old Dixie Cafeteria and her father worked as a carpenter.

Davis traveled all over the country every summer with carnivals, making parachute jumps and performing other aerial stunts.

The Davis family still lives in St. Lucie County. Madeline’s nephew, Bob Davis, for many years was the county tax collector.

Yet her moment of glory in Fort Pierce was to be short-lived.

In October 1921, only months after jumping over the new Fort Pierce Inlet, she was trying out for a job with Ruth Law’s Flying Circus in New Jersey. Davis was practicing a new trick in which Law drove an open car at about 45 mph along a road while a pilot swooped down just above the speeding vehicle. Madeline was supposed to grab a rope ladder dangling from the plane and haul herself into the aircraft.

As the plane hovered overhead, Davis grabbed the ladder but didn’t have enough strength in her hands to keep hold of it. She fell out of the car and died of a fractured skull. She was buried in Fort Pierce’s Riverview Memorial Park.

Laws later recalled Davis’ pitch for the new job.

“There is nothing on land or in the air that I am afraid of,” she boasted, according to Laws. “I have been flying for this last two years and doing all sorts of stunts in the air and parachute jumping. Now I want to do something different; something that no one else does, at least no other woman does … I ought to be a big attraction for your company.”

– Anthony Westbury

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