Construction of the second bridge to cross the Mississippi River at Hennepin Avenue, shown here in about 1880, was nearing completion when a man known as Banjo Ben attempted to cross the 670-foot span on one of the thinner “working” cables.
 
A musically inclined vagrant known as Banjo Ben walked the streets of Minneapolis in the city’s early days. His weakness for alcohol and penchant for strong language landed him in court with some frequency. In February 1876, for example, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail for spewing obscenities at the St. Paul and Pacific depot. Later that year, he walked into the Tribune newsroom and issued an invitation to witness a spectacular feat at the new suspension bridge under construction nearby.


"I's gwine to done walk ’cross de ’spension bridge cable, same as Blondin did Neagwah Falls; and I want yer to come an see me tormorrer at jes ’zacly tree o’clock by de chronometer.”

Although editors apparently viewed the foolhardy plan as pure bluster, an announcement appeared in the paper and a crowd gathered at the bridge the next day.

A detailed account of Ben’s final walk, reported by the St. Paul Pioneer and distributed nationwide, was published a few weeks later in Pennsylvania’s Elk County Advocate. The Tribune apparently didn't have the stomach for it.
 

Banjo Ben’s Last Walk.

 

The St. Paul Pioneer says: The following brief paragraph appeared in these columns:

“Banjo Ben announces that he will walk the ‘tiller rope of the suspension bridge at three o’clock this afternoon.’ Ben further intimates that he would like to see a crowd present, so that the hat may be profitably passed at the close of the performance.”

True to his promise, “Banjo Ben,” as he has been familiarly known at St. Paul and Minneapolis, walked down to the new suspension bridge towers a little before three o’clock, and with a foolhardiness born of insanity or strong drink, and with the agility of a cat, clambered up to the working cable stretched over the east and west piers of the uncompleted structure. This “cable” is a bunch of wire not more than one inch through, over one hundred feet above the ground, and stretching like a thread between the river banks. Had Ben’s past career been of such a nature as to create a presumption that he was in earnest concerning his rope walking venture, or had any estimate been placed on the value of his life, it is probably that the authorities would have prevented the “exhibition.” But Ben was queer, and many thoughtlessly gathered at the suspension bridge at three o’clock, the majority believing, after looking up to the thread swinging at its dizzy height, that Ben would back out.

  
  On the day after his death, Banjo Ben’s remains were buried at county expense in the paupers’ section of Layman's Cemetery. The Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, as it is now known, was established in 1853. It is the oldest surviving cemetery in Minneapolis.

But the venturesome or insane Ben, wearing a pair of dirty white cotton gloves and old rubber shoes, clambered up to the cable and promptly begun crawling down to the slender wire, hand over hand, and with his rubber feet crossing it. The crowd begun to suspect that a sickening sight was near them, but they continued to gaze at the dark object overhead. Ben crawled down the slope for a distance of perhaps fifty feet, when it became evident the cable was hurting his feet. As if to rest them, he swung his feet from the wire and sustained the weight of his body with his hands alone for several minutes, and then begun to struggle as if trying to raise himself up to the wire again. But his strength or courage had deserted him, and, after a few more ineffectual efforts to regain his position on the cable, his hands lost their cunning, and the crowd suddenly had its surfeit of tragic horror.

Ben’s hold was broken, the cable gave a perceptible bounce upward, and a human body shot down to earth with the speed of a rocket, alighting with a sickening “thud” on the sloping bank of the river, about twenty feet from the water. In the frightful descent the body had partially turned, so that it fell sideways on the ground, and the spectators rushed to the assistance of mortally wounded street musician and amateur rope walker.

Dr. Elliot was summoned, and found Ben breathing when he came, but pronounced the injury fatal, and in a few minutes Banjo Ben had breathed his last, some of those near him averring that, in his unconscious state, he faintly murmured the words he had often spoken in his life: “Guilty, your honor.”

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