08 Jun 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: Climbing the Dome

While looking through the many times that newlyweds were sighted in the Capitol, I came across several times when they were privy to some extraordinary occurrence. The most remarkable of these happened on May 7, 1913, when visitors – including newlyweds – observed someone who was climbing the outside of the Capitol dome.

The human fly was none other than Rodman Law (pictured), who was already well-known for his feats of daredevilry, climbing up the outsides of skyscrapers around the country, as well as parachuting off the Statue of Liberty. Law’s plan was very simple, according to the Washington Post the following day. He would enter the Capitol with a rope under his coat, in the Rotunda, he would climb the stairs leading up into the dome. At the top, he would hop over the barrier, sling the rope around the base of one of the columns of the tholos just below the statue’s base. The Post continues:

A few minutes after 2 o’clock he started his crawl to the top of the column. Half way up he stopped to light a cigarette, then continued to the capital of the column. Tourists strolling about the lawns of the Capitol first caught sight of him. For more than an hour he had been attempting to reach the supporting floor of the statue’s pedestal, when he made a quick descent and unlashing the rope.

It was then, finally, that the police noticed him and rushed up the stairs in the dome to arrest him. He, and a newlywed who had observed the attempt, were taken to the detention room in the Capitol and quickly released.

No pictures are available of the climb, so here’s an artist’s depiction of Law on the Capitol dome. From the Virginia Minnesota Enterprise of July 18, 1913 (LOC)

Law then said that he had not been able to climb up to the top not because of the difficulty of getting over the cornice, but because of “the rusted condition of the capitals (sic) of the pillars supporting it.” The following day, Law was interviewed, and his story became much more elaborate. Now, he had made it up inside the statue itself. The Washington Evening Star quoted him saying

“I went all around the inside and saw the rust. It was very dark, and I used up a box of matches in there. Then I crawled up on the base of the statue. A “cop” yelled to me to come down. I slashed the ropes I had, and a pair of newly-weds picked up a piece to use as a souvenir.”

Law’s biggest problem was that he had given his pocketbook to some supposed friends for safe keeping before setting off on his adventure. While Law had been distracted with other things, they had absconded with the pocketbook and its contents. Fortunately, Law had friends in New York that sent him money to allow him to pay his hotel bill and go on to his next adventure. His fame also made him a minor movie star, including one named Daredevil Rodman Law, in which he played himself.

Law would die just six years after his Capitol exploit, not due to his stunts – though he would be badly injured the following year – but from tuberculosis he caught while in the Army Aviation Corps. His sister, Ruth Law Oliver, who had been inspired by her brother to become a pilot, continued in his spirit until 1922, when her husband forced her to retire from flying.

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