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Harriet Quimby

 

In her purple satin flying costume Harriet Quimby cut quite a figure in early aviation. While other women aviators wore combinations of men's clothing adapted for safety and comfort in the pilot's seat, Harriet designed her own suit with an attached hood rather than a helmet. Photographs of Harriet Quimby reveal a beautiful, slender woman with dark eyes and a sense of style. Descriptions of her in news articles also noted she was intelligent, inquisitive, creative, and daring enough to fly an aeroplane during a time when driving an automobile was still uncommonly exciting. Since 1991 her lovely face has graced a 50 cent U.S. Airmail stamp as her Bleriot monoplane flies in the background.

Harriet's Family and Early Years
Harriet was born in May of 1875 in Michigan. There is no birth certificate or school records to document her earliest years while living with her parents, William and Ursula, and her older sister, Kittie. There were siblings who died due to various diseases that were born before Harriet and Kittie. However, by age 5, Harriet is listed with her family on the 1880 census of Arcadia, living on their farm. Both William and Ursula were from New York state, and were not immigrants from Ireland as often speculated. Ursula's family background included skills in herbal healing. When William was discharged from the Union Army due to illness, Ursula cared for him. The Quimby's probably moved between Arcadia and the Coldwater areas of Michigan, but they are recorded as owning a farm in Arcadia which failed in the late 1880's. Abandoning the farm, the Quimbys headed west with newly wed Kittie and her husband. Although no relatives for Ursula or William have ever been traced in Arroyo Grande, they visited there long enough in 1888 for William to attend a meeting of his IOOF Lodge Brothers and nominate his wife for their sister organization, the Rebekahs. Research in the town of Arroyo Grande has so far, turned up no record of William operating a general store or working for the local dairy. For whatever reason, the Quimbys did not stay long, and moved to the Oakland/San Francisco area.

The San Francisco Years
Most of what is known about Harriet's life in San Francisco was reported in articles either written by herself or in interviews done AFTER she became America's first licensed female pilot in 1911.

Both Harriet and her father appear in San Francisco Directories between 1897 and 1903, suggesting that she occasionally had her own residence. During these years, Harriet was now a young and very pretty girl. She lists her occupation as "actress" on the 1900 San Francisco census, while William is variously listed as an "herbalist" or laborer. Several references claim that Harriet's portrait hung in the prestigious Bohemian Club (a group of colorful and often artistic gentlemen), which was lost in the 1906 earthquake. Although her aspirations were for the stage, she began a more lucrative career writing occasional articles for the San Francisco Bulletin and other publications. Harriet wrote feature articles about the art colonies of Monterey and the customs she observed in San Francisco's Chinatown. By the time Harriet was 25 years old (in 1900) she had developed an intelligent writing style suggesting a solid education. However, school records have never been found.

In 1903, perhaps encouraged by her journalistic successes in San Francisco, Harriet headed for New York to continue her writing career. Once there, her parents followed and moved into their own residence, but Kittie and her husband are no longer mentioned as part of her life.

The New York Years - (1903-1912) The Journalist
A single woman in New York embarking on a career in 1903 needed courage, determination, and talent. Harriet captured the attention of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly and began appearing regularly in their newspaper as a contributing journalist, ultimately becoming a member of the staff. Her articles ranged in scope from household tips ("Home and the Household") to advise for women on how to find a job, budget their income, live prudently on a modest income in a safe apartment and how to repair their own automobiles. She wrote articles for other magazines while contributing to Leslie's, using both male and female pen names. She became well known in New York for her features as a photo-journalist traveling in Cuba, Europe, Egypt, Iceland and Mexico. She was perhaps best known as a drama critic writing Reviews of the stage for Leslie's. Her stories of acrobats, divas and comedians were down-to-earth interviews. During her career with Leslie's she wrote over 250 articles using her own name. In 1906, while on assignment at the Vanderbilt race track, Harriet was taken for a high-speed automobile ride which became the subject an article revealing her zest for speedy machines. Harriet purchased her own car, and advised others to maintain them properly. By the time she was 36, Harriet had conquered New York by living independently, traveling, helping to support her parents, and continually stretching her interests.

The Last Years - The Aviator
In late October 1910, Harriet attended the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament at Belmont Race Track. There she met Matilde and John Moisant, who with brother Alfred, operated a school for aviators at Mineola. John was a featured flier, representing the United States in the race around the Statue of Liberty. Wrecking his own plane while still on the ground, John purchased a monoplane from another pilot, re-entered the race and beat the competition. His victory made him an American hero. Following this race, Harriet and Matilde were both accepted at the Moisant School of Aviation as students. The Wright Brothers school did not accept women students at this time, and John was no doubt willing to teach his sister, and probably Harriet, for free. But aviation was dangerous and deadly, and John was killed while on exhibition in New Orleans that following December. The New Orleans Daily Picayune newspaper headlines mourned the loss of "the King of Aviators" and the air field near the site of John's fatal fall is still known as Moisant Field. John's death however, did not deter either Matilde or Harriet from entering aviation school the following May.

