Ganesha’s curse

The tragic tale of Harriet Quimby, America’s pioneer aviatrix

This is yet another incredible story, and the latter part will be better understood by an Indian. Now you may wonder how Ganesha the elephant-headed God, so revered by Indians, could have anything to do with a woman named Harriet Quimby in America, that too, early in the 20th century. Well, I am gliding into the flying arena again, if you recall my article on Mohan Singh. Harriet Quimby was the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States in 1911, the first to fly a monoplane, the first to do a night flight, and was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912. Starting out as a journalist, she evolved into writing for magazines, doing critiques for dramas, and screenplays, even acting in Hollywood. Quimby then took to flying in 1911 but lost her life a few months later. This is the story of those few months, and of her misadventure with the Hindu God, recounted in her own words.

Most Indian Hindus adore and worship the mischievous, elephant-headed, potbellied god Ganesha. Connected with good luck, chanting of the Ganesha Mantara (Vakratunda mahakaya, surya koti samasthutha – nirvighnam Kurume deva, sarava karyesu sarvada - O Lord with Curved Trunk, one with the huge body, one with the radiance of a million suns, please ensure my actions face no trouble) is a must before doing anything of importance. We seek his blessings before entering a new home, or before commencing any major event or performance. Now how would this aviator be connected to Lord Ganesha, that too as early as 1910, when Americans had little idea about India? That is the incredible story we will get to, but before all that let’s get to know fearless, independent, beautiful, and confident personality - Harriet Quimby.

At a time when the western world lived under Victorian morals, where women stayed at home, cooked and looked after children, Quimby drove a car, wielded a camera, and flew an airplane, much to the consternation of frowning men, who simply disapproved it and resented her actions as well as her entry into an all-male domain. Sadly, for 80 years after she left us, nobody bothered about her exploits and it was only in 1991 that a postage stamp was issued in her honor. While some loved her, many feared her liberated outlook, and a lot ignored this fascinating lady, during her heydays.

In the late 18th century, a few Frenchwomen had taken to ballooning and, in the 19th, we see a few instances of American women doing likewise. But the concept of flight became a reality when the Wright brothers proved its feasibility in 1903 and in March 1910, Raymonde de LaRoche of France became the first lady pilot to get a flying license. Those were the pioneering days of flight, which Quimby was exposed to.

Born to William Quimby and Ursula Cook at Michigan in 1875, Harriet found herself with her parents at Arroyo Grande in California, where they labored on a farm. The 1890s were bad years and William was in and out of jobs, the farm never prospered and her mother, took over the family reins, starting a little herbal potion business and molding Harriet into becoming a journalist. She did become a successful one at that, caricaturing San Francisco and its sights and sounds into very readable articles! Readers took note of the beautiful journalist and even had her portrait hung in the Bohemian club. As the 20th century beckoned, Harriet shunned marriage and drifted Eastwards, to New York, which was the go-to place with its bright lights and its cosmopolitism.

Arriving at the Penn Station in New York in Jan 1903, Harriet quickly got her bearings, and found accommodation in a boarding house, simultaneously figuring out that one had to be street smart to survive in that teeming city. She found gainful employment at the Leslie’s illustrated weekly as a part-time freelance writer and learned to use the typewriter, a device used only by men, in those days! Six months later, after writing theatre reviews and other stories, she had moved into better lodging and had her aging mother move in with her.

Footloose and fiercely independent, she wrote initially about the immigrant communities, the Chinese, the Italians, Germans and Irish, and soon started to travel and become the magazine’s travel correspondent. Visiting Cuba, Europe, the Caribbean, Egypt, South America and Africa, she started to add photographs taken with her camera, to her reports (one photo report of the Hindu coolies in the Caribbean is quite arresting!). It was her experience riding a racing car with a male driver that took her to the edge as one could term it from a risk perspective. In 1906, she then convinced somebody to give her driving lessons, and purchased a car (in those days called a runabout), and drove to work, all unimaginable things for a working girl. The reader should now note that it was a time in history when unladylike acts such as smoking in public, could lead to fines and arrests.

Always on the lookout for newsworthy and unique stories, Harriet Quimby befriended a small group of pioneering aviators at Belmont Park in Long Island NY, in 1910, with the help of her friend Matilde Moisant. At an air show event, she saw a frail wooden plane being flown about, so also dirigibles, monoplanes and biplanes piloted by 24 of the world’s greatest pilots, American, British and French included. Glen Curtiss, whom I had introduced in the Mohan Singh article, was there as well.

