A postcard from the past: The English pilot and the parachute jumper

WARNING – The following post contains nothing whatsoever about sailing or the history of Charlottetown Harbour.

Over the past few years I have been gathering information about Charlottetown architect Charles Benjamin Chappell. A remarkable number of his buildings are featured on postcards of the day and when I spotted a beautifully detailed view of Prince of Wales College I had not seen before I was anxious to acquire it.

PWC001Folks who collect post cards are rarely interested on what is on the back of the card (although there is a strange subspecies that does collect them for their postmarks). Usually the message is banal and uninformative of the “Having a wonderful time – wish you were her” variety.

The message on the back of the Prince of Wales College post card was of a slightly different character and like a message in a bottle begged for an explanation.  Addressed to a residence in Wollaston Massachusetts it contained only a few cryptic and puzzling sentences:

Am here at Charlottetown PE Islands. Arrived here from Halifax N.S. last night. I made good in Halifax & got all the money. Made seven flights in six days all on time. five of them made in wind and rain. Lapham dropped five times from three thousand feet. Raining now Hell of a country

[signed] Harry

Harry's mysterious message

Harry’s mysterious message


030112-rodman1It turns out that “Harry” was Harry Bingham Brown, an English pilot who was one of the pioneer aviators in the United States. He seems to have begun flying in about 1909 and by 1912 he was taking paying passengers for rides in his single engine, twin-propeller Wright airplane and set an early altitude record at over one mile above New York with passenger Isabel Patterson.  The same year he seems to have teamed up with another aviator Leo. Stevens as his business manager to develop a new act.  Earlier that year the first parachute drop from an airplane had taken place and Brown engaged Frederick Rodman Law to leap from his bi-plane. The following year  Arthur Lapham  replaced Law and the act went on the road stopping at aeronautical events, exhibitions and county fairs throughout New England and into Canada. These barnstorming acts became very popular and continued through to the 1930s.  Many resulted in tragedy as pilots pushed their flimsy aircraft to provide more and more extreme aeronautical feats.

Brown and an unidentified passenger posing in his aero-plane. Many photos of Brown show him with a lit cigar sitting next to the gas tank.

Brown and an unidentified passenger posing in his aero-plane. Many photos of Brown show him with a lit cigar sitting next to the gas tank.

The Brown and Lapham act was booked into the P.E.I. Provincial Exhibition in late September 1913 and was expected to be one of the great drawing cards of the event. Unfortunately things did not go off as advertised.  On Thursday the 25th Brown and Lapham took off but the engine was not working properly and the aeroplane unable to raise to the necessary height.  It was then captured by a strong wind and the two aviators disappeared from view.  They came to earth near the Dinnis Fox Ranch and  after tinkering with the engine Brown returned to the exhibition grounds albeit without Lapham.  The latter may have recalled an earlier experience near New York when he jumped from 400 feet and the parachute failed to open completely. Lapham landed feet first in a Staten Island marsh, was buried up to his neck and had to be extracted by ropes and boards. He was found to be suffering from shock.  A second Charlottetown flight took place later the same day but without Lapham. This time to the dismay of the crowd the aircraft did not return and spent the night somewhere outside the city.

Brown at the controls of his aircraft. Location unknown

Brown at the controls of his aircraft. Location unknown

The following day was a repetition of the first. Brown made a number of ascents, flew at  low altitude and came back to ground outside the exhibition grounds.  Eventually one of these unplanned landings resulted in damage to the plane and the show came to an end.

Brown barnstormed for four years putting on demonstrations in Canada, the United States and  the West Indies.  He flew in Hollywood in the movie version of “The Perils of Pauline” with Pearl White.  However he married in 1914 and at the request of his wife gave up flying and bought a farm in Walpole New Hampshire where he died in 1954.  Arthur Lapham also gave up his aeronautical adventures at an early date and lived a long earth-bound life.

Their trip to Charlottetown may not have been the highlight of the tour but thanks to a postcard it has not been completely forgotten.



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