Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral is the fascinating and bizarre history of Samuel Franklin Cody, who in his early years worked the same cattle trails as Buffalo Bill and played the same Dodge City roulette tables as Wyatt Earp. But later his life took a startling turn. While performing in England, Cody became a passionate kite-builder and flyer, and at the apex of his career, fashioned a vast airplane dubbed "The Flying Cathedral," and with it went on to become the first man to fly in England.
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About the Author
Garry Jenkins is the author of five previous books, including The Beautiful Team, about Brazilian soccer. He lives with his family in London.
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Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral
The Adventures of the Cowboy Who Conquered the Sky
By Garry Jenkins
PicadorCopyright © 1999 Garry Jenkins
All rights reserved.
THE GREAT IMITATORS
THE PROGRESS OF CIVILIZATION THRILLING INCIDENTS IN ACTUAL BORDER LIFE IN THE WILD WEST THE GREAT DRAMA ENACTED BY FRONTIER HEROES
In the summer of 1888, Adam D Forepaugh's 'original and world famed Wild West show' lived up to the grandiose promise of its posters.
For a fifty-cent admission fee, audiences were treated to the spectacle of the legendary 'Doc' Carver, 'world's champion marksman', shattering a never-ending stream of flying glass balls with his Colt .45 revolvers, Forepaugh's son, Adam Jr, riding and driving a herd of thirty-one horses simultaneously, Round Up Bob, 'champion trick rider and roper of Texas', picking dimes off the floor in his teeth while remaining in the saddle of a galloping mustang, and – last but not least – a troupe of two dozen Sioux warriors re-enacting the blood-curdling events at the Battle of the Little Big Horn a dozen years earlier.
As a depiction of 'actual border life', of course, it was about as genuine as the pig's blood that oozed from Lieutenant Colonel Custer's corpse at the climax of his fateful Last Stand. Quite what it had to do with 'the progress of civilization' was anyone's guess. If that mattered little to the hordes of eastern townspeople who packed Forepaugh's 10,000-seater arena twice daily that season, it was of even less consequence to the impresario then vying with Phineas T Barnum for the right to call himself the greatest showman in America, if not on earth.
Forepaugh's rise from small-time Philadelphia butcher to big-top impresario owed nothing to artistic veracity and everything to vaudevillian chutzpah. Four years earlier, for instance, on hearing Barnum's claim to have the world's only 'sacred white elephant' in his travelling show, Forepaugh had ordered one of his grey circus elephants scraped clean, whitewashed and rechristened Light of Asia. New York's yellow press had had a field day with the White Elephant War that ensued.
The stars of his travelling show were strangers to the truth too. While a New York variety artist called Louise Montague had reinvented herself as a dusky Indian Princess called Lalla Rookh, Doc Carver had obscured his true origins as a far-from-successful frontier dentist with a weave of stories so complex he often mixed them up himself. In a biographical sketch printed in the Forepaugh programme that season, for instance, Carver claimed to have played a crucial role in the bloody war fought against the Sioux and their chief Little Crow in Minnesota back in 1862.
'The defeat, capture and subsequent hanging of "Little Crow" was due largely to his courage, strategy and sleepless zeal,' Carver's publicist claimed with typical modesty in the notes. In the diaries that later formed his autobiography, however, Carver let slip that he had been hundreds of miles away at the time of Little Crow's demise and only heard of the uprising in a city newspaper.
Their brand of brazen sensationalism was far from unique, of course. By 1888, with the prairies and cattle trails enmeshed in barbed wire and the golden age of the cowboy all but over, the last great frontier now lived mostly in the imagination of travelling burlesque players and dime novel writers. Most of them had been no farther West than Chicago. From their rumbustious, romantic and frequently preposterous version of the cowboy era, the most enduring and inaccurate of all American legends would take shape.
Yet as the Forepaugh circus worked its way along the railway routes of the 98th Meridian, at least one of its troupers seemed fit to be called a bona fide 'frontier hero'. Samuel Cody Jr had joined the show earlier that year. A former horsewrangler, mustang hunter and cattle-trail boss, he had launched a new career as a 'sharpshooter, cowboy and pistol shot'.
The apprentice showman had clearly learned much from watching and listening to the boastful and bellicose Doc Carver. Already a master of Carver's trick of firing at a hail of white, glass balls, fired from a clay-pigeon trap, Cody was applying his inventive, young mind to newer, more spectacular pieces of gunplay. Soon, for instance, Cody would perfect a heart-stopping stunt in which he could shoot an apple off a man's head while blind-folded. In his appearance and attitude, however, he had chosen to fashion himself after a frontiersman more famous than even Carver.
