Residence: Douglaston, Long Island, New York
Occupation: Vaudeville acrobat/comedian
Location at time of fire: Portside dining salon
Joseph Späh was a vaudeville performer. Born on March 14th, 1905 in Strasbourg, he emigrated to the United States as a young man, and got into vaudeville as an acrobat and contortionist. He eventually took the stage name "Ben Dova" and developed a comedy act which centered around his acrobatic skills.
His signature act as "Ben Dova" was to drunkenly stagger out onstage in rumpled top hat and tails, search at length through his pockets for a cigarette (which, of course, was eventually discovered to have been in his mouth all along), and then to shimmy up the pole of a gas street lamp to light his cigarette. At this point the lamp would begin to sway wildly back and forth, with him holding on and going through a whole acrobatic routine as he pretended to desperately hold onto the lamp.
Films exist (and can be viewed HERE, courtesy of his granddaughter) of Späh doing his act, with the lamp post set up atop the 56-story Chanin Building in New York City, and an apparent 680 foot drop awaiting him had he lost his grip. In fact, as dramatic as it looks, the film is actually the result of some clever forced-perspective trick photography. Späh's lamp post was placed on the small, one-story brick structure on the roof of the Chanin Building, rather than on the edge of the roof itself. The angle of the cameras make it look as though Späh were hanging over the edge of the Chanin Building's roof, when in fact he was only facing a drop of perhaps ten or twelve feet to the building's main roof had he lost his grip. Nonetheless, it is an impressive illusion, and more importantly the film shows Joseph "Ben Dova" Späh performing the act upon which his entire career had been built.
Späh did his act all over the United States and Europe, and in May of 1937 he was scheduled for a month at Radio City in New York, opening on May 12th, but he had been touring Europe since the previous November and had to get back to the States. Apparently he was supposed to take a steamship the week before from Cuxhaven, Germany, but was late and missed it by a few minutes. So, he had to raise the cash to take the Hindenburg out of Frankfurt instead, because at that point it was the only mode of conveyance that was going to get him home in time to start rehearsals.
On the evening of May 3rd, 1937, all of the Hindenburg's passengers were aboard the ship and the ship’s commander, Captain Max Pruss, was delaying takeoff, awaiting the arrival of Lufthansa Flight 23, from Berlin, which carried the last pieces of freight and mail scheduled to be carried aboard the airship. Flight 23 also carried one final passenger - Joseph Späh. A fast taxi carried Späh across Rhein-Main airfield to the zeppelin hangar on the south field. Accompanying Späh was his pet Alsatian, Ulla, whom he had trained to perform with him in his stage act. She had appeared with him throughout his European tour, and he was now bringing her home as a pet for his children.
Since the rest of the Hindenburg’s passengers had had their baggage searched at the Frankfurter Hof Hotel in downtown Frankfurt prior to being bussed to the field, Zeppelin Company and government officials at the hangar quickly but thoroughly searched Späh and his luggage. Späh, professional comedian that he was, reportedly made some playfully mocking remarks about the seriousness with which the officials conducted their search. Unamused, but satisfied that Spah carried no proscribed items or German currency within his luggage, the Zeppelin officials finally loaded his bags and his dog onto the ship. A steward led Späh up the embarkation stairs in the Hindenburg’s belly, and the Hindenburg took off more or less on time.
The Hindenburg's flight over the Atlantic passed uneventfully, with the ship fighting headwinds and sailing through pea-soup clouds most of the way, obscuring the passengers' view of the ocean below. Since opportunities for sightseeing were limited, Späh spent much of his time in the ship's bar and smoking room, telling stories and jokes with a number of other passengers. He also took films of his fellow passengers with the home movie camera he'd brought aboard. Amazingly, a spool of this film survived the fire, and selections from it can be found HERE. Späh also regularly visited his dog in her freight room far to the rear of the ship, in order to feed and walk her. This was to later prove unexpectedly problematic for Späh.
level of the Hindenburg's passenger decks. This image (and the
two that follow) are taken from Spah's home movies of the last flight.
windows - and almost loses his cap in the ship's slipstream.
of the Hindenburg and flying onboard the ship's last flight as an observer.
Two and a half days later, on May 6th, the Hindenburg reached New York and, after weather-related delays, flew down to Lakehurst to land. Späh's wife Evelyn and their three young children (Gilbert, age 5; Marilyn, age 3, and Richard, age 2) were waiting at the airfield to meet him. He was standing at the forward-most of the Hindenburg's portside observation windows, along with a number of other passengers as well as most of the Hindenburg's stewards.
Joseph Späh's location in the portside dining room at the time of the fire.
Leaning out of one of the forward-most windows, Späh was taking movies of the landing crew and had just aimed his camera at Lakehurst's massive Zeppelin hangar when the hangar started reflecting an orange glow. It quickly became obvious that the Hindenburg was suddenly and inexplicably afire. The whole ship tilted about 45 degrees down by the tail, and Späh managed to hold on to a rail while most of the others slid 15 or 20 feet down the floor to the back wall of the observation deck.
