Hands down, one of the Washington Mon­u­ment’s best des­cents

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - John Kelly's Washington Twit­ter: @johnkelly For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

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 an­swer­man@wash­post.com.


Rus­sell Nes­bit taught ac­ro­bat­ics in his Lin­coln Heights neigh­bor­hood and at the 12th Street YMCA.

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