At a later airshow, she was introduced to Matilde’s brother John Bevins who happened to be a daredevil pilot. Seeing and writing about his incredible antics convinced her that she too could pilot a plane. John had in the meantime opened an aviation school and both Harriet and Matilde were allowed to join in Spring 1911. Tragically John died in a Dec 1910 air crash, but the two thirty-something ladies did not give up and started classes in May 1911. They had to be disguised as men and trained early in the morning.

But one nosy reporter did espy this intrepid trainee and wrote of a “willowy brunette Dresden China aviatrix with blue eyes” who was learning how to fly, an incredibly controversial topic of that time. A woman trying to fly? Unimaginable! Well, the girls put in the $500-$1,000 fees, a deposit of $1,000-1,500 towards any damages, and spent five weeks learning how to fly the rickety wooden framework plane. No helmets or protective gear were available those days and castor and engine oil spray drenched their faces and dress as they flew along in the cold air, wearing a man’s leather suit and goggles. Her first test in July 1911 went well, but her landing was 100’ off the takeoff location (planes then did not have brakes, to stop motion), and the Aero Club officials were relieved they did not have to pass her.

Determined to succeed, she went at dawn the next day for a retest, undeterred by the low fog on the ground. After a long wait, the fog lifted, but the winds had picked up. Eventually, she took off and completed the various elements of the test admirably. A license had to be issued to this woman, and well, they did, on August 11th, 1911, the first American woman to become a licensed pilot and the 37th pilot in the world. But it must also be mentioned here that there were some women who did fly planes, such as Blanche Scott (later a test pilot for Glen Curtiss) flying since Oct 1910, but who had never applied for licenses. 12 days later Matilde Moisant also got her license, going on to become an equally proficient and daredevil pilot.

I took up flying, " Quimby told reporters, “Because I thought I'd like the sensation. I haven't regretted it. I like motoring but after seeing monoplanes in the air, I could not resist the challenge. The airlanes have neither speed laws or traffic policemen and one need not go all the way around Central Park to get across to Times Square.  Then too, it’s good to be the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license!

Even though it proved difficult, she managed to acquire her own plane from the Moisant factory and in Sept 1911 started flying for a fee, at professional meets, also flying her first night flight, but mind you these were all pretty short flights lasting a few minutes since those early monoplanes were quite difficult to control. In October she became the first person to land a plane in Mexico! But they had to return to the US quickly as a revolution took root and Zapata was gunning for Madero.

It was in Mexico that Harriet decided to try the English Channel crossing, but in secret, as a Miss Craig, lest somebody beat her to the draw. She sailed for Britain with Leo Stevens, a friend and her new manager, in March 2012 and convinced the London Daily mirror sponsor and cover the event in return ($5,000 was offered by a private sponsor) for exclusive rights over the story. A 50HP Louis Breliot XI monoplane would be used for the crossing and she would order and take a 70HP machine back to the states. If the plane was lost, Stevens was to pay Bleriot the cost for the spindly, rickety contraption, considered a fast plane and with many innovations, such as an enclosed fuselage, engine in front of the pilot, assembly in 30 minutes, and so on, rivaling the only other design, the Curtiss monoplane.

As she waited for the weather to clear, Eleanor Trehawke Davis flew across the channel, but as a passenger, taking out some of the novelty. Davis became the first woman to cross the channel in a plane, literally. Quimby, disappointed, was certain that somebody in the Mirror had ratter her out.

Meanwhile, Matilde retired and fortunately for her, the last flight ended with her narrowly escaping death as the plane caught fire after a heavy landing. When WW1 started and her request to fly for the US air force was negated, she joined up with the Red Cross, as a nurse in France. For some reason, Harriet and Matilde till then very thick friends drifted apart.

On April 16th 1912, Harriet took off from Dover and climbed up. Down below in the sea, a tugboat with the Mirror’s reporters followed. In the plane which was by now enveloped in fog, Harriet struggled to read the compass held between her knees, which she was using for the very first time. As she rose to 6000’, the hot water bag around her waist, placed under two layers of silk and woolen suits, hardly helped, but the excitement made her disregard the icy cold. After a harrowing flight of an hour and nine minutes, the plane crossed the 22-mile stretch! Missing Calais, she landed at the village of Hardelot. Hot tea and food were served by the excited fishermen rushing to the spot and a telegram was sent to London. Soon the reporters from the Mirror arrived and a champagne bottle was popped. The English Channel had been conquered.

