by: Laura R. Ashlee
French art historian and lecturer Elie Faure observed: “Whoever participates with confidence in the adventure of men has his portion of immortality.” With the dawn of the twentieth century new inventions like the automobile and the aeroplane allowed men to test their courage by traveling faster and higher. The new century also inspired women to break out of traditional roles and invade the realm of the adventure of men as they embarked on quests of their own. One such woman was Michigan-born Harriet Quimby, who participated in the adventure of early aviation. A professional journalist when the field was still relatively closed to her sex, Harriet Quimby mastered the art of flying and achieved immortality by becoming the nation’s first licensed aviatrix and the first woman in the world to fly solo across the English Channel.
Photographs and newspaper accounts document Harriet Quimby’s achievements as a writer and flyer, as well as her beauty and elegance. But aspects of America’s “queen of the sky” continue to puzzle historians. While Harriet’s own writing provides a composite image of a restless personality possessing candor and daring, contradiction surrounds her origins, and little is known of her personal life.
Harriet Quimby claimed she was born in California. Her death certificate records her place of birth as California, and her year of birth as 1885. She was, however, born in rural Branch County, Michigan, in 1875. Her family later moved to Manistee. Sometime after 1880 the Quimbys migrated to California, where Harriet spent the majority of her early life. By 1900 they were living in San Francisco.
A 1911 Overland Monthly magazine interview referred to Harriet as “a daughter of California,” implying that she was imbued with the adventurous spirit of her home state. San Francisco proudly claimed her as its own. According to Overland, her popularity was reflected by the fact that her portrait hung in the all-male Bohemian Club until the club was destroyed in the city’s 1906 earthquake.
In 1902 Harriet Quimby became a writer for the San Francisco Dramatic Review. The following year she published the first of 279 articles in Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated, a national magazine that offered heavily illustrated articles, light to serious in tone. This was a career coup for Harriet, who soon moved to New York City; in 1905 Leslie’s hired her as its drama editor.
In her early years at Leslie’s, Harriet authored a regular series entitled, “The Home and the Household,” which catered to female readers with articles like “Teaching Self- respect to Children,” “Vulgarity of Modern Wedding Ceremonies” and “Women’s Awkwardness on Street-cars.” In 1906, when the feature was dropped, she took on subjects with broader appeal, including travel. “Why American Travelers are Criticized,” “An American Girl Tells of the Famous Fish Specialties of Marseilles” and several stories about Egypt, Italy and the Bahamas suggest that Harriet went abroad researching her articles.
Harriet also became a respected investigative reporter; Will Irwin, Sunday editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, described her as having “the keenest nose for news” he had ever “met with in a woman.” Harriet’s expose on prostitution, published in 1911 and titled “How White Slaves are Shackled: The Astounding Disclosures of a Secret Investigation in New York City,” allegedly led to a New York City police commissioner’s downfall.
In October 1910 Harriet’s life changed forever when she attended an aviation meet at New York’s Belmont Park racetrack. In the second decade of the twentieth century the world was fascinated with the fledgling sport of aviation. On any given day articles appeared on the front page of The New York Times reporting an aviation milestone, mishap or tragedy.
The Belmont Park meet was the first international air show held in the United States. There, Harriet saw the most fearless flyers, including American Arch Hoxey, who flew for Orville and Wilbur Wright and had recently set a record by flying nonstop from Springfield, Illinois, to St. Louis, Missouri; England’s Claude Grahame-White, who had used the avenue between the White House and the Navy, State and War buildings as a Washington, D.C., runway; American Ralph Johnstone, who had set a world record for altitude; and American John Moisant, who had made the first London-to-Paris flight. The Americans preferred Wright biplanes, with their sets of wings above and below the fuselage. Most of the Europeans and Moisant, however, flew Bleriot-type monoplanes, which had a single set of wings above the plane’s skeleton. The dashing Moisant, who planned to open a flight school at Garden City, Long Island, won Belmont’s Statue of Liberty race, beating Grahame White by forty-three seconds. Harriet, who witnessed the airborne theatrics, thought flying looked simple enough and asked Moisant to teach her to fly.
