The Death Of Larry Donovan

On Tuesday, 7th August, 1888, the following appeal appeared in Sporting Life:-

“Larry Donovan, who it may be remembered startled the citizens of London by his big leaps from both London and Westminster Bridges into the Thames, is about to return to America.

He is well known to the lovers of the manly art, and has gained a worldwide reputation for pluck.

On the 28th August,1886, he jumped off Brooklyn Bridge, and was alter presented with a handsome gold medal in commemoration thereof by Mr. Richard K. Fox, of the Police Gazette, New York.

Perhaps the biggest thing was when Larry jumped off the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, 220ft. high.

Subsequently, he went through the Niagara Falls Rapids in a barrel, where Captain Webb lost his life a few weeks afterwards.

Now Donovan is anxious to recover possession of the medal presented to him by Mr. Fox, and through the medium of our columns respectfully solicits assistance from sportsmen generally to enable him to do so.”


Sadly, Larry Donovan would never get to retrieve his valued medal, as, that very day,  he was killed whilst attempting another jump into the River Thames, this time from the Hungerford Bridge.

Having jumped from the bridge, he came up to the surface and began to swim towards the Embankment. However, he suddenly sank beneath the water and disappeared.

Sporting Life, reported on what had occurred in its edition of Saturday, 11th August, 1888:-

“Our representative made inquiries yesterday at the Thames River Police Station, relative to the recovery of the body of the famous bridge jumper Larry Donovan.

The information of the authorities is that it was nearly high tide when Larry made the leap, and that, on receipt of the news conveyed by one of his friends, a boat put off from the station and proceeded to the scene, but searched in vain.

The theory, therefore, that Donovan’s progress was seriously interfered with by a mud bank is broken up. Had it been low water, as stated, the police would have dragged for the body.

Our own impression is that Donovan in making the descent dropped somewhat erratically. This, coupled with his poor condition and the time occupied in reaching the surface, so exhausted him that he was completely helpless.

It is somewhat surprising that not one of the party present made the slightest attempt to rescue him, and allowed the drowning man to struggle and sink before their very eyes.

We are assured that the hot weather will cause the body to rise very soon, and we may, therefore, hear of its recovery at any moment.”


As it transpired, his body was fished from the Thames at Deptford at around 6.30 am on the morning of Saturday, 11th August, 1888.

The inquest into his death was held two days later and The Woolwich Gazette published the following account of the proceedings on Friday, 17th August, 1888:-

Mr. B. N. Wood, deputy coroner, held an inquest on Monday morning at the Brown Bear public-house, High-street, Deptford, on the body of Larry Donovan, aged about 28 years, whose body was recovered from the river off Deptford, last Saturday morning.

Inspector Knapp, from Deptford Station, represented the police,

Police Constable Sadler, being Coroner’s officer.


William Cook, clerk, of 6, Angel-court, Strand, identified the body in the St. Paul’s, Deptford, mortuary, as that of Larry Donovan, witness having known the deceased about two months. The occupation of the latter, the witness believed, was that of a diver, though he could not say if Donovan was a paid diver or not.

The deceased had lived at 6, Angel-court for the last two months, his age being about 28. He was very badly off, and had been so most of the time the witness had known him. He did not follow any trade, and had not, he believed, had any engagements during the time the witness had known him.

The witness was present on Tuesday morning early when the deceased jumped over the bridge. That was about half-past two.

Witness met Donovan casually outside Charing Cross Railway Station. He had about twenty people with him, and he told the witness that he was about to jump off the bridge. He also said he had a match on at Brighton with a man named Ryan to jump off the pier, and he was going to show people he could do it then.

He went down Villiers-street to the Hungerford Foot Bridge, the people following him.

Witness did not see a policeman there.

The tide had then just turned, and was running down. Witness could not form any opinion as to the depth from the bridge to the water. It was an ordinary bridge, and the water was at high tide.


Donovan walked about 36 yards along the bridge, and took his hat and coat off. He got over the railing on to some boards and jumped in. Witness saw him go into the water. He did not strike against anything.

He came to the surface in a few seconds, but he made no sign. He swam towards the steps near the Cleopatra Needle, about a 100 yards off, but after swimming about 30 yards he went down like a stone. Witness did not see him come up again.

He could not say if there was any bet on to induce the deceased to go into the water – the latter said that he wanted to do it, and he did not appear to be at all fearful of danger.

When he sank, a policeman on the Embankment tried to get a boat.

The people on the Embankment were calling out to Donovan, telling him where to swim to when he sank.

It was a clear night.

An illustration showing Donovan jumprng, and a portrait of Donovan.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 18th August, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In answer to jurors, witness considered that Donovan was perfectly sober at the time. He had seen him drunk once whilst he was living at Angel-court. Witness himself was sober at the time, and had no appointment to meet the deceased that night.

In reply to the deputy coroner, the witness said that Donovan had obtained some money by selling tickets for a benefit which he believed was to be held at Deptford. Witness produced a ticket for the benefit, which was to take place at the Lecture Hall, Deptford.