Once the ship began to descend and level out, Späh hung out of the nearby window, let go once he was about 20 feet above the ground and, his acrobat's instincts kicking in, tried to do a safety roll when he landed. He injured his ankle nonetheless, and was dazedly crawling away when a U.S. sailor came up, slung him under one arm, and ran him out of the fire zone.
After being hauled away from the fire, Späh walked toward the giant airship hangar across the field. On the way, he encountered Herb Morrison, a radio announcer from Chicago who was on the scene to record a description of the Hindenburg's arrival and had gone onto the field to look for survivors. Späh spoke briefly with Morrison, gave him his name and a brief account of his escape, and then moved on toward the visitors' area. Morrison later mentioned Späh in his recording and passed his name along to officials who were assembling lists of survivors. Späh's name, along with those of fellow passengers Philip Mangone and Clifford Osbun, was among the first passenger survivors to be listed in early edition newspapers that night.
Späh found his family at last over near the airship hangar. His wife noticed that he was standing on one foot, and suggested that he have his leg looked at. It was the first time that Späh had noticed his injury. Together, they went to the air station's infirmary where a doctor informed him that he had broken his ankle, then bandaged his foot for him. As they were leaving the dispensary, a nurse called for anyone who could speak German. Späh said that he could, and the nurse led him into a nearby room where a terribly burned young crew member lay in a bed. He said his name was Erich Spehl, and he wanted to send a telegram to his girlfriend back in Germany. Späh wrote down the woman's name and address, and then asked Spehl what he wanted to say to her. Spehl replied with a simple two-word message: "Ich lebe." (I live.) Späh told the young man that he would go and send the telegram right away. As Späh turned to leave the room, however, Erich Spehl died.
By this time, reporters were swarming all over the air base and a number of them asked Späh for interviews about his escape. The Späh family finally went home later that night to their home in Douglaston, Long Island. Joseph Späh did an interview for a newsreel crew at his home, either that evening or the next day.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the Hindenburg story for Joseph Späh. For years afterwards, several Hindenburg crew members, including Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis and Captain Max Pruss, were convinced that Späh had sabotaged the ship. These suspicions were raised, at least by implication, in no less than two books on the Hindenburg crash. The "evidence" of Späh's involvement in a sabotage plot was that he was caught several times walking unaccompanied back to the aft freight room to feed his dog, Ulla (who, sadly, ended up being killed in the crash.). This was against the ship's rules and Späh got some fairly sharp words from the chief steward about it on at least one occasion. Since the cargo room in which the dog was stored was not far from the spot in the aft portion of the ship where the fire started, some took this as evidence that Späh had used his visits to his dog as cover to climb up into the interior of the ship and plant a bomb.
Several of the Hindenburg's stewards also claimed to have noticed odd behavior on Späh's part during the flight, particularly his impatience to land when the ship's mooring was delayed for several hours by thunderstorms. This impatience was, of course, understandable, as Späh had been away from his family for months, and was in all likelihood merely anxious to get home.
In the end, there was no solid evidence whatsoever to support these accusations. The FBI investigated Späh fairly extensively before concluding that he had nothing to do with the Hindenburg fire. His wife Evelyn would later recall that when word of the FBI's interest in her husband as a potential saboteur first appeared in the press and she read about it in the newspaper, she went outside to tell Joseph about it. He was cleaning windows at the time, and when she told him that he was suspected of having destroyed the Hindenburg, he was so shocked and upset at the news that he almost fell off the ladder on which he'd been standing.
In fact, most of the suspicion of Späh having intentionally destroyed the ship was likely psychological in nature, particularly on the part of Captain Pruss who, for the rest of his life, would insist that his last command had been sabotaged by "the man with the dog." If the ship wasn't destroyed by sabotage, then it of course stands to reason that it may well have been an operational failure, and it is understandable that the ship's crew wouldn't exactly be anxious to believe that the disaster had been due to a flaw in either their handling of the ship, or in its design. In other words, those who believed that Joseph Späh had sabotaged the Hindenburg seem to have done so primarily because they needed to believe it.
Späh lived a long life after the Lakehurst disaster. He continued to perform his lamp post act under the stage name "Ben Dova," eventually adding his youngest son Richard to the act, and he finally retired in the early 1970s. Several years later he appeared in a scene at the beginning of the film "Marathon Man" under his old stage name. No matter how many years passed, Späh never stopped being asked about his narrow escape from the Hindenburg, and he told the story again and again. There were some rather humorous misunderstandings connected to this. On one occasion about 20 years after the crash, Späh was out buying a paper at a news stand near his home in Douglaston when he noticed a couple of teenage girls eyeing him and whispering amongst themselves. Finally one of the girls came over and nervously asked him, "Aren't you the man who fell off the top of the Empire State Building?"
Joseph Späh passed away in Manassas, VA on September 30, 1986. His wife, Evelyn, passed away in 2006. They are buried side by side at Stonewall Memory Gardens in Manassas, VA.