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The Fearless Frogman
It was thirty miles offshore, and stormy, but the daredevil swimmer plunged into the Atlantic with a crisp “Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen!” Our author recalls bold Captain Boyton, a mixture of Jules Verne, Tom Swift, and a bit of Walter Mitty.
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
By this time Boyton had lashed his torpedo to the Garnet, but his paddle made a chunking sound as he pulled to get away. At once came a voice, “Ahoy, there! What’s that?”
“Only a log,” answered Boyton, “floating in the water.”
“Stop there! Who are you?”
“It’s all right, gentlemen,” shouted Boyton, paddling fast. “I’m only fishing! Trolling, you know! You’ve got a torpedo, fast to your vessel!” By this time he was out of pistol range, so he blew a blast on a trumpet he had slung round his neck, as a signal to his party to come fetch him. But behind him, aboard the Garnet, a bugle sounded the call to quarters, and before Boyton could be hauled aboard Connors’ boat, here came a steam launch with a lieutenant, a midshipman, and a halt-dozen bluejackets with their rifles cocked.
“Oh, wurra,” moaned Connors. “Remember my poor suffering mother-in-law in the Twelfth Ward!”
Boyton’s reaction to this armed party was characteristic. He clambered aboard the launch, grabbed a rifle leveled at his breast, and wrenched it from the bluejacket’s hands, saying, “You can’t shoot with that thing—I don’t believe it’s loaded.” At once another sailor flourished a cutlass at him, but Boyton brushed that aside, too. An excited jabber, everyone talking at once, and then the English officers were convinced there had been no serious mischief, intended or done. Boyton joined his party, and Connors pulled for shore, his passengers severally singing “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Rule, Britannia.”
But still the Royal Navy was suspicious. The launch pursued the boat to the wharf, and the bluejackets essayed a landing. Once again they were frustrated. For now they were confronted by a red-shirted constable with a don’t-care mustache; this bravo’s name was Keiley; he produced a nickel-plated pistol that might have harmed a chicken and, in a fruity brogue, announced: “I don’t want any gang of Englishmen pointing guns at Staten Island.” A man named Keiley was all the bluejackets needed; they withdrew in confusion.
The publicity from this and similar exploits guaranteed Boyton all the promotion he needed when, a little later, he put together an aquatic circus and toured the country offering exhibitions. For by the time he was in his forties, his urge to risk his life had abated; he was content to display his juggling sea lions, his water races, his high divers, and sit back while the money rolled in. He invented a watery thrill for his customers, too: the Shoot-the-Chutes, a toboggan slide in flat-bottomed boats down a long incline, and splash! into a lagoon; his royalties from this contrivance insured him a comfortable old age.
With the twentieth century, the nineteenth’s darling slipped into obscurity, lingering until 1924, an affable man of leisure living in Sheepshead Bay on Long Island, near New York, and occasionally taking off on long Caribbean cruises. Had he accomplished anything by his daredevil exploits? His celebrated rubber suit was forgotten; it was never deemed practical as a safety device on ocean-going steamers. His name was forgotten; and a generation was arising whose feats in and under the water as well would make Boyton’s seem trifling by comparison. And yet, after all, Paul Boyton has his lasting consequence. For, more than any other man, he led a nation to water and made them swim. America was just beginning to want to play and sport outdoors when Boyton appeared, and he became a kind of Pied Piper whose influence in popularizing water sports was incalculable. If not in technique, at least spiritually he was the precursor of the frogmen and the skin-divers and water-skiers who slip so smoothly through the seas today. Paul Boyton was the first to dare the waters.