The thing we love about live performance is that sometimes it can go wrong. An actor onstage may forget their lines, or their co-performer will miss their cue. A stuntman’s car may blow up, or crash, or both, or a magician’s trick may go dramatically wrong and result in a woman actually being saw in half. However, what makes those moments so special are that they are unexpected- they happen out of the blue. The people performing have trained for months, weeks, even years, and the one time it goes wrong, it gets a reaction. You don’t see it coming. Which is why the curious case of Paris’ Flying Tailor is so unique- the writing was on the wall from the very beginning. So let’s go back to 1912.
Franz Reichelt was born in Austria, but spent most of his life as a citizen of Paris, where he worked as a tailor and part-time inventor- although by all accounts he was better at the former occupation than the latter. Obsessed with aviation from a young age, he was fascinated by what the Wright brothers had achieved, and he sought to take inspirations from the invention of flight and implement into his own unique designs. One day, it struck him that what a typical aviator needed, alongside an aircraft, was some sort of safety suit that would allow them to glide gracefully down to the ground should their plane fail. You may recognise this as being exactly what a parachute does, but Reichelt was a tailor and so he made the most of the resources he was given. He designed a type of suit that, when the wearer held their arms and legs out, was supposed to glide. Essentially, it was a suit consisting of many layers of cloth, all stitched together so that they billowed out in a way that made the wearer look a little bit like the offspring of a parachute and a pigeon. Initially, this seemed like an insane idea, but after he tested a prototype out on a dummy and it worked, Franz became fixated on perfecting the idea so that a human could use the suit. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a human weights considerably more than a dummy, and is also prone to dying dramatically should things fail, so Franz instead continued testing out other designs on ‘heavier’ dummies, all to no avail. Apparently, if a design fails at the very first stage, the next thing you should do is immediately jump to human trials, because absolutely nothing will go wrong. Right? Wrong.
Eventually, Reichelt came to the somewhat odd conclusion that the reason his suits were failing was not due to poor design, or insanity, or even a combination of both, but due to the fact that he simply wasn’t testing the suits out from a long enough drop. Dropping a dummy from the roof of a house is all well and good, but he needed to go higher- as in EIFFEL FREAKIN’ TOWER higher. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Reichelt, it’s that he was surrounded by people who just didn’t say no, and so he sought the permission of the Parisian authorities to carry out an ‘official’ test of his finest flight suit. To their credit, they had the good sense to say no, not just once but multiple times, but one day they just gave in and told Reichelt that he could climb the tower and attempt the feat, but on one crucial condition: he was to try the experiment with a dummy first in case the results were disastrous. Begrudgingly, he accepted. On February 4th, 1912, he rocked up at the Eiffel Tower to a crowd of people who had all gathered to presumably watching the crazy man fly. Worryingly, there was no dummy in sight, and when people question him on this, he confidently exclaimed that there was no need for a dummy because he was going to do the jump himself. The authorities, who had already alerted the press, and had gone to the effort of locating one of the few working video cameras in France to film the ordeal, realised that things had gone too far to call the whole thing off. They apparently just shrugged their shoulders and wished him luck. However, his family and friends- likely realising that for all these years they had been part of the problem by just not telling him to stop- tried desperately to convince him not to jump. Franz was a confident man, though, and possibly also clinically insane, and he was completely adamant that his suit would work effectively. Even complete strangers tried to convince him not to do it but seriously, if this man isn’t willing to listen to those closest to him, he’s unlikely to bat an eyelid at some randomer.
Predictably, Reichelt climbed to one of the middle platforms of the Eiffel Tower. Alright, so it wasn’t at the very top, but anyone who has visited the tower will recognise that even the middle levels are high enough to guarantee death if you were to jump from them. With the cameras rolling, he took a few dramatic steps and leaped off the edge. A particularly positive person would argue that he did indeed glide, downwards, for a few brief seconds. A more realistic person, though, would say it as it is- Franz Reichelt fell straight downwards and slammed into the ground. He was instantly killed. Still, it may have been an invigorating few seconds before an untimely death. Luckily, the grainy video footage- that can be found with a quick internet search- doesn’t show any gory details, although it does clearly portray him falling straight downwards and hitting the ground obscured by a crowd of people. Upon hitting the ground, he was instantly killed, although just to make sure, authorities shipped him off to the local hospital just to officially confirm that. The hospital duly obliged by confirming that yes, the man who had tried to fly wearing nothing but an old duvet was, shockingly, dead.
For me the most tragic thing about this is that he truly, honestly believed his suit would work. Likely he walked up to the jumping point with a smug grin on his face, already picturing the thousands of adoring fans he would win when he gloriously soared through the air and landed elegantly. Instead, though, in front of thousands of people, photographers and an old school film crew, he essentially committed the most elaborate and pointless suicide that was recorded for historical posterity. Sometimes history is wonderful, sometimes it is horrifying, and sometimes it just makes you wonder quite how we made it this far without wiping ourselves out through sheer stupidity.
The moral of the story? If you’re going to build a flying suit, you’re going to need more than a few bedsheets sewn together. Oh, and you should probably test it out beforehand on something other than yourself.