AUGUST   2020


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I suppose it seemed like a good idea in the beginning. There were three serious contestants, and a $50,000 first place prize. But in retrospect, it should have been obvious that nobody was going to collect a dime of that money. It was 1911; flying was still brand new and the world’s first two pilots were still flying - Wilbur and Orville Wright - and still learning The world's third pilot was Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and he had died on September 17, 1908, in a crash that also badly injured Orville. The second pilot to die was Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame), in a 1910 crash. Considering there were only about 100 men (and one woman) with flying licenses in America in 1911, two percent was an appalling death  rate, bad enough to make you wonder why anybody would have wanted to even try flying, let alone try it from coast to coast.
The world’s 49th licensed pilot was a shy, cocky, 6’4” thirty-something, cigar smoking, playboy and adrenaline junkie with a hearing loss and a speech impediment named Calbraith Perry Rogers (above -right). He was a romantic who favored action over words, as proven by the way he met his wife, 20 something Mabel Groves (above, left). He saw her slip off a dock and fall into the water. So assuming she was drowning, he jumped in and pulled her to safety. Within a few months he married her, despite the hat. He approached flying with the same spontaneity, but it quickly developed into a mission..
 Having seen his first airplane on a visit to Dayton, Ohio, in June of 1911, Cal took the full Wright Brother’s flight course (above),  all 90 minutes of it. Mabel explained that flying filled the hole in his life by his deafness which had excluded a military career. It was, she said "the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle". 
Then Cal talked his mother, Maria, into loaning him $5,000 so he could buy a Wright Model B Flyer “E-X”. The "X" was for experimental – which was a joke because every “airplane” was experimental in 1911. But Cal may also have been the origin of the phrase to “take a flyer”, because just two months later, in August, he entered his new Wright Flyer in an air show in Chicago and took home third prize, worth $11, 285.  Not bad: Cal had been a pilot for 60 days and already he had made six grand profit. He suspected there might be money in this flying thing.
And this was confirmed in October of 1910 when the Hearst newspaper chain had offered $50,000 to the first pilot to make it across the continent in 30 days or less. The offer was set to expire on 10 October. So with his self supplied confidence, Cal decided to go for it. Orville Wright tried to warn him. "There isn't a machine in existence that can be relied upon for 1,000 miles,  and here you want to go over 4,000. It will vibrate itself to death before you get to Chicago."  But Cal refused to give up the idea. He explained, "It's important because everything else I've done was unimportant."  Faced with that level of stubbornness, Orville tried to look at the bright side. At least the Wright B Flyer was so light, said Orville "six good men could carry it across the country."
 What Cal needed, as any NASCAR driver can tell you, was a sponsor. He found his ‘sticker sucker’ in  Mr. J. Odgen Armour, owner of Armour Meat Packing Company, and his new soft drink called “VIN FIZ”.  Allegedly it was grape favored soda water, but one critic thought it tasted more like  “a fine blend of river sludge and horse slop”  With a product like that Mr. Amour was going to need a heck of an advertising campaign. Enter Cal and his flying bill board.
With a guarantee of $23,000 from Amour, and a bonus of $5 per mile east of the Mississippi River, and $4 per mile to the west of the "big muddy", and a corporate three rail car support train complete with a reservoir of spare parts, fuel and mechanics, and sleeping car accommodations for Mable, Cal’s mother Maria,  his cousin, his head mechanic Charlie Taylor, two other mechanics, two general assistants and assorted reporters from the Hearst news service. Suddenly the flight looked possible..
Armour even threw in an automobile (above) to track down Cal whenever he crash landed . With that much corporate funding behind him, Cal figured he had it all figured out. The first problem was that, before Cal even got airborne, his "Vin Fiz" was already in third place.