By year’s end Hoxey, Johnstone and Moisant had all died in plane wrecks. Undaunted, Harriet began flying lessons at the Moisant school in May 1911. Frenchman Andre Houpert, who initially resisted the idea of women flying, was her reluctant instructor. (He later changed his mind, claiming that he thought aeroplanes were safest in the hands of women.) Harriet wore a heavy veil when flying to hide her gender. Nonetheless, The New York Times discovered and revealed her identity in an 11 May 1911 story titled, “Woman in Trousers Daring Aviator.” When asked by a Times reporter if she liked flying, she abruptly responded, “Do I like flying? Well, I’m out here at 4 o’clock every morning. That ought to be answer enough.” Harriet continued, “Motoring is all right, and I have done a lot of that, but after seeing monoplanes in the air, I couldn’t resist the desire to try the air lanes, where there are neither speed laws nor traffic policemen, and where one needn’t go all the way around Central Park to get across Times Square.” She also disclosed her ambition to become America’s first licensed woman aviator.
Two days later Harriet made front-page headlines in the Times when she wrecked her plane during takeoff. She attempted to ascend while her monoplane was at full-speed. When she turned, the plane’s running gear and one of the wings broke, and the machine crumpled.
For the next three months Harriet continued her lessons. On 28 June 1911 her exploits again reached the front page of the Times when she was hailed as the first woman to fly a monoplane.
On the evening of July 31 Harriet amazed Aero Club of America members by successfully performing all the required maneuvers for a license–except the landing. Club provisos stipulated that she land within 160 feet of a given mark. She missed the spot by 40 feet, but her overall performance impressed Aero Club members who believed that women were unfit for flying.
Fog and foul weather consistently plagued Harriet Quimby. Before 5:00 A.M. on I August 1911 the anxious student awoke to a telephone call from Houpert who informed her that the fog was “thick enough to cut with a knife.” Nevertheless, Harriet, Houpert and two representatives from the Aero Club proceeded to the air field. By 6:30 the sun had burned away the mist and the field was clear.
Harriet took off and completed the required five figure eights flawlessly. She landed less than eight feet from the mark, setting a record for monoplane landings. She ascended once more, performed five more figure eights, landed, let the engine cool, then ascended again for her altitude test. When she landed for the final time, spectators and judges swarmed the plane offering Harriet generous praise. She later remembered her appearance with some dismay-her face was completely covered with castor oil spewn from the plane’s engine. After witnessing such capable flying, the Aero Club awarded Harriet the first aviation license ever granted to an American woman, and only the second license presented to a woman anywhere in the world. As a licensed flyer she was now allowed to perform in air meets.
Harriet’s success brought her imminence popularity. She continued writing for Leslie’s, devoting much of her time to articles about flying. In 1911 the newspaper featured a two-part story entitled, “How a Woman Learns to Fly.” Addressing her flying suit, which prompted much commentary from reporters, Harriet contended that if a woman wanted to fly, “first of all she must. . . abandon skirts.” She recounted her own search of New York shops for an aviation costume. Finding none she contacted Alexander M. Grean, the president of the American Tailors Association, who designed an ensemble that Harriet predicted would become the prototype for women’s aviation wear in America. “My suit is made of thick wool backed satin, without lining. It is all in one piece, including the hood. By an ingenious combination it can be converted.
Harriet’s studio portraits instantly into a conventional-appearing walking skirt when not in use in knickerbocker form.” She warned of “flapping ends” of fabric that might catch in the machinery.
On December 1911 Harriet flew with a Moisant exhibition team at a Mexico City air meet, part of the festivities surrounding Mexican President Francisco Madero’s inauguration. At 7,300 feet above sea level, several of the Moisant aviators had trouble getting their planes to generate power. Mathilde Moisant-John Moisant’s sister (and America’s second woman pilot and Andre Houpert wrecked their planes as did several others. Harriet also experienced trouble. Her engine failed 150 feet above the airfield, forcing her to make an emergency landing.