It had been with the dead-eyed dentist as his partner that WF 'Buffalo Bill' Cody had first whetted the American population's appetite for horse-thief lynchings and stagecoach attacks five years earlier. The 'Wild West, Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition' they staged at a fairground in Omaha, Nebraska, had laid a trail which Forepaugh and a fistful of other, lesser entertainers were now extending to the eastern states and beyond. The partnership had degenerated into a series of court cases and public slanging matches in which both claimed to have sole use of the term Wild West. Carver's bitterness only deepened as the man he called 'The Great Imitator' acquired the rights to the title, then blossomed into the most famous Wild West cowboy in the world. In May of the previous year, 1887, Bill had even placed a thin smile on the face of Queen Victoria. His show at Earl's Court in London had drawn the mournful monarch into a public arena for the first time in the twenty-five years since her husband Prince Albert's death and made him a worldwide, living legend.
If Cody Jr's choice of role model was astute, it was also largely unavoidable. He was, even to those who had seen and known Bill, a doppelgänger for the older man. To accentuate this he had let his sun-bleached hair grow foppishly on to his shoulders, wore a thick, drooping walrus moustache and decked himself out in frazzled Codyesque buckskin from top to toe.
In the hotel bars and gambling halls of the east, the young sharpshooter did little to disillusion his public as to a genuine family connection. Anyone who asked was informed he was indeed 'a relative' of the great scout. Anyone who had the inclination could listen on as the garrulous young gun unfurled stories that proved he was also the tale-spinning equal of his 'Uncle Bill'.
The talkative Cody would spin the stories time and again in the years that followed, embroidering each episode, lending new and suitably dramatic denouements according to his audiences as he did so. Whether the tale was being told in Wilmington, North Carolina, or Wolverhampton, Warwickshire, however, the essential elements generally remained the same.
Cody Jr had spent his childhood in the small town of Birdville, near Fort Worth, Texas. He had been born there in March 1861 to Samuel Franklin Cody Sr and Phoebe Cody, descendants of settler families from County Antrim and Holland respectively.
'Birdville, I might tell you, was then a small village of seven or eight wooden houses, a small church, a prison built of rough-hewn logs, the boarders of the latter-mentioned establishment being few and far between on account of Judge Lynch,' he explained a few years later, unable as ever to resist adding a little colourful detail. (Judge Lynch, in fact, did not exist. The term had become a shorthand for instant justice since the activities of Colonel Charles Lynch, who punished those he considered criminals – or, worse, Tories – with hanging in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, during the time of the American Revolution in 1780.)
In the heyday of the 1850s, the Cody cotton plantation and vineyards had provided a lifestyle befitting the grandest antebellum aristocrat. A small army of slaves picked, ginned and baled the cotton for the mills at Dallas two dozen miles to the east. The grapes were collected and dried in the arid heat ready to be sold in Fort Worth, nine miles to the west. The onset, shortly after Cody Jr's birth, of what was then called the War of Secession brought the idyll to an undignified end.
According to his son, Samuel Cody Sr was something of a local hero. 'He had distinguished himself in the Texan and Mexican war,' he explained proudly. 'His fellow citizens always accepted him as a leader and councillor when at war with the Redskins.' He had, naturally, taken on an officer's role in the Confederate Army. Like a million other men of the South, however, Cody Sr had returned from the humiliation of the Civil War with his pride battered and his health impaired. 'He was the worst for wear,' his son once said.
To make matters worse, the soldier had arrived home to discover his land overgrown with weeds and his emancipated slaves now demanding wages he could not afford to meet. As the carpetbaggers of the North overran Texas, he and his family left the ranch to be reclaimed by the prairie.
The Codys accepted the lifeline offered to the north of Fort Worth in Wise County where, by now, the untended longhorn cattle that had drifted free from the ranches to roam the prairies during the War had multiplied into immense, half-wild herds. As the golden age of the West began, the grape growers became cowboys, and successful ones at that.
By the time he quit school at ten or so he was working as a nighthawk, tending to the herds after dark on ranches in Wise and Denton Counties. It had been on his return from his duties at a ranch one day in 1873 or so, that he witnessed the event that had shaped his young life.
Cody arrived back to discover the ranch besieged by a Sioux raiding party. The 'Redskins' had spent a day and night attacking the two log cabins in which his family and their ranch-hands lived. His account of the atrocity varied considerably over the years. In most Cody was saved by a gunshot wound to his thigh that had left him lying in a ditch on the edge of the ranch. He had managed to crawl his way to a safe spot, from where he had watched the war party raze the farm to the ground. In most accounts, the fateful moments of the raid happened at night.
'Whilst daylight lasted the cowboys were able to keep their foes at a distance, but when it became dark the Indians charged in a body, climbed over the palisade, and made the besieged beat a retreat into the log-house,' he recalled in one version. 'Here, finding it impossible to force their way, the Redskins got on the log-house, stopped up the chimney, piled up large quantities of wood on all four sides of the building and set fire to them.'
In some versions his family all perished. According to others, he later discovered that his parents and beloved sister Mandy had survived. In one or two accounts his family were spared any involvement in the attack whatsoever. Each telling of the story concluded the same way, however: with the wounded Cody dragging himself the nine miles to Fort Worth, being patched up in the town's army hospital and then striking out on his own for a life roaming the ranges and cattle trails of the Western frontiers. His adventures had taken him from the plains of Texas to the mountains of Montana and encompassed spells as a mustang and buffalo hunter, trail-boss cowboy and Klondyke gold prospector. It had been at the end of the legendary Chisholm Trail in San Antonio that his days in the saddle had been brought to an end, he explained. A scout from Forepaugh's show had heard talk of his exploits and offered him a job in the Wild West show. 'The rest is history,' he probably added.
