Harriet Quimby was the first woman in America and the second in the world to earn a pilot's licence, the first woman to make a solo flight across the English Channel, and the first woman pilot to carry a passenger. Five days after her tragic death, in Boston on July 1, 1912, aged 37, she was due to become the first woman to fly the US Post Office Department’s airborne mail. The jury is still out on where in Michigan she was born – Ovid Township and Arcadia, Manistee, are the two contenders, with Arcadia being the most likely. The date is certain: May 11, 1875. In 1884 her family moved to Arroyo Grande, north of Los Angeles, and in 1896 Harriet took up residence in the hall bedroom at the back of the third floor at 83 Madison Avenue, New York City. She was later able to afford to move into more spacious quarters at the same address. By 1901 Harriet had emerged as an erudite and confident journalist, writing that year “In the World of Art” and “Art News of the Week” columns for the San Francisco Call, as well as lengthy features for the Sunday Call, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York-based The Ledger Monthly. It was at this time that her skill at the typewriter allowed her to pump out thousands of words with ease, notably on the theatre. Indeed, her byline was becoming well known right across the US. So successful had she become that in 1903 Harriet could set herself up with her parents in the Hotel Victoria, occupying the entire block on 27th Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue. She had joined Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as dramatic editor, women’s page editor and general writer, as well as contributing travel features for the Four-Track News. She certainly travelled extensively in search of feature articles, including to Virginia, South Carolina and Florida, and to Washington DC, for the New York Evening Post and The Los Angeles Sunday Times Weekend Magazine. She covered events ranging from frog racing in San Francisco to camp meetings in the South, Irish moss gathering on the Atlantic Coast and African fetes at Madison Square Garden. Anything zany, off-beat and new interested her. She even a wrote a story describing how fake restaurant waiters picked up Wall Street tips from financiers as they dined. Her writing had an appeal for editors of the leading newspapers America-wide. In 1906 Harriet went on assignment to Cuba and in 1907-08 to Luxor and Cairo in Egypt, and to France and Italy.
In mid-1904 Harriet took an interest in cars, and in particular in what was then called “trick automobiling”. It was in Cuba in 1906 that she had one of her first driving experiences, and soon afterwards, on September 22, Harriet went to Long Island to cover the American Elimination Trial to select the five racers to represent the United States in that year’s Vanderbilt Cup Race. While there, she was taken for a hair-raising (and hat losing) 70mph ride in the 120 horse-power Pope-Toledo driven by Herb Lytle. “… every nerve in your body is quivering,” she wrote of the drive, adding that she teased Lytle to step up to 120mph. These early tastes of motoring led Harriet in 1907 to getting her own bright red “racing runabout” and a driver’s licence. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported she had “shown herself remarkably adept in making her own repairs and motor adjustments”. In 1909, her quest for adventure extended to an interest in airships – and to the movies. She played the role of a fishermaiden alongside Mary Pickford and Mark Sennett in D.W. Griffith’s Lines of White on a Sullen Sea (Biograph Company).
However, any thoughts of car racing or going aloft in airships were put aside on the weekend of October 22-23, 1910, when Harriet attended the International Aviation meeting at Belmont Park, Long Island, organised by Allan Ryan, son of Royal Typewriter Company backer Thomas Fortune Ryan (and later president of Royal himself). Harriet would later recall, “At one time I was crazy about motoring. Whizzing around in a fast car seemed to me the very last word in exhilaration. But the moment I saw an aeroplane in flight, I knew the motoring henceforth would be much too tame. One great advantage of aeroplaning over automobiling is the absence of speed laws, and their minions. You can go where you please and as fast as you please without interference. Isn’t that as near the essence of the American principle of perfect freedom as you can get? Seriously, I don’t believe there’s one whit more danger in aeroplaning than there is in handling a speedy car.”
