Sunday, November 30, 2008

Joseph Späh


Age: 32

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.

Joseph Spah as a young stage contortionist.

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.

Four images of Späh performing his lamp post act
atop the Chanin Building in New York City in 1932.

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.

Joseph Späh looking out of the observation windows on the upper
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.

Joseph Späh leans out of one of the Hindenburg's observation
windows - and almost loses his cap in the ship's slipstream.

Joseph Späh (right) talks with Captain Ernst Lehmann, former commander
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.

Joseph Späh (arrow) hangs from forward portside observation window.

Joseph Späh (arrow) drops to the ground.

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.

Joseph Späh at home after his escape, with his wife Evelyn and their children Richard (left), Marilyn (center), and Gilbert (right).
Joseph and Evelyn Späh safe at home after Joseph's ordeal.

Joseph Späh during an interview at his home following his escape.

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.

Joseph Späh in later years performing his act on ice skates.

Years after his miraculous escape, Joseph Späh tells his tale to a group of fellow performers.

Joseph Späh (billed as Ben Dova) in the movie Marathon Man (1976)


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Jim said...

This was such a treat. I'm amazed it has no comments posted. So interesting. I'll recoomend this blog to all of my friends. Thank You.


Patrick Russell said...

Thanks, Jim. I appreciate that. Glad you're enjoying the articles. Spah's story is certainly an interesting one, though much of it has been told before in various books and documentaries about the Hindenburg (though sometimes with varying degrees of accuracy).

I hope I've been able to pull most of the available information together in as accurate a way as I can. It's obviously a difficult thing to do so many years after the fact (a problem that I've had with each of these biographic articles, of course.)

One important thing that I wanted to convey is that the rumors that circulated years ago about Spah having been involved in a sabotage plot were nonsense. That's a hell of a thing to try to hang on somebody. Although I understand that some crew survivors needed to believe that the disaster wasn't due to a fault in the ship's design or the way in which the crew operated it, it was still unfair for the crew to accuse Spah of sabotage simply because they needed a suspect.

The same goes for those who leveled similar accusations at Erich Spehl for the sake of selling books and movie tickets, of course.

Anyway, thanks for reading the site, and for taking the time to comment on it.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

I really liked it!!!!it had a lot of information.

Thom Kelly said...

I remember growing up and sitting for hours talking to my grandfather (Joseph Spah)about that infamous trip. As well he had hundreds of traveling stories during his performance career. I appreciate this site, i have shared the link w/ several other family members. We have learned through the years that we may agree or disagree w/ many of the things published about him. The one thing was always a constant, we were glad he was on the survivors list.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Thom,

I'm glad you found the article on your grandfather, and I hope it is at least reasonably accurate. If you or any of your family have any corrections or anything to add, please drop me an email at

I'd certainly enjoy hearing stories from his career travels and such. I like to expand these bio articles beyond the people's Hindenburg experiences whenever possible. It's always sounded to me as though your grandfather had a very interesting life, over and above his narrow escape from the Hindenburg.

I know what you mean about the accuracy of much of what has been published about your grandfather. As I mentioned in my comment to Jim above, I felt for a long time that the record ought to be set straight as far as the ridiculous notion that your grandfather played a role in the Hindenburg's destruction. Suffice to say, I think one could fertilize a fairly good-sized lawn with that particular theory.

Anyway, take care and let me know if there's anything you feel that I ought to change or correct in this article.


Anonymous said...

Amazing read. Thanks for sharing!

the Gray said...

This was so interesting. Thank you for sharing.


Armin said...

My mother told me today, that Joseph Späh was my granduncle.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Armin,

Very cool indeed! He seems like he would have been a really fun guy to know, and from the footage I've seen of his act, he was also an excellent comedic acrobat.

If you ever learn anything about your grand-uncle Joe that you think would be a good addition to the article I've written, please feel free to email me at I have plenty of info about his experiences on the Hindenburg, but I would certainly like to be able to include more information about the other 99.999% of his life as well.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

What a great tribute to a great performer. Ive been past manasses va, unaware of its history. Its sad to think that he carried the weight of that tradegy. Thank God he survived. His decendents should be proud to be apart of such a historical event. Great job to the writer.

Patrick Russell said...

Thanks! Glad you found the article to be a respectful tribute to Mr. Spah, and that you found a small personal connection there having been near Manassas before.

