History Behind The Card: The late Mr. John B. Moisant.
Card #71 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Capstan Navy Cut – Black-back issue
- John Bevins Moisant, in Kankakee, Illinois, United States of America on April 25, 1868 – December 31, 1910 in Harahan, Louisiana, United States of America.
When I purchased this card of John B. Moisant, and realized I wanted to do a blog of some sort on these Wills’s Aviation cards (honestly, originally, I was just going to scan the front and back of each card, post the title and leave it at that), I was extremely curious.
Why would this guy—a guy I’ve never heard of—be granted a posthumous card in the set?
He was obviously famous enough at the time some 105 years ago… but is nowadays a mere footnote in the Wikipedia of time.
Full disclosure… of the eight websites at the top of Google with Moisant as the focus, the one thing they could all be sure of, is that not one presented the data in such a way as to there being a consensus on just what John B. Moisant was all about.
While disappointing for myself and you the reader, I wonder how the late John B. Moisant would have thought of it all… probably as such: “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Or maybe not exaggerated enough.
Points to consider:
For a guy who died when anyone who flew an aeroplane was a hero, Moisant was given such grandiose titles as “King of Aviators”. I don’t know who gave him that title… Maybe himself? How did he earn it, and if he was all that, why does no one still consider him to be all that and a bag of chips?
Born in Kankakee, Illinois… I’ve been to Kankakee, Illinois… many times in fact… staying at my buddy’s apartment so we could both attend (as comic book creators) the Wizard World Chicago comic book convention.
Yes… before I entered the legitimate world of blogging about history—always a money maker—I wrote comic books in my spare time—always a money maker.
Let’s face it… if I ever became a writer because I saw it as an opportunity to make money, I have long since changed my mind.
Let’s see… what’s cool about John Moisant?
- He was the first pilot to fly passengers over a city (Paris)… yawn…
- First to carry passengers across the English Channel from Paris to London… yeah, yeah…
- Founded a flying circus… It’s… a big whoop. Monty Python reference in there.
- Created the world’s first aluminum body airplane – interesting – but it wasn much of a flyer… awwww.
- Taught his sister Matilde Moisant how to fly, making her the second ever American woman to earn her pilot’s license. Second… even for woman’s rights… meh. That may be 2017-male thinking there. Still… second… and second-American. Not even in the top 10 globally… meh. But there is a bit more to this story.
Almost all the stories surrounding him seem to end with he and his plane crashing… interesting…
- Sometimes flew with his pet cat, Mademoiselle Fifi… getting warmer, doc… he seems to be a bit of a character, right? And the cat’s cute. Awwwwwww.
- He has an international airport essentially named after him? Winner-winner-chicken dinner. That’s cool.
- Hmm… led two revolutions and a coup in El Salvador… even though his family are transplanted French Canadians to Kankakee, Illinois… Ding-Ding-Ding!!!! We have a superstar winner! French Canadian Americans trying to overthrow the government of El Salvador! Even if you don’t know where El Salvador is on a map, you know you want to know more.
Ha! … an American interfering in international politics? That never happens! LOL! And wanting to use the new fangled invention called the aeroplane to exact revenge on a foreign power – that’s like something out of a spy-thriller.
Let’s see if we can uncover just who this international man of mystery is… no promises.
Wanna know just how confusing things are about Moisant’s life?
The Wikipedia entry says he was born in L’Erable, Illinois, but on the same page and in the little boxes section on the Top Right, it says he was born in Kankakee, Illinois.
So… which is it… Kankakee or L’Erable?
What got me, were the various websites decreeing Moisant was born in Chicago, such as the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum… but that’s a heck of a distance away in 2017… more so in 1868, considering Chicago didn’t have as much urban sprawl as it does now in 2017, and the only way to get there was by horse, horse and buggy, and ox cart.
Since I’ve never heard of L’Erable, and have been to Kankakee, I’m going with the latter.
Hmm… now Wikipedia also states that by 1880, the Mosiant family was living in Manteno, Illionois, which is nowadays a part of Kankakee County, Illinois.
