Clip | Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America - Sonora Webster Carver: Daredevil Performer & Advocate for the Blind

Sonora Webster Carver (1904-2003) was one of six children born to a working-class family in rural Georgia. In 1923, she answered an ad seeking an “Attractive young woman who can swim and dive; likes horses; desires to travel,” and was hired by entertainer William ‘Doc’ Carver, a sharpshooter who founded Wild West shows with Buffalo Bill Cody. Webster became one of the most famous horse divers in the world, diving 40 feet on horseback into a tank of water. The show became a staple at state fairs and carnivals around the country, before becoming a standing act at Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After performing for seven years, Webster was blinded from retinal displacement in 1931, after one of her dangerous performances, but continued to dive horses for another 11 years.  Diving horses remained a popular attraction at the Atlantic City boardwalk before being discontinued in the 1970s.  An attempt to revive the act in the 1990s was short-lived, in response to protests from animal-rights activists concerned about horse safety. Upon her retirement, Webster worked for the Lighthouse for the Blind and engaged in activism for the visually impaired. She lived to see the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

UNLADYLIKE2020 brings her story of daring and perseverance back to life through rare archival imagery, captivating original artwork and animation, and interviews with Vicki Gold Levi, Co-Author, Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness and Fairland Ferguson, Trick Rider and Roman Rider for the Dixie Stampede and Cavalia.

Transcript Print

Sonora Carver has so many things to admire. Her athletic prowess.

Her ability to be such a daredevil. But mostly, how she took her adversity and turned it into a positive.

1923, Savannah, Georgia.

19-year-old Sonora Webster read an ad in the paper: 'Wanted: attractive young woman who can swim and dive; likes horses; desires to travel.

See Doc Carver.'. Her mother suggested that she should go and meet him and she didn't want any part of it.

But then Sonora went to a state fair and she saw the act and she became enamored with it.

'As the horse galloped past, the girl jumped on.

For a split second her form was imprinted on the sky like a silhouette, then her body arched gracefully over and plunged into the tank.

I was completely spellbound.'. Sonora Webster was born in 1904 to a working-class family in Waycross, Georgia.

Growing up, she would skip school to ride horses.

'To understand how I felt about horses, one should know that when I was only five years old, I tried to trade my brother for a horse.'. Within months of witnessing the horse diving act for the first time, Webster joined Doc Carver's troupe, which was performing in fairs all over the country.

As the working single woman came more into her own, and she had a little bit of discretionary funds, she wanted to be entertained.

So it became an emerging thing to seek amusements - the movies, a dance hall, the circus, vaudeville was very, very big.

And one of the most popular sources of entertainment was the Wild West shows.

The Wild West show was started actually by Doc Carver, who invented the high diving horse act, and Buffalo Bill.

It was a way to empower women in people's eyes, because she had Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, and they showed their prowess as women athletes and sharpshooters, something that a lot of men didn't think was possible.

In the beginning, the horse was riderless and then Doc Carver thought it was a better act and more attractive with girl riders.

Webster began her training, soon progressing from 12-foot practice jumps to the top of a 40-foot tower.

'After a couple days of training I was black and blue all over and so sore, I could hardly move.'. She was used to riding with bridles and saddles and she had to learn to ride bareback, with pretty much nothing.

Training a horse is patience and time. It's repetition.

I have yet to find a horse that when you take that time and that patience, they won't do what you're asking.

My name is Fairland Ferguson and I am a trick rider and Roman rider.

Pretty much it's acrobatics on a full-speed running horse. It's dangerous.

And there's not a lot of room for error, just a few inches actually.

I was just born with love for horses. And the moment I sat in that trick saddle, it was like, this is where I'm supposed to be, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. Nobody was interested in teaching me.

And I was told only boys Roman ride.

So it took quite a few years to get into it, to have that opportunity. I've always felt like no matter how fast I run, I have to run faster because if I don't, they will just put somebody else in my place, and they don't have to be as good or experienced. It's just, we're going to put this guy in your spot and you can do nothing about it.

On May 20th, 1924, Webster made her first public dive off a 40-foot tower at an amusement park in North Carolina.

'It was a wild, free, almost primitive thrill that comes only with complete freedom of contact with the earth. All I could think was. 'I did it! I did it!''. When doc Carver died in 1927, his adopted son Al took over management of the troupe, and Webster married him the following year.

'The week after we were married, Al brought me a present.

It was the perfect one for me: a season's engagement at the Atlantic City Steel Pier.'. Webster's horse diving became the most iconic of the Steel Pier acts.

She performed up to five times a day to crowds of thousands.

Everybody came to Atlantic City - families, con men, women looking for husbands - every portion of society.

Our boardwalk was more like a carnival.

You could never recreate what the entertainers did then.

In 1931, after seven years of injury-free performances, an accident dramatically altered Webster's life.

There was a balancing issue and she was concerned about the horse and she sat back and didn't close her eyes and the impact of the water detached her retina.

'Now I found myself enveloped by folds of black velvet. One morning, as I lay looking into infinite blackness, a spot of light appeared and seemed to be rushing at me with great speed.

Then it was upon me and I read the word 'blind.''. There's a huge lake near where I grew up, and you can hike up the cliffs and at any point jump out into water. And so, of course, I'm like, well, if I'm going to jump, I'm going all the way at the top. I slipped and fell 70 feet, and I broke 46 bones and had 13 surgeries.

The doctors told me that I would not walk again.

I wasn't able to see out of my left eye because of the damage on the left side of my face. And one of my friends said, 'Remember Sonora Carver?

She lost her eyesight and she got back on and she rode again.' And I just had this crazy optimistic outlook.

And I truly believe that that was a majority of my recovery.

'After considering the matter from every angle I decided that the best strategy I could adopt would be to treat my blindness as if it were a minor detail, rather than a major catastrophe... The show must go on.'. In 1932, less than a year after her accident, Webster made her comeback, and continued diving blind for 11 years.

She didn't want somebody shuffling her out from her dressing room to the horse.

She had a rope that guided her, so that she could find her way without anybody helping her.

'Not all the dives went smoothly. Four times, I missed the horse entirely.

But I never experienced any injury more serious than a sprained ankle.'. That is a remarkable feat, to overcome the exact thing that caused your injury.

The show ended in 1942, during World War Two. Increasingly, animal acts fell out of favor due to scrutiny and protests from animal rights activists.

The ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, sent their veterinarians. Every time they came around, the horses were in great shape.

But animal acts today have been discredited because there's a big movement to have great empathy for the animals.

I agree that it's not a proper act to have anymore, but I also want to go on record as saying, from my many talks with Sonora, those horses were loved and cared for sure.

They always said the horses loved to do it. They wanted to jump.

It was just as exhilarating for them as it was for the riders and for the audience.

Webster and her husband moved to New Orleans, where she worked until 1979 as a typist, and an advocate for the blind.

She had already learned braille and she went to work for the Lighthouse for the Blind and became very active. She wanted to promote independence.

That was her message. And she was very inspiring to many people.

Webster died in 2003 at age 99, after being blind for 72 years.

Her 1961 memoir was adapted into the Disney movie 'Wild Hearts Can't be Broken.'. Who are you? Your new diving girl.

She was a gutsy woman.

She was so independent and so fierce about wanting to be a self-sufficient woman who lost her sight.

'Though I cannot see my surroundings, the world is part of me.

And I do not fear life or anything in it. On the contrary, I relish life and know that there is so much more for me to do and know.'