• K.E. Berr

Harriet Quimby

Across the English Channel


On April 16, 1912, two pilots would cross the English Channel. One would die when their plane crashed to the sea below. The other would be Harriet Quimby. Quimby was an ambitious woman, with great resilience that took her further than many women of her day ever did. Harriet Quimby is probably the most ambitious woman I've researched so far, and I can only hope that I can one day take myself as far as she took herself.

Harriet Quimby poses for a photograph in the cockpit of her Moisant monoplane in 1911.

Harriet Quimby was a pilot and was the first American woman to earn her pilot's license. Not only did she fly competitively as well as with a performance team, but she was the first woman to fly a plane across the English Channel.

Early Life

Harriet Quimby was born sometime in May of 1875. It's unclear exactly where she was born, but most historians believe it was in the area of Coldwater, Michigan. No birth certificate for Quimby has ever been found, meaning the date and location of her birth are unclear.

Her parents, William and Ursula Quimby were poor farmers who lived on a rural farm. She had one older sister, Kittie, and several older siblings who had died in infancy. Eventually, the farm failed and the family moved away from Michigan.

It's unclear what they did before 1884, but that year, they moved to Arroyo Grande, California. There, the family ran a small general store. It's not known, but it's likely that the store struggled to bring in money, which led the family to move to the San Francisco area. The change didn't help and the family continued to struggle financially, doing whatever they could to make ends meet. Quimby, along with her mother and sister, mixed and packaged their own herbal remedies, which her father would sell from his wagon. Quimby also picked up spare money by sewing together sacks for local fruit vendors.

Quimby would later claim that she was born in 1874, sometimes 1884, to a wealthy Californian family. She also told people that she had travelled around the world, studying in some of the most prestigious schools in America and Europe. No one knows exactly why she made these claims, but it's thought that she did so in order to seem like she had come from a more prestigious background than she did.

Journalism Career

Sometime before 1900, Quimby moved to San Francisco. In a 1900 San Franciscan census, Quimby appeared and was listed as an actress. Though she had a career as an actress during this time, there are no known acting credits to her name. The only movie she acted in was the 1909 D.W. Griffith movie Lines of White on a Sullen Sea, where she played 'fishermaiden'.

Quimby fit into the Californian lifestyle very well. Women in California during the early 1900s were more progressive. They didn't fit into normal societal roles. Instead, they went to college or university, didn't marry and followed careers. There's no evidence that Quimby attended university, but she too decided not to marry in order to follow her career.

Quimby poses for a photograph in one of her favourite dresses. Likely taken in the early 1900s.

In 1902, Quimby took a position writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Review, as well as writing contributions to Sunday editions of the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Call. Soon, she was one of the cities top journalists, and one of the first to use a typewriter.

Quimby liked California, but she wanted more than the city could offer her. So, with typewriter in tow, Quimby moved to New York City in 1903. There, she worked for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly and often freelanced for other prominent New York publications. Many of her articles varied in topic but were all related to her life. Sometimes, she offered women tips on everyday household chores, while at other times, they were for the 'modern woman' and gave advice on finding employment, handling money, living on a single income, politics and even tips for repairing automobiles. Quimby had had to discover all of these things for herself, as she handled her own money, supported both herself and her mother, and was involved in politics as much as a woman could be at the time.

Quimby with her parents, William (left) and Ursula (centre).

Her articles were incredibly popular, and she took up an official position as a drama critic with Leslie's in 1905. In her new position, she travelled around the city, writing articles and reviews on various plays. She also earned an increase in her pay. With this, she moved her parents into an apartment with her and was able to support all three of them.

Quimby also had the financial freedom to travel. She travelled throughout the world, going to Cuba, Mexico, Egypt and Europe. Instead of reviewing plays, she instead began to write about her travels. She also took up photography to accompany her pieces. For her work, Quimby won several awards. She also gained a lot of notoriety and became a bit of a celebrity, even getting the opportunity to meet other celebrities of her day.

Quimby is pictured with two racers after taking a ride around the track in their automobile.

In 1906, Quimby was sent on an assignment to cover an auto race that was being put on at the Vanderbilt Racetrack. While there, she was able to convince one of the racers to let her join him in his automobile. During the ride, they went over 100MPH. Quimby loved the freedom and excitement of the ride. She quickly learned to drive and bought her own automobile. Automobiles weren't very common at the time and a woman driving was even rarer, so Quimby stood out whenever she drove her own bright yellow automobile.

Interest in Aviation

In 1910, Quimby found a new fascination: aviation. That year, she wrote a piece on a Japanese aeronaut which sparked her interest and led to her doing her own research into it.

That's why in October of the same year she decided to cover the first air meet in the US, where pilots from all over the country would be meeting. She arrived in Long Island and attended the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament. This meet was popular with pilots, but it was also popular with spectators, who had likely never seen planes before. Hoping to impress those watching, pilots often performed incredibly daring and death-defying feats. This awed Quimby, who spent the day watching the stunts and various races.

