Feisty Females: Harriet Quimby

HarrietQuimbyHer life, though short, was full of many accomplishments.  Harriet Quimby was born on May 11, 1875 in Arcadia, Michigan to parents William and Usrula Quimby.  The Quimbys had several children, but only Harriet and her older sister Kittie survived to adulthood.  Historians note that her father was an unsuccessful farmer who left the Midwest in the early 1900’s and headed West.

The Quimbys, including married daughter Kittie and her husband, moved to California where Harriet and her parents settled in the Oakland-San Francisco area.  William worked various jobs but still struggled financially.  He had fought for the Union during the Civil War until he became ill.  Upon returning home, Ursula nursed him back to health with herbal remedies.  In California, William’s fortunes reversed, however, when he began selling his wife’s remedies.

Living in California, Harriet wanted to pursue an acting career.  After a short time on stage in San Francisco, she decided to become a journalist and set her sights on a career in New York.  Female journalists of the early twentieth century struggled to gain a foothold in the “man’s world” of journalism.  Still, Harriet eventually convinced the editors of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly to give her a shot.

Being from San Francisco, her first article was about Chinese customs and she continued to write articles about various subjects, ranging from theatrical reviews to household tips.  Harriet was a friend of film maker D.W. Griffith and wrote several screenplays – seven of them were later made into movies.  Her life as a photojournalist was filled with adventure as she traveled to places like Egypt, Mexico, Iceland and more.

It doesn’t appear that Harriet Quimby ever married, which allowed her to live her life with a gusto that few women of her time were able to pursue.  After attending an event at the Vanderbilt race track (and taken for a one hundred miles per hour ride), Harriet purchased her own car and learned to both drive and repair it.

In 1910 the magazine was devoting an entire issue to aviation and Harriet decided to attend an air show in New York’s Belmont Park.  There she met John Moisant, an accomplished aviator who had studied under aviation pioneer Louis Blêriot, and John’s sister Matilde.  The three became friends and Harriet and Matilde took flying lessons together.

As she had demonstrated in all her life’s pursuits thus far, Harriet was determined to be the best, declaring, “I’m going in for everything in aviation that men have done: altitude, speed, endurance, and the rest.”  This she did while still maintaining her femininity, dressed in a one-piece, plum-colored flight suit.  Under John Moisant’s instruction she became an accomplished aviatrix, and on August 1, 1911 she made history as the first United States woman to receive a pilot’s license.  It was the first of  several more firsts to come.

In September she entered an international air meet and earned $1,500, becoming the first woman to fly at night.  Matilde received her license shortly after Harriet and a couple of months later they traveled to Mexico City, astonishing residents as they flew in honor of the new president’s inauguration.  During one event, the engine stalled, yet Harriet remained calm and executed a safe landing.  Her signature fly-wear was still the plum-colored flight suit which would earn her a contract the following year as spokesperson for grape soda maker Vin Fiz.

VinFiz_HarrietHarriet, always “pushing the envelope,” decided to attempt an even more daring feat.  She continued to work as a photojournalist, and in the spring of 1912 arranged to meet Louis Blêriot in France, hoping to purchase one of his new planes for herself.  Although the new model wasn’t yet ready for flight, Blêriot offered to let her borrow a 50-horsepower monoplane.

Blêriot had made his historic Channel flight by going from France to England.  However, Harriet wanted to reverse the course, so she secretly had the plane shipped to Dover.   The flight would be more challenging considering the height of Dover’s famous cliffs.  On the morning of April 16, 1912, the weather was foggy and winds were likely to come up later in the day.

She received a quick lesson from British pilot Gustav Hamel on flying over water and using a compass, neither of which she had ever done.  Hamel stressed the importance of using the compass to remain on course – veering off course even a little could doom her.  Whether it was a touch of male chauvinism or chivalry, Hamel offered to don her plum-colored flight suit and fly in her place.  They could switch places secretly upon his arrival in France.