That made me actually look up L’Erable… and lo and behold it is south of Kankakee, and is actually within Kankakee County.
As well, it is documented that a whole lot of French Canadians came to live in the Kankakee Valley area back in 1853.
And lo, the blog is off to an incredible limp.
As mentioned, Moisant’s folks appear to have been French-Canadian immigrants… which is interesting in itself…
But as one of eight Moisant children, John was also the youngest of four brothers.
Wikipedia only notes seven kids (including Moisant)… so… seven kids (Wikipedia) or eight kids (Smithsonian)?
Considering the Smithsonian site says Chicago as Moisant’s birthplace… do we still want to put too much stock in anything else they have to say here about Moisant?
I know… it’s the bloody Smithsonian! But if they were lax on one bit of information… do I trust the rest of the information on the same topic?
No… no I don’t.
While the Smithsonian website has a wonderful photo of Moisant and his cat, NOT ONCE does it make reference to the cat in the accompanying article… in other words there is no context for that photo in the entire article. I’ll leave that alone… except that I’m going to write about that darn cat (©Disney).
So… let’s get on with it.
After Moisant’s parents passed away, the kids got together and in 1896 bought a coffee plantation in El Salvador…. because sure, that’s what I would do… except maybe it would be a cheese-making business in England.
BUT… Wikipedia shows that the Moisant mother passed away in 1901… so… they didn’t wait until the parents died… but may have waited until their father died and left their mother behind, OR, Wikipedia is wrong and the mother may have died at some time of 1896 or earlier.
In Wikipedia’s favor, however is the fact that it cites where it got its information:
“United States Census, 1880,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MXVS-G6M : accessed 29 May 2013), John Moisant in entry for Medore Moisant, 1880. Medore Moisant is the name of the Moisant’s father … born 1839, died who the heck knows when.
You would think that with John Moisant having once been a well-known public aviation figure, someone in the media might actually have sat down with him and interviewed him good and proper.
So… some confusion as to when the Moisant siblings bought the farm after one or both of the parents bought the farm (died) – we do know that they had a farm in El Salvador.
It was in 1907, however, that John Moisant’s two oldest brothers were arrested in El Salvador on charges that they were plotting to overthrow the country’s new president Fernando Figueroa.
While I can’t claim to know if that’s true or not, the Smithsonian article says that the charges were “cooked up after the Moisant brothers refused to give bribes to the corrupt regime.”
That article says that while the US government didn’t want to get involved on their behalf, John Moisant got ticked off enough to free them himself.
A rich man, Moisant went to neighboring Nicaragua—apparently always at odds with El Salvador—and hired 300 fighters and a gunboat… and in his first invasion attempt on June 11, 1907, were turned back by El Salvador fighters.
Apparently, the initial attack was going so well that some of the hired hands began to argue amongst themselves about who would run El Salvador next…
Apparently the argument was so fierce that the tide began to change, with Figueroa’s forces gaining the upper hand forcing Moisant to flee on a boat.
Victory in hand, but still incensed, because some dumb American tried to take out Figueroa, El Salvador el presidente put a bounty out on John Moisant, and then scheduled an actual execution date for his two captive brothers.
Executing Americans? Never, suh.
U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt got involved and warned the El Salvador president that there would be trouble if the Moisant brothers were executed. Real trouble.
Not wanting a fight with the U.S., El Salvador released the brothers and stopped harassing the family—except for John, who was told he was not welcome in the country for his part in organizing the failed coup.
While Moisant set up shop in the banking industry in neighboring Guatemala, he was still angry with Figueroa.
After learning about the new invention called an aeroplane, Moisant concocted the brilliant idea that he would get an aeroplane, learn to fly the aeroplane, and then use the aeroplane to kill Figueroa.
That sounds sane.
I have no idea if that means merely using the aeroplane to get to Figueroa, or to drop darts down onto him, or to fire a gun from the flying craft? Whatever… he apparently had a plan.
In a completely different vein, Wikipedia says that Nicaragua president José Santos Zelaya López asked Moisant to go to France to find out all he could about aeroplanes.
