Almost Famous

DSC_0392              Whipple Hall

January 24, 1910. San Diego, California. When Curtiss aviator Charles Hamilton (see 13 Feb 16 blog post) gives his first exhibition after the Dominguez Field meet, he uses an improvised hammock seat to take passengers for paid rides on the eight-cylinder Rheims racer. One of those passengers is Whipple Hall, a 28-year-old Oakland socialite, Stanford alumnus, and son of a California appellate court judge. At a reported 235 pounds, Hall weighs more than twice the diminutive Hamilton, and his immediate claim to fame is becoming the heaviest man to ride in an aeroplane. Within six months Hall will be celebrated as a member of the Curtiss team, one of “America’s Famous Aviators”—despite the fact that virtually nobody has seen him fly, or ever will.


Eugene Ely once referred to the Halls as “the hard luck family,” and indeed the life of Whipple Spear Hall at times verged into tragedy. In 1897, vacationing at his family’s summer residence in Santa Cruz County, the fifteen- year-old accidentally killed a friend with a gun he thought wasn’t loaded. He attended Stanford for a year (1900-1901), joined the Zeta Psi fraternity, played left tackle on the freshman football team, served as a class officer during the spring semester, and unsuccessfully sought election to the Athletic Committee of the student body officers. For reasons that are unclear, Hall never returned for his sophomore year of college.

He took a genteel job instead as an insurance appraiser, and over the next two years his name appeared in Oakland and San Francisco “News of the Smart Set” society columns, primarily by virtue of his attendance at parties and plays. He enjoyed dancing and cards, and though he was not especially athletic he took up fencing at one point.

There’s a suggestion that Judge Hall became displeased with his son’s behavior. In August 1903, at the age of 21, Whipple Hall traveled to Japan as a waiter/baggage handler on a transport ship, returning three months later with unaccustomed calluses on his hands. The following year he won appointment to the Jefferson Guards, a quasi-police detachment at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, but upon arriving he contracted appendicitis, and he was back in Oakland before Roy Knabenshue (4 Mar 16 blog post) made his famous flight in California Arrow.

When Hall married an Oakland society girl in January 1906, the wedding was hailed as “one of the most important of the year, both families being of social prominence.” Hall went through another brief stint in the insurance business, but by the winter of 1909-1910 he was convalescing in southern California from a vaguely described illness. He happened to be visiting family friends in San Diego when Hamilton arrived with the Rheims racer.

As unlikely a pair as they made, the tall, handsome socialite and the tiny, odd-featured ex-circus performer hit it off from the start—improbably enough, both had visited Japan within the past few years. Hall was so smitten by the flying life that he became a part of Hamilton’s traveling retinue as the aviator worked his way north to Fresno, then back through Arizona and out to El Paso.

In late February, Glenn Curtiss found he needed cash to post a bond in the Wright brothers patent litigation, so he entered into a sham transaction in which Hamilton supposedly bought the Rheims racer and two other aeroplanes. Curtiss also advised Hamilton that if he sold one or more of the three machines to a third party he could keep any sales proceeds above $4,000.

As it happened, Hamilton did know someone with an interest in buying an aeroplane. Whipple Hall paid $4,000 cash, with an additional $1,000 promissory note to Hamilton.

On March 18, on a prairie near Tacoma, Washington, Hall attempted his first solo flight. “Though he did not get more than ten feet from the ground he was in the air for about 300 feet and the flight was considered successful for the first attempt at manipulating a machine.”Stanford became the first American university to produce an aviator.

A month later, while Hamilton was at an aviation meet in Memphis, Hall was said to be making “trial flights” near Mendota, in California’s Central Valley. He had reportedly added five-foot extensions to each end of the upper wing, hoping the expanded surface area would lift his weight. On April 22 he formally announced his intention of becoming a professional aviator: “APPELLATE COURT JUDGE’S SON MAKES FLYING HIS BUSINESS,” read the headline in a San Francisco newspaper.

Hall’s public debut was to take place in Fresno on Raisin Day, April 30 (eventually delayed to May 1), at an exhibition sponsored by the local Driving Club and the Union High School League. Unfortunately, with his wife and daughter watching, he failed to get off the ground on his first attempt and crashed into a fence, sustaining cuts to the face and injuring his back severely enough that he couldn’t walk. Later accounts upgraded his injury to a “slightly fractured skull.”

