Who Might Have Written The Anonymous August 18, 1901, Bridgeport Sunday Herald "Flying" Article ?

Hunting The Snakes In The Grass
© 2013 - Carroll F. Gray
Posted: July 11, 2013

Schagticoke Rattlesnake Club letterhead

Richard Howell

      In her 1937 book "Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead," Stella Randolph took it as an article of faith that Richard Howell wrote the August 18, 1901, article about a supposed "flight" made by Gustave Whitehead on August 14, 1901. This has been repeated by many without question, embellished by Whitehead advocate and Air Force Reserve Major William J. O'Dwyer who added that "… the eye witness report that appeared in the Aug. 18, 1901, Bridgeport Sunday Herald, [was] written by the sports editor, Richard Howell."

      O'Dwyer told aviation author Frank Delear that he'd "spent hours in the Bridgeport Library studying virtually everything Howell wrote. 'Howell was always a very serious writer,' O'Dwyer said. 'He always used sketches rather than photographs with his features on inventions. He was highly regarded by his peers on other local newspapers. He used the florid style of the day, but was not one to exaggerate. Howell later became the Herald's editor.'"

      Delear paraphrased O'Dwyer, writing that "Howell, an artist before he became a reporter, illustrated his article with an accurate drawing of airplane No. 21 in flight above an open field at Fairfield. Howell was erroneously referred to as editor of the Herald in later publicity. Whitehead's detractors, already debunking Howell's story as 'only imagination,' used that error as further ammunition. Why, they asked, would an editor hold such an important story for four days instead of giving it front page headlines on August 14? Not only did they overlook the fact that the Herald, a weekly, was published only on Sunday, but they also failed to recognize that in 1901 Howell was not the Herald's editor, but its sports editor. As such, he had placed his article on page one of his sports section."

      There are several problems with O'Dwyer's assertion of Richard Howell's supposed authorship of the August 18, 1901, article.

      For one thing, not a single instance has yet been found of Howell claiming the article and/or the accompanying illustration, as his own work. Had he ever wished to identify himself with that article, he would have had every opportunity publicly to do so, and the fact that he chose not to, can be seen as reluctance to do just that. One must then ask - why he would be reluctant, if he were, to identify himself ?

      For another, Howell had been the managing editor of both the Bridgeport Sunday Herald and the Waterbury Sunday Herald since at least 1895, and he was not the "sports editor," since the Herald had no such staff position. Howell was a well-respected authority and writer on sports, and often refereed boxing matches - Lynn Wilson wrote in 1917, "Mr. Howell is one of the greatest living authorities on sports, and it is largely by the interest in his writings upon this subject that the Herald has had its long life and its continued prosperity."

      Howell's high civic standing and reputation for honesty were used by O'Dwyer to infuse honesty and high purpose into the August 18, 1901, article, and yet, in the absence of proof that Howell ever claimed the article as his own, it's a tricky maneuver, a slight of hand.

      The belief that Richard Howell wrote the "Flying" article can be traced to a single simple statement given about 1936 to John B. Crane, who was told by Harry Neigher of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald "That page was written by the late Richard Howell. He died four years ago. No one disputed this article." Harry Neigher became a widely known columnist and social commentator. He began his employment with the Bridgeport Herald in 1932, the year Richard Howell died, and might or might not have known Howell.

      Richard Howell was an active figure in Bridgeport, and a participant in the remarkable (and almost totally forgotten) Schaghticoke Rattlesnake Club, of which Howell was the Secretary. Howell also constituted the "general invitation committee, who collects the war correspondents and photographers from the New York papers for the hunt." The club members, adorned with the skins of prior years' successes, spent one day each year in late May or early June hunting and capturing rattlesnakes on Schaghticoke Mountain, located on the Schaghticoke Reservation, South Kent, Connecticut.

      The annual feasting which accompanied the hunt featured mutton, clam chowder, wine, "vats of snake cure," and club member Dr. John Monroe's rye whiskey-laced beverage "Sagwa" ("for Internal Use"). Schaghticoke Chief Jim Pan's daughter, "Princess Alice" (dubbed "Alice-Sit-By-The-Firewater" by the club), was in charge of "doling out" the Sagwa.

      The first rattlesnake hunt was loosely organized in 1895 and combined rattlesnake hunting with what was then termed 'good fellowship.' By 1901, it's first year of operation as "The Schaghticoke Rattlesnake Club," it was fully formed with initiation rites and traditions. Part of the initiation consisted of the prospective member holding a rattler while "Sagwa" was spinkled on the initiate's head. Schaghticoke tribe member George Coggswell ("Cogg"), the club's president, remarked "This is the fun part of our hunts, and many a man balks on joining when it comes to taking hold of the rattler." Each year, the snakes were taken to Bridgeport and placed on public exhibition, with the most noteworthy rattlers donated to the Bronx Zoo.

