Death Stalks The Ice Rink

"Oh, there is nothing like the skater's art - The poetry of circles; nothing like the fleeting beauty of his crystal floor. Above his head the winter sunbeams dart, Beneath his feet flits past the frightened pike. Skate while you may; the morrow skates no more." - Eugene Lee-Hamilton, "The Academy"

The shinigami, La Santa Muerte, Hel, Giltinė... whatever your culture, whatever corner of the globe you hail from, chances are that you have some concept of Death being culturally personified. Just in time for Hallowe'en, our special guest on today's Skate Guard blog will be The Grim Reaper. They will be taking us on a tour back through time where we will explore some of the most tragic and unusual deaths that have ever been connected with the sport over the years.

On Valentine's Day in 1910, an eighteen year old student at Albert Lane Technical High School in Chicago named John W.G. Plaskett was reprimanded by his mother for staying out late... ice skating. "The Urbana Daily Courier", on February 15 of that year tragically tells us that, "only a few hours later he was found dead in his room by his eight-year old brother, Charles, who had been sent to awaken him for breakfast. The elder boy had committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a 22-caliber rifle. The body was lying on the floor near the bed and the rifle was found lying near by. Charles, after realizing his brother was dead, ran downstairs and summoned his mother. 'O, why did he do it?' she cried as neighbours tried to calm her. While no one in the house heard the report of the rifle, it is believed the act was committed shortly after he entered his room."

Seven years earlier, twenty eight year old steam fitter and accomplished figure skater Frederick Short and his wife both drowned in a lake in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania... in the middle of a skating performance! The January 19, 1903 issue of "The Reading Eagle" recalled that "separate funerals were held for young Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Short, who were drowned while doing fancy skating and entertaining a large crowd on the ice. Mr. Short was a Presbyterian and Mrs. Short, Catholic. The funerals took place at the homes of their parents, and at their churches. The husband was buried in Smyrna, Del. and the wife in Phila."

That same year in Chicago, a visitor from New York City named William H. Kline committed suicide in full view of hundreds of ice skaters at Lincoln Park. "The Chicago Tribune" noted that Kline "was well dressed and of prosperous appearance. In his pockets were $8 and the following letter, addressed to Mrs. A Lester, 468 One Hundred and Fifty-seventh street, New York: 'Mrs. Lester - Dear, Kind Friend: In my hurried departure from the city I regret I did not see you for a few minutes to sat what would now be a farewell, for I have decided to go away and you will never see me again. Thanking you for all you have done for me, I bid you good-by and also all the folks. Your friend, William H. Kline.' The following quotation from Longfellow's 'Resignation' was attached to the letter: 'There is no Death! What seems so is a transition; This life of mortal breath // Is but a suburb of the life elysian, Whose portal we call Death.' The man had been seen in the park for nearly an hour before he drank the poison. He walked nervously up and down the bridge, occasionally stopping and glancing around as if expecting to meet some one. When he raised the bottle to his lips he was at the east end approach of the high bridge. A park policeman, who was standing nearby, says he heard the stranger utter something in a language which he could not understand just before he drank the poison."

Great Britain's William Harris learned how to skate on the ice during the Victorian era in England but was best known for his prowess on roller skates. He found success in British music halls before bringing his Vaudeville style act to America. Tragically, Harris passed away at the age of fifty during a show in Detroit, Michigan in December of 1924... and no one knew. An article from the December 16 issue of "The Reading Eagle" tells us that "while an enthusiastic audience applauded for a fourth encore, William Harris, 50, known to the stage world as 'Willie Rolls,' fell dead in his wife's arms in a theatre here. But the audience never knew. The curtain flashed up for his fourth encore - then dropped without an appearance. The orchestra leader dipped his baton and a racy march ushered in the next act. Back of the curtain overalled scene-shifters carried the dead player to a dressing room and aided Mrs. Harris to a lounge." Doctors said that he died from "heart disease resulting from overexertion in skating."

In 1942, a horrific and bizarre murder/suicide rocked members of Denver, Colorado's skating community. The August 17, 1942 issue of "The Chicago Tribune" recounted that "a middle aged married man shot a pretty high school girl who had been his ice skating partner, scribbling a note asking that they be buried together with skates on and then took his own life, Coroner George Hamllik reported today. Fishermen found the bodies of Margie Bolton, 17 years old and John G. [Jack] Kline, 48, an electrician, in an automobile on a lonely mountain road yesterday. 'I don't suppose it is possible, but we would like to be buried together,' one note read. 'Margie did not suffer. She died at once. Another note was addressed to Kline's wife, Irene, and to Mrs. Arthur D. Bolton, mother of the girl who was a talented ice skater. It said in part: 'Margie and I did love each other so much we could not stand it any longer. We are very sorry. Please forgive us.' Kline and the girl were members of the Denver Figure Skating Club and had skated as partners at shows."

Then there's the darkly comedic tale of Mary Tumble, an alleged Black Widow from Washington whose husband died while roller skating. On June 29, 1907, "The Age" reported that "Mary Tumble, known in Washington as Mother Rumble Tumble, the stoutest woman in America, is again a widow. Her eighth husband, a wealthy merchant, died as the result of an accident at the Apollo skating rink, when Mrs. Tumble accidentally 'tumbled' on him and crushed him to death. Mr. Tumble, who was a good roller skater, was showing his skill in a fancy turn when he tripped and fell. Immediately behind him was his wife, weighing nearly 40 [stones], neither size nor age being any bar to roller skating at the Apollo, and she fell on her husband's body with great force. The strange part of the tragedy is the fact that in nearly every case Mrs. Tumble's husbands have met with misadventure causing untimely death. Her seventh husband was killed by the sudden closing of a folding bed caused by the breaking of a spring under the weight of the unfortunate wife." Although my heart goes out to poor Mr. Tumble, you can't make this stuff up!

In an example of a death that absolutely could have been prevented by modern medicine, an eleven year old boy named Stephen Kinik from Westmoreland County in Pennsylvania died in March of 1934 of tetanus after suffering a minor cut on his left hand while skating on a pond. He died only hours after being admitted to Mercy Hospital.

Simone de Ridder wasn't just any skating coach. She was the mother of 1948 Olympic Gold Medallist and two time World Champion Micheline Lannoy of Belgium and in her day, an excellent skater as well. She met her end in a bizarre incident on a train in Kitzingen, Germany in November of 1953. An article from the "Spokane Daily Chronicle" on November 18 of that year notes that "police sought a tall, thin man who was believed to have pushed Mrs. de Ridder from an international train before dawn yesterday after robbing her. The woman died without regaining consciousness. Hospital aides said she had suffered a skull fracture and internal injuries. The Kitzingen sttaion master told police that as the train rolled slowly through the yards he saw a woman clinging to a window ledge while a man tried to pry her grip loose. Trainmen found Mrs. de Rudder alongside the tracks." The saddest thing about it all? Lannoy was on her way to meet her mother at the time.

The next time you are coming around a Lutz corner and catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of eye, turn around and take a second look. It may not be a skating judge waiting to give you an edge call... it just may be Death stalking the ice rink.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":