Detroit wouldn't exist without its river. In Detroit's earliest days, the river was the city's gravitational center, its entry-point and highway, and the city was apportioned so that every landowner had access to it. Today, were you to take a boat out to its center, you'd find it remains a force of nature that makes a metropolis feel small and far away. It carries an energy and life, and, as these things tend to go, also represents the opposite end of that pendulum swing, a place of final crossing, of silence and death.
An unknown number of Detroiters have gone to the river for that final baptism, seeking release in a manner that remains one of the most difficult and agonizing ways to die.
What draws them there? Perhaps the way it's alive with mythology and metaphor, calling to mind the river Styx. Even as our frontier settlement darkened and spread into a city, the river represented that last bit of unconquerable wilderness, with its preternatural character, always moving, always remaining, flowing somewhere while going nowhere.
Or maybe it's just that, time and again, so many people have run out of options in our fate-battered metropolis. Lacking the pills or pistols to ease the way, they are drawn to the last thing nobody can shut off, the Detroit River, giver — and taker — of life.
If we were to consider the river a boundary to the afterworld, then the Belle Isle Bridge would be its surest crossing. And for much of the 20th century, the Belle Isle Bridge would metaphorically help people "get to the other side." Associated almost from the beginning with suicide, the bridge is an unlikely place for it, its walkway perched just 30 feet above the water's surface — hardly a death dive.
And yet more than 100 people have walked onto the 2,356-foot-long bridge without stepping off either end again.
There have been several bridges to Belle Isle. The first was a cantilevered structure of wood and iron built in 1889. (The only press account of a person jumping off it was that of escape artist Harry Houdini, who leaped off it in manacles with a rope around his waist on a chilly, late-November day in 1906.) In 1915, that burned to the waterline in a great fire. A temporary bridge was constructed while today's bridge was planned, built, and finally finished eight years after the blaze. (In 1942, it was officially renamed the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, though Detroiters have an almost defiant insistence upon calling it by its original name.)
The city took possession of it with great civic fanfare on Nov. 1, 1923. Acting Mayor John C. Lodge opened the span to traffic, and Council President James Vernor led a crowd of 2,000 across it on the unseasonably cold autumn day. It was inaugurated with a poem from Detroit's own cornpone poet, Edgar Guest, featuring verse decidedly less folksy than usual. The theme was that bridges are usually meant to speed commerce or make money; this bridge would exist solely to hasten the city's careworn working people to an island of pleasure.
One stanza reads:
Who wearies of the city's noisy hum,
The urge of labor, to this bridge may come
And walk its path and catch the sweet clean breeze,
Be the companion of the friendly trees,
Romp with his children, purge his soul of hate.
And claim the beauties of this fair estate.
As with so many words bravely spoken of Detroit early in its boom, the words have an ironic ring strong enough to evoke cringes, because it's the site of many ugly scenes in the city's history.
On June 20, 1943, it was where a bloody brawl between black and white Detroiters — and a few hundred sailors from the nearby naval armory — injured dozens and touched off a bloody race riot that left 34 dead, hundreds injured, and caused almost $200 million in damages in today's dollars.
On Aug. 19, 1995, it was where a minor traffic accident touched off a beating that left 33-year-old business student Deletha Word terrified, injured, and stark naked, before she fell, or some say jumped, off the bridge and drowned.
And, for generations of Detroiters, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, the bridge was literally a place to end it all. According to apocryphal accounts of the time, the river soon saw enough bodies to occasionally jam the water intakes of the factories downstream.
The numbers, presented in the Detroit Free Press' Detroit Almanac, are staggering. By 1935, 87 people had leaped from the bridge to their deaths, a sum no doubt aggravated by the Great Depression, which hit Detroit especially hard. The problem was so acute that the Detroit Police Department instituted a "suicide squad" to scout the bridge for potential jumpers. In 1938 alone, 15 would-be jumpers were saved.
Such actions came too late to save Mario Tremonti, who leaped from the bridge in 1927, just four years after it was built. Tremonti's grand-niece, Sarah Peters, a Ferndale resident, recalls the incident from family stories handed down orally.
