Hubert Latham was almost the first person to fly an airplane over the British Channel. If the French aviator and adventurer was discouraged when his first attempt came up short, he never showed it. As he bobbed in the waves waiting to be retrieved by a passing vessel, Latham casually smoked a cigarette in the cockpit of his wrecked Antoinette.* Adventure was his business, and keeping a cool head was a prerequisite in the daredevil profession. Although he failed to be the first to reach the White Cliffs of Dover his flight proved to be historic in another way. He had completed the world’s first landing of an aircraft in the sea.
Fate worked against him once again in July, 1909, when gusty conditions delayed his next Channel crossing attempt. Latham and his crew went to sleep in the wee hours of July 25, 1909 at their camp near Sangatte, France, hoping to try and make history the next morning. Little did they know that rival aviator Louis Bleriot (1872-1936) and his team had been closely monitoring the weather as well as the activity at Latham’s camp. Around 2 am, Bleriot’s crew found a break in the wind, and decided it was now or never. They hastily prepared their man and ship (bearing his namesake The Bleriot XI) for takeoff, and at daybreak Bleriot took flight.** Thirty-six minutes and thirty seconds later Bleriot made a hard landing above the White Cliffs near Dover Castle in England and received the £1,000 purse. He became the first man to fly over the Channel, and Latham was left sharing a forgotten corner of history with Buzz Aldrin and Antonio Salieri as just another famous almost.***But, a daredevil doesn’t live for accolades alone, so Latham’s story did not end there. Air shows and aerial competitions were becoming more and more popular across Europe and America. Lots of prize money, advertising opportunity for Antoinette engine, and risk remained to satisfy the adventurer’s hunger. The field of aviation was still in its infancy, so plenty of records remained to be set. Latham throttled his plane high into the air and set altitude records in Reims, France, and in Mourmelon-le-Grand. According to legend, he became the first to fly an airplane backwards, when against better judgement, he flew into a gale during a competition in Blackpool, England in 1909. The next year he became the first person to hunt wild fowl from an airplane while at a competition in Los Angeles.
In 1910, a variety of record setting opportunities presented themselves, including an extremely enticing (not to mention lucrative) offer in Baltimore. To coincide with the airshow in nearby Halethorpe, the A.S. Abell Company, owners of The Baltimore Sun, offered a $5,000 prize for any aviator who would “give all the people of [Baltimore] an opportunity to witness the most remarkable scientific triumph of the present age.” The chosen aviator would dazzle the crowds by flying high above the city. If this feat was accomplished, according to a November 2 Sun article, Baltimore would be “[the] first city serving as the setting for a charted aerial voyage over [its] housetops.” A November 23 article further described the event as “[the] first time a bird-man has traversed the air over a course laid out for him beforehand, with turns and curves and changes in direction, so that the entire population can see the exhibition.” Later, the clarification was added concerning the type of flight—it was the first “heavier than air machine” to fly over a large American city. Besides the scientific breakthroughs of the time, it was also a remarkable age for advertising. The opportunity for the Sun to educate and entertain the public, while at the same time promoting their paper, made the $5,000 purse seem rather small under the circumstances.
Though these superlative statements are obviously a bit vague, they certainly raise some questions. The significance of the event in terms of potential danger and shared communal experience cannot be overlooked. A crash over water or into an open field was one thing, but an engine failure or crash over a large population center meant certain death. At the same time, more than a half million Baltimoreans would be able to witness the flight—the air show would come to them without travel or the cost of a ticket. For most spectators, this would be their first look at an airplane; they would share this collective glimpse into the future.
Even though Latham had a history of crash landings (and wrecked in two of his next three flights), the reward outweighed the risk and he accepted. The advertising opportunity for the Antoinette engine, the prize money, recognition, and of course, the thrill of the flight were all too much for the daredevil to pass up. In addition, a $500 reward would be tacked on by Ross Revillon Winans (1850-1912) if Latham would complete one small side mission.
Ross R. Winans was grandson to the Baltimore railroad pioneer, mechanic, inventor, and benefactor, Ross Winans (1796-1877). Unlike his grandfather, Ross R. Winans was more gentleman of leisure. He lived much of his luxurious life in a French chateau far away from his home town.**** Tragedy struck Ross R. Winans in 1907 when his wife Mary, son William, and daughter Beatrice, all died in the span of six months. He and his son, Thomas, arranged to accompany the bodies on a cargo ship from Europe and make a permanent return to Baltimore. At the last minute, Thomas disembarked and disappeared with a Spanish dancer; the father-son relationship was never salvaged. Ross R. returned to his hometown a recluse. He was rarely seen or heard from until 1910 when he placed a letter to the Sun offering Latham an additional $500 to alter his flight path so that he would circumnavigate his house at 1217 St. Paul Street. Winans was bed-ridden and didn’t appear to have much time left in life. He would only have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the monoplane if Latham plotted a course low over the skyline on the rear, or east-facing, side of his house, where he could look out the window from his bed. Latham graciously accepted the prize money, and agreed to loop around 1217 St. Paul as part of the exhibition.