Although Harriet was now a full-time photo-journalist with a new interest in aviation, she also found time to rekindle friendship with her old friends from the San Francisco theater, David and Linda Griffith. Now making silent films for the Biograph Company in New York, D.W. Griffith purchased scripts from various writers, including Harriet. During 1911, Griffith produced seven films written by Harriet Quimby, making her one of America's first female screenwriters.

The Moisant School on Long Island and the Aviator's Test
The Moisant School built monoplanes in the style of the French Bleriot XI and held both ground school and flight training for hopeful pilots. Harriet attended, while continuing her journalism career. Arriving for classes at the crack of dawn, and often covering her feminine clothing with a long duster coat and pilot's helmet, Harriet's endeavor remained low-key but was ultimately discovered by the press. Once discovered, by accident or by design, Harriet became the object of her own newspaper headlines. Leslie's encouraged and supported her efforts, and Harriet continued her studies. On July 31, 1911, after five weeks of lessons involving progressively more control of her aircraft, Harriet took the first of her exams monitored by the Aero Club of America. Matilde Moisant also took the same tests which included figure eights flown above the "aerodrome," as well as altitude, take-off and landing skill requirements. Harriet failed her first landing attempt, but tried again the next day. On August 1, 1911, Harriet Quimby set a landing accuracy record of 7'9" from the mark set for her on the field by the officials, thereby passing the requirements for her pilot's license. She was the first woman in the United States to do so. Matilde soon passed becoming the second to achieve certification. Other female fliers of the day such as Blanche Stuart Scott, who flew a Curtiss bi-plane, often attended aviation events and flew in exhibition but did not apply for a license.

On September 4, 1911, at the Richmond County Fair, Harriet piloted her Moisant built monoplane over the heads of the spectators in the first night flight recorded by a woman Wearing her purple satin flying costume, Harriet made a dramatic impression on the public and soon became New York's "Dresden China Aviatrix." She wrote about her lessons, her test, and her flying exhibitions in Leslie's. She also outlined the "big picture" for the future of aviation, envisioning multi-passenger aircraft with scheduled routes, mail carried by planes around the world, and special uses for aerial photography and mapping.

She also warned of over-confidence and the dangers of flying, cautioning those that were careless and did not make safety a priority. She described checking her own equipment before each flight, and followed her own instincts about weather conditions, where, and when, to fly.

By November, 1911, Harriet and Matilde Moisant joined the Moisant International Aviators Exhibition Team and flew in Mexico City's festivities for the new President, Francisco Madero. While Matilde continued to tour with the troupe in Mexico, Harriet returned to New York and began formulating her plan to be the first woman to pilot her own plane across the English Channel.

The Channel Flight
With Harriet's notoriety came the need for a manager, and she signed on with A. Leo Stevens, an entrepreneur who had designed balloons, parachutes and dirigibles. It was Stevens who helped arranged the details for Harriet's exhibition fees and career moves.

In 1909 Luis Bleriot had become an international celebrity by flying between France and England in his Bleriot monoplane. Harriet aspired to become the first woman to do the same flight, in reverse from Dover, England to Calais, France. Fearful that a European woman would beat her to the record books, Harriet kept her plans a secret. She sailed from New York to England in March 1912, hoping to purchase a two-seat 70hp Bleriot from the factory in France, but there were none available. She borrowed a 50hp single-seat Bleriot XI from Louis Bleriot and sent it to England where she kept a low profile. Bad weather grounded her for several days beyond her anticipated attempt. The mood was grim as the world also leaned that the great ship Titanic had sunk. Additionally, her plans to be the first woman to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane were dashed when a woman flew across as a passenger with pilot, Gustov Hamel. By the time the weather cleared and Harriet was ready to make her trip, Hamel gallantly tested her aircraft before she took off, and even volunteered to make the trip for her in disguise. She refused his offer, but allowed him to give her a compass with instructions on how to keep on course lest she ditch her plane in the North Sea.

Harriet Quimby waved goodbye from Dover on a trip cross the English Channel which could only be described as extremely dangerous and death-defying. Others had wrecked their planes or died attempting the trip before her. But, on Tuesday, April 16, she departed at 5:30 a.m., flying in clouds obstructing her view. 59 minutes later she landed thirty miles from her destination of Calais on a beach near Hardelot, France. Within minutes, the local fishermen toasted her with champagne, and carried her on their shoulders in triumph. The moment was captured in photographs and Harriet looks happy and victorious. In her own words she describes the close of that day in simple terms…"I got into my automobile and motored to Calais…in time to catch a fast train that took me into Paris at seven p.m., a very tired but a very happy woman."