I sure would have liked to have had the chance to see him perform in person. Of course, I think he had already retired his act by the time I was born.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watch the Hindenburg, 1975. Delightful but sad movie. I believe that his German Shepard was instead portrayed as a Dalmatian, however. Robert Clary also portrayed Joseph. Thank you so much for posting this!

Patrick Russell said...

You're quite welcome! Glad you were able to find the site after watching the movie. Quite a few biographies here of people who were fictionalized and turned into movie characters for that Hindenburg film.

If you're interested, the crew member who was portrayed in the movie as the saboteur is the fellow named Erich Spehl mentioned in the article on Spah (Spah was at his bedside writing a message to Spehl's girlfriend for him when Spehl died.) Poor guy got falsely tagged as a saboteur and wasn't even alive to defend himself.

David The Scrapbook Guy said...

I remember being called in to the living room by my mother who had tuned into an old TV show called "Survival" which was showing old footage of the "Hindenburg." I walked in to a view of NYC from the ship and heard a voice saying "I could almost see my home in Douglaston." I immediately exclaimed "That's Joseph Spah!" How nerdy is that? Anyway, that is the first time I ever saw an actual "Hindenburg" survivor interviewed. I'm amazed at how well Robert Clary seemed to portray Spah in the movie. He certainly lived a charming life.

Patrick Russell said...

I saw that same program when I was a kid, David! Spah did quite a few interviews over the years, which few of the passenger survivors ever really did. Of course, since he was in show business it's natural that he'd be comfortable with that kind of public exposure.

I thought Clary did a good job with the fictionalized version of Spah in the 1975 movie too. A shame that they didn't have a better script for that thing.

SFW said...

I'm working on my mother's memoirs. She was a Rockette from 1945 through 1953. She met Joseph when he performed as an outside act at the Music Hall and recounts his story in her memoirs. This has been very helpful in making sure her facts are accurate

Patrick Russell said...

Hey, that sounds like a great project you're working on there! I bet your mother had a lot of great stories from throughout her career. Is this just for your family, or do you have your eye on maybe publishing your mother's memoirs as a book?

Glad I could help to clarify Joe Spah's story for your project. Heck of an amazing story, isn't it? Let me know if you have any more questions. (Feel free to email me at

Take care,

golf tips said...

A great read. Thank you!

John said...

You've done an amazing job with your site! Spah's section is so well written and composed. A real joy to read. Thank you very much!

(P.S. I found your site after reading about the Hindenburg on :

Anonymous said...

The Spahs were our neighbors in Douglaston. We shared a vacant lot playground. I thought all kids played on trampolines and uneven parallel bars.

Anonymous said...

utopu ntsyclWasn't Späh the one who was considered to be the only passenger who had access to the payload area of the ship and was accused by the FBI to have planted a bomb?
Well. I go with Eckener's theory of the disaster but this fact should not be forgotten...

Anonymous said...

utopu ntsyclWasn't Späh the one who was considered to be the only passenger who had access to the payload area of the ship and was accused by the FBI to have planted a bomb?
Well. I go with Eckener's theory of the disaster but this fact should not be forgotten...

Anonymous said...

utopu ntsyclWasn't Späh the one who was considered to be the only passenger who had access to the payload area of the ship and was accused by the FBI to have planted a bomb?
Well. I go with Eckener's theory of the disaster but this fact should not be forgotten...

Anonymous said...

utopu ntsyclWasn't Späh the one who was considered to be the only passenger who had access to the payload area of the ship and was accused by the FBI to have planted a bomb?
Well. I go with Eckener's theory of the disaster but this fact should not be forgotten...

Anonymous said...

utopu ntsyclWasn't Späh the one who was considered to be the only passenger who had access to the payload area of the ship and was accused by the FBI to have planted a bomb?
Well. I go with Eckener's theory of the disaster but this fact should not be forgotten...

vitje said...

utopu ntsyclWasn't Späh the one who was considered to be the only passenger who had access to the payload area of the ship and was accused by the FBI to have planted a bomb?
Well. I go with Eckener's theory of the disaster but this fact should not be forgotten...

Patrick Russell said...

No, actually it was a few Hindenburg crewmen who accused Spah of sabotage, though they never had any actual evidence of this. The FBI did investigate Spah, but quickly realized that they had no evidence of any kind to tie him to the disaster.

Spah was not the only passenger who walked into the ship's interior unaccompanied. George Hirschfeld, for example, mentioned years later how easy it was to sneak through the chief steward's cabin and out into the keel walkway for a stroll around the ship - and nobody ever accused HIM of sabotaging the ship,

kalynch said...