"Of course, he wasn't anyone I ever really knew," says Peters. "And it happened so long ago. But every once in a while, I'll remember my grandpa talking about him, and I'll say to my mom, 'That happened?' And she'll say, yeah, it did. And I remember the first time I thought about it as an adult, I was like, the MacArthur Bridge? That seems weird. Are you sure it wasn't the Ambassador Bridge? And she was like, 'Nope, it was the Belle Isle Bridge.' It seemed a really strange, strange choice."
Peters isn't alone in considering the low bridge an odd place for suicide, but death was certain enough for those who couldn't swim, or were determined to die. For many months of the year, the icy waters can make death a certainty. All that's needed is a steady current to make going back impossible.
What's more, the bridge afforded access to the river that Detroit's waterfront, choked with railroad and factories, didn't allow the average Detroiter.
It also had a bit of poetry, a bit of distance from the wharf district's seedy bars, from the guttering smokestacks of the industrial waterfront. The peace and calm of a structure designed to awe the public no doubt attracted many for reasons quite different from the weekend parkgoer.
On Monday, Dec. 13, 2010, 59-year-old Wayne State University professor Kathryne Victoria Lindberg's car was found in the middle of the MacArthur Bridge.
According to reports, the keys were still in the ignition. The car also contained Lindberg's purse, which still had her ID in it. It was a cold day, below freezing, and snowy enough for police to think her car was stalled or stuck, not abandoned.
After a missing person report was filed, divers searched the waters but could find nothing. This led to an uneasy period of waiting and fading hopes on the part of her friends and colleagues.
Remarkably, Sarah Peters, the grand-niece of 1927 jumper Mario Tremonti, was friends with Lindberg for more than 15 years, a former student who would reconnect and socialize with her every few months.
"She was a great teacher," Peters says. "She assigned really amazing things. I remember we read Soul on Ice, which I thought was a pretty great book to assign to a class. And in her latter years, she was mostly focused on African-American history and culture and literature."
Peters wasn't alone in admiring the professor. Those who knew her have described her as whip-smart and politically astute, with a toughness under her skin that didn't take much scratching to reveal. If you were underperforming in her class, she wasn't shy about pointing it out and challenging it. It was the sort of thing that caused students to love her or hate her.
Courtney Henriette, co-owner of food truck Katoi, met Lindberg back when they were both working to reinvigorate downtown Detroit's Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.
"She was a really fascinating character," Henriette recalls. "Really crazy intelligent. But it's interesting. She had a bite to her. You could piss her off. She seemed like one of those people who was kind of hard, like curmudgeonly, but it's because they really care. They probably care more than anybody else."
That tough streak aside, most who knew Lindberg remember her for her lively conversation and good humor. In fact, those who saw her last recall nothing but smiles and good times, which are not abnormal facades.
But after her car was discovered on that icy Monday, and as officials leaned toward declaring Lindberg a suicide, her friends began the familiar process of wondering what they might have done to prevent it.
"You feel like that person was really alone, and really desperate," says Peters. "I cared about her a lot, so... it makes you wish that could have known and done something. I mean, I just saw her two weeks before."
Henriette says, "In hindsight, you could kind of see she was the sort of person to carry around tremendous pain. She was just that strong. Like people who just don't allow themselves to have moments of weakness. They just hold it all in. She would be up all night reading papers. She was the sort of professor that took everything seriously. She would just work herself to the max. You could tell she was lonely. We couldn't tell until after it happened. We were like, 'Oh, I kind of get it now.'"
Also, Lindberg had recently lost her husband, the poet Murray Jackson, an event that Lindberg's friends now agree was a major factor.
"A lot of her friends and I have speculated that losing him was just more than she could take," says Peters. "I think that romantic relationships can be some people's anchor in life. And she was a very high-energy — had a very hyperactive type of energy. And she was kind of a scattered person, not a very organized person, but totally brilliant — in some ways, like your classical absent-minded professor. And I think sometimes somebody who has really extreme personality needs to have a bedrock like a spouse like that. ... He seemed to keep her more grounded. It definitely seems like that had a huge impact on her."
Another typical reaction to suicide is to see ominous portents in comments that had been only briefly considered, a reflection of reading too much into something that you feel you'd read too little into at first. For instance, Henriette says, "It was odd, but in the last email she wrote to me, she told me was she was reading Moby Dick. ... That's all I could think of after she passed away."