One of the most interesting treasures we have in the Coney Island Museum is the Jimmy Onorato Diaries. Jimmy Onorato was the General Manager for Steeplechase Park beginning in 1928, and kept extremely detailed notes on the daily operations and maintenance of the many rides, concessions and attractions.
While reading the often mundane entries in the diaries, it is obvious that many precautions were taken to avoid injuries on the rides (shown above.) Despite the constant repairs and inspections, accidents did still occasionally happen. This is mostly due to the flat-out dangerous nature of some of the rides and attractions.
Some of the more dangerous rides included the Barrel of Love (aka the Barrel of Fun,) where riders had to make their way through a rotating tube, the Human Roulette Wheel, where people piled in the middle of a disc that would then spin, throwing them to the sides of the enclosure and a moving staircase, intended to make people fall.
These attractions would never exist today, when lawsuits are prevalent, and amusement park owners are worried about injury and liability. One famous injury in Steeplechase in 1928 resulted in a court ruling that is still relevant today.
A young man named Murphy went to Steeplechase with a number of his friends in 1928. As they waited to get onto an attraction called “The Flopper,” he watched many people get onto it before him. The Flopper was basically a giant conveyer belt that once a rider got on would run and then abruptly stop, causing riders to go flying.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Murphy fell on the Flopper and fractured his kneecap. He tried to sue Steeplechase Park for his injuries in Murphy v Steeplechase Amusement Co. The lawsuit failed on account of the fact that he knew what was going to happen when he went on the ride. He knew that it was intended to make riders fall down and he still made the decision to get on the ride. The ruling was that ”the timorous may stay at home.”(!)
This case is still cited in lawsuits involving injuries, where professional athletes try to sue their teams. The idea is that they understand the risk involved, and willingly take that risk. The same is cited for spectators who get injured by baseballs at baseball games.
I love that Coney Island history is full of surprises like this, and that something like the dangerous rides in the 1920s would have an impact on something as serious as injury lawsuits today.