On Saturday, June 20, 1953, a hitchhiker interacted with a number of drivers who provided rides from Anniston to Guntersville.
Johnnie Richards, who worked at Case Implement Co., gave the man a ride from Anniston to Gadsden and explained that the man was talkative. He even asked questions about the conviction of the Rosenberg case for spying. The hitchhiker, later identified as John Peterson, expressed frustration over the execution of the couple and said, “That’s not right.”
At Attalla, Roy Duckett, who worked in Gadsden, gave the same man a ride to Albertville near the Food Basket. Mr. Duckett learned that the man was traveling from Pinallas Beach near Tampa and had served in the Army. In their conversation, Duckett heard the rider bemoan that “his feet were giving out.” Near the Food Basket, Allen Overstreet of Guntersville gave Peterson a ride but found him very quiet. At this point, the hitchhiker answered questions but did not volunteer much personal information.
Duckett learned that Peterson had the prospect of a construction job in Chicago and found it difficult to find rides from Tampa. When his car had broken down, he had struggled to find enough people willing to give him a lift and had to walk much of the time.
Noting the man’s weariness and apparent need for a meal, Overstreet invited him to a cafe in Southtown. However, Peterson declined.
Overstreet drove Peterson through Guntersville to the harbor area just before the George Houston Bridge, the old steel girder bridge over the Tennessee River.
Between 11:30 and 12:00 midnight, the Guntersville Police patrol noticed a man exiting the Overstreet car and then walking toward the river bridge.
About 1:30 a.m., Gordon Patterson of Paint Rock drove over the George Houston Bridge and spied a partially clad man climbing over the bridge railing. Stopping and talking with the man, Patterson attempted to intercede but only got a response of “leave me alone.” Unable to prevent the event, Patterson went immediately to City Hall and had a message radioed to the police patrol. In mere minutes, the policemen arrived at the scene but found the man had already jumped.
While the police made their way to the scene, fishermen near the bridge attempted to save the jumper. Since the man leaped from a height of approximately 53 feet into 60 feet of water, he had little chance of survival. One of the fishermen dived from his boat in an attempt to save the man’s life. Members of the impromptu rescue team were Mr. and Mrs. L S. Stewart of Birmingham and Chief E. W. Gober of the Navy. Mr. Stewart gave an eyewitness account that included:
“We heard a terrific splash, and the water boiled up about eight feet. At first, we thought it was a tremendous fish of some kind, and then the man bobbed up. I hollered for him to hold on and started for our anchor and we worked the boat towards him.
“Chief Gober managed to get ahold of a tip end of one finger, but he
went down, down. I got my coat off and dove after him, clothes and all, but it was so dark I couldn’t locate him. Within minutes the Guntersville patrol and police were on hand to drag. On the second drag we found his body and pulled him into my boat and started giving artificial respiration.
“A boat came alongside, tied onto us and towed us to shore while we continued to give first aid. We were too late, though. It appeared the man’s neck was broken by the fall.”
Chief Gober reported that the jumper made one low sound as if a cry for help when the rescuers managed to grab his fingertip.”
As coroner, Aubrey Carr of Carr Funeral Home had the responsibility of identifying the man and ruling on the cause of death. The man was described as wearing only his shorts. His physical factors included dark hair and eyes, height about 5’11,” and weight 165 pounds. Very muscular and quite tanned, the man appeared to be 25 years old. The only marking on the body was an appendectomy scar. His discarded clothing was described as a white T-shirt, khaki pants, black and white mesh shoes, and socks. In his carryall bundle, they found one shirt and two pairs of pants. In a pocket was found a piece of paper with the name “Peterson” and some numbers. The man’s total cash money consisted of four pennies. With these few bits of information, the police and coroner began the task of identifying the individual.
Fingerprints were obtained from the body. Coroner Aubrey Carr mailed copies of these to the FBI in Washington. Carr sent a photograph of the man to the Birmingham Post-Herald. Technicians enhanced and retouched the image and wired it to newspapers in major cities. Immediately, calls flooded the lines from relatives of missing males from Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida. In spite of the overwhelming number of phone calls, no clues emerged about this person.
One trivial item had been ignored until Aubrey Carr took a second look at a piece of paper in the jumper’s pocket. The writing on the note was “Mr. Peterson 241311.”
Carr started phoning. First, he tried the Tampa Police Department whose officials thought the number might have been McDill Field, that had been searching for an AWOL airman. When Carr requested that Tampa’s police department check on the case, he was told they did not know how long it would take because of their huge caseloads.
Not to be deterred, Carr called McDill Field. After explaining to the provost marshal, he was transferred to other departments to little avail except for a long-distance phone bill. Finally, he attempted to use the numbers on the piece of paper as if it were a telephone number. Bingo! The search was completed when Carr reached the office of a finance company in Tampa, Florida. One of their customers fit the description of the jumper and had the last name of Peterson.
With the help of this agency, Carr called the father-in-law of John Peterson. Coincidentally, the gentleman had read about the unidentified man in Guntersville and had been trying to place a call about his son-in-law. Carr learned that Peterson had worked as a roofer in Tampa but had been unemployed. Peterson had family members in Ohio—a father in Akron, a sister in Barberton, and another sister in Columbus. His family had been concerned about him.
The case of John Peterson was ruled a suicide with a medical report of a broken back. Peterson had relatives who cared for him. Total strangers helped him on the last day of his life—some gave him rides, others offered him food, one went out of his way to drive him through town to save steps. One man attempted to stop him from jumping; fishermen tried to rescue him. These acts of kindness did not overcome his feelings of helplessness and extreme fatigue. His destitution with four pennies as his financial worth and extreme depression apparently drove him to take his life.
This researcher has identified one other person who died from jumping from the George Houston Bridge. In August 1947, Jack McGowin dove from the middle of the bridge into the main channel. His feat was evidently a lark to be the first to dive from the bridge and survive.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. His body was recovered the next day. McGowin was a Navy veteran with extensive service in the South Pacific with the U.S.S. St. Louis and the U.S.S. Missouri.
Ironically, he had been stationed at Pearl Harbor on the U.S.S. St. Louis on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, and with the U.S.S. Missouri when the formal surrender of the Japanese was signed on September 2, 1945. After having served six years in the Navy, McGowin had been employed building the Lakeshore cottages at Claysville.
If any readers have other stories or witness accounts about individuals who jumped from the old George Houston Bridge, please contact the editor of The Advertiser-Gleam.