Horse-diver Sonora Webster Carver, 99

Posted: September 24, 2003

Sonora Webster Carver, 99, the first woman to dive off Atlantic City's Steel Pier while riding a horse - a stunt she continued for 11 years after she was blinded during a performance - died Sunday at Our Lady's Residence in Pleasantville, N.J.

One of six children born to working people in rural Waycross, Ga., Mrs. Carver saw a way out of "genteel poverty" after reading a newspaper ad for "a girl who could swim and dive and was willing to travel." In other words, a diving-horse rider.

To the 20-year-old jobless, adventurous woman, the job sounded perfect.

She joined the carnival act of the traveling sharpshooter William Carver, who was known as "Doc" by his contemporaries, including Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.

Doc Carver taught her how handle a horse and how to horse-dive.

She left Waycross, traveled the country with his carnival show, and performed before audiences of thousands.

Along the way, she fell in love with the boss's son, Al Carver. The couple married in 1932 - five years after he took over the act following his father's death.

In 1929, Atlantic City hotel builder and impresario Frank P. Gravatt invited Carver to bring his show to the recently completed Steel Pier. Not content with just having circus acts, Gravatt wanted diving horses and saucy female riders to lure crowds to his pier.

Wearing a red bathing suit, Mrs. Carver climbed a 40-foot ladder at the end of the pier, waited for a horse to run up a ramp, jumped on the horse, and plunged into a tank measuring 12 feet deep and 20 feet across. She performed this act two to six times a day.

But Mrs. Carver was not like other horse-divers. For 11 of the 13 years of her career, she performed the feat blind.

In August 1931, one of the horses went into a steep nosedive during a performance, sending Mrs. Carver face-first into the water. Both of her retinas were detached, and she remained blind for the rest of her life.

But Mrs. Carver continued to dive, keeping her blindness secret from the public until 1942.

That year, she retired from horse-diving and the couple moved to New Orleans, where they lived until Al Carver died in 1961. In New Orleans, Mrs. Carver learned Braille and worked as a Dictaphone typist at Touro Infirmary until 1979, when she retired and returned to New Jersey.

The diving-horse act continued on the Steel Pier until 1978. "It is one of Atlantic City's greatest icons," Allen "Boo" Pergament, who has chronicled the history of Atlantic City, said yesterday.

Mrs. Carver's sister, Arnette Webster French, and their friend Josephine K. DeAngelis joined the act in 1930. Ms. DeAngelis, 92, died Saturday, 24 hours before Mrs. Carver, at her home in Ventnor. Ms. French died in 2000 at age 87.

In 1961, Mrs. Carver wrote her autobiography, A Girl and Five Brave Horses. Inspired by a story perfectly scripted for Hollywood, the Walt Disney Co. produced the 1991 movie Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, starring Gabrielle Anwar, Michael Schoeffling and Cliff Robertson.

Mrs. Carver's nephew Donald French said the movie "is basically true to life but does take some poetic license" - Mrs. Carver was not an orphan, and there was no "evil aunt," as portrayed in the movie.

"My aunt was a fiercely independent woman who would not let her blindness be a detriment to living a full life," French said.

Mrs. Carver is survived by several other nephews and nieces.

A memorial service will take place at a later date. Burial is private.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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