Which one is real? I would think that the former is more correct… why would the Nicaraguan president be in communique with Moisant who was living in Guatemala? If there was such an admiration, why would Moisant be living in Nicaragua – he’d be living in Guatemala.
Okay… what we do know is that John Moisant traveled to France and attended the the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne air show in Reims, France in August 1909.
After seeing this grand aviation event—the world’s first aviation meet—Moisant drew up his own aircraft design and had a manufacturer build it for him. Really. Apparently it was just that easy.
Wikipedia says it was built in August of 1909, but really… the Reims aviation event only ended on August 29, 1909. Did someone really build him an aircraft in two days? No.
Can’t I just get a simple history to present?
Whenever it was completed, the first aeroplane was/is known as the Moisant Biplane aka L’Ecrevisse… and built by workers from Clement-Bayard.
Moisant actually didn’t call his aircraft an aeroplane… he called it an aluminoplane.
The L’Ecrevisse—in English it means The Crayfish—was built entirely from aluminum and steel… which makes it the first-ever all-metal aircraft… but can we really call it that considering it didn’t actually fly?
The aircraft used a new (and powerful) 50 horsepower Gnome motor – and still the entire aircraft weighed only 176 pounds (80 kilograms).
Finished in February of 1910, on its inaugural flight Moisant took it up for some 90 feet in altitude…
I want to point out at this time, that Moisant had never taken a flying lesson before.
So, are any of us surprised that he crashed?
Even though the plane flew—80 miles an hour (128.8 kilometers per hour), since he did not make a safe landing, I feel it’s not an official flight.
That speed – that height – Moisant panicked when he was airborne, and cut the motor – which was why it crashed. Moisant was able to walk away from the crash.
Even before that flight, Moisant began construction on the Moisant Monoplane, known as Le Corbeau, which translates in English as The Crow… which is a hell of lot better than the crayfish, which I’m sure has only ever seen air time when people like me fly a forkful of its meat into our mouth.
Le Corbeau monoplane was completed using some of the parts from the wrecked Moisant Biplane, but even still… perhaps channeling its aerodynamics from a real crayfish, The Crow was unable to fly for any length of time.
While Moisant never designed another aircraft himself, he did decide to finally get some professional flying lessons. in the Spring of 1910 from the Blériot School, headed by famed pilot Louis Blériot in France.
Moisant gained his Aéro-Club de France pilot’s license, and then essentially transferring it to the Aero Club of America, gaining the distinction of being the US’s lucky 13th licensed pilot.
After purchasing a Blériot XI aeroplane, on just his third ever flight, on August 9, 1910, Moisant flew from Étampes to Issy-les-Moulineaux over Paris, landing the aircraft at the starting line of the Le Circuit de l’Est aerial time trial circuit.
On the plane with him was his mechanic, which was actually the very first passenger flight over a city—any city—that’s cool! I’m thinking cool for 1910.
However, because it was still only his third ever flight, the Aéro-Club de France stated that he was too inexperienced to be taking part in the Le Circuit de l’Est competition it was holding.
No big deal, to underscore his inexperience, Moisant took off again and flew over the city with Roland Garros as his passenger, making him the second person to ever fly over a city with a passenger in an aeroplane. Yeah – take that Aéro-Club de France.
Continuing to thumb his nose at the Aéro-Club de France, a week later on August 17, 1910—his sixth flight as a pilot—Moisant flew across the English Channel…as the first to do so with a passenger, namely his mechanic Albert Fileux, and with Mademoiselle Fifi… his cat.
But was this actually Madamoiselle Fifi? Yes… Just before his flight with Fileux across the English Channel (do the French call it the French Channel?), an engineer presented Moisant with a cat… a cat that Moisant called Paree-Londres in honor of his attempt.
I’m unsure when it happened, but upopn arrival in France and chatting with the media, Moisant revealed the flight’s furry companion as Mademoiselle Fifi… a much better cat name than Paree-Londres. Perhaps if Moisant had deigned to call the cat Puree-Londres, I would have told him to keep that name.