Hall was engaged to fly at San Jose’s Rose Carnival two weeks later. The afternoon of May 13 was quite breezy, a potential problem for early flying machines. With eight thousand people waiting, Hall inadvisedly started the engine of his aeroplane inside its tent. Winds blew the flapping canvas into the spinning propeller, which splintered. The rudder supports were torn out as well, and the cloth on the lower plane ripped. The repaired aeroplane was shipped to San Francisco for a static exhibition by the Pacific Aero Club from May 19-21, during which Hall, seated in his machine, could be viewed “as in full flight.”

Hall was nothing if not optimistic. He hired a manager, Charles Bryce, who booked an engagement for him during the first weekend of June at Medford, Oregon. There Hall met Eugene Ely, likewise in the first month of his aviation career. Neither man made a successful flight.

Notwithstanding his Medford failure, Hall secured a contract to fly in Eugene, Oregon. Touted by Bryce as “one of the world’s greatest aviators” and credited with Charles Hamilton’s roundtrip flight from San Diego to Mexico, Hall was said to be widely known as the “King of the Air”—a fact noted with bitter amusement by the Medford newspaper. On June 18 he flew a distance of somewhere between several hundred yards and three-quarters of a mile, but when one of the machine’s guide wires snapped he was forced to land. Strong winds the next day blew his aeroplane backward while it rested on the ground; he understandably made no attempt to fly.

Ely and Hall traveled together to the Midwest, where journalists readily parroted Bryce’s claims that the duo had

performed in the far east, where millions of Chinese have watched their flights. At Hong Kong alone 72,000 paid for admission to the pavilion where the machine was on view. These two men are among the most celebrated aeroplanists in the world.

Elsewhere they were said to have flown before the Mikado, and to be known by the Japanese as “man-dragons.”

Ely went on to join the Curtiss team, achieving significant success, but a combination of weather, weight and health issues kept Hall on the ground. He gave up his flying aspirations in August and returned to Oakland after loaning his aeroplane to Hamilton, who had quit the Curtiss team and was in the process of building his own flying machine, the “Hamiltonian.”

Although Hall never appeared in the air as a Curtiss flyer, he was included in a composite photo of “America’s Famous Aviators” that appeared on a picture postcard in late 1910. The lone pioneer aviator with any sort of college education, he was an affable fellow, well liked by Curtiss and his flyers. Ely wrote in September to his friend Hall, then convalescing in a San Francisco hospital: “Curtiss inquires for you every time I see him.”

Hall sold his machine to former dirigible pilot and novice aviator Lincoln Beachey in December but bought it back and resold it to a Berkeley society man. At the end of the year, using a photographic negative to print copies of the photograph that substantiated his claim to be a “famous aviator,” Hall began acting as manager for Bud Mars, who had quit the Curtiss team. In early 1911 Hall arranged for Ely and Willard to appear at Salt Lake City, and he attempted to schedule an exhibition for them in Mexico, but the Mexican government ended up dealing instead with the Moisants (11 Mar 16 blog post).

By mid-April Hall and his wife and daughter were on their way to Australia, where he expected to promote exhibitions by Clarence “Dick” Walker, a Salt Lake City man flying Ely’s original machine, and Didier Masson, one of the French aviators who had been at the Dominguez Field meet. Hall’s plans came to naught when Walker and Masson both crashed at an interim stop in Honolulu and had to return to America. Hall and his family continued on to Australia and Singapore.

In late 1911 Hall returned from the Far East and made one final attempt to succeed in aviation. He served briefly as manager for Didier Masson, and his name was mentioned in connection with the establishment of an Oakland aviation school at which Masson would be chief instructor. But by March 1912 Masson had a different manager, and Hall was moving his family permanently to Manila, where he established an import business.

He returned occasionally to the United States over the next three decades, most notably during World War I, when he was reported to be serving in the naval reserve. He commanded the American Legion of the Philippines. He was eligible for, but appears never to have sought membership in, the Early Birds of Aviation.

In 1942 Hall returned to Oakland for the final time, dying shortly thereafter at the age of 60. In his obituary, the Stanford alumnus was misremembered as having been a football star for the rival University of California (“one of the greatest grid[iron] players the west ever produced”) and was hailed, justifiably, as “one of the handsomest men ever seen in this part of California.” As to his brief stint as one of America’s Famous Aviators, there was not a word.


Almost Famous

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