My Uncle Benny was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. He was so kind that when my son studied about the disaster in school, he graciously wrote a letter to this 3rd grader about it and to this day my son has that letter. My Mom - his sister-in-law made a scrap book when all this happened in 1937 and it is a cherished family heirloom!

Patrick Russell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick Russell said...

Hello kalynch! I can't believe I didn't see your post until now. I'm so sorry for this late reply.

Thanks so much for your comments. Your Uncle Benny sounds like he was a heck of a fun and interesting fellow indeed. I sure wish I could have met him!

If you happen to see this, please drop me an email at I'd love to correspond with you further about your uncle!

Take care,

Unknown said...

A fascinating account. It's sad that Ulla did not survive, poor thing. Bizarrely, a friend of mine who died in 1985 is buried at Stonewall in Manassas. The next time I visit I will look for Spah and his wife's graves.

Dave said...

Wow where did you find all of this information. I'm watching the disaster on Curiosity and I searched for Joseph Spah. Great read and I can't wait to read on more passengers.

Patrick Russell said...

You're welcome,Dave. I've gathered the information on Mr. Spah and the others from a variety of sources over many years. I hope you'll find some of the other passenger and crew articles to be as interesting a read as this one!

I saw the Curiosity program about the disaster when it first aired a couple of weeks ago. I'd done a bit of consulting with the production's research team, so I wanted to see how it all came out. I think they came very close (and perhaps spot on) with the fire theory they ended up favoring. That's basically the theory I've held to for many years now, and it was good to see it demonstrated so clearly, right down to the loose hydrogen in the vent shaft.

Take care,

Patrick Russell said...

Jenny, I've always felt awful for poor Ulla and the other dog who was being shipped on that last Hindenburg flight. They were, I believe, kenneled in the tail of the ship, just beneath where the fire originated. They never had a chance to get out.


Anonymous said...

Addison Bain recently studied the chemical make-up of genuine fragments of the outer cover of the Hindenberg that had survived the blaze, to learn why it had burned so quickly. Examining the fabric under an electron microscope, and then using infared spectroscophy, he was able to determine the precise mix of chemicals used in the doping compound. It contained IRON OXIDE and POWDERED ALUMINUM. THE HINDENBERG HAD BEEN PAINTED IN THE INGREDIENTS FOR ROCKET FUEL!!!

Martin Lamberti said...

All the malarkey about Joseph Spah having to do with the Hindenburg disaster is just that, Malarkey! A recent study discovered that a combination of static electricity + the fact that the Hindenburg was filled with a Hydrogen gas compound instead of helium was the most likely cause. Funny, my father said the same thing when I was a kid. Odd that the scientists took 75 years to figure it out! In 37 Germany was in financial crisis and Helium was not only to expensive but to rare.
On another note, my father knew Joseph Spah in Germany when they both were kids. According to my father before he die his street lamp act Joseph Spah was a member of an acrobatic troupe from what I understand and was forced by the troupe boss to work in drag until he was about 16 or 17.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Martin,

Actually, the "new" discovery about the cause of the Hindenburg fire is almost 76 years old. The reason your father told you about it when you were a kid is that it's the theory that Dr. Eckener and the official investigation settled on within a month of the disaster.

The only really new element to the recent study (which was actually a Discovery Channel program) was that they illustrated how the ventilation shaft between two gas cells could have been filled with oxyhydrogen and ignited due to static discharge topside. The classic version of the theory had the hydrogen leaking from a rip on the top or side of the bag, and this variation has a gas valve malfunctioning (which is actually the theory I've supported for quite a few years now). But overall, it's the same theory that the official inquest came up with back in 1937.

Interesting that your father and Joseph Spah were friends as kids. Was this in Strasbourg, or somewhere else? I know that Spah started off as an acrobat/contortionist when he was very young, and since he was so small and looked younger than he was, I can see why he'd have gotten the female roles.

Take care,

Jim Zaccaria said...

I knew Joe Spah rather well. My father knew him even better. I grew up in Douglaston NY, and still leave near there. His house in Douglaston still looks the same. I remember him as a very nice man, often with a signature smoking pipe hanging out of his mouth. In his later years he did small handy-man jobs around the neighborhood. My feeling was he enjoyed getting out and keeping busy. My feeling was that he wasn't doing it for the money. My father had him paint the window frames on our home. (about 1970). We owned a family auto repair shop very close to his home, so I saw him somewhat on a regular basis when he would have his car serviced. My father (now 85) recalls that Mr Spah had a pool in his back yard to teach his son diving techniques. To this day, I still tell people that i knew someone who jumped from the Hindenburg. Thanks Mr Spah !