As a flyer, Harriet became a full-fledged member of the international aviation community; through her writing she demonstrated that she not only knew the mechanics of flying but understood the science of aviation. It was in Mexico that she conceived her next great ambition-to fly solo across the English Channel!
Three years earlier, Louis Bleriot, a French monoplane manufacturer, had made worldwide headlines when he became the first person to fly across the Channel. On 24 July 1909 Bleriot flew from Calais, France, to Dover, England. During the week following Bleriot’s exploit, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean carried stories about this historic event.
Upon returning from Mexico, Harriet began making arrangements to go to Europe. She kept her plan secret, fearing a European woman might steal her idea. In New York she obtained a letter of introduction to Louis Bleriot. On 7 March 1912 she sailed for London on the liner Amerika. Once in England she contacted the editor of the London Daily Mirror, who offered her “a handsome inducement” if she made the trip as the newspaper’s representative.
Harriet planned to reverse the order of Bleriot’s flight, flying instead from Dover to Calais. But first she went to Paris to meet the aviator and purchase one of his seventy- horsepower passenger aeroplanes. She also arranged for the loan of a fifty-horsepower monoplane similar to the type she had flown in the United States.
Harriet proceeded to Hardelot, a resort village, where Bleriot owned a hangar. There she hoped to test the plane before continuing to Dover. At the inn where she stayed, Harriet was approached by several autograph-seekers who had heard of her intentions. It was only then that she learned that someone in the Bleriot hangar had revealed her plans. Later, remembering the incident, with exasperation, she askedLeslie’s readers, “Can a man keep a secret?”
Harriet planned to test the plane the next morning but a fierce gale intervened. As the strong winds persisted for days, she confined herself to her room, anxiously waiting for the weather to break. Finally, with time running out, Harriet left Hardelot to keep her appointment in Dover with the representatives of the London Daily Mirror. The monoplane was quietly shipped to the Dover aerodrome. Before leaving France, Harriet visited the spot at Calais where Bleriot departed for his historic flight and viewed the monument marking the site.
Harriet arrived in Dover on Saturday, April 13, and registered at a hotel as Miss Craig. The weather the following day was perfect for flying, but Harriet refused to fly on Sundays. English aviator Gustave Hamel, who was with her party, took advantage of the calm and tested the plane. Many spectators visited the field, responding to “rumors” that a woman was planning to cross the Channel. But when they saw Hamel, and the Gaumont Cinema Company (there to film Harriet) focused on the Englishman, Harriet’s secret was preserved. After high winds grounded her on Monday, Harriet spent the day at the airfield, returning to the hotel at 7:00 P.m. “tired, unfulfilled and disgusted.”
On Tuesday Harriet and her entourage arrived at the aerodrome by 4:00 A.M. She wore her plum aviation suit, two pairs of “silk combinations,” a long woolen coat, a raincoat and a wide sealskin stole. Hamel taught her how to use a compass, warning her that if she drifted even a few miles off course, she could find herself over the North Atlantic Ocean. At the last minute, he insisted she tie a large hot-water bottle around her waist for additional warmth. Harriet was impatient but experienced no trepidation. She later recalled, “For the first time I was to fly a Bleriot rnonoplane. For the first time I was to fly by compass. For the first time I was to make a journey across the water. For the first time I was to fly on the other side of the Atlantic. My anxiety was to get off quickly.”
The monoplane ascended swiftly-fifteen hundred feet in thirty seconds. She fulfilled her promise to theMirror photographers in a boat below by flying directly toward the Dover castle flagstaff. After passing over the stronghold, she was enshrouded by fog. “I could not see ahead of me at all, nor could I see the water below,” she remembered. “There was only one thing for me to do and that was to keep my eyes fixed on the compass.”
Although exposed to the chilling mist, Harriet’s adrenalin kept her warm. Her goggles became wet, obscuring her vision, so she pushed them up on her forehead. Since her plane’s speed was over sixty miles per hour, Harriet anticipated the twenty-two-mile trip would take approximately twenty minutes. As Harriet descended from two thousand to one thousand feet the sunlight struck her face and she saw the white, sandy shores of France. She later wrote, “I felt happy, but I could not find Calais.”
