The tragedy of Mamie Rhea

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, South Knox

A little over 90 years ago, a young woman from Coal Creek unwittingly jumped to her death from a plane nearly 2,000 feet above Island Home Airport. To be sure, she meant to jump – she was wearing a parachute, after all – but a moment’s hesitation is likely what caused her to miss the landing field and plunge into the Tennessee River instead.

Mamie Rhea (photo credit: KNS archives).

It wasn’t the jump, the fall or even the initial landing that took her life. Her parachute was swept up in the current, and she was dragged another 200 yards downstream before disappearing below the surface.

The unfortunate sky diver’s name was Mamie Rhea, 22 years old and rooming at the YWCA downtown while attending classes at John Randolph Neal College of Law. Rhea apparently had a determination for furthering her education and quite a taste for adventure.

A fellow Y resident, Geneva Tullock, said she warned Rhea not to do it, that she might just go and get herself killed. She told reporters that Rhea responded “If I can get that one thrill, I’ll be ready to die.”

The day. March 26, 1933, was supposed to be a bit of a fundraiser for an experienced jumper named Eris Daniels, who had arrived in Knoxville two weeks prior with jumper/wingwalker Billy Bomar to perform their aerial acts around town. Daniels was renowned as a skydiving “girl” who had performed with the Dixie Daredevils. Bomar had gained acclaim with Howard’s Flying Circus. Daniels had injured a leg in a jump at the old McGhee Tyson Airport where West High School now sits. She was scheduled to go the day Rhea met her fate, but the leg just wasn’t going to cooperate.

Billy Bomar (photo credit: KNS archives)

Rhea was determined to stand in for the veteran Daniels, though she had never even been up in a plane, much less jumped out of one, yet somehow managed to practice for a week with Bomar. Details of said practice are presently elusive.

Daniels had her own reservations about a landing zone so close to water, and in the aftermath said she had cautioned Rhea against making the jump: “If you come down in water, it’s mighty hard to save yourself. The chute is heavy to begin with, and it becomes even heavier when its cloth gets water soaked. In addition, you carry an emergency chute on your chest. Even if you’re a good swimmer, the two chutes will pull you down unless someone comes to your rescue.”

Fisherman A.B. Henderson pulled Mamie Rhea from the Tennessee River (photo credit: KNS archives).

And therein lies more of the rub: not only had Rhea never flown nor jumped, she also couldn’t swim and refused to wear a life preserver. Thousands were on hand to watch her do this, so many that Major Robert N. Campbell, a U.S. Employment Bureau manager, said at any minute he expected the swinging bridge connecting Dickinson Island to the mainland to snap from all the people on it. He said at the very least there should have been boats ready in the water in case something went amiss.

Which brings us to Bomar, as in, what on earth was this dude thinking? According to him, once the plane was in the right spot, he twice told Rhea to jump, but she hesitated when seconds counted. No longer in the proper position, he reached out to pull her back from the plane’s door, but she jumped or the wind pulled her out. His initial relief at the chute opening was dashed as he watched it drop over the river.

The short of it is, no matter how many sprang into action to try to save her, Rhea was lost within minutes of hitting the water. Her body was found the next day by fishermen A.B. Henderson and Lon Karns. Bomar swore off ever teaching any more women to sky dive. Five months later he was killed in Poughkeepsie, New York, when both his parachutes failed from 2200 feet.

Here’s a video of Eris Daniels jumping 90-ish years ago:

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives March 27-28, August 23, 1933.

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