First off, from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, was motorcycle racer Bob Fowler (above). There were 10,000 cheering people there at 1:35 P.M., on 11 September 1911 to see Bob takeoff.  Like Cal, Bob was piloting a Wright “B” Flyer, except his sponsor was Joseph J. Cole, founder and owner of the Cole Motor Company, of Indianapolis, Indiana. Cole supplied Bob with one of their engines and $7,500. The Cole engine was more powerful than the Wright engine, but it was also 200 lbs heavier. J.J. also gave Bob a support train, with spare parts and his own mother. But "The Cole Flyer" lacked the publicity support that accompanied the "Vin Fizz  Flyer..
Making an average speed of about 55 miles an hour, Bob reached Sacramento in just under 2 hours, and after schmoozing with California Governor Hiram Johnson, Bob flew on to the foothill town of Auburn, for a total distance on the first day of 126 miles. On 12 September he reached Alta, California, where he crashed into some trees. Bob was now out of the race until repairs could be made.
Second to start was James J. (Jimmy) Ward (above),  pilot's license #52, and previously a jockey. He was flying a Curtis Model D,  with floats. Jimmy took off from Governor’s Island in New York harbor on 13 September, 1911. He immediately got lost over New Jersey, and made only twenty miles before crash landing. Then he too had to wait for repairs. The basic tempo of the race had thus been set right from the start; take off, crash, wait for repairs, take off, crash, wait for repairs, and repeat as necessary for 3,000 miles. It was going to be very hard to finish this race, let alone win it.
Before starting himself, Cal Rogers tied a bottle Vin Fiz to one of his wing struts (white circle on the left), “for luck”. For reality, he tied a pair of crutches to another strut, in case he needed them later. He would.
Before a paying crowd of 2,000, a chorus girl poured a bottle of grape soda over the landing skids and proclaimed, “I dub thee “Vin Fiz Flyer””. Cal actually called his plane “Betsy” but he recognized the value of naming fees even back then.
Cal took off from the race course at Sheepshead Bay, Long Island at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, 17 September. And if anybody noticed that it was the third anniversary of the crash that had killed Lieutenant Selfridge, they were polite enough to keep it to themselves.
After take off, Cal buzzed Coney Island and dropped coupons for free Vin Fiz soda (above). Then he flew across Manhattan as the breathless reporters breathlessly reported, “…with its death-trap of tall buildings, ragged roofs and narrow streets”.  Cal landed safely in Middleton, New York that night to a cheering crowd reported as 10,000 – not to be bettered by San Francisco. He had made all of 84 miles that first day. His plan was to average 250 miles a day.
That night the reporters wrote that Cal claimed he would be in Chicago in four days. But Cal  rarely talked to reporters because he barely heard their questions, the byproduct of a scarlet fever attack in his childhood. And he spoke in the clumsy monotone of someone who never heard a human voice.  So it was easier if the the reporters just made up heroic quotes for Cal. They invented more heroic quotes for him the next morning when, on take off,  the "Vin Fiz" hit a tree and ended up in a chicken coop. The bottle of Vin Fiz was "miraculously" undamaged, as proved because it would have been impossible to find another bottle of Vin Fizz aboard a train car named "The Vin Fiz Special".  But now it was Cal’s turn to wait for repairs. The race was on!  It just wasn't going anywhere quickly.
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Sunday, March 22, 2015


I take it as a sign of how low a reputation George Hull had earned even before the Cardiff Giant, that he dare not let the public suspect he had any part of the 2 ½ ton precipitate lump. Hull stayed in the background, while his farmer/cousin William Newell, played the owner and sold a majority share to the Syracuse syndicate. But as December was approaching George decided the secret did not have much longer to live. So he instructed his cousin to sell their remaining ¼ share of the giant. The buyer was Alfred Higgins, the Syracuse agent for American Express, a 3 term alderman for the city of Syracuse, and a lifelong bachelor. It is unclear how much Higgin paid for his share in the unwieldy trinket.