      Almost all of the club's members were affiliated wth newspapers and many notable reporters and editors in the region were members, including J. L. McGovern and Dan McNamara of the Bridgeport Evening Farmer; George Waldo, editor and publisher of the Bridgeport Standard; printer's devil "Dicky" Barrett, newspaper artist Andrew V. "Dad" Barber (who was bitten during the 1910 hunt) and Richard Howell, all three of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald; as well as reporters from the New York Herald, New York World and New York Sun. Considering that nearly all of the club's membership were newspaper editors, reporters or photographers, it's interesting to consider what else the initiation rites might have consisted of.

      Two members of the Schaghticoke Rattlesnake Club stand out as 'suspects' for being the anonymous writer of the August 18, 1901, Whitehead "Flying" article.

Frank Ward O'Malley       One member, Frank Ward O'Malley was a famed humorist/reporter with the New York Sun from 1906 to 1919, and a friend of Richard Howell. At the time of the Sunday Herald Whitehead story, O'Malley was working as, he wrote, a "Commercial illustrator in New York for four years, drawing full-length portraits of vacuum cleaners and canned soup" from 1901 to 1905, while trying to break into journalism. O'Malley specialized in stories which wryly revealed themselves to be fiction, yet could be read as fact. In a lengthy obituary, Time magazine noted of O'Malley, "Even without a byline, Sun readers could recognize O'Malley stories. But it was his brothers in the craft who best appreciated how much O'Malley could make of scant material." O'Malley studied as an artist/illustrator before becoming a reporter, and often used his drawings to illustrate his stories. He said of his training as an artist, "Four years an art student in Philadelphia, devoting most of the time to studies of esthetic anatomy at Trocadero Burlesque Theatre."

      The New York Sun had a tradition of publishing fantasy and humor with a straight-face. The Sun had published the "Great Moon Hoax" of 1835 and Edgar Allen Poe's famous "Balloon Hoax" of 1844. One reason people believed Poe's front page hoax was his use of real people as characters in his fanciful yet utterly believable story of a 3-day Atlantic crossing by balloon, presented as a true account. The payoff for the editor and the publisher was, of course, a rush on the Sun, as people clamored for copies of the April 13, 1844, edition.

Dad Barber, kneeling       The second 'suspect' is Andrew V. "Dad" Barber, editorial cartoonist, staff artist and "special writer" on the Bridgeport and Waterbury Sunday Herald newspapers (seen on left of photo, arm on one knee). "Dad" Barber was working as an artist at the Sunday Herald well in advance of the August 18, 1901, article. A close examination of his characteristic style of pen and ink drawing, spanning many such drawings in many issues of the Sunday Herald demonstrates that he, "Dad" Barber, was the one who drew the image of the Whitehead No. 21 in "flight" above a field, just cresting over a rail fence, propellers turning. As to whether he might also have written the article, he was employed on the Sunday Herald as what was then termed a "special writer," writing humor, fantasy and soft feature articles, as well as being the staff artist. Bab Vickery, married to "Dad" Barber, was also employed at the Bridgeport Herald as a "special writer." The image of "Custead's Air Ship" seen in the article was taken from a letterhead for W. D. Custead's airship business venture, and was not drawn by "Dad," although the witches and the artwork script "Flying" which headlined the article were his work.

      Richard Howell, as managing editor of the Sunday Herald, would have signed off on printing the August 18, 1901, article, but also, as editor he would have been the one to place it on page five, not page one. O'Dwyer's wholly unsupported statement that Howell placed "his" article on the first page of the "sports section" of the Sunday Herald, seems to elevate its importance, since O'Dwyer (wrongly) said Howell was the sports editor, meaning that he, Howell, would have been placing the article in as prominent a placement as he could. Of course, since Howell was not the "sports editor" but was The Editor of the Sunday Herald, he could have placed the article on page one, had he wished to do so. Besides, the Sunday Herald had no sports section, as such.

      Finally, consider that the three New York newspapers and the one Boston newspaper represented in the Schaghticoke Rattlesnake Club's membership all ran articles on Whitehead during 1901, the New York Evening World (November 19, 1901); the New York Herald (June 16, 1901, August 19, 1901); the New York Sun (June 9, 1901, August 19, 1901); and the Boston Transcript (August 19, 1901).