From the Desk of David Bristow: Take a Cat on Your Next Airship Voyage

Bristow_DavidDavid Bristow is an associate director at the Nebraska State Historical Society, where he serves as the journal editor of Nebraska History and book editor for the society’s scholarly and popular books. He is the author of Sky Sailors: True Stories of the Balloon Era and A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of Nineteenth Century Omaha.

 

Take a Cat on Your Next Airship Voyage

Walter Wellman was a famous journalist, polar explorer, and airship captain in the early twentieth century. But at the very peak of his celebrity in 1910, he was suddenly upstaged by a cat.

Just as he is going to be in this post.

Fame is a strange thing, and it’s grown even stranger in the era of mass media and instant communication. In my book Flight to the Top of the World: The Adventures of Walter Wellman I show that the race to the North Pole and the birth of aviation overlapped with the growth of modern media culture: instant news, novelty, sensationalism, and superficial celebrity.

The cat’s story begins one night in August 1910 when he and a litter-mate were stuffed in a bag and thrown from an automobile in Atlantic City. The kittens were rescued by the night watchman at Wellman’s new airship hangar. The barnlike structure at the end of the Boardwalk housed the 228-foot-long dirigible airship America, in which Wellman planned to make the first aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

01 M._Vaniman_and_cat LOC
Airship engineer Melvin Vaniman and Kiddo. Library of Congress

A dog killed one of the kittens, but the other—dubbed “Kiddo” by Wellman’s crew—soon found himself promoted to ship’s mascot. He was to bring good luck to the six-man crew as they attempted a feat that was widely considered foolhardy, if not suicidal.

Kiddo is a minor figure in my book, but since I’m now writing a blog post and want to get your attention in a crowded media environment, I chose to lead with the cat. My only regret is that there’s no known film footage that I could post as a cat video.

Things weren’t so different in 1910. To put it in modern terms, Kiddo went viral.

If you don’t mind spoilers, here’s how the story played out. By 1910 Wellman was becoming an object of ridicule after a series of highly-publicized failed attempts to pilot the America to the North Pole. He was desperate for redemption. At last, the America set out across the ocean on October 15.

The United States and Europe held its collective breath. The America sent bulletins by newfangled wireless telegraph, then fell silent. Days passed. Then came news of a dramatic rescue at sea near Bermuda. The America had remained airborne for three days and traveled nearly a thousand miles as strong winds carried it far from its intended course.

This happened at a time when “aeroplanes” still looked like box kites, and German zeppelins had only recently begun making long-distance flights over land. It was like something from a Jules Verne novel. It didn’t matter that the crossing was a failure. It captured the public imagination and made Wellman a hero.

The future was coming fast. Some thought aerial transportation would bring the world together in a new era of peace. Others warned of devastating wars of aerial bombardment. Wellman himself said his flight proved that no city was safe, and he tried unsuccessfully to convince Congress to fund an aerial navy for coastal defense.

02 08853u America seen from Trent 1910-10-15
The airship America as seen from the S.S. Trent, October 18, 1910, before the men took to the lifeboat. Library of Congress

But amid all the bold talk of a technological future, people found something smaller and more delightful to think about:

“You must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat,” wrote navigator Murray Simon in the New York Times. “We have found our cat more useful to us than any barometer.”

The public couldn’t get enough of Kiddo. The Times reported that he had protested so much during the launch that the crew tried unsuccessfully to lower him in a bag to a boat full of reporters. (First wireless message from an airship at sea: “ROY COME AND GET THIS GODDAM CAT.”) By the end of the flight, however, the men were so attached that they ensured Kiddo’s comfort even as they took to the lifeboat.

Upon the crew’s triumphal entry into New York Harbor, people wanted to look at the cat, pet him, feed him, or buy him, and there were rumored plots afoot to steal him. He was briefly displayed in the front window of Gimbels department store in Manhattan, and the New-York Tribune published a lighthearted poem in his honor:

Let Tabitha and Thomas Cat

Whose home is in a Harlem flat,

Meow and purr most gently at

The cat that flew with Wellman.

(etc.)

Hampton’s Magazine paid Wellman a handsome sum for an exclusive article about the voyage, but neither Wellman nor his crew were pictured on the cover. In their place was “The Good Luck Cat.”

03 Hamptons Jan 1911 original size
Kiddo on a 1911 magazine cover. The same issue touts a purported confession by explorer Dr. Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached the North Pole.

This public obsession provoked a New York Times editorial wondering what the fuss was all about. The editors concluded that it had something to do with a cat being so comically out of place on an aerial voyage, and also that it reflected nobly on the crew that even in their hour of danger they did not “forget the one passenger who made the desperate voyage by compulsion.”

Fame was like that in the new advertising-and-technology-fueled media environment. For all the talk about aeronautics, science, and discovery, few people actually cared about these things except to the degree that they made them feel something out of the ordinary. Wellman understood this. It was how he convinced newspapers to fund his expeditions in the first place.

Wellman’s moment of triumph was brief. He retired from aeronautics and faded into obscurity. His chief engineer, Melvin Vaniman, adopted Kiddo as mascot for his own trans-Atlantic airship. Kiddo joined Vaniman’s five-man crew for at least one test flight but wasn’t aboard when the airship burst in midair in 1912. “The Good Luck Cat” made one final public appearance at a fundraiser for the crewmembers’ widows.

 

 

 

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