As you can imagine, a woman like Harriet Quimby took offense at such an offer.  She later wrote, “I was annoyed from the start by the attitude of doubt on the part of the spectators that I would never really make the flight.  They knew I had never used the machine before and probably thought I would find some excuse at the last moment to back out of the flight. This attitude made me more determined than ever to succeed.”

QuimbyPhotosAnd succeed she did.  The plane took off at 5:30 a.m. with the overhead sky clear, but the French coast shrouded in fog.  After flying over Dover Castle, she headed for France and was immediately surrounded by dense fog.  In an attempt to get above it she took the plane to six thousand feet, where she said the mist “felt like tiny needles on my skin.”

After an hour flying through the fog, she decided to descend and find an opening.  As she did so, gasoline flooded the engine (it was a known design flaw).  She knew her situation was precarious but the gas quickly burned away and the engine returned to normal.  She checked her watch, believing she must be close to her destination, and saw a sandy French beach ahead.  Instead of landing in the fields laying beyond the beach, she landed safely on the beach.  The flight was completed in one hour and nine minutes.

Her landing spot was only two miles from where Blêriot normally housed her borrowed plane.  She was quickly surrounded by area residents who realized they had just witnessed an historical event.  You would think that news of her feat would have made for huge worldwide headlines, right?  Her place in history would be overshadowed by a more ominous event that had occurred just two days before – the sinking of the mighty and thought-to-be-unsinkable Titanic.

Some United States newspapers quietly reported her feat.  Her hometown newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, gave her recognition that day, albeit with few details for the April 16 evening issue:

Oakland_Tribune_Tue__Apr_16__1912_Another pressing issue of the day was women’s suffrage, something that newspapers like the New York Times stringently opposed.  America’s “newspaper of record” had this to say in an editorial:

Exultation is not in order. . . Just a few months ago this same flight was one of the most daring and in every way remarkable deeds accomplished by man.  Since then the passage has been repeated by men, and now for them there is little or no glory.  The flight is now hardly anything more than proof of ordinary professional competency. . . of course it still proves ability and capacity, but it does not prove equality.

My, how times have changed . . . I don’t think the Times could get away with a published opinion like that today!

Harriet returned home and soon her new 70-hp Blêriot XI arrived.  Her plan was to continue her career as a photojournalist and participate in air meets where large monetary prizes awaited.  Her manager arranged for her to appear at the Boston Aviation Meet.  She was to receive $100,000 for flying the mail from Boston to New York, again making her the first woman to do so.

Late in the afternoon of July 1, 1912, Harriet took William Willard, who managed the event, for a spin in her two-seater plane out over Dorchester Bay.  She had jokingly assured reporters she had no plans to land in the water.  The two were headed back after flying out over the bay, when suddenly, and without warning, the plane’s tail came up sharply.

Neither Harriet nor Willard was wearing a safety belt (not yet standard equipment).  Willard was pitched from the plane, and without the second passenger the plane became unstable.  Crowds on the ground observed that she seemed to be regaining control of the plane, but when the tail rose sharply again, Harriet was also pitched from the plane, falling to her death in the harbor.  For reasons unknown, the plane somehow righted itself and landed in shallow water with little damage.

Harriet Quimby was thirty-seven years old.  Before making the trip to Boston she had written her parents in New York.  If perchance she were to have a fatal accident, she wanted her parents to know she died doing what she loved, meeting her fate “rejoicing.”  She was a true pioneer who no doubt influenced aviatrixes who would follow.  She had once written:

Men flyers have given the impression that aeroplaning is very perilous work, something an ordinary mortal should not dream of attempting.  But when I saw how easy men flyers handler their machines, I said I could fly.  Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women, it is healthy and stimulates the mind.

Another aviatrix, Blanche Stuart Scott, had collapsed after witnessing the accident.  However, by the following day she said, “although yesterday’s accident was horrible and for a time unnerved me, I will not give up flying.”

HarrietQuimby_StampIn 1991, a United States Air Mail postage stamp was issued in her honor.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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