Considering her tremendous accomplishment, Harriet did not earn the attention which drew the world at the feet of Louis Bleriot 3 years earlier. The loss of life aboard the Titanic overshadowed all news stories. In England as well as in the United States, Harriet's historical Channel Crossing received only modest mention.

The Last Air Meet - Massachusetts
Once back in New York, Harriet and her manager, A. Leo Stevens charted her next aviation exhibition for July. Negotiating a fee reported to have been at $100,000, Harriet signed on to appear at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, near Quincy, Massachusetts. During the week-long event, she was to fly her new two-seater Bleriot monoplane recently shipped from France.

When Harriet arrived on July 1, 1912, William Willard, the event organizer, and his son, Charles, tossed a coin to see who would win the privilege of a flight with Harriet. Willard Senior won the toss and climbed into the passenger seat, casually appointing Earle Ovington as Manger of the meet in case he met with an accident. After a routine flight out to the Boston Light, Harriet circled over the Neponset River and Dorchester Bay as thousands of spectators watched.

While at an altitude of approximately 1500 feet, the plane suddenly pitched forward and Willard was thrown from his seat. Harriet appeared to temporarily gain control of the monoplane, but was thrown out seconds later. Both Harriet and Willard fell to their deaths in the tidal mud flats of the Bay. Just why the plane pitched forward continues to be analyzed and debated to this day. The 1912 Boston Globe suggested lack of seat belts, while Earle Ovington claimed cables from the aircraft tangled the steering mechanisms. Others speculated that Willard, a heavy and excitable man, suddenly leaned forward to speak with Harriet, and was tossed out. Once he was ejected, the empty passenger seat made it impossible for Harriet to regain balance of her machine. When flying her two-seater aircraft alone, Harriet "balanced" the weight with sand bags in the passenger's seat. Although her Bleriot was now empty, it glided downward, until it was overturned in the shallow muddy water. Reports that her plane landed unbroken have been exaggerated through the years, and in fact it was badly damaged.

Harriet Quimby was a superstitious woman who wore lucky jewelry and made it a point never to fly on Sundays. She was independent and visionary, but apparently not actively involved in the movement for women's rights championed by the Suffragettes. In her articles she chose instead to write strongly against child neglect, over-hunting of endangered species such as the egret, and corrupt politics. Her beauty and sense of style made her an attractive public figure, yet she was a private person who left no record of a marriage or children.

Upon Harriet's death, America lost a strong advocate of aviation, believing that the United States was falling behind other nations such as England and France in the development of aircraft, pilot safety, and commercial as well as humanitarian applications. Her pioneering achievements pointed the way for future female pilots many years later such as Amelia Earhart.

 Harriet Quimby was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York on July 4, 1912. A year later her remains were moved to her permanent burial site at Kenisco Cemetery at Valhalla, New York. Ironically, Matilde Moisant, her flying exhibition companion, and class-mate at the Moisant school, is buried at Valhalla Cemetery in North Hollywood, California close to a fountain named for Harriet Quimby, America's first licensed female pilot.

 

References for this text:

Harriet Quimby, America's First Lady of the Air, by Ed. Y. Hall, 1993

Picture History of Early Aviation, 1903-1913, by Joshua Stoff 1996

The Harriet Quimby Research Conference Journals (Volumes One-Three, 1995-1997), Editor, Giacinta Bradley Koontz

San Francisco City Directories (1890-1907)

1900 San Francisco, California Census

1880 Census Record from Manistee County, Michigan

William Quimby Pension Fund Form - Dated 1898 (LOC)

IOOF Minutes, dated December 29, 1888

"Last Interview with Harriet Quimby" by Elizabeth Elliott, 1912, Boston American.

"Successful Californians in New York, Writers and Playwrites," Elizabeth Anna Semple, 1912, Overland Monthly.

Credits:

The Harriet Quimby biography was originally prepared by Patricia Browne with a minor addition made by the ALLSTAR Network staff from Aerospace: The Challenge.  This version, which modifies the original version, was edited for accuracy by Giacinta Bradley Koontz, Director, Harriet Quimby Research Conference.

References from the original version:

Aerospace: The Challenge - by H. Bacon, M. Schrier, P. McGill, and G. Hellinga, Civil Air Patrol, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Third Edition, 1989.

Her Mentor was an Albatross - by Henry M. Holden, Black Hawk Publishing, Mt. Freedom , NJ, 1993. Excellent, readable account of Harriet’s life. Pulls together facts from many sources.

For a Brief Moment, the World Seemed Wild About Harriet - by Terry Gwynn Jones, Smithsonian, January, 1984. Quincy Historical Society, 8 Adams Street, Quincy, MA.

A Past Carved From Stone: Quincy Massachusetts, by Patricia Harrigan Browne, Arcadia Publishing, Images of America Series, Dover, NH, 1996. A chapter on the 1910 Boston Aero-Meet (the second in the United States) is included along with 18 photos of the air meet and participants.


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Harriet Quimby Research Conference

Updated: December 20, 2004