But just watching wasn't enough for her. She needed something more, she needed to fly her own plane. That's when she met a winner from one of the races, John Moisant. At the time, Moisant was well known for having flown around the Statue of Liberty. This may not seem impressive nowadays, but in 1910, when planes weren't even 10 years old, this was an incredible feat.

Quimby (left) pictured with Matilde Moisant (right). Moisant would earn her flying license less than a month after Quimby.

As the story goes, after first meeting Moisant at the air meet, Quimby saw him dining at the Hotel Astor that same evening. She joined him and asked him to teach her how to fly. Moisant, probably thinking she wasn't serious, agreed. Moisant took an interest in Quimby, as she reminded him of his sister Matilde, who had similar ambitions.

Quimby was excited, there were very few flying schools at the time and many refused to teach women. Even the Wright Brothers flying school refused women. Luckily for Quimby, Moisant and his brother Alfred were in the process of opening their own school, the Moisant Aviation School, and Quimby would be one of the first to enter as soon as it opened.

However, the school would experience a setback before it had even opened. In December of 1910, Moisant attended an air meet in New Orleans. While taking part in an event, Moisant was thrown from his plane. He broke his neck and later died.

A Blériot XI-2, a plane similar to the Moisant Monoplane. The Blériot was the most popular plane at the time.

It's hard to understand how deadly planes were back then, considering that nowadays planes are one of the safest ways to travel. In the early 1900's, when planes were still new, it wasn't the same story. Back then, planes weren't much more than wood and glue with an engine, like the Blériot pictured (Moisant flew a Moisant Monoplane, not a Blériot, but the two are very similar). There was no safety equipment, many weren't even equipped with a seatbelt. Plane crashes were incredibly common, and even when they didn't crash, pilots were easily ejected. Many people, both pilots and passengers, died in the early days of aviation.

Even with the death of her friend, Quimby still pushed on. In April of 1911, the Moisant School of Aviation opened. Quimby was enrolled by May, though she wasn't the only woman there. Matilde joined her and they became quick friends, even sharing in a friendly rivalry to see who would become a licensed pilot first.

Lessons could be costly at $2.50 (roughly $66 in 2020) per minute. But Quimby, being as clever as usual, struck up a deal with Leslie's. If they would finance her lessons, she would write articles about flying, which was sure to attract readers. They agreed, and Quimby's deal worked, as her articles attracted more readers than before.

The lessons were short, including only two to five minutes in the air with the rest of the time being spent studying the mechanics of flying. Quimby quickly learned the basics of flying, and could not only fly a plane but knew about its mechanics.

The first students of the Moisant Flight School. Matilde stands to the left of instructor Andre Houpert, while Quimby stands on his right.

Quimby's articles focused on the details of flying, such as the uses of different equipment and the mechanics behind flying. Sometimes her articles focused on how a lady should dress if she were to fly. Mostly, though, they focused on her own experiences of being in the air.

Her articles only increased in popularity. Soon, the press realized that she was attempting to become the first American woman to earn her license and she became a constant in the media. She was constantly gracing the pages of various papers and magazines, they even began trying to photograph her at her lessons, though she was likely the one who tipped them off.

In order to avoid the press, as well as the scrutiny of any disapproving male students, Quimby took lessons around four in the morning and often dressed as a man. However, when the press did catch up with her, they were surprised by her talents. She excelled during her lessons and was a natural aviator.

After just 33 lessons, totalling less than five hours in the air, Quimby applied for her license. In order to get it, Quimby had to make several turns on the ground, perform several figure eights in the air and land her plane within 165 feet of her departure point. She performed all tasks well, even landing less than eight feet away from her departure point; a new record for accuracy. She passed, and on August 1, 1911, she became the first American woman to earn a pilot's license. She was given License #37 from the Aero Club of America.

A colourized photo of Quimby in her purple flying suit.

Aviation Career and Other Ventures

After earning her license, Quimby was invited to join the Moisant International Aviators, a travelling exhibition team. Being on the team made Quimby want to establish her own persona. So, she designed her own flying costume. It was incredibly unique from others considering it was a suit made from bright purple satin.

Quimby's skill in a plane was evident, and she soon earned the nicknames "Dresden China Aviatrix" and "China Doll". Less than a month after earning her license, she won her first race and received $600 (or $16 000 nowadays). On September 4, 1911, Quimby flew over the Richmond County Fair on Staten Island. Watching her seven-minute performance was a crowd of between 15 000 to 20 000 spectators. For this performance, she earned $1500 ($40 000 today), as well as the title of the first woman to fly at night and even more fame. After this performance, whenever Quimby performed, she drew increasingly larger crowds.

