Ben Dova

'The Convivial Inebriate' & The hindenburg survivor!

We are very grateful to Patrick Russell for this information

Ben Dova's real name was Joseph Späh. Born in Strasbourg, he emigrated to the United States as a young man, and got into vaudeville as an acrobat and contortionist.

His signature act the "convivial inebriate"  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 in his mouth all the time, and then to climb a gas street lamp to light his cigarette. At this point the lamp started swaying back and forth, with him holding on and going through a whole acrobatic routine. Films exist of him doing his act, with the lamp post on top of a skyscraper (probably in New York City) showing how skilled he was at this particular stunt.

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, but had been touring Europe for several months and had to get back to the States.

Apparently he was supposed to take a steamship 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 thing that was going to get him home in time to start rehearsals… and he almost missed the Hindenburg's sailing as well!

On the evening of May 3rd, 1937, all of the Hindenburg's passengers were onboard the ship and they were preparing to cast off, when a taxi screeched up to the hangar and out jumped Joseph Späh. Accompanying him 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.

Zeppelin company officials quickly, but efficiently searched Späh and his luggage, as Späh 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!" Finally, the Zeppelin officials loaded the luggage and the dog onto the ship, Späh climbed aboard, 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. Two and a half days later, on May 6th, the Hindenburg reached New York and flew down to Lakehurst to land.

Späh's wife and three young children were waiting at the airfield to meet him. He was standing at the Hindenburg's portside observation windows, along with a number of other passengers as well as most of the Hindenburg's stewards. 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 got down to about 15 feet above the ground, Späh hung out of a window, let go, and tried to do a little safety roll when he landed. He injured his ankle in doing so, 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. Späh, along with roughly two thirds of the passengers and crew, miraculously survived the fire.

He found his family, went to the air station's infirmary to have his ankle taped up, and the Späh family went home 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. That and the footage of his lamp post act on the skyscraper have appeared in a number of Hindenburg documentaries over the years.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the Hindenburg story for Joseph Späh. For years afterwards, several Hindenburg crew members, including the captain, were convinced that Späh had sabotaged the ship. These suspicions were raised, at least by implication, in several books. The "evidence" of Späh's involvement in a sabotage plot was that he was caught several times walking unaccompanied back to the freight room to feed his dog, Ulla. This, of course, 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 dog was stored not far from the point where the fire started, some took this as evidence that Späh had used his visits to the dog as cover to climb into the interior of the ship and plant a bomb.

Several of the Hindenburg's stewards also 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 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 fact, most of the suspicion of Späh having intentionally destroyed the ship was psychological in nature, particularly on the part of the Hindenburg's captain. 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. Those who believed that Joseph Späh had sabotaged the Hindenburg did so primarily because they needed to believe it.

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.

Joseph Späh lived a long life after the Lakehurst disaster, and finally passed away in the early 1980s.  He performed his lamp post act up until approximately  the early 1970s, and finally retired. He also appeared in a scene at the beginning of the film "Marathon Man" as an old man, the brother of Laurence Olivier's character, driving a car in New York and getting into an argument with another driver. If you watch the opening scenes  of “Marathon Man” it is worth looking out for Joseph Späh, a.k.a Ben Dova, “The convivial inebriate” and Hindenburg survivor.


This page was last updated 1st February 2005

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