Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Petticoats to Pants: Women, Flying, and Death-Defying Feats in 1920s Florida

Petticoats to Pants: Women, Flying, and Death-Defying Feats in 1920s Florida

SEAS is a professional maritime archaeological consulting firm that believes in sharing the excitement of discovery with the public through blogging, media events, public outreach initiatives, and volunteer participation – a significant dimension for a research and consulting firm.

I'll just share a few paras from their blog entry from Jan 5. Go to the link above to read the whole thing:
While doing some online research yesterday I came across this picture and it piqued my interest. Who was Mabel Cody and why was she performing death-defying trapeze acts on Florida’s beaches? I did a little research and here’s what I found.

Mabel Cody, who was the alleged niece of Buffalo Bill Cody, was just 23 years old when she performed on Vilano Beach. Aviation daredevils across the United States were performing shows of this nature during the roaring twenties. These barnstormers, as they were often called, advertised their upcoming shows by flying over the town pulling a banner about the event. In the early days of barnstorming the act of flying was enough to draw a crowd. But, as time progressed, people became bored with watching level flight and so the mid-air performances began.


Here’s an article from the Jacksonville Times-Union written in 1999. This article discusses the courage of Mabel Cody as she braved pants and discouraging phone calls from women in Jacksonville who did not think her behavior was particularly becoming for a woman of her time.
The flight of fearless Mabel Cody
By The Times-Union
Published Sunday, November 28, 1999

Mabel Cody took the phone off the hook.

The women of Jacksonville were annoying her.

“It’s my own neck,” she said.

Women began calling when they heard Cody was going to leap from a speeding car to a flying airplane at Pablo Beach.

She would be the first woman in the world to do this, although her colleague, Bugs McGowan — Lt. Bugs McGowan, that is — had done it a couple times.

Sig Haughdahl, Norwegian speed demon, would drive the car. One Lt. Heermanese, otherwise unidentified, would fly the plane. The stunt would cap a day of thrills and chills by the Mabel Cody Flying Circus.

Crowds were expected from miles around to watch the fearless Mabel Cody match the daring of the famous Bugs McGowan. The barrage of messages from the women of Jacksonville came out of the blue, however. They took Mabel Cody aback.

It was late November 1921.

Women had won the vote the year before. Feminism, if not strident, was a-flutter. Cody, who wore pants, boots and goggles, was not in the mainstream of the movement, nor had she hitherto attracted the attention of her sisterhood.

She was perplexed by the concern lighting up the switchboard of the Mason Hotel.

“Women without number have been calling me,” she complained to The Florida Times-Union.

“Daytime, nightime, all the time, telling me how they wish I would not risk my life, and they hope I will not do anything foolhardy at Pablo.”

She asked hotel owner George Mason to have her room telephone disconnected.

Mabel Cody was barely 20 and the star attraction of one of four aerial “circuses” that criss-crossed the South and hung out on Florida’s east coast, especially Daytona Beach.

Actually, in November 1921, Bugs McGowan was the star of the show, but “Bugs McGowan’s Flying Circus” hardly had the cachet of “Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus,” especially in the opinion of the boss, Richard “Curly” Burns, who was more attracted to Mabel than to Bugs.

Bugs had up until that time been the one that did the tricky auto-to-airplane maneuver, standing in a speeding car and grasping a swinging ladder from a passing plane.

Burns had given Bugs the rank of lieutenant, although Bugs actually had been but an enlisted man in the Army, where he did not fly but hung around with enough people who did fly that he learned enough to join a flying circus.

Mabel up to then had been a wing-walking, loop-looping, parachuting daredevil who had yet to attempt the auto-to-car trick.

Her history-making attempt was planned for Pablo Beach mostly because Haughdahl was in Jacksonville for the races at the Florida State Fair.

Haughdahl was perhaps a bigger celebrity than Mabel, Bugs and Curly put together.

He had been burning up race tracks all over the civilized world and even then was aiming at beach-driving speed record held by Tommy Milton. For Mabel to launch herself from the Speed King’s Flying Frontenac would be a double coup for Curly.

“Just because I happen to be a woman, a lot of women think it is their duty to remind me of the fact,” Mabel Cody fumed to the press.

“Every time I sit down to sew or to write a letter, some timid member of my sex wants to tell me what she thinks about me risking my own neck!

“For heaven’s sake! It’s my neck, and I guess I’ll risk it any time I feel like taking a chance,” she told the Times-Union.

The newspapers said “several thousand” people made the trip from Jacksonville to the scene of the show, about three miles south of Pablo Beach. It was a big day for Sig and Bugs. Mabel got rained out.

The Norwegian Speed King kicked up speeds of 115 mph in beach tests. Four times Bugs McGowan nipped up to the wing skid of the passing plane. Pilot Heermanese was given sustained applause for his steady handling of the plane in what the paper called “humpy” air.

But when it was Mabel’s turn, the clouds opened. Disappointed, she vowed to try again within the week. Heermanese turned the plane over on Anastasia Island a couple of days later, however. Haughland was called to other things. (He later would be the man who decided Daytona needed an oval racetrack.)

Three years later, Mabel Cody stood in the back seat of a car traveling 70 mph down the strand of Pablo Beach. Thousands cheered as she grabbed the ladder of a plane roaring inches above her head. The plane lifted Mabel Cody from the speeding car and the rung broke.

Cody clung an instant to the broken rung with one hand and reached for the next. Sickeningly she fell to the beach, even before the applause had stopped. She landed on her feet and was “swung into a series of somersaults by the impact,” the newspaper said.

Mabel Cody was unconscious when Curly reached her. They drove her in an ambulance all the way to St. Luke’s Hospital in Jacksonville. A stunned and anxious crowd returned somberly to Jacksonville.

Luckily, a movie camera filmed the whole thing.

Four weeks later, the film showed at the Imperial Theater.

Mabel attended the premiere.

She had the same pilot do loop-the-loops over the city before the show to draw a crowd

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