The giant now belonged solely to citizens from Syracuse. Up to then the fame of the town of 40,000 rested on the brine springs on the south side. But now “Salt City”, which supplied preservative to the entire country, could also be known for the entrepreneurship of its most illustrious citizens, David Hannen, Dr. Amos Westcoff, Amos Gilbert, William Spencer, Benjamin A. Son, and now Alfred Higgins. Even the services of Ohio showman Colonel J.W. Wood, were dispensed with The Syracuse Six then proceeded to transport the Cardiff Giant by rail to the Yates Ballroom of the Geological Hall, at State and Lodge streets, in Albany, New York. But Barnum was not to be outdone..
Using the advertisements of the Syracuse Six as a guide, the King of hokum had a plaster giant of his own made and painted to resemble the stone behemoth. And then, because his own museum was still in ashes, Barnum offered his giant for public perusal in Mr. George Wood's (no relation) Museum and Metropolitan Theater, at 1221 Broadway. Barnum's newspaper ads did not, of course, admit to displaying a copy. Barnum asserted the “Albany Giant” was the copy, while Barnum's plaster man was the original.
Readers of the Buffalo Express on Saturday, 15 January, 1870, found an article under the title, “A Ghost Story, by a Witness ”. The author, in Manhattan and short of funds, had moved into an abandoned hotel on Broadway. He was terrorized by groans and apparitions all night long, until the ghost finally appeared and explained, “I am the spirit of the Petrified Man that lies across the street there in the Museum. I am the ghost of the Cardiff Giant. I can have no rest, no peace, till they have given that poor body burial again” To this sad tale the writer responded, “Why you poor blundering old fossil, you have had all your trouble for nothing -- you have been haunting a PLASTER CAST of yourself -- the real Cardiff Giant is in Albany!”
The inventor of all this, George Hull, must have been gobsmacked. How could this reprobate have ever imagined that his fraud, so carefully crafted and executed could be turned inside out - a humbug made of his humbug. It was unbelievable, incredible, absolutely amazing. It was a lesson from the old master himself. You think you know the “con” game, Barnum seemed to be saying You ain't seen nothing yet. The crowds that now jammed Wood's Theater and Museum and the Geological Hall knew their legs were being pulled, and were loving it.
And then a little purple pamphlet appeared for sale in Albany. The title page read, “THE CARDIFF GIANT HUMBUG—THE GREATEST DECEPTION OF THE AGE” The author was Benjamin Gue, editor of the Fort Dodge, Iowa, “North West”. Between the covers were names, dates, bills of lading, interviews and witness statements documenting the creation of the Cardiff Giant, from the 1867 appearance of Mr. Martin in Fort Dodge, through the July 1868 shipment of the stone from Boone, Iowa, to Chicago, to the studio of Eduard Burkhardt, to the giant's arrival in Union, New York. There were eyewitness memorials of the journey to within three miles of the Newell farm in Cardiff. Gue had even uncovered records of the fund transfers between Stub Newell and the evil genius, George Hull. The diligent Mr. Gue had even investigated Mr. Hull's career from marking cards, to selling cigars, to inquiring into Wisconsin Indian burial mounds, to the Cardiff Giant. Most of what we can now confirm about George Hull, we know because of editor Gue. It was a hull of a story.
The pamphlet was on sale for a few hours before someone bought out the entire edition. However, because Mr. Gue had contracted with a printer in Albany, the next day the newsstand was again fully stocked with “The Cardiff Giant Humbug...” The printer and the author didn't care if the pamphlets were being read or being burned. They were just interested in selling them. The Syracuse syndicate issued a statement denouncing the pamphlet as its own fraud. But the truth was, it didn't matter that the public took to calling the giant, “Old Hoaxy” As Barnum said, “Every crowd has a silver lining”.
The crowds in Albany did drop a little after the pamphlet appeared, but unless the giant expanded his repertoire by juggling or doing a soft shoe, once you had seen the Cardiff Giant, there was little interest in seeing it again. So the pamphlet revealing the fraud was just another revenue stream, like Mark Twain's ghost story in the Buffalo paper. Barnum knew the real craft in advertising, or humbug as Barnum called it, is what I call the “Pet Rock” paradigm. People will buy a “pet rock” as long as they know you know that they know its actually just a rock.