Anonymous said...

You can see Mr. Spahs gravesite and a short synopsis of what's on this website (used with permission) at

Be sure and visit it and leave some flowers!
Suggestions are welcome!

Amy said...

I love this webpage! Thanks for putting it together. I knew and Worked with Joseph Spah's son, Richard. (He went by Dicky Dova Spah.) I also worked with Richard's son, Rich Spah. Both stagehands with local #`6 in San Francisco. We worked at the SF Opera House (for the SF Ballet and Opera) and also at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic).
When I was working with Dicky at ILM, we did the movie "Rocketeer". There is a scene we had to create of a zepplin blowing up. We built a 1/4 scale model...still huge... and used a local air strip to ignite the model. Dicky was in awe of the scene when we filmed it. When we watched the dailies in the screening theatre(the prints of the film before editing, etc.), I saw Dicky crying when he watched. He said that watching the films just brought him right back to standing and watching the Hindenberg burn and watching his father jump down. It's something he never forgot.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

"According to Späh's later recollections, Zeppelin company officials quickly but efficiently searched Späh and his luggage, as he playfully mocked their efforts. In the midst of Späh's cartoonish, feigned indignance to the thoroughness of the agents' search, one of the officials discovered a beautifully wrapped gift package among Späh's effects. He hastily unwrapped it, revealing an expensive child's doll, which he then proceeded to search. As the official lifted the doll's dress, Spah threw up his hands in mock exasperation, exclaiming "It's a girl, dummkopf!" . . . "

Don't try this with TSA!!!!

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

While the suspicious against Joseph Spah had a strong psychological component on the part of some of the crew, I think that we can fall for the same suspicions against a totally innocent person under the right set of circumstances. None of us are immune to this. Years ago as part of my job, I attended a briefing on aircraft accident investigations. The first thing that guy doing the brief told us that we must keep a totally open mind and consider absolutely everything. Basically not get locked into a single cause and interpret evidence to fit it.

Here are two situations were there was too quick a rush to judgment:

The Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta Georgia during the 1996 Olympics. The security guard who saw the suspicious pack alerted other security guards and cleared the area soon became a "person of interest" and a "potential suspect" to the FBI because he just had the misfortune of fitting a certain profile and a previous employer gave a negative report about him. The picture was that of a failed cop who deliberately planted the bomb to be a hero. The media up an ran with the info, certain that he was the culprit. The poor man's life was made into hell. There was just one thing - this particular security guard was innocent. Later the real bomber was arrested. Question: How many of us who remember the incident at first believed this particular security guard was guilty based on the FBI's profile, his previous employer's bad report and the media hype?

The next case involved Representative Gary Condit and the murder of Chandra Levy. There was circumstantial evidence which was easily interpreted to mean Condit was somehow involved in Levy's murder. Condit's own actions during the investigation didn't help. Years later the real killer was found. How many of us believed Condit to have been involved with the murder? How many of us were more inclined to believe he was guilty because we just didn't like his politics or his personal life?

Now on a lighter than air note, the kind that good old Ben Dova would just love:

And remember please don't be too quick to judge.

Spah said...

Same last name. That's my great great uncle . Or in other words my grandpas uncle. I see where we spahs get the troublemaker gene

Maimuna Nack said...

Thank you for the information on the artist and his dog. I've just seen a movie where german actor Hannes Jaenicke plays the part of Joseph Späh. A memorable character that made me look for the person behind ...

And alas, as I can see now, zero likeness to the historic person safe the fact that he is an artist who travels with his dog.

Nice to learn that the real Späh was not nearly as dark and disenchanted.

One of the last scenes of the movie shows Späh (Jaenicke) in his dressing room at the theater listening to a radio report of the Hindenburg disaster. He then pats his dog who sits beside him.

Wish that one were true! But it is good to know that the real Späh, father of three, who brought so much joy to so many people through his work, has survived this hell.

Season's greetings from Kiel, Germany

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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Dagmara Lizlovs said...

If you found Joseph Späh's lamp post act impressive, take a look at these photos by Oleg Cricket here:

Anonymous said...

Than you all so much for your comments, and Patrick Harris for your fine article. I was born and raised in Douglaston, NY. Mr. Spah's life is fascinating.

Pigeonwidow said...

Are you Gils son by any chance? My auntie Jackie was his first wife and still has photos of them together. She often wonders what has become of him.x

Pigeonwidow said...