But it was all not to be. As the reports were being compiled, heralding Quimby and her feat, the press was still busy reporting the mega-disaster - the April 14th tragedy when the ‘unsinkable‘ ocean liner Titanic stuck an iceberg and sank, and 1573 lives were lost. There was no front-page space for Harriet Quimby’s feat! No welcome parade awaited her in London, and she quietly came back to the states. The American press was not too enthusiastic stating that her feat was second to men who had already done it before. Nevertheless Harriet got some press and later became the spokeswoman for Vin Fiz grape soda, and was depicted in articles wearing her trademark purple satin flying suit.

The next event she participated in, was the Boston air meet in July 1912. Blanche Scott had registered too, so also many others, but the top draw was Harriet, the queen of the Channel crossing, flying her new 70HP Bleriot. It was a tricky plane to fly, with a heavy engine up front, and equilibrium was key. Sandbags behind the pilot kept it on even keel. During practice flights, Quimby did have some dangerous movements, but she seemed to have managed to learn the machine’s quirkiness. She was confident and believed also that her many lucky talismans would ward off any ill luck. As you can imagine, flying in those days was a very risky business and the planes were very frail and cumbersome. Aviators, therefore, tended to be quite superstitious and Quimby too wore a number of bracelets and necklaces to protect her from mishaps.

As usual, that July, she fingered her good luck charms nervously when she came in, but there was one object which had not accompanied her this time. In fact, she had penned a lengthy article about that object, a little brass idol of Lord Ganesha, just a few weeks ago. She had picked it up at London, before the Channel crossing, it had previously been owned by a French pilot, who had bad luck with it, who then gave it to another man, who too had ill luck and finally, it was sent off to the Daily Mirror’s office, for disposal.

So, let’s see what she had to say about the idol. Quoting Harriet Quimby….

It is a curious thing but all women flyers are superstitious. And again, it isn’t so curious either. All people who follow a calling in which chance enters largely are superstitious. My superstition is Ganesha, a little ancient brass idol. He brought me such bad luck and was such a misbehaved person that I simply had to kill him. So, he had his little brass head sawed off and he's been wonderfully behaved ever since. You must not laugh when I tell you that I think there is something to the little beast. He looked so grumpy and so eerie that he used to give me the shivers, although the beast was quite likeable at first. The idol had an elephant head, on a man-like body, with two legs crossed and a third leg very conveniently stuck out of his elbow. He also had three arms, all busy, and a very fat stomach. Unlike Buddha, who sits and broods over the earth, Ganesha showed his potential for a lively disposition. One hand held an axe, another a hook, and the third a stone. The free foot looked as if it might kick out from the shoulder at any moment

When first I saw him, it was in the office of the London Daily Mirror. He was in with other talismans and idols who had brought their owner’s bad luck. The Daily Mirror decided to round up these misbegotten omens of ill-luck. Thousands poured in from all over the city. This Saturday afternoon when I retrieved the little brass idol, he was ready for the funeral pyre. At the time I did not know of his unsavory past.

I tied him to my Bleriot on my Channel crossing. As I said he was so likable at first, I wished him to be my good luck charm, but I also wore my jewelry. Perhaps he was the cause of the foul weather over the Channel and my difficulty with the engine. Thinking back my lucky jewelry probably neutralized his power during my flight.

Harriet then goes on to explain the reverses - The Ganesha idol had been tied to the 50 HP Bleriot. She thought that her problems handling the plane initially, as well as the foggy weather, were due to the idol. She also assumed that the matter of Davis beating her to the draw as well as the fact that the man who offered her $5,000 for the crossing had also gone back on his word, were all due to Ganesha. Later on, she had problems clearing the new 70HP Bleriot at US customs and that was when she really started to suspect Ganesha.

"I believe he meant to do things I accused him of, it seemed to me that way, So I spanked him and set him out as a paperweight, a humiliating position for one so ancient. It was no use. He simply would not behave, His tricks were just as mean and unfriendly, Then I took a hammer to him, but your true aristocrat is tenacious of life and I couldn't dent him anywhere." Quimby then took strong and irrevocable action, "I decided he should die after holding court over him and rehearsing his evil actions, in this Court of convenience, he did not even have the benefit of counsel or a Jury trial. He had to die. Afterward I was sorry for him, but law is law, and the sentence had to be carried out. But how?"

Obviously, he could not be electrocuted or hanged, nor poisoned nor shot for his misbehaved soul was solid brass. In the midst of my problem a reporter suggested that Ganesha should have his head cut off. That is a fitting end for any gentleman, and according to ancient custom quite the proper thing. In the engraving room of the newspaper are some glittering circular saws that go through brass like a knife through cheese.

