Several other men had careers as daredevil climbers during the 1910s and ‘20s, according to Jacob Smith’s book, “The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance.” They included Harry Gardiner, Rodman Law and George Polley.
Along with Williams they were described as superhuman roughly two decades before the fictional debut of Superman, Smith noted. Their carefully crafted image was a commercial enterprise in that they had business managers and press kits.
Williams apparently got his start around 1915. An Oct. 13, 1915, classified advertisement in Dayton, Ohio, found him looking for a business manager. And the earliest press clippings I’ve found about him – after searching three historic newspaper archives – said he left his audiences unsatisfied.
The May 12, 1915, edition of the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era reported he was a 21-year-old neophyte who did not perform as promised, supposedly because the police had prohibited the performance. The Dec. 24, 1915, edition of the Cape County Herald of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, was even harsher, noting his audience jeered. The headlines read: “Human fly only fake imitation of summer pest. Jack Williams scales wall more like a fish than an insect. But was a success at passing the hat.”
How it was done from research by reporter Frank Boyett:
Passing the hat was his usual way of charging admission to his climbs. He made an announcement that he usually did not begin a climb until at least $100 had been collected from the crowd, but because of the extreme cold he would climb as soon as $25 was collected.
He took off his overcoat, stepped from an Essex auto onto the bank building, and “after climbing about 10 feet he was compelled to stop and stand on the windowsill while he (blew) on his hands. With a swing he mounted the first cornice over the door and was soon at the third floor. A leap and a jump placed him on the fourth-floor window. Here he had to stretch for all that he was worth to reach the ledge of the window above him.
“Finally, he got hold with the first joint of his fingers (and) slowly he began to pull himself upward. Just as it seemed he was about to climb into the window above his foot slipped. Nervous women in the crowd screamed.
“He started downward. The crowd was sure he had made one climb too many, but it proved to be a trick of the trade. Instead of falling he had slipped purposely and then caught himself in the manner known only to the ‘Human Fly.’ While people in the street below were catching their breath, Williams’ laugh came floating down to them.”
He used a rope to swing himself over the projecting edge of the roof. “I would have climbed over the cornice without the rope, but it was too cold.”
The big crowd was “more than satisfied,” according to The Gleaner’s reporter.
Within a few years Williams was incorporating airplanes into his act -- as in standing on one plane’s wing and stepping onto the wing of another. Apparently, he had been considering something like that since at least 1916, according to the website of the Kalamazoo, Michigan, Public Library.