At the end of 1911, the team travelled to Mexico to perform for the inauguration of President Francisco Madero. For this, she earned yet another title; the first woman to fly over Mexico City. By this point, Quimby was a constant in the media and the public couldn't get enough of her.

Despite her blossoming career in aviation, Quimby continued writing for Leslie's. Her stories were about all of her new adventures flying with the team. She also speculated about the future of flight and the potential for women within it. In order to recruit more people to the sport, she also dispelled any safety concerns around it. She explained how safe it could be and proved it by showing that she was an incredibly safe pilot. Quimby was notoriously safe when it came to flying. Whenever she was set to fly, she followed a checklist that ensured the safety of her plane. She also regularly had her plane checked by mechanics and almost never flew without her seatbelt.

But Quimby didn't just write for Leslie's, she also wrote several screenplays in 1911. By then, she had made the acquaintance of D.W. Griffith, one of the men who helped to found Hollywood and is now primarily known for The Birth of a Nation. He was eager to pick up her work and all of her scripts were eventually made into films. Unfortunately, it seems that they've all been lost since the time they were made.

An ad for Vin Fiz Grape Soda starring Quimby.

Quimby also became the face of Vin Fiz Grape Soda. With her bright purple suit, she was the perfect spokesperson to represent their bright purple drink. She was actually the second pilot to become a spokesperson for the company. The first had been Calbraith Perry Rodgers who had flown in the Vin Fiz Flyer during his cross country flight in 1911.

While Quimby's ad campaign was meant to popularize the little known drink, it didn't work. Really, Vin Fiz Grape Soda just didn't taste very good.

The English Channel

Quimby wanted to take her flying career even further, by doing something no other woman had done before. She wanted to cross the English Channel.

Very few pilots had ever done this. The first one to cross it was Louis Blériot in 1909, barely three years before Quimby. No women had ever done it, at least not successfully.

Though Quimby decided on the idea in late 1911, she didn't sail to England until March of 1912. There, she was able to convince The Daily Mirror into sponsoring her flight in exchange for giving them an exclusive story. She also met with pilot Gustav Hamel, who was to help her plan and navigate the flight.

Hamel believed that the flight was too dangerous and Quimby would never be able to do it. Apparently, Hamel offered to dress in a purple suit and make the flight for her. Quimby didn't seem to think the offer was as funny as Hamel did. She refused it and insisted that she could make the flight. In order to avoid any more doubt of her abilities, she made sure to keep her plans a secret.

The next step of her plan was to travel to France, where she would meet Blériot. When he heard her plans, he supported her and agreed to let her borrow a 50-horsepower Blériot monoplane (similar to the one pictured above). With her experience flying a Moisant plane, she would easily be able to pick up on how to fly a Blériot, which meant less time wasted on practicing.

However, just because they were similar didn't make it an easy flight. The Blériot had one long wing that stretched across the front of the plane and it would often cause the plane to twist. It was also extremely lightweight because it was only made of wood and wire, with a skeletal tail and canvas covering the front. The pilot sat in a suspended chair and had a controlling lever and steering bar by their feet. There was also no windshield, meaning the pilot had no protection from any oil that leaked from the engine. The plane was unsteady and tended to tilt in flight, something that would be dangerous anywhere but was made worse by flying over the open water. If Quimby's plane did tilt while she was flying, she would also have no seatbelt and no parachute. She also had nothing to help her navigate, save for a compass that she had just learned to use. If she went too far off course, she would crash into the sea.

Quimby was prepared to make her flight, but her hopes were quickly dashed. Two weeks before she was set to take off, she learned that another woman had crossed the channel. Her name was Eleanor Trehawke Davies and she had crossed as a passenger in a flight with Hamel as the pilot. This didn't discourage Quimby, though as she realized that even though she wouldn't be the first woman to cross the channel in a plane, she would still be the first woman to fly a plane over the channel.

The flight would be difficult and Quimby was worried about the danger of attempting it. After being given the plane by Blériot, she never had a chance to practice before she was set to fly. Due to high winds, every day she was meant to practice while in France was cancelled.

Quimby reflects at the Blériot Monument shortly before her flight. Blériot had flown the opposite way that Quimby had, and a monument in the shape of a plane was built in his honour.

April 16, 1912, was the day Quimby was to fly across the English Channel. She was to take off from Dover, England around five in the morning. That day, however, the weather was cold and grey and a heavy fog had set in. As Quimby left Dover, the visibility only got worse. The fog became thicker and Quimby was forced to constantly switch between flying at lower and higher altitudes in order to find a break in the fog. To make things worse, the winds also began to pick up and the already unstable plane began to tilt. She couldn't fly any faster than 75 kilometres (47 miles) and it was difficult to fight against the strong winds.