Harriet searched for a place to land but found only farmland. Not wanting to damage a farmer’s field, she landed on the beach. Within moments local farmers and fishermen rushed toward her. Harriet remembered with good humor that she understood enough French to realize they were congratulating themselves that the first woman to cross the Channel in an aeroplane had landed on their beach. Harriet sat in the sand and dashed off a message that was telegraphed to Calais announcing her safe landing.
Ironically, Harriet had landed near Hardelot, approximately thirty miles from Calais. After excitedly inspecting her plane, the villagers convinced Harriet that the machine must be moved away from the rising tide. A group of fishermen pushed the plane first to high ground, then two miles over the beach to the Bleriot hangar. Among the crowd of strangers congratulating Harriet was Miss Whiteley, a luncheon companion from her previous visit to Hardelot, and her American friend Miss Drake. Hoisting Harriet on their shoulders, the two women carried her down the beach to the town.
The triumphant aviatrix spent the day in Hardelot, breakfasting at the shore on hot tea, bread and cheese. Her hostess served the tea in an enormous cup. Harriet so admired the teacup that the fisherwoman gave it to her. She viewed the cup as her greatest trophy.
Harriet left Hardelot later that day with her teacup, a gift of a plot of ground and a promise from the locals that they would build a bungalow for her. The heroine-“a very tired but very happy woman”-was driven to Calais where she caught a train to Paris.
Harriet was probably unprepared for the startling lack of attention she received for flying across the Channel. At 12:27 A.M. on Monday, April 15, the “unsinkable” White Star liner Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic; stories of the tragedy filled newspapers for over a week. If she had flown on Sunday, she might have shared headlines with the ill-fated liner when the extent of the disaster was not yet known. TheNew York Times had covered Harriet’s flying career for a year, allotting space for her exploits on the front page on several occasions. Instead, her greatest triumph was relegated to page fifteen, dwarfed by advertisements for voyages and luxury liners. Even the London Daily Mirror buried the story in its inside pages.
When she did receive recognition, it was disappointing. On 18 April 1912 The New York Times ran an insulting editorial entitled, “Exultation is Not in Order,” which read like an excuse for the paper not having given the heroine the attention she deserved. Admitting that public attention had been focused on theTitanic, it assured readers that Harriet Quimby’s achievement did not pass unnoticed. However, the editorial warned that feminists should refrain from celebrating since many men had crossed the Channel and women would not want to “invite the dreadfully humiliating qualification ‘great for a woman.”‘ The editorial concluded, “A thing done first is one thing; done for the seventh or eighth time is quite different. Of course it still proves ability and capacity, but it doesn’t prove equality.”
Although Harriet was neglected by the press at large, Leslie’s proudly ran a firsthand account of her adventure. She became the darling of the aviation world and an authority on the subject. The combination of performing at air meets across the country and writing about these experiences for Leslie’s brought Harriet to the Harvard Aviation Meet at
Squantum, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1912.
On July 1, at the close of the meet’s third day, Harriet was scheduled to fly the Bleriot monoplane she had purchased in France. In an earlier flight she had used sandbags in the plane’s passenger compartment for ballast. But the shifting sand left the craft unstable. During a half-dozen subsequent flights, she had carried a passenger. Meet manager William A. P. Willard-the father of aviator Charles Willard and his son Harry tossed a coin to determine who would accompany Harriet on the twenty-mile round-trip over Dorchester Bay to Boston Light. The elder Willard won the toss. When asked by her friends about the odds of a water landing if the engine failed over the harbor, Harriet replied confidently, “A water landing is all right in a Bleriot unless you come down head first…. But if we come down ‘pancake’ the broad wings would float us for two hours or more. But I am a cat,” she joked, “and I don’t like cold water.”
In the early evening Harriet and Willard took off, ascended to three thousand feet, flew to the Boston Light and returned. Just short of completing the trip, the plane pitched left suddenly and Willard was catapulted from his seat. The plane momentarily righted itself but, lacking ballast, instantly plunged into a perpendicular dive. Harriet was thrown from the plane, plummeting one thousand feet into Dorchester Bay. The five thousand spectators saw both bodies failing. Women fainted and “men turned sick at heart.”
