March is Women’s History Month
This month is Women’s History Month and I discovered an interesting woman that fits nicely in this category. She is truly a historical figure and did incredible things during her lifetime that not many women were doing. She was also visually impaired and later became an advocate for the blind. I first learned about her while watching a documentary on PBS. It was a short clip that I viewed on my smartphone. After that I was sold! I had to go and do my research to find out more on Sonora Webster Carver. Then of course, I had to share on Triple E because you know that is how I roll! HaHa! So, get ready to read and learn about this fascinating blind woman who literally dived horses successfully in tanks of water.
Now, let’s start at the beginning. Sonora was born in 1904 right here in Georgia. She grew up with a restless mother who moved the family around a lot. Sonora had a lifelong love affair with horses, cutting high school classes to ride, even though her family never had their own horses. In 1923 she answered an ad placed by William “Doc” Carver for a diving girl and soon earned a place in circus history. It was her mother who first encouraged her to consider diving for Carver’s act, which was in search of a new “Girl-in-Red,” when she was 19.
She was a good rider, but nothing in her experience prepared her for diving. Her assignment was to mount a running horse as it reached the top of a forty or 60-foot tower and sail down on its back as the horse plunged into a pool of water below. After rigorous training She became an immediate hit and soon was the lead diving girl for Doc’s act as they traveled the country. Later, Sonora fell in love and married Doc’s son, Albert (Al) Floyd Carver in 1928. Al had taken over the show the year before after his dad passed. Sonora’s sister, Arnette Webster French, followed in her footsteps. She became a horse diver and joined the show but left in the 1930s.
Female Divers and Wild West Shows
Now let me pause in the story to give some context on female divers and wild west shows. For their courage, horse diving women were compensated better than women in most other professions at the time which might be part of the reason Sonora took her mother’s advice. When she signed on to Carver’s show in 1924, she earned $125 per week. She would perform her diving routine up to five times a day, making more than eight times what she had been as a department store bookkeeper. Another reason, was that female horse diving was among the most popular performances at Wild West Attractions. The stunt successfully combined attractive women, danger, and the magnetism of the “Wild West.” While women had been appearing as a novelty in Wild West shows since the early Buffalo Bill Cody days, female and male sharpshooters and trick riders were often interchangeable. Horse-diving acts, though, always used women riders, partly because Carver’s horses could support riders up to 135 pounds.
Of course, there was great risk in diving into a pool from heights of up to 60 feet on the back of a 1,000-pound wingless animal into a pool of water, yet Sonora survived her diving career in tack for about 8 years until 1931. While hitting the water off balance, face first and her eyes open; Sonora lost her vision from retinal detachment. She was diving her horse, Red Lips, on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. In less than a year she came back and continued to dive horses. Although she was now blind, she kept diving for 11 more years until 1942.
Retirement and Protests against Diving Horses
After her retirement from diving, Sonora and her husband moved to New Orleans where she worked as a typist at the Lighthouse for the Blind and engaged in activism for the visually impaired. The act of diving horses remained a popular attraction at the Atlantic City boardwalk before being discontinued in the 1970s. An attempt to revive the act in the 1990s was short-lived, because of the protests from animal-rights activists concerned about horse safety. It was noted that when the show traveled the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would investigate if there was any harmful treatment being done. They never found anything in all the years of the act. there was never a horse that was injured.
She wrote a book about her life titled, A Girl and Five Brave Horses. I was able to find an audio copy at the National Library for the Blind and Print Disabled. There is also a 1991 film of her life portrayed in Disney’s fictionalized movie, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Sonora died at 99 years old on September 20, 2003, in Pleasantville, New Jersey.