Harriet was one of 7500 spectators on the second day of the International Aviation meeting at Belmont Park, when strong winds prevented all by two flyers from taking to the skies. One especially impressed Harriet: John Bevins Moisant, the so-called “King of Aviators”, who “cared to dare” the conditions but soon came to grief; Moisant was uninjured, but his monoplane was smashed. Harriet, there with a close friend, Moisant’s sister Matilde, decided on the spot that flying was for her. A week later, on October 30, her determination deepened when Moisant won Thomas Ryan’s prizemoney of $10,000 by flying his Blériot from Belmont Park around the Statue of Liberty and back, 36 miles in 24 minutes 38.4 seconds. His prizemoney barely covered the price he'd paid his French rivals for the genuine Blériot that very morning.
John Moisant promised to teach Harriet to fly the following spring, but he died in a crash outside New Orleans on New Year’s Eve. Nonetheless Harriet pressed on, and started lessons with André Houpert (1885-1963) at the Moisant Aviation School at Roosevelt Field on Nassau Boulevard, Mineola, Garden City, Long Island, on May 10, 1911. With the encouragement of her editor, John Albert Sleicher (1848-1921), she got into a pattern of leaving work at Leslie’s Weekly at 8pm, going to Garden City, sleeping until 4am, taking lessons, then returning to work in the city. Harriet said the “sensation [of flying] is glorious”. “When I return to my office after a spin above the earth, I feel as if I could do the work of 50 of the sort of woman I was before I took up flying.” She undertook 33 lessons, and chalked up 4½ hours flying time before her first flight test in a Moisant monoplane built on Blériot lines on July 31. At Hempstead the next day Harriet was granted her pilot’s licence by the Aero Club of America, the US affiliate of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She was the world's 37th licenced pilot. Not only was she the first American woman to qualify for such a licence, she was the first American to be licenced to fly a monoplane (which she considered “prettier” than a biplane). Asked about this achievement, Harriet told Philadelphia Telegraph reporter Ethel Lloyd Patterson, “It’s neither luck nor pluck that makes the really good aviator. It is just plain, honest common sense and reasonable care.” She described stunt flying as downright foolhardy, neither brave nor clever. For these reasons, Harriet felt women made better pilots than men. She said the two principles of flying, sanity and instinct, were second-nature to women. And mastering the air was proof of human progress.
Harriet was soon reaping the rewards of her progress. On September 1 at Hempstead she tested the Moisant monoplane used by St Croix Johnstone for his world endurance record (set on August 5; Johnstone died in a crash in Chicago 10 days later). Three days later Harriet helped clear and then thrilled a crowd of 15,000 by closing the Straten Island Fair at Dongan Hills with a moonlight flight of seven minutes, earning $1500. At the end of the month Harriet earned another $1500 for a similar feat at the Trenton Fair in New Jersey. She used the money to pay off her flying lessons, acquire her own plane, a Moisant monoplane she was to call Genevieve, and to cover the costs of a planned trip to Europe to buy it. On September 23, a few days before the Trenton event, she won $600 as the solo starter in a 15-minute hedge-hopping “cross-country” event at an international meeting on Nassau Boulevard (US mail was carried by air for the first time at the same gathering). In October Harriet joined the Moisant International Aviators Exhibition team in a $100,000 deal to entertain crowds in Mexico during President Francisco Ignacio Madero’s inauguration celebrations, a tour which continued until December.
It had been an incredibly busy and productive year for Harriet. On top of her journalism, travel and flying, she followed up her 1909 acting role under the direction of D.W. Griffith by writing five screenplays and two scenarios for silent film shorts made by the Biograph Company, all directed by Griffith. The screenplays were for the character comedy Sunshine Through the Dark, The Blind Princess and the Poet, His Mother’s Scarf, The Broken Cross and Fisher Folks.
