1929: Famed aviatrix Ruth Elder visits Sperryville

Ruth Elder was a famed aviatrix, though little remembered today. In the fall of 1927, five months after Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, Elder, a pretty 23-year-old from Florida with only two years of flying experience, set off to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic (see figure 1).

Ruth Elder, famed aviatrix, visits Sperryville, as noted in the “Blue Ridge Guide” and repeated verbatim in the “Page News and Courier” of November 19, 1929.
Ruth Elder, famed aviatrix, visits Sperryville, as noted in the “Blue Ridge Guide” and repeated verbatim in the “Page News and Courier” of November 19, 1929. Don Audette

She and the pilot who had trained her, Capt. George Haldeman, took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 11, 1927, aiming to land at Bourget Airfield outside of Paris, France, replicating Lindbergh’s famous flight. Lindbergh had flown a northern route and carried no radio transmitter.

Elder and Haldeman followed a much longer mid-Atlantic shipping route; although they had a radio transmitter, it only had a 75-mile range. After takeoff, their aircraft, the American Girl, was spotted in the moonlight at 10:30 p.m. by a transatlantic liner, 500 miles off the Atlantic coast and some 1,000 feet in the air. After that: Nothing.

Two days later, news reports told of their eight-hour encounter with a severe Atlantic storm that had lasted until 2 a.m. the previous night. Sleet formed on their aircraft, and an oil line had broken, dropping their single motor’s oil pressure to a dangerous level. Elder and Haldeman took turns crawling out along on the aircraft’s fuselage to knock ice off the plane’s tail and releasing reserve gasoline. Their aim was to lighten the aircraft, gain altitude and go into a long glide as the plane’s oil pressure continued to drop.

In daylight, and by sheer luck, they encountered a Dutch freighter on its way to the Azores. Circling above the freighter, Elder tossed down two weighted notes asking the distance and direction to the nearest land. One note hit the deck; the other went into the sea. The freighter’s crew painted on the deck the name, direction and distance of the nearest island of the Azores. It was too far away, however, and Haldeman was forced to make a landing on the sea next to the freighter. Elder and Haldeman were rescued, but their aircraft sank after erupting in flames.

News of their safety spread rapidly around the world, and people closely followed their continuing adventure: Being taken to Portugal, where male students spread their cloaks on the ground for Elder to walk upon, bringing tears to her eyes; being flown to Bourget Airfield at Paris, courtesy of the Portuguese Air Force; participating in honors, dinners, ceremonies and shopping trips in Paris; and finally returning to the U.S. on an ocean liner, to a great welcome in New York City.

The celebrations continued with lunch at the White House, a contract to tell her story on the vaudeville circuit, a starring role in the 1928 movie film “Moran of the Marines,” followed another test of her skills, the 1929 “Powder Puff Derby.”

In the end, Elder went through six marriages, including one to Walter Camp, Jr., director of Madison Square Garden. She married her last husband twice, and when she died of emphysema in 1977, she was cremated, as was her husband after his death. Their mixed ashes were scattered over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco by plane.

A visit to Sperryville

When the Blue Ridge Guide, a forerunner of the Rappahannock News, noted in November, 1929 that, “Miss Ruth Elder, famed aviatrix, was a guest at a dance and bridge party given by Capt. and Mrs. Richard I. Purcell at their home in Sperryville, recently,” one wonders how it wasn’t bigger news. (See figure 2.)

Ruth Elder, a dental assistant in Lakeland, Fla., took up flying in her early 20s. At her peak, she was known as the Flying Florida Flapper and Miss America of Aviation. Here she poses with her plane, “The American Girl.”
Ruth Elder, a dental assistant in Lakeland, Fla., took up flying in her early 20s. At her peak, she was known as the Flying Florida Flapper and Miss America of Aviation. Here she poses with her plane, “The American Girl.” Photo courtesy of San Diego Air and Space Museum

The Virginia Star had a front-page notice of the event in their Nov. 14, 1929 edition. “Capt. and Mrs. Richard Q. Purcell were hosts at a very charmingly arranged Halloween entertainment on Saturday at their beautiful country home, ‘Rock Villa,’ in Sperryville. The house was decorated with Halloween colors and further adorned with lovely baskets of chrysanthemums and roses; dancing and cards were the amusement of the evening. Delicious refreshments, appropriate to the season, were served.”

Though a “Ruth Elder” was listed among the guests, most of them were from Washington, D.C., New York City, Baltimore or Philadelphia. The only local was Bob Estes of Sperryville.

However, in October, 1929, Elder and Camp had leased an apartment at 115 East 86th Street in New York City, and were settling into their new home. She had announced her retirement from aviation. Research shows the Elder at Rock Villa was from Washington, D.C. She was an assistant clerk of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had the same name as the “famed aviatrix” and lived at 2124 I St., Apt. 108.

Capt. Purcell, incidentally, worked in Washington, D.C., for the Southern Railroad, and many attending the party were co-workers. A veteran of the Spanish-American War and in the Sanitary Corps in World War I, Capt. Purcell died at his desk at work on April 16, 1933. He was wire chief for the railroad, and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Elizabeth, ran a tea room at Rock Villa, open to friends on weekends in season.

Henry Woodhouse’s pursuit of history

Now here was a real story. About a month before the Purcell party, the Blue Ridge Guide for Oct. 10, 1929, noted that, “Mrs. John A. Browning had as her Sunday guests at Greenfield Mr. Henry Woodhouse, president of the Aerial League of America; Mr. John Armistead Lewis, Mrs. Knox Gore and daughter, Mrs. [Keckler]; Mr. Frank Taylor and Mr. John Holiday, of King George County.”

Of these guests the most interesting was Henry Woodhouse. Likely the others had no idea he had come to the U.S. from Italy 25 years previously, taken a job in a hotel restaurant kitchen in Troy, N.Y., killed a fellow employee with a knife during an argument (he claimed the man fell on the knife) and then spent more than four years in jail for manslaughter.

Henry Woodhouse (right) displays some of George Washington’s documents at the U.S. Capitol, along with William Tyler Page, clerk of House of Representatives (left), and William Selden Washington, one of Washington’ descendants.
Henry Woodhouse (right) displays some of George Washington’s documents at the U.S. Capitol, along with William Tyler Page, clerk of House of Representatives (left), and William Selden Washington, one of Washington’ descendants. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Or that he then developed a life-long interest in aviation, became a noted writer, editor and publisher of journals in the field, author of four books on military aviation, joined and led aeronautic organizations, and speculated in a mid-East oil venture and real estate.

What they did know was that Woodhouse was a notable collector of precious documents and artifacts, particularly those of the founding fathers, with an emphasis on George Washington, whose 200th birthday was coming up in 1932. This is where Mrs. Browning’s other guests came in.

A news items on the front page of the New York Times of Jan. 26, 1929, described how Woodhouse and Prof. Albert Bushnell Hart, historian of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission, exhibited a trunkful of 2,000 original papers of George Washington’s family at the U.S. Capitol (see figure 3).

Woodhouse had purchased the trunk from the wife of Mr. Frank Taylor, one of Mrs. Browning’s guests. She was a descendant of Washington, as were Mrs. Knox Gore and her daughter, Mrs. Ellie Knox-Gore Keckler. Among the papers were documents related to the Lewis family and guest John Armistead Lewis, who inherited the estate Cleve in King George County. Were they gathered at Mrs. Browning’s home to be briefed on Woodhouse’s next revelation?

It is interesting that one week later, on Oct. 12, 1929, Woodhouse and his Washington-Lewis Flying Unit were at the first National Stratford Day, participating in the dedication of Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. A governor, five senators, a number of Congressmen and many other notables from 16 states were to attend.

At this event, Woodhouse and Hart told of new evidence linking George Washington to Sulgrave Manor in England. This discovery was made a month earlier, in September, 1929, while Woodhouse was searching for the original 1793 passport Washington gave to Jean Pierre Blanchard, who made the first balloon ascension over the Western Hemisphere.

Departing now from the story of Mrs. Browning and her guests, this latter item ties in with the most spectacular move made by Woodhouse in the field of aviation.

The George Washington Air Junction

In late 1928, Woodhouse and others, including the Aerial League of America, acquired 2,000 acres of land from the former estates of Washington and George Mason, with the idea of opening a $2 million “Washington Air Junction.” Located three miles southwest of Alexandria, it was to be the largest airport in the world — larger than those of New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Chicago and Philadelphia combined.

On Jan. 23, 1929, four of Washington’s original surveying pegs were used to mark the zero point of a 7,500-foot east-west runway and a 3,000-foot north-south runway. Both were big enough to handle dirigibles and zeppelins, thought then to be the aviation vehicles of the future.

Woodhouse held a naming and dedication ceremony for his airport on Feb. 22, 1929 — Washington’s birthday. He wanted to have a balloon ascension, replicating the one observed on Jan. 9, 1793, by Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe in Philadelphia, but there’s no evidence this part of the ceremony occurred.

A descendant of Washington formally named the airport the George Washington Air Junction. Another descendant then pressed a switch to light up a 50-foot name-bearing arch over the entrance.

Woodhouse also wanted the airport to include a museum for his collection of his artifacts and historic documents, a 20th century aeronautic and scientific center, an “artists airpark” to inspire painters, a flight training school, an area where youths could fly model airplanes at the field and learn about aeronautics, and walkways following 18th century pathways.

He proposed landing rights to British dirigibles and German zeppelins, and in December, 1928, offered Washington, D.C., land for a national airport. The Great Depression ultimately killed off the idea of the air junction, however; the land was later sold to become a Hybla Valley development.

As to Mrs. Browning, she continued to have interesting guests. Weeks later it was Maj. Bolivar Bruckner. At the time, he was a recent graduate of the Army War College. Later, as a Lt. Gen. in World War II, Bruckner conducted the amphibious assault on Japanese-held Okinawa, died in that battle and was among the highest-ranked military officers to die in the war.

In retrospect then, one is always surprised at what goes on in Rappahannock County.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 28 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.