Paul Boyton</a> (often misspelled Paul Boynton) was born in 1848 in Rathangan, County Kildare, Ireland. Known as the Fearless Frogman, he dramatically spurred interest in swimming in the open water through his exploits and aquapreneurial successes – and even inspired Captain Matthew Webb to swim across the English Channel in 1875.
Boynton built Paul Boyton’s Water Chutes park in Chicago, opened a New York saloon called The Ship on Broadway, and help found the Luna Park amusement park at Coney Island. Largely due to his crossing of the English Channel in a buoyant suit, Boyton was later inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame [see bio here].
Captain Tim Johnson, PE wrote about his exploits in History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming:
“Onto the swimming scene in the late 19th century appeared two men who by their daring, courage, and fortitude set the standards for open water swimming. The first golden era of swimming was about to begin in England. This era began with two successful crossings and an argument as to what constitutes a swim [Editor’s Note: the same sort of argument continues to this day].
Captain Paul Boyton, age 26, of the Atlantic Life-saving Services of the United States announced his intention of crossing the English Channel from Dover to Boulogne. He was demonstrating his newly invented life-saving dress: Merriman’s Patent Waterproof Life-Saving Apparatus.
His purpose was to prove to the maritime nations that the means and science were within their reach to provide for the safety of mariners upon whose efforts their own greatness derived. This statement, made a week prior to his attempt, put this crossing in a category apart from swimming. In fact, his press release makes no mention of swimming the channel, only crossing it.
The press referred to this experiment as a voyage. Capt. Boyton expressed a wish in his press release to conduct a “fair, square, and above-board” test of his life-saving dress by means of a practical demonstration. The undertaking was under the auspices of the Humane Society of Boulogne of France.
What is this life-saving dress that Capt. Boyton was testing?
The London Times described it as a suit made of Indian rubber that can be inflated via some tubes. The dress floated the user and allowed the use of a paddle. It was an airtight and waterproof suit. On the day of the swim, Boyton arrived at the dock dressed in his inflatable suit with a suit of blue surge underneath and large woolen stockings carrying an oar. He also carried a foghorn hung around his neck, a brandy flask in a waist pocket, and a large knife; safely ensconced under his dress was a packet of letters, “the Boyton mail for the Continent” which he intended to deliver.
Additionally, there were provisions for hoisting a sail about the size of a large handkerchief by means of a small mast placed in a socket attached to the foot and controlled by lanyards attached to the suit. Both feet were outfitted with these sockets. Undoubtedly, this was the most unique floating contraption and it was a wonder that he could inflate it in a few minutes. The paddle was used for propulsion and Capt. Boyton would stroke along both sides, as he lay on his back in a skillful employment of the paddle.
In his second attempt, a small screw propeller was brought along and could be affixed by means of hoops to his torso and thighs so that while lying prone in the water, he could propel himself. It is unclear if this means of propulsion was used in his second attempt. Most likely, it was found deficient and discarded as reports of his progress make no mention of its usage. It is probably the secret dream of every distance swimmer to have a little propeller attachment by which they could facilitate their journey by any means other than swimming. Capt. Boyton seems to have thought of them all.”
This swim, many other marathon and channel swimming stories, and much more about the background and history of the sport around the world can be found in Johnson’s History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming available at Amazon here.
A donation will be made by Captain Tim Johnson, PE to help support the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
In his autobiography, The Story of Paul Boyton, he wrote about his ‘voyages on all the great rivers of the world, paddling over 25,000 miles in a rubber dress in a rare tale of travel and adventure, thrilling experiences in distant lands, among strange people‘.
The contents of his page-turning book give a hint as to his unique lifestyle, mindset and remarkable range of exploits:
Chapter I. On the Allegheny. First Attempt at navigation. The Grey Eagle. Voyage on a coal fleet.
Chapter II. College days. Bruce’s dam. The Fort of the Wild Geese.
Chapter III. In the U. S. Navy. A voyage to the West Indies. Diving for treasure.
Chapter IV. Wrecking with Captain Balbo. In the hull of a slaver. A swarm of sharks. Joining the Mexican revolutionists.
Chapter V. Entering the life saving service. Grateful people. In the Franco-Prussian war. Failure of the Cuban expedition.
Chapter VI. As a submarine diver. The Diamond fields of Africa. A floating Hell. An escape at Malaga.
Chapter Vll. The rubber dress. Overboard from the steamer Queen. Landing on the coast of Ireland.
Chapter VIII. Arrival in Queenstown. The first lecture. In Dublin. Appearance before Queen Victoria.
Chapter IX. Voyage across the English Channel. Pigeon dispatches. Landing in England.
Chapter X. In Germany. A voyage down the Rhine. Through the whirlpool of Lurlei. The press boat.
Chapter XI. A short run on the Mississippi. The funny Negro pilot. Down the Danube and the Po. Attacked by fever. Lucretia Borgia’s castle.
Chapter XII. Voyage on the Arno from Florence to Pisa. Narrow escape over a fall. Down the Tiber to Rome. Across the bay of Naples. Knighted by King Victor Emmanuel.
Chapter XIII. The Straits of Messina. Attacked by sharks. Whirlpools of Scylla and Charybdis. Lake Trasimene.
Chapter XIV. Quick voyage down the Rhone. The smugglers’ chain. The gambling palaces of Monte Carlo. Down the Loire. In the Quicksands.
Chapter XV. On the mysterious Tagus from Toledo to Lisbon. Over great falls and through dark canons. Ancient Moorish masonry. The villainous brigands.
Chapter XVI. From Europe to Africa, across the Straits of Gibraltar. Preparing for sharks. Contrary currents and heavy overfalls. Landing at Tangier.
Chapter XVII. Paddling in the ice floes on the Allegheny. Down the Ohio to Cairo. Queer characters. On the Mississippi. Strange sights and sounds. The comical darkies. Alligators. “Dead man in a boat.”
Chapter XVIII. Voyage on the Merrimac. Some peculiar people. A rough trip down the Connecticut. Lost in a Snow Storm. A winter in Florida.
Chapter XIX. Off for South America. An officer in the Peruvian service. Placing torpedoes. Caverns of the sea. Inca Tombs. An escape from prison and rescue from a lonely island.
Chapter XX. The Upper Mississippi. The German Doctor and the negro boatman. Arrival at Cairo. Hunting and fishing.
Chapter XXI. The longest voyage. Down the Yellowstone and Missouri. Thrilling adventures through the western wilds. In the tepees of the Indians. Caving banks, snags and mud sucks. Camp of the Rustlers. Arrival in St. Louis.
Chapter XXII. Hunting in Southern bayous. An interesting voyage down the Arkansaw. Haytien insurgents. Down the Sacramento. A night on Great Salt Lake. Down the Hudson. In the ice on Lake Michigan. Catching seals.
Chapter XXIII. Boyton to-day.
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