So, I took Ganesha into the darkened engraving room that was to be his death chamber and had a worker hold him in front of the saw. Nervously I noted him lying on the steel table as the saw's sharp teeth tried to do their work. Suddenly the saw stopped cutting. Ganesha was not willing to die. The workman examined Ganesha, he demanded to know what kind of brass went into this stubborn little aristocrat. I could not tell except that it must be very tough, quite appropriate to Ganesha’s disposition. It took two saw blades before the shrieking stooped and his head flew off. He was too hot to touch for a while, but when I cooled him off in water, he seemed a sorry sight. Now I still have him on my desk as a paperweight. When he behaves he can have his head back, but the minute he starts any of his old tricks, I‘ll take his head away from him.

Since he lost his head a week ago, things have gone splendidly, now maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, his former influence, but just the same, things are going better. I am going to let him wear his head a full day, sometime soon, to see if I have cured him of his unsavory ways.

July 12th - 1912 – Boston – Harriet Quimby emerged from the hangar in her plum outfit, talked to reporters, grandly stating that she had no plans to crash the plane into the icy waters.  The mechanic and her manager gave the thumbs up on the plane, all seemed OK. William Willard, the manager of the Boston air meet decided to ride pillion behind her. Soon the plane was off, for a 27-mile ride. After the circuit around Boston light, she looped back, gliding sharply from 5000’ to 2000’. Suddenly the plane’s tail rose sharply and Willard was tossed out of the aircraft. The plane was quickly unbalanced, and Quimby, fighting for control, tried to get the nose back up. The nose did rise up and for the onlookers below, it seemed Quimby had regained control. A split second later, the tail again kicked up, the plane went into a nosedive, and Quimby was thrown out of her aircraft. The two bodies continued their death plunge into the shallow waters, while the Bleriot righted itself and quietly glided itself to a stop in the mud. Blanche Scott, the other woman pilot who was in the air, witnessed the tragedy from above.

Had there been seat belts, the accident could have been avoided. Onlookers, including Stevens, opined that the impulsive 190lbs Willard had leaned forward to speak to Quimby, unbalancing the plane. But that was just theory, like others who said it was due to too steep a glide, a gust of wind, broken rudder wires, lifting tailplanes and what not.  Anyway, Harriet Quimby, the pioneering pilot, the bird woman, the bluebird (her costume was actually purple and designed by herself) the typewriter lady, the one who could repair her car herself, was no more. A terrible newspaper headline, echoing the times and showing an incredible lack of respect, stated - Little Miss Dresden China Broken at Last!

Tragically, the pioneering pilot’s life was snuffed out in this accident, and most people forgot her, till the stamp was released in 1991. As Joshua Stoff of the Air and Space Museum stated - Harriet Quimby was clearly a risk taker in all aspects of her life and career, a gutsy, passionate, beautiful woman with fire in her eye and a backbone of steel-living in a man's world and loving every minute of it-but always keeping her striking femininity firmly intact.

Matilde Moisant never flew again and died in 1964. Blanche Scott retired from flying in 1916 and worked in the films as a scriptwriter and later did radio shows. On September 6, 1948, Scott became the first American woman to fly in a jet when she was the passenger in a TF-80C piloted by Chuck Yeager. She died in Jan 1970. Stevens went back to creating and patenting safety equipment for pilots including the parachute, became an army instructor. He passed away in 1944.


The article Harriet Quimby wrote about her Ganesha and excerpted verbatim was published in the World magazine two weeks after her death, with one of her later biographers opining that it was perhaps originally written so, for publicity. Some believe that the Ganesha Hoodoo story was concocted later.

Quimby had apparently placed Ganesha’s head back on the damaged idol before she left for that fated Boston flight, for the Ganesha was found sitting, head restored, on her desk at Leslie's Weekly, after Quimby had fallen to her death. It is not clear what happened to the idol after that, but most likely it found its way to a local trash heap.  

While those who do not believe in such things might say that her ill-luck returned after she replaced the head on Ganesha’s severed neck, detractors would say that she should never have disrespected the holy idol. However much admirable her story and character are, any Hindu would affirm without any doubt, that her callous attitude to the idol, resulted in misfortune.

Then again, this is what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?

References and inputs from...Acknowledged with many thanks.

Her mentor was an Albatross – The autobiography of pioneer pilot Harriet Quimby – Henry M Holden
The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook – Giacinta Bradley Koontz

Mohan Singh – The enigma 



harimohan said...

Gutsy lady,Another Ganeshas fancy dress but tempted to say she would need no accident to meet her end if it was another decapitated God

Maddy said...

Yeah, that she wore many talismans is clear, so also carrying along the idol. The news reports came after her death and are attributed to her, but her biographer’s are not sure . Nevertheless a pioneer and a leading personality. Thanks Hari…