Are you Gils son by any chance? My auntie Jackie was his first wife and still has photos of them together. She often wonders what has become of him.x

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Unknown said...

I work for Huntington Ingalls at Lakehurst. Because my wife and I own German Shepherds, I plan to place a dog toy and card at the Hindenburg memorial for Ulla, Joe's dog.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Douglaston and was a sort-of neighbor to the Spahs. Most people in my neighborhood were German or of German descent, as were many kids at my school, PS 98. I lived in one of several 2-story apartment buildings that backed up to, and surrounded, the Spah’s house and a couple of others. There was a hedge around their back yard that separated it from our apartment complex grounds. They lived on Alameda Ave. and I lived on Hanford St. I moved there with my parents in mid-1941, before the war, when I was 7 years old. I was a girl, older than Richy and younger than Gil. Their little sister was a toddler then. The boys did not go to the same elementary school I did. I believe they went to Catholic school. There were no kids to play with in the apartments so, in summer, I used to go over to my side of the hedge and watch the Spah kids playing in their yard. I talked to them, and petted Ulla, through the hedge. They had a pool and that was a very big deal. Nobody had pools, nobody. I remember hearing grownup talk that Joseph needed to swim in the pool as therapy to treat his burns from the crash. But he looked fine the few times I saw him out there. Now I know that was a rumor. The Ulla I knew was a beautiful dark brown or black German Shepherd, not a Dalmatian as portrayed in the movie. She was gentle and loved the kids. I always thought Ulla had been saved from the fire by Joseph. I was sorry to learn the first Ulla died in the fire. It seems they named the new pet Ulla also. I remember being in their house for a kid’s party or something, and I was fascinated by a figurine of a drunk hanging onto a lamp post that was on a small chair-side table. Mrs. Spah came over and gently took it from my hands and put it up on a shelf, smiling the whole time. She was a very nice lady. In later years I wondered if it was an actual representative sculpture of Joseph doing his act, or just an appropriate novelty ceramic.

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Correction to above. I guess Marilyn was my age, not a toddler. I remembered her as younger. Well, that was over 75 years ago!

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Remember seeing a documentary that put a theory that the Nazis exploded the Hindenburg to put emotional pressure on the Americans to supply Germany with Helium. The landing was an hour late, so most passengers would have been off the ship by the time it exploded. I guess we'll never know because most major disasters tend to be followed by conspiracy theories, right or wrong.

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Remember seeing a documentary that put a theory that the Nazis exploded the Hindenburg to put emotional pressure on the Americans to supply Germany with Helium. The landing was an hour late, so most passengers would have been off the ship by the time it exploded. I guess we'll never know because most major disasters tend to be followed by conspiracy theories, right or wrong.

Smedley said...

Can anyone confirm that he appeared in Milwaukee in the 60's at the Sentinel Sport and Boat Show? The act I saw sure sounds like his - came out looking drunk and did his act with the lamppost. Later someone - I believe he - did a balancing act with a large loop suspended from the ceiling of the auditorium, finally standing atop it, and then falling as the loop swung down, attached to it as it turned out at just the right height to prevent him hitting the deck as the loop brought him down.

Janet Spah said...

My grandfather was Joseph Spah. My father was there that day when the hindenburg caught on fire. He was the two year old Richard Spah( also known as (Dick Dova). Funny story, I remember being a little girl and sitting and watching the marathon man with my siblings and parents. The opening scene where he died in a car crash horrified me. I thought somehow we were watching his real death. Thankyou for this article on my grandfather. If there are any other relatives that come across this page like I did please email me at I would love to connect with any of his other relatives. Thankyou Janet spah

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Unknown said...

I would love to see the pictures. I didnt know he was previously married before regina. Im his niece Janet Lyn Spah. My father is Richard Allen Spah aka dick dova

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My email is

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Who is your mother

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Who are you again. Im Joseph's grand daughter janet spah. I'd love to talk

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I'm his daughter

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Patrick Russell said...

I'm so glad to see that members of the Spah family are finding one another here! It's always very rewarding to learn that descendents of the passengers and crew I've written about are finding the site and reading about their relatives from that last Hindenburg flight, but when family members manage to connect here... that's far nicer still.

As always, if there are any parts of the article that you find could use a little help in the accuracy department, or if there's anything else about Joe and his life that you'd like me to mention, please drop me a note any time at

By the way, on Wednesday evening I quietly raised a glass to Joe and the other 96 folks who were on the Hindenburg that night, as I do each year.

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