It appears the only person who failed to figure out that rule was the horse trader David Hannum (above), who demanded an injunction to stop P.T. Barnum from claiming that his giant (here after referred to as the “Albany Giant”) was the fraud, and not Barnum's giant. 
 The hearing on 2 February, 1870, was held in New York City, before Judge George G. Barnard (above), a Tammany Hall jurist so corrupt that in two years he would be impeached and bared from ever holding public office in New York state again.   On this day he heard the case presented by Hannum and then from Barnum's lawyers, and even from George Hull, who admitted for the first and the only time under oath that he had created the Albany Giant.  Judge Barnard told Mr. Hannum, “Bring your giant here, and if he swears to his own genuineness as a bona fide petrifaction, you shall have the injunction you ask for.” Baring that event, he said, he was out of the “injunction business”.
Leaving the courtroom, David Hannum was asked why he thought his original fake giant, which had moved to New York City in December, was drawing smaller crowds than Barnum's fake fake giant. He shrugged and then uttered the immortal words, “There's a sucker born every minute.”  Barnum was later blamed for the quote, but he never called his customers suckers. Hull and Hannum did. . But the day after Judge Barnard's decision, Barnum's fake fake drew a huge crowd,  while Hannum's original fake drew almost nobody. But on the second day, even Barnum's fake drew only 50 customers, and with that the high drama and farce of the Cardiff Giant was over. The two giants went their separate ways, never having met. And over time they were both reduced to appearing in county fairs, and side shows and finally in museums of fakes and frauds. But, it must be said, they both continue to produce a profit for their owners.
Not long after the lost injunction, David Hannum was on board a train when a man asked him to move over a seat. Hannum refused. Sharply the man demanded, “Do you know who I am? I am P. Elmendorf Sloan, the superintendent for this railroad., and my father is Sam Sloan, president of this railroad.” To which Hannum replied, “ "Do you know who I am? I am David Hannum and I'm the father of the Cardiff Giant."
Like the other investors in the “Albany Cardiff Giant”,  Doctor Amos Westcoff made money. But for whatever reason he rose from the breakfast table on 6 July, 1873 , went upstairs to his bedroom, and shot himself in the neck. He died quickly of blood loss. His partner, Alfred Higgins, never lost faith in the giant, and until his dying day remained convinced it was a petrified man, straight out of the pages of the Holy Bible. The Reverend Turk, blamed for inspiring the Cardiff Giant, died in 1895, in Iowa.  He carried no guilt.
George Hull made a small fortune from his fraud, and invested it in a commercial block in downtown Binghamton, New York. But his profligate lifestyle quickly ran through his profits, and within five years he was almost broke again. He conceived of an even bigger stone giant - this one with a tail. The “Solid Muldoon” was “discovered”outside Pueblo, Colorado on 16 September, 1877, and attracted crowds in Denver and Cheyenne, Wyoming. But by the time the Colorado Giant reached New York City, the scheme had gone bust Gloated a Binghamton newspaper, “This would seem to stop the Giant Man...getting rich without working.” Shortly thereafter, the long suffering Hellen Hull died of consumption at 42 years old. The atheist George allowed her to be buried in a Methodist service. The evil genus himself died broke, living with his daughter in Binghampton on 21 October, 1902. Perhaps the most accurate thing he ever said was “I ought to have made myself rich, but I didn't.”
Barnum's Giant, the fake fraud, currently resides in Farmington Hills, Michigan, inside “Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum”. 
Since 1947, George Hull's original fake has been in Cooperstown, New York, reclining behind a white picket fence inside the “Farmers Museum”. 
And every fall, the folks at the LaFayette Apple Festival, in tiny Cardiff, New York,  provide a walking tour to the Newell farm, the site of the temporary grave for the Cardiff Giant.  They recreate his discovery and exhumation, and I urge you to visit this and the other sites, just to remind yourself to never pass up a chance to laugh at yourself. . It's very healthy. 
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