So at 12:16:45 pm on November 7, 1910, Latham and his fifty-horsepower Antoinette took off from Halethorpe and began his plotted path over the city. Bells rang out across the city as workers were released from Wise Brothers, R.M. Sutton & Co., Torsch packing, and other businesses and industries, for a long lunch to watch the exhibition. People converged to the rooftops of The Sun Building, the B& O building , the Courthouse, and the balcony around the City-Hall dome. Even patients at Johns Hopkins pressed their faces to the window in anticipation of the low swoop-by promised by the bird-man.***** Latham flew over Fort McHenry, northwest to the American building on Baltimore Street, back east to Patterson Park, north to North Avenue, west to Eutaw Place, back east to Mount Royal Ave before turning northeast to circle Druid Hill Park, south to St. Paul street where he maneuvered into view of Winans’ bedroom window- circling the property, and southwest to the Sun Building before heading back to Halethorpe. Twenty-five miles and forty-two minutes later Hubert Latham landed safely back at Halethorpe. Latham sat in the cockpit with the propellor running while he smoked a cigarette, before finally being hauled by mechanics into the hangar. With flair for dramatic, Latham said, “Not a word until I have eaten lunch,” to the throngs of reporters anxiously waiting to speak to the hero.
Latham and his flight were fondly remembered in Baltimore for many years. According to a Sun article from June 4, 1911, bellboys, chambermaids, and clerks working at the Belvedere refused to spend the autographed $1 tips that he passed out to all the help during a tour of the building. To many Baltimoreans, the historic flight held a place in their memory on par with the sinking of the Titanic and the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. They would never forget where they were when Latham made his historic flight over the city.
Latham continued to fly, participating in air shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in Europe before resuming his world travels. Having studied indigenous cultures in Indochina and Abyssinia (Ethiopia), hunted game in Somaliland (Somalia), and travelled throughout East Asia, it was not surprising when he returned to his wanderlust habits in late 1911. It came as tragic news to Baltimoreans and the French people alike when they learned he had been gored to death by a water buffalo while hunting in the French Congo, though vague reports of a more suspicious death circulated. (Eben Dennis)
The impetus for this post was the photograph below, which was recently donated to our library by the Ross County Historical Society in Ohio after it was deemed outside the scope of their collection. In cataloging this new acquisition we are given the chance to highlight both an interesting side note of Baltimore history, while at the same time showing the cooperation that often exists behind the scenes in libraries as they not only actively collect items within the scope of their mission, but seek homes for orphaned items which are more suited elsewhere.Footnotes
*The Antoinette engine was originally developed by Léon Levavasseur whom supplied Latham with engines during his stint as a speedboat racer. Later, after Latham was inspired by performances by Wilbur Wright (who was trying to sell an engine of his own) he sought out a company that would train him as a pilot to promote their product. In the meantime, Levavasseur had formally established the Antoinette Company (based off the precursor engine from the speedboats) and happily obliged Latham’s request. He quickly mastered the engine and became the company’s top pilot.
**Latham and his crew tried to get up quickly after Bleriot, hoping to pass him, but by the time they were ready the weather had turned for the worse once again.
***Latham made a second attempt to cross the British Channel and failed once again, this time coming up just a few miles short after his Antoinette suffered from engine failure.
****A large chunk of his inheritance came from a Winans Locomotive contract that his father and grandfather made with the Czar of Russia to equip the new Moscow – St. Petersburg line in 1842.
*****Evidently Latham’s flight, which fluctuated in up to 3,000 feet, reached its lowest point of 400 feet near the hospital, where the patients claimed to be able to see his face.
“Hubert Latham’s Tips Sacred.” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1911.
“Latham sees Mr. Winans:…….Looks for Landing in River, Carroll or Patterson Parks or Open Ground.” Baltimore Sun, November 5, 1910.
“Hubert Latham the Man, Daredevil of the Air….” Baltimore Sun, November 8, 1910.
“Latham Hunts Ducks in Airship.” New York Times, December 23, 1910.
“Latham in Antoinette Wreck: Frenchman has Remarkable Escape from Death at Frisco.” Baltimore Sun, January 11, 1911.
“Flying Over Baltimore: Latham’s Remarkable Feat as it Appeared to a Texas Newspaper.” Baltimore Sun, November 23, 1910.
Pioneer Chartered Trip: Aerial Voyage of Latham….” Baltimore Sun, November 2, 1910.
“Mr. Ross Winans Offers $500: Sick in His Home, He wants to See the Great Flight.” Baltimore Sun, November 1, 1910.
“Ross R. Winans Dead.” Baltimore Sun, April 26, 1912
Dielman-Hayward File, Maryland Historical Society
Howard Cruett Wilcox/Halethorpe Air Meet Collection, 1910, PP139, Maryland Historical Society
Jesse L. Cassard Scrapbook, 1883-1946, MS 223, Maryland Historical Society
Forgotten aviator: Hubert Latham by Barbara Walsh http://www.hubertlatham.com/