Here’s a video from YouTube showing Moisant’s Paris to London flight in 1910:
How can you not love a guy who decides to bring his cat on a flight across waters where no one has ever flown an aeroplane successfully before with a passenger?
Now that he’s flown with a cat, how can Moisant top himself?
As an American, the media there picked up on his exploits and mere days after the English Channel crossing begged him to attend an aviation event in Belmont, New York, USA… wanting him to lead the charge of American fliers against the leading French.
So… he agreed to represent America… hmm… do you think that Moisant (pronounced as the French would as Moy-zahn – originally of French Canadian stock, right?) was now being pronounced as Moy-zint in a more American format? I doubt it, but it’s fun to think.
Upon arrival back in the U.S. on October 8, Moisant happily chatted up the media about all things aeronautical, but refused to discuss his role as revenge seeker or usurper in El Salvador.
He discussed that aeroplanes would one day be a key point of war, and that people would one day use aeroplanes the way they currently used automobiles.
While eventually correct on both counts, this ability to engage the press had them following him around waiting for him to say something exciting.
Being excited was not just limited to social media, it also extended to his flying habit… his desire to constantly perform and push the envelope to be at the forefront of the media… well… it may have led to more than a few rash decisions.
For example, on October 22, 1910 at the Belmont Aviation Meet in Belmont, NY, while other aviators feared the wet and windy conditions that plagued the event’s first few days, Moisant braved the elements and earned the media and crowd’s respect by heading up to perform stunts for the gathered faithful.
For most in the crowd, this was their first time to see an aeroiplane fly–and rain or shine, Moisant wasn’t going to disappoint.
This “bravado” rung hollow amongst his more experienced flying compatriots who thought him foolhardy.
Heck, one of the Wright Brother’s top pilots—Walter Brookins—called Moisant’s flight across the English Channel foolish: “He’s lucky he didn’t break his neck… an aviator must acquire a fine judgment of direction, of speed and of distance.”
I have no doubt that Brookins was correct, but to say so after the fact just smacks of jealousy. Moisant was brave enough mostly because he didn’t know what he could and shouldn’t do in an aeroplane. Dumb luck sometimes is enough.
At the Belmont Park aviation meet, when it came to the speed events, Moisant knew that his under-powered 50 horsepower Blériot XI aeroplane couldn’t compete against the 100 horsepower motors on the other French and British aeroplanes in the competition…
Instead… he went for the glory… a $10,000 Statue of Liberty Race—a round-trip flight from Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty…
While the safe route was to fly over the land and the coastline—a distance of 66 miles, the more direct route was 33 miles, but would take an aviator across the heavily populated area of Brooklyn.
Wilbur Wright would not let any of the Wright Brothers’ pilots to compete in this type of a race over a populated city, saying: “While it is an aviator’s own business whether he decides or not to risk his own neck, he has no right to endanger the lives of others.”
As the first to create a heavier-than-air flying machine, when either of the Wright Brother’s spoke, it carried a lot of weight.
Only three aviators decided to enter the Statue of Liberty challenge: British pilot Claude Graham-White; French rich guy Count Jacques de Lesseps; and our man Moisant.
The popular Graham-White had won the International Aviation Cup the day earlier on October 29, 1910.
I’m unsure if the numbers are higher than a presidential inauguration, but newspapers offer up an approximate one million spectators on hand in the streets to watch the racers pass overhead.
Pilots de Lesseps, Graham-White and Moisant took off in that staggered order, with de Lesseps finishing the route in 41 minutes; Graham-White in 35 minutes; and Moisant in 34 minutes 38 seconds.
Of those one million spectators in attendance, Moisant’s sister, Matilde, was… er… spectating.
Perhaps because she was hanging around her brother John, another female spectator felt comfortable in coming over to chat—that woman was Harriet Quimby.
The experience must have been fantastic for Quimby, because she and Matilde Moisant decided they wanted to learn how to fly – and were perhaps even encouraged by John Moisant to try.
Women, of that era, were not seen as equals to men, so the notion of a female pilot was, I am sure, more than amusing to other aviators and even pilot training schools who probably would not want the social stigma of being known as the “school that trains female pilots.”
