Hands down, one of the Washington Monument’s best descents
Like Everest, the Washington Monument has attracted its share of thrill-seekers. For the past two weeks, Answer Man has related exploits of the obelisk, back from when anyone could take the stairs (which, since the 1970s, have been closed to casual visitors).
Christel Stevens of University Park wanted to make sure we didn’t forget tap dance proselytizer Carol Vaughn, who in 1993 tapped down the stairs of the Washington Monument. It was more soft shoe than Broadway showstopper. Afraid of being stopped by the Park Service ranger leading the walkdown tour, Vaughn didn’t put her tap shoes on.
Max-Karl Winkler of Kensington wrote that he’d expected Answer Man to include
Russell Nesbit in his list of Monumental overachievers. “Mr. Nesbit was an acrobat and gymnast who taught gymnastics at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of Washington,” Max-Karl wrote. “He was also a well-known artists’ model. In his 70s, he had the body of an athletic 50-yearold. He frequently modeled for my figure drawing classes at the Smithsonian Institution, and I’m sure that he posed for many local art classes.”
Most pertinent to this subject: Nesbit was fixated on walking down the Washington Monument’s steps on his hands.
Nesbit was a Risleyite. That is a follower of Richard Risley
Carlisle, a.k.a. “Professor Risley,” a 19th-century acrobat who perfected the art of juggling people with his feet. “Once you get into Risley, you leave everything else alone because you can’t go no higher than that,” Nesbit told a Post reporter in 1980. “It’s like the PhD in the acrobatic idiom.”
Nesbit taught acrobatics in his Lincoln Heights neighborhood and at the 12th Street YMCA. He enlisted children for his troupe, the Flying Nesbits. He said he looked for “the ones who are so full of life they don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Nesbit first tried to walk down the Washington Monument on his hands in 1953. He told Ebony magazine he had verbal permission from the Park Service, but he was stopped when he was just 50 steps from the bottom. Rangers told him they were concerned he would hurt himself.
In 1959, Nesbit prepared for another attempt. He trained on the stairs of Meridian Hill Park, averaging 1,000 steps on his hands a day. His diet was rich in honey, starchy foods and steaks.
Given his earlier experience, Nesbit knew he had to do his stunt on the sly. He eschewed his usual tights — too likely to attract attention — and wore street clothes. He was accompanied by Ernestine
Green, his “clocker,” who kept an eye out for guards and tried to keep crowds back.
Nesbit had to work his way around disgruntled tourists and skirt hot cigarette butts. He made it down in 98 minutes, a time made longer by the challenging circumstances.
Nesbit had hoped the accomplishment would bring him wider acclaim. Though he continued to teach and perform — including serving as an opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters — national fame eluded him.
Reported Ebony: “Circus magnate John Ringling North once said Nesbit would be a great Big Top performer — if he were white.”
Finally, there was the feat that took place not inside the monument, but outside of it. On Aug. 21, 1908, Charles E.
“Gabby” Street caught a baseball tossed from the top of the 555-foot shaft.
At the time, Street was a catcher for the Washington Senators and a favorite of powerhouse pitcher Walter
Johnson. The feat had been attempted several times before without success. In 1894, Chicago’s William Schriver was said to have caught a ball, but it popped out of his mitt.
Street’s 1908 attempt was organized by Preston Gibson, The Post’s society editor, who secured permission from the Park Service for the stunt.
On the morning in question, Street stood at the bottom of the monument, his glove on his left hand. Gibson ascended with 13 balls and a wooden chute of his design. The chute was intended to carry the balls out beyond the tapering columns. It didn’t work — the balls still hit the stones — so Gibson resorted to throwing the balls through a window.
Lore has it that Street missed the first 12 balls, but in 1937 he told Post sports columnist
Shirley Povich that he caught Nos. 4 and 13.
“I felt it right down tomy heels when it finally hit,” said Street. “That’s one ball I’mglad I didn’t misjudge.”
Street died in 1951. Nesbit in 2001. AnswerMan would like to think the ballplayer would have been supportive of the acrobat’s attempts to master the monument, but he suspects that wouldn’t have been the case. The Alabama-born ballplayer was reportedly a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Send your questions about the
Washington area to email@example.com.
Russell Nesbit taught acrobatics in his Lincoln Heights neighborhood and at the 12th Street YMCA.