Today in History: Zimmy the Human Fish Began Six-Day Swim

Today in History: Zimmy the Human Fish Began Six-Day Swim

by M.C. Millman

Charles "Zimmy" Zibelman, better known as "The Human Fish", set out on his mission to swim 150 miles from Albany to New York City on August 23, 1937. 

Zimmy was born in 1893, a child of Jewish immigrants who escaped the anti-Semitism in Russia to find safety in America. The forty-six-year-old lost his legs up to his hips when he was nine and fell under a streetcar in Chicago. 

Zimmy believed having no legs was an advantage in swimming, as he explained that legs are just dead weight in the water. He also said that without legs, his heart could pump blood to the rest of the body more easily. His legless body gave him almost supernatural buoyancy, allowing him to float on water and even sleep there.  

Zimmy traveled the world in the late 1920s and early 1930s, putting on swimming exhibitions in major cities, which was how he made his livelihood. When he returned to the United States, Zimmy came up with the idea of swimming the Hudson River to help Americans remember him.

Zimmy began swimming in Albany, but not before he greased his body to protect his skin from the cold waters. He stayed in the water for 148 consecutive hours, over six days. The Human Fish smoked 150 cigars in the water while taking breaks or chatting with people along the shores or in boats along his journey. He also snacked on brandy-soaked sugar cubes.

The Mount Vernon Argus described him as being "happy, full of pep at all times and a good comedian…"

When the tide was against him, Zimmy rested. There was one point where he had to swim a five-mile stretch twice when he was pushed back by the currents. 

Zimmy reached a dock near the George Washington Bridge at 9:00 PM on August 29. One hour later, he arrived at his intended stopping point of the swim, the 125th Street ferry landing. However, a strong current swept him about a mile past that point. 

A rowboat was sent to retrieve him, and a 20-pound lighter Zimmy was pulled out of the water with thousands of spectators cheering him on. During his journey, barnacles attached themselves to his body, and he grew a beard. He was taken to a hospital in Harlem by ambulance, where he stayed overnight. 

After his long journey, Zimmy is reported saying, "I feel kind of funny being out of the water."

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