‘Human Spider’ climbed for charity a century ago
On June 14, 1918, 5,000 spectators stood breathless below the Hotel Richmond on Ninth Street in downtown Richmond as Bill Strother, also known as the “Human Spider,” scaled the walls of the building unassisted in less than 30 minutes.
Strother, a North Carolina native, put on the show as part of a charitable effort where he encouraged attendees to buy thrift stamps during World War I.
According to the June 15, 1918, Richmond Times-Dispatch report, once Strother reached the top of the hotel, “A long breath of relief was drawn by the crowd below, whose nerves had already been set on edge by several fake falls, which were executed, [Strother] said for the purpose of stimulating the contributions from the spectators.” The Richmond war savings board reported that nearly $1,000 was raised in the drive and an estimated 220 stamp cards were sold.
On Nov. 28, 1920, The Times-Dispatch announced that Strother would return to Richmond to “give the citizens of this city some of the thrills of their lives.” Strother effortlessly scaled the Hotel Richmond again, that time to raise money for the Medical College of Virginia.
Strother performed his risky climbs and stunts all over the U.S. and Canada until the 1920s while also working as a stunt double in Hollywood. He retired from climbing in the late 1920s after a bad fall.
During his recovery, Strother met his wife, a nurse named Ethel Grady Weems. In the early 1930s, Strother and Weems returned to the East Coast, where they opened a hotel in Petersburg, known as Strother House, which they ran for many years.
In the 1940s and ’50s, Strother continued to make an impression on the Richmond community when he served as the Miller & Rhoads Santa Claus for 14 years. According to a Times-Dispatch article in 1957, Strother “used to tell children he began to play the part of Santa because the world needed a Santa Claus who was strong and fearless and could do the unusual.”
After eleven years running Strother House, Strother and his wife moved to California, but every holiday season Strother returned to Richmond to perform his Santa duties. He once said, “The most important thing in all the world is that dreams come true. It’s as important for grown-ups as for children.”
In September 1957, Strother was killed
An ‘Extraordinary Life’
To learn more about the life of Bill Strother, check out Donna Strother Deekens’ book, “The Real Santa of Miller & Rhoads: The Extraordinary Life of Bill Strother.” in a car accident near Burbank, Calif. On Sept. 13, 1957, Ross Valentine, who played one of Strother’s elves, paid tribute to him in The Times-Dispatch with a letter saying, “He could make a child who had forgotten Santa Claus believe in him again.”
Bill Strother, whose business card is shown here, performed risky climbs and feats across the U.S. and Canada and worked as a Hollywood stunt double.