The deceased had told him that he had jumped off Clifton Bridge.


Joseph Sullivan, waiter, of the same address as the last witness, said that he had known the deceased for two months since they had been lodging together. He was with the last witness when they met Donovan, and he asked the latter what he was going to do. He replied that he had had a challenge to jump off the top of Brighton Pier, and he was going to jump off the bridge. There were about twenty or thirty people with him.

The witness, Cook, recalled in answer to the deputy coroner that he tried to dissuade Donovan from jumping in, telling him that if he wanted to do it, he had better wait till daylight.

Sullivan, in further examination, said that he believed the distance from the bridge to the water was about 60 feet. He did not try to dissuade him, because he thought the man was quite capable of doing it, He seemed to be in a fit condition at the time, and was, he thought, sober.

Witness did not consider himself at all responsible for his death.

The deputy-coroner remarked that he should have thought that, as the deceased lived with, him he might have tried to dissuade him, especially considering that it was the day after the Bank Holiday, and the condition in which a man of that class was likely to be.

Witness, continuing, said that he recognised the body as that of the deceased, chiefly by the formation of his chin, and by the clothing. He had no intimation beforehand to meet the deceased, but just met him casually whilst out walking with the last witness.

The deceased jumped, not dived, from a ledge on the bridge.

There did not appear to have been any bets going on, and the deceased had not asked him (the witness) to make any. He could not say if Donovan had any of his friends with him or not.

There were no craft about in the water at the time the deceased jumped in, and there was no shouting, only the people on the Embankment called to him to come to the stairs.

Witness did not think that any of the people in the crowd were intimate acquaintances of the deceased.


William Harris, Waterman, living at 12, Sussex-terrace, Windmill-lane, Deptford, stated that at about half-past six on the previous Saturday morning, his attention was called by the captain of a tug to an object in the water that was driving down river.

Witness rowed to it, and found it was a body, which he towed ashore at St. George’s Stairs, and handed it over to the police. The body was fully dressed except for the coat and hat.


George Gossage, 101, Thames Police, stated that on Saturday morning about twenty minutes to seven, his attention was called to the body of the deceased, which, with assistance, he conveyed to the mortuary on the ambulance.

There was nothing found on the body except some pieces of paper.


P.C. Sadler, 316 B, coroner’s officer for Deptford, stated that about even o’clock on Saturday morning he searched the body of deceased, and found nothing but pieces of paper, apparently portions of an American and also of a London Directory.

There was a slight bruise on one of his knees, but no other marks of violence.

Pieces of about the size of the palm of the hand were missing from the trousers at both knees. The hat and coat were missing, the former having been found on the bridge, but the latter had not been traced.


This was the whole of the evidence, and the deputy-coroner said that there appeared to have sprung up a desire with thousands of people in this country to see these dangerous exhibitions, which was a terrible state of things.

This man appeared in the condition in which he probably was at the time after a Bank Holiday, to think that he could accomplish the feat successfully.

He regretted that both witnesses had not tried to dissuade him from doing it, although he was afraid it would not have been of much use if they had done so, seeing that Donovan got his living by performing these dangerous feats.

There appeared to have been no attempt to take away his life, and the verdict he had no doubt the jury would come to would be that of “Accidental death.”

The jury returned a verdict accordingly.


A London daily gives the following as the true story of Donovan’s death:-

“On Tuesday (the day of his death) an appeal appeared in the Sporting Life for funds to enable Donovan to redeem a massive gold medal, presented to him by Mr. Richard H. Fox, proprietor of the New York Police Gazette, and to pay his passage to America.

His non-recognition in England preyed on the mind of the deceased, and for months past he had given way to drinking, and at last he had become so reduced as to have to seek shelter in a common lodging-house and in one of them, on the Saturday previous to his death, he was ill-used.

On Monday night, or rather Tuesday morning, be was taken by some sporting men to one of the German clubs in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square, and, on leaving there, he went in company with his friends to one of the early morning homes, which open at four a.m., in Covent-garden.

Here, as was his wont, Larry began to talk of his jumping feats, and after a lot of chaff and bandinage, a bet of £2 to nothing was laid him that he would not jump from Charing Cross Bridge. This Donovan readily accepted, and in company with the layer of the odds, he proceeded to the bridge, and having only taken his coat off, jumped in.

No boat was provided in case of accident, and the moment he left the bridge, his companions, becoming frightened, left him to his fate.

The only reason to be assigned for his death was that in jumping he did not go down straight, but struck the water with his ribs.”


The remains of Donovan were interred in the Roman Catholic portion of  Brockley Cemetery.

When the time was known at what time the funeral cortege would start from the house of the undertaker, a very large crowd assembled. Only one coach followed the hearse.

On arrival at the cemetery, the mournful procession was met by a numerous collection of spectators, the local division showing in most force, and after the usual rites had been performed the spectators departed.”