By the time of her return from Mexico, Harriet was already putting in place plans to realise an ambition to emulate John Moisant’s 1909 achievement by flying across the English Channel, in the process becoming the first woman to do so. Her travelling companion, as well as her business manager, would be pioneering balloonist Albert Louis Höfner (known as “A. Leo Stevens”, 1873-1944). Though Harriet loved the publicity her flights had generated across the US, on this occasion she kept very quiet about her departure on the liner the Amerika on March 7, 1912, her arrival in England and her preparations for the channel crossing (she used the surname Craig). Harriet was determined not to be beaten to the punch, but part of the reason for secrecy was also financial, as Harriet wanted to secure an exclusive deal with a British newspaper. She did that with London’s Daily Mirror for the equivalent of $US5000, but the offer was later withdrawn. Undaunted, Harriet first travelled on to Calais in France to meet Louis Blériot (who had made the first channel crossing in 1909) and negotiate the purchase of Blériot’s latest aircraft, a 70hp monoplane. However, the plane wouldn’t be ready in time for Harriet’s scheduled crossing, so she borrowed a 50hp plane from the French aviator. Not having flown a true Blériot before, she hoped in vain to test it out at Blériot’s seaside home in Hardelot, but bad weather intervened.
The borrowed Blériot pane was reassembled in Dover and by mid-April the weather on that south-eastern point of England had started to clear, though only in patches. Impatient to make her attempt, at 5.30am on April 16, 1912, Harriet took off. Using a compass for the first time - given to her by fellow pilot Gustav Hamel and tucked between her knees - Harriet ploughed through thick fog. After flying 22 miles in an hour and nine minutes, she sighted land under a bright sky. Unable to find Calais, she landed further south, on hard sand on a beach at Équihen-Plage, two miles from Hardelot. Sadly, Harriet’s breakthrough did not get the worldwide publicity it deserved, being pushed aside by the sinking of the Titanic a little more than a day earlier. Harriet arrived back in the US on May 12, along with her new 70hp Blériot two-seater monoplane, an aircraft designed for military use.
Regardless of her English Channel feat being overshadowed by the Titanic tragedy, Harriet was very much in demand among promoters of aviation events back in the US. So much so she was able to drive a hard bargain for an offer of $100,000 for seven appearances in the new Blériot during the June 29-July 7 Boston aviation meeting at the Harvard Aviation Field, Squantum, Quincy, north of Boston Harbour. For this third annual Boston meeting, organisers moved the grandstand and runway closer to the water. There was trouble on the horizon, however, because the Aero Club of America refused to sanction the event when organisers would not guarantee the pilots the prizemoney stipulated in their contracts. (Male pilots would later be disciplined by the ACA for taking part in the Boston meeting.) Dubbed “The Queen of the Air”, Harriet flew on the first day, a Saturday, taking with her on one flight William Henry “Harry” Willard (1890-1962), one of the meeting manager’s sons, who had won a toss of a cent coin with his father to take the passenger seat in the Blériot. Sandbags would normally be required if the seat behind the pilot was not occupied. Fatefully, Harry’s 48-year-old father, William Augustus Putnam Willard Jr, decided to fly with Harriet on the Monday. The 190lb Bill Willard perhaps felt that, after agreeing to Harriet’s stiff terms, he was also entitled to a ride. There were no events on the Sunday (Harriet never flew on the Sabbath anyway).
On the Monday, Harriet took the pilot’s seat for one last flight at 5.45pm. As Willard boarded, a spectator yelled in jest, “Throw Bill into the bay, Miss Quimby, before you come back.” More ill-timed words have never been spoken. According to The Boston Globe’s full-page coverage the next morning, the first theory about this tragic flight was that Harriet had suffered an attack of vertigo and lost control of her plane. It was merely the most immediate of many theories to emerge over the ensuing days and years, but today the cause of the deaths of Harriet and Willard remains a mystery. The most likely - other than a design fault in the Blériot - is that for some reason Willard stood up from his seat. Stevens maintained Willard had “suddenly strained forward to speak to Miss Quimby”. Willard was tossed out of the plane first. The Blériot’s tail rose sharply and Harriet was also catapulted out. The two bodies hit four feet of muddy water in Dorchester Bay, 200 feet from the shore. An autopsy by Dr Fred E. Jones that night found Harriet had died on impact, of a fractured skull, a broken right leg and two broken arms. She was the 42nd aviator to die to that date that year.
Harriet was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. Among those who attended her memorial service in New York was Lee Spear Burridge, inventor of the Sun and the first Underwood portable typewriter - and a man with a great interest in aviation. The following year Harriet’s remains were moved to the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.