Harriet and Willard landed near each other in four feet of water. Harry Willard rushed into the bay toward his father but was restrained by onlookers. Several men jumped from their boats to find the victims. TheBoston Daily Globe noted the bodies surfaced instantly, while The New York Times stated they were buried in the mud. Given the force with which they would have been driven into the water, the latter report seems most likely. According to the Globe, “it was thought there were some signs of life in the body of the woman and a doctor and several men worked over her for five or 10 minutes, but without avail.” The Massachusetts State Cavalry kept the crowd back as the bodies were brought ashore. They were taken to the Quincy hospital. Harriet’s chest was crushed and varying accounts reported both arms broken, a broken leg, a broken back, a fractured skull and large bruises.
The aviation world and the general public mourned Harriet Quimby. Reporters speculated about the new good-luck charm she wore at the time of her death; other flyers claimed they had an “ominous” feeling before the flight. Many stories suggested that Harriet suffered from momentary vertigo or that a gyroscopic force caused the plane to arc to the left. Eyewitnesses reported that Harriet fastened a restraint that should have held her in. Others saw Willard lean sharply forward before he was catapulted from the plane. There was speculation that he had leaned forward to speak to Harriet, and that she had removed her restraint in order to turn and push him back in his seat.
Aviator Earle Ovington, who witnessed the crash, reported that the plane was stable and straight and that Harriet had not shown any signs of difficulty in controlling the machine. He remarked on the grace with which the plane landed in the bay before “turning turtle” after ridding itself of its passengers. While inspecting the barely damaged machine, Ovington noticed that the left rudder wire controlling the steering was caught on the end of the vertical warping lever that operated the wings. He believed the caught wire had caused the plane to veer left and pitch Willard from his seat.
Harriet’s mechanic disagreed with Ovington, insisting that the wires
could have caught on the way down or upon impact. He might have feared that he would be blamed for the tragedy. But Ovington firmly declared that it was a Bleriot design flaw, not the fault of the mechanic. In a letter to the editor of Scientific American, Ovington noted that the warping lever in Harriet’s plane was different from all other Bleriot monoplanes he was familiar with, including his own.
Harriet Quimby’s last article was written for Good Housekeeping magazine and appeared posthumously. In “Aviation as a Feminine Sport” she touted the joys of aviation and the ease of flying an aeroplane. Declaring that “any woman with self confidence and a cool head could fly across the English Channel,” Harriet contended that flying was easier than walking, driving, tennis or golf. She was not a daredevil, stressing that caution was essential in flying. “I never mount my machine until every wire and screw has been tested,” she wrote. “I have never had an accident in the air. It may be luck, but I attribute it to the care of a good mechanic.”
According to her wishes, Harriet was buried in a copperlined vault in New York City’s Woodlawn Cemetery. In 1913 her father reinterred her remains at Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York; her mother is buried beside her.
Like the aviators who continued in the Boston meet after the terrible tragedy, Harriet believed in the future of aviation. She envisioned a time when aeroplanes would be used to deliver mail, carry passengers and fight wars. She was a true pioneer and an anachronism. She was gentle yet determined and ambitious; modest but not above a little subterfuge when it suited her. Although her life was brief, she accomplished much on behalf of female journalists and future aviators of both genders. California may claim Harriet as its daughter but Michigan knows the truth of her origins. In August 1993 America’s first licensed aviatrix will be inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame.
Harriet Quimby’s zest and heroic spirit were captured in the many photographs that exist of her, and in the words of a eulogy that appeared in Leslie’s on 18 July 1912. Describing her as independent, fair, helpful and faithful, as well as an author whose writings were “marvels of style and expression,” the memorial affirmed Harriet’s devotion to the development of aviation, which she “firmly believed meant much for the progress of the century.” Referring to her colleagues, Leslie’s consoled, “They have the comfort of many assurances from her own lips that in her innermost heart, she felt no fear of death because she remained serene in the faith that it would open the door to a fadeless immortality.”