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July 7, 2010

Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History: Sonora Carver

Sonora Carver with Judas, the owner of the Steel Pier, and John Phillip Sousa.

Walking down the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., just isn’t the same these days. What once was a prime vacation destination for the rich and famous in the early part of the 20th century, rich in upscale hotels, attractions such as Steel, Million Dollar and Iron Pier, side show acts, entertainment and nightlife, has now become a boulevard of towering casinos prevailing over the Atlantic Ocean’s horizon.

Not that there’s anything wrong with casinos, I’ve certainly had my share of fun at the roulette table and slot machines, but some of Atlantic City’s magic is gone, which I discovered the first time I visited a few summers ago.

Perhaps I was being too optimistic though, considering my vision of Atlantic City came from the movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, which took place in the city’s heyday more than 75 years ago.

But I wonder how many people know that the film was based on the life of a real woman named Sonora Carver, who made a CCI**** drop look like a baby step with her diving horse show.

Born on February 2, 1904, Carver was the oldest of six children. When she was 20 years old, she saw an advertisement in the paper looking for girls who weren’t afraid of heights and willing to travel. Carver answered the ad, which had been placed by W.F. “Doc” Carver, and as the over-used cliché goes, the rest is history!

Doc Carver, who partnered with Buffalo Bill Cody and put the Wild West show on the road and on the map, invented the act. There are many different theories on how Doc came up with the idea, but the most popular is that he was riding across a bridge when it collapsed, sending him and his horse into the river below. The horse “dove” into the water, and they swam safely to shore. He died in 1927, leaving the show to his son, Al Carver, who married Sonora.

The diving horses became a huge success and a permanent fixture on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier beginning in 1929. Sonora easily became the most famous diving girl, and her sister, Annette, quickly followed in her footsteps. The horses would run up a ramp, and the riders would wait at the top, mounting as they ran by to take the plunge together. In the beginning, the dives were measured at 60 feet, but as time went on the heights were slowly lowered.

Throughout the show’s existence, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was constantly looking for evidence of abuse, but according to Annette, they never found anything because the horses were so well loved and throughout the years not a single one was injured.

According to Sonora, when the horses would land in the tank, which was about 11 feet deep, they would go down until their hooves touched bottom then push off to get back to the surface. Of course, they threw their heads up to help with momentum, and if the diving girl wasn’t careful, she would surface with black eyes, a bloody nose, broken cheekbones or collarbones.

While the show was inherently dangerous, Sonora suffered one of the worst recorded injuries in 1931. Her horse, Red Lips, was diving nearly straight down, and to avoid him turning over completely, she sat back as far as she could. When they hit the water, Sonora was hit hard in the face.

When she returned to her dressing room, she began to see spots in her vision, but since there was no pain, she kept riding. Her eyesight continued to worsen, and eventually doctors diagnosed her with broken blood vessels in her eyes, which led to blood clots and eventually detached retinas. At the age of 27, she became completely blind.

However, even blindness couldn’t keep her off the horses. She continued diving for 11 years.

The diving horse show continued throughout the Great Depression and World War II, but it became hard for Al and Sonora to find people to build the towers and care for the horses. Rising gas prices made travel expensive as well, so the show stopped in 1942. Once the war ended, the act opened again and remained a fixture at the Steel Pier until it closed for good in 1978.

Sonora wrote her autobiography A Girl And Five Brave Horses in 1961, which eventually inspired the Disney movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Interestingly enough, the horses used in the film learned to dive, but never at the height Sonora and her horses mastered.

After Al and Sonora left the show in 1942, they moved to New Orleans. Sonora worked as a Dictaphone typist until she retired in 1979. She died on September 20, 2003 at the age of 99.

Sonora Carver’s story is a testament to courage and fearlessness, and even though Atlantic City may not be quite as magical as it was when she and her horses dove off 40-foot platforms, memories of those times still reverberate along the boardwalk and echo across the ocean breeze.

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it's occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: "History was written on the back of a horse," she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she'd love to hear from you!

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