The stories were as plausible as they were entertaining, especially given the impeccable cowboy credentials Cody displayed daily under Forepaugh's Big Top. In reality, they were laced with more than a few great imitations of his own ...
* * *
Cody's version of his life story remained unchallenged and intact throughout his life. There were, naturally, those who suspected his tales were as inventive as his aeroplanes, pieces of crowd-pleasing playfulness provided to add lustre to his reputation and steer the curious clear of a truth that was probably more mundane. 'His early life consists of a prolific mythology,' wrote one sceptic. 'I never knew whether Birdville was a joke,' puzzled another. In a gentler journalistic age, neither put much effort into adding substance to their suspicions, even though both would have been wise to follow their instincts. The story was fake – a mixture of myth and reality, hokum and half-truth.
Samuel Cody had in fact been born seven hundred miles or so to the north of the parched flatlands of Texas, amid the verdant landscape of the Great Plains and the city of Davenport, Iowa. His real name was not Samuel Franklin Cody, but Franklin Samuel Cowdery.
He had been born there on 6 March 1867, the fourth of five children born to Samuel Franklin Cowdery Sr and his wife Phoebe.
Many would have been happy to have claimed the heritage he had rejected. His American bloodline extended back eight generations and 250 years to the Pilgrim Fathers themselves.
The founder of the line, William Cowdrey, had completed the journey from Weymouth in the West of England to the windswept outpost of Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1630, the same year the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, led his four ships and 500 Puritans out of an intolerant England in search of 'a city of God'.
As well as a new spelling for the family name, the industrious Cowdery quickly established what would prove a lasting tradition for piety and public service. With his first wife, Joanna, he was instrumental in forming the settlement of Reading around 1640. He was, it seems, 'a most influential and useful citizen' serving at various times as a Deacon, Clerk of the Writs, Town Clerk, Selectman and Representative to the General Assembly of the Colonies. 'They found this spot a wilderness, they left it a fruitful field,' the grateful citizens of Reading wrote of the Cowdery family a generation later.
William Cowdery's heirs had continued to serve their country with humility and honour – and occasional heroism – throughout the century and a half that followed. In particular, the young Franklin Cowdery would almost certainly have heard of the exploits of his great-grandfather, Jonathan Cowdery, a sailor and surgeon in the embryonic US Navy at the turn of the nineteenth century. Aboard the frigate Philadelphia, Cowdery saw action against the French in the West Indies and the Barbary forces of North Africa in the Mediterranean. In Tripoli in 1803 he was captured and imprisoned for eighteen months by the Turks. Cowdery's memoirs of his time in a jail were serialised in an American newspaper and formed the basis for a sensational adventure book. Such was his resilience, he went on to become the oldest surgeon and indeed the oldest officer in the US Navy.
Jonathan Cowdery's eldest son Benjamin had refused to follow his father into medicine or the military, and had instead found prominence as a printer, publisher and editor. He set up his first newspaper in Angelica, New York, in 1819. Four years later he launched the first in Cattarangus County and later founded the Ontario Chronicle. He seems to have inherited a blend of his ancestor William's religiousness and his father's staying power. He was a leading figure in the revival that swept Rochester, New York, in the 1840s and, with his wife Amanda, campaigned tirelessly for the antislavery and temperance causes. He was, according to family lore, at least, the oldest printer in the United States at the time of his death, aged seventy-seven, two months after his grandson Franklin was born, in 1867.
Benjamin Franklin Cowdery died believing the greatest gift he had bestowed on his heirs was their good name, 'which though not highly valued by money changers is yet rather to be chosen than great riches'.
It would not be a view shared by young Franklin, however. The bleak, inglorious chapter his father added to the Cowdery family history may have been responsible for that.
Franklin Cowdery's father Samuel was the fourth of five children born to Benjamin and his wife Amanda Cowdery. He had been born in November 1831 in Rochester, New York. The turning point in his young life came with his mother's early death, at their then home in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1842. Afterwards Benjamin had been unable or unwilling to look after all his children and placed his youngest son, Jabez Franklin, then aged just seven, in an orphan asylum in the city. The loss of his only brother seems to have hit Samuel Cowdery hard. When Jabez later disappeared, presumed dead, after being 'bound' to a Shaker family in the city, his heartbroken older brother adopted the name Franklin on his behalf.
Excerpted from Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral by Garry Jenkins. Copyright © 1999 Garry Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
1. The Great Imitators,
2. A Pair of Shootists,
3. Le Roi Des Cow-Boys,
4. 'A new and original act',
6. 'It's dogged as does it',
7. Second to None,
8. Across the Greensward,
9. A Clever Empiricist,
10. The Flying Cathedral,
11. Showman of Flight,
12. The Arm of the Nation,
12A. 'Swift and sudden',