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Jul. 7 2009 - 3:44 pm | 496 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

Water Killed the Father of the Brooklyn Bridge

Dying to build a bridge

Dying to build a bridge

John Augustus Roebling, the famous engineer, was born in Prussia and educated under Hegel. He moved to Pennsylvania when he was 25, to form a Utopian agrarian community and to build suspension bridges. The community failed, as most Utopian agrarian communities do, but his bridges still stand.

But Roebling died years before the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, his finest work, because he subscribed to one of the many of the 19th century’s faddish bullshit alternative therapies.

On June 28, 1869, Roebling and his son Washington stood on a pier near the Fulton Ferry, “making some measurements connected with the East River Bridge,” according to his New York Times obituary. “When one of the boats docked,” David McCullough reported some time later, “it slammed against the pier, his right foot was caught in something sticking out from one of the nearby piles and his toes were crushed.”

That a toe injury should kill a man, even in the medically primitive 1860s, seems unlikely. Until you add in bullshit! Roebling was a staunch believer in “the water cure.” Hydropathy, according to McCullough, though it could’ve been any of the many other forms the belief in the all-curing powers of water and water alone took then.


Only fire can fight deadly water!

Only fire can fight deadly water!

He was taken at once to a doctor’s office, where his toes were amputated – without benefit of anesthetic, at his own request. A confirmed believer in hydropathy (the water cure), he also insisted that nothing be administered to the wound except water. A few weeks later, on July 22, 1869, he died of lockjaw. He was 63.

Or, as his contemporary New York Times obit put it:

It is also said that Mr. Roebling’s determination to conduct his own case, instead of wholly and unreservedly relying upon the advice of his physicians, had much to do with the result which so many of his friends now mourn.

If his water was so great, why is he dead?

If his water was so great, why is he dead?

The medical application of water dates back to the beginning of civilization. But the faddish form of it, the one that killed Roebling and God knows guess who else, was popularized by an Austrian farmer named Vincent Priessnitz, in the mid-19th century. And he believed, of course, that it was the water from his wells, conveniently located on his farm, that cured anything that ailed you. And so, a profitable clinic was born!

It's a very nice bridge

It's a very nice bridge

Roebling’s son Washington went on to oversee the construction of the bridge. Personally, at first, until he was stricken with the Bends. Washington, a more practical and rational man than his father, did not seek an alternative therapy. But a non-alternative therapy was not actually available at the time, as “Caisson disease” had only just been discovered. (Ironically, the cure is one of the wacky, deadly treatments I have introduced you to right here in this very space!) It was, on the whole, a family that might’ve done best to stay away from water entirely: Washington A. Roebling II, John Roebling’s grandson, went down on the Titanic.


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  1. collapse expand

    You’ve left out a crucial piece of the story!

    After Washington got the bends, someone had to take over the highly complex job of overseeing the completion of the bridge — done for the next 11 years by his wife, Emily. While her ill husband had to watch from their Brooklyn windows, it was she — with no engineering or mathematical training — who (in the 1880s) supervised a crew of men and even spoke publicly to defend her husband. It was she who rode across the bridge when it opened. She was absolutely essential to this bridge, and its history, yet her contribution is so often overlooked.

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    I write about politics for famous cesspool blog Gawker. Formerly, I was the Editor of Washington DC Gossip Website Wonkette.com. My writing has appeared on many famous and popular internet sites, on the World Wide Web. I am not a doctor and, in fact, did not even finish attaining a BFA.

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