Ridiculous thinking, in my opinion, even for the time… just what is it about flying an airplane is it that a woman could not do as well as a man? If your answer is anything other than “nothing” please do not feel the need to “inform me.”
Taking part in John Moisant’s flying school Quimby learned the ropes of aviation, achieving on August 1, 1911 her Aero Club of America aviator’s certificate.
Not to be outdone—though she was—Matilde Moisant quickly got hers next to become the second certified female pilot.
Anyhow, after the stellar win at the Belmont, NY event, John Moisant and his brother Alfred formed the Moisant International Aviators flying circus and toured across the U.S., Mexico and Cuba. As part of a flying circus – just know its less about silly walks and more about daredevil flying.
That’s all there is to say about the Belmont event… except there was this problem…
It was (much) later ruled that Moisant had started the race after the official time, and so he was disqualified and stripped of the winning.
That meant that the second-fasted pilot and plane Graham-White won the prize. Yay.
But wait. It was then discovered that Graham-White had also committed some egregious foul during the race, and was himself disqualified.
And the ultimate winner of the $10,000 prize… the slowest aviator… French rich guy Count Jacques de Lesseps.
I’m sure the information is out there, but I can not tell you IF Moisant was asked to return the prize money… because I’m assuming it was already invested in the Moisant International Aviators flying circus
On December 30, 1910, in New Orleans, he raced his Blériot XI five miles (eight kilometers) against a Packard automobile, but lost.
I don’t suppose that’s anything like a boxer fighting a bear or a swimmer racing a virtual shark…
On December 31, 1910, Moisant got up early to try and claim the $4,000 prize for the longest flight of the year—the longest flight without landing—and soon took off and performed a few aerial stunts for the crowd… and then… while flying to the Michelin Cup endurance race at City Park in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S…. as he approached the race’s starting point at Harahan, Louisiana… well…
Preparing to land at the Harahan landing site, a gust of wind caught his aeroplane throwing him from his Blériot XI as people watched.
Although he only fell about 25 feet, he landed on his head and broke his neck.
Because he was still alive, he was moved to a nearby railway car to be taken in to the city… where he was pronounced dead. Having watched a beloved cat of mine break her neck, I can only tell you that—without moving her—she lasted about 45 seconds before expiring. It was a long 45 seconds. I can only imagine in Moisant’s case, that if he wasn’t already going to die, moving him without a modern-day stretcher board would probably have killed him.
The official explanation for Moisant’s accident was that the aircraft’s equilibrium was lost in the wind’s gust thanks to an extra load of gasoline placed on the aircraft in anticipation of the long-distance flight attempt.
John Moisant was buried at the Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. His body was later moved to the Portal of Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation, also in Los Angeles.
You’d think that would be it, wouldn’t you?
Tell you what… the next time you fly into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, hoist a glass to the late John Moisant.
You are, after all, in the airport originally named after him.
Yup… they named an airport after a guy who died in an aeroplane crash. It sounds wrong, to be frank…
The area where the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport sits, well, it was originally named Moisant Field in honor of Moisant whose plane crashed in that area of land. Creepy.
What’s really cool, however, is that Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport still has the original airport identifier: MSY… which is supposed to stand for Moisant Stock Yards… also named in honor of Moisant… but located where Moisant’s plane crash actually took place.
I’m guessing that it was Moisant Field, then Moisant Stock Yards and then Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I’ve read a Wikipedia page on this, and it confuses me.
Anyhow… Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport’s call sign is in honor of a dead aviator who crashed in the area, but is actually in honor of a stock yard where they killed thousands of cattle. MSY.
(By the way) Toronto’s Pearson International Airport… it’s call sign is YYZ… a famous song by Canadian rock group Rush. The frenetic bass line in the song is Morse Code for Y-Y-Z.
I only mention this because ONE of the few international destinations handled by Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport IS Toronto… where I live… even though the airport isn’t IN Toronto. Neither is Tokyo International – that’s in Chiba.
Anyone know any others?