Quimby also had to worry about reading her compass and her watch. Because the fog was so thick, she couldn't see the land below her, so she had to time how long she had been in the air. If she realized she had been in the air too long, it meant she had flown past her planned landing spot. If she hadn't been in the air long enough, then she would land in the ocean.

At one point, the plane tilted far enough over that Quimby nearly fell out. This caused gas to flood her engine and it began to sputter as she flew. She was nearly forced to make an emergency landing in the water, but her plane quickly steadied itself and the gas burned off, helping the engine to recover.

After less than an hour in the air, she spotted a stretch of beach below her. She landed and found herself just outside of Hardelot, France, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from her original landing destination of Calais.

She had successfully become the first woman to cross the English Channel.

Quimby arrives in Hardelot to cheers.

The people of Hardelot welcomed her to cheers. They carried her down the beach on their shoulders and the entire town celebrated her and her accomplishment. Considering her fame and the deal she had struck with The Daily Mirror, she expected the same reception from the media.

Unfortunately for Quimby (and 1500 other people), the Titanic had sunk on April 15 and news began to hit the papers on April 16; the same day Quimby made her flight. The news was dominated by talk of the Titanic, and most chose not to cover Quimby's flight. Those that did moved their articles and buried her story within their papers. Even The Daily Mirror moved their story from the beginning of their paper to page eight.

Those that did hear of her accomplishments celebrated her. When she returned to New York, many were hoping to hire her to perform at their air meets. Quimby was glad and quickly returned to travelling the country, performing for audiences and writing articles for Leslie's.

Final Flight

On July 1, 1912, Quimby agreed to perform at the third annual Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet. It was the second day of the meet and audiences were eager to see her perform. It would also be one of the first times she flew her new, two-seater, 70-horsepower Blériot airplane.

She flew throughout the day, but by the end of the day, she was allowing people to ride with her. Many of the competitive events had ended and the flights were meant to be leisurely and only for show. Riding with her would be event manager William A.P. Willard, who had won in a coin toss against his son to see who would get the first ride with Quimby.

They took off around six in the evening. The meet was ending for the day and the crowd had shrunk to about 5000 people. They flew around the Boston Harbour, reaching an impressive 3000 feet. After about 20 minutes, they began their descent.

After reaching about 1500 feet, the plane suddenly lurched, causing the plane to nosedive. This threw Willard from his seat and he fell 1500 feet and landed in the mudflats below. He died on impact.

An unknown man (far left) rushes towards a crowd as he carries the body of Quimby, who had fallen from her plane only moments before.

Seconds later, horrified crowds watched as Quimby was also thrown from her plane. Horrified and powerless, 5000 people watched as she plunged towards the earth. She landed 300 feet from shore, likely dying instantly.

It's unclear why the plane lurched forward, but there are several theories. One theory suggests that the cables of the plane became tangled. Another suggests that mid-descent, Willard shifted his weight, throwing off the already unstable plane. But, with no passengers, the plane quickly recovered and landed upside down in the mudflats. Ironically, it suffered minimal damage, although the extent of its damage has been debated.

Quimby still had a lot planned at the time of her death. On July 7, she had planned to fly a bag of mail nonstop from Boston to New York. She was also still writing articles, and a draft of her final article was published in September of 1912 in Good Housekeeping. Her final article discussed why women should get involved in aviation. In total, she published over 250 articles in nine years.

73 people would die in aviation accidents in 1912, and Quimby was number 43. At the time of her death, she was only 37 and July 1 had marked 11 months of having her pilot's license.

Quimby was buried in Woodlawn Cemetary in Valhalla, New York. Later, she was moved to Kenisco Cemetary, also in Valhalla.

The 1991 stamp featuring Quimby.

Legacy

In 1991, Quimby was featured on a 50-cent airmail stamp. On the stamp, she can be seen in her purple suit, with her Blériot airplane in the background. The stamp also credits her as a pioneer pilot.

One hundred years after her death, in 2012, Quimby would be inducted into the Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame.

Quimby's legacy would live on. For decades, it's inspired female pilots, including one Amelia Earhart.

Conclusion

Harriet Quimby may be unknown now, but in her time, she was an extraordinary pilot. Not only was she an extraordinary pilot, but she was a journalist, screenwriter and incredibly accomplished woman. She was radical, and maybe that's why no one remembers her anymore. Maybe she just accomplished too much, made too many unaccomplished men angry.

Or maybe we don't remember her because she just never had the grace of being first. She accomplished a lot, but she wasn't the first woman to earn her pilot's license; she was the seventh. She wasn't the first woman to fly across the English Channel; she was the second. She was ambitious, but she shared her ambitions with other women.

In the end, I don't think she would care that she wasn't the first. I think that Quimby would've been proud to know that there were other women who had the same dreams as her. But more than that, I think she would've been proud to know that she and the other women around her inspired girls for generations after them.


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