Never travel in an airship without a cat: The Strange Story of the Airship America
The weird voyage of the airship America and some delightful cat superstitions.
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On October 10, 2010, the Sunday Telegraph published an article entitled “‘You Must Never Cross the Atlantic in An Airship Without a Cat’ (Journal Entry from Murray Simon, Navigator on Board the Airship America, October 1910).” I came across this article while working on an episode of podcast (dropping tomorrow), which is about some unusual airship sightings in 1897. The headline was so bizarre that I had to read the article, even though it clearly had nothing to do with the topic of the episode.
What followed was a really interesting story about the first attempt to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, which occurred on October 15, 1910. An American journalist and adventurer named Walter Wellman led the trip. He had previously tried to set some records as a polar explorer and had failed there. But airships were hugely popular at the time, so Wellman was able to get three different newspapers, including the New York Times, to finance a trip across the ocean in an airship.
The crew was comprised of six people and a cat. The navigator for the trip was twenty-nine-year-old Murray Simon, a junior officer who had been serving on the Oceanic, which was one of the Titanic’s sister ships. (The Titanic wouldn’t launch for another two years.) He was enthusiastic about the trip, and when the America was launched, to the skepticism of some journalists, he wrote in the airship’s log that it was time to “make those blooming critics eat their words.”
Simon had a sailor's superstitious outlook, which led him to bring aboard a stray cat that had been living inside the hangar. He wrote that “we can never have luck without a cat on board” and that “you must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat - more useful than a barometer.” The cat was named Kiddo.
Needing to have a cat onboard a ship is an old superstition. Cats have a long history tied to superstition and magic, so it makes sense why the practicality of needing to have a ship’s cat to chase down rodents became a superstition among sailors
Having a mouser on board was vital: In addition to being vectors of plague and other illnesses, rats could eat the provisions, ruin the cargo, damage the wood on the ship—and once things were electrified, they could destroy the electrical wiring.
Also, cats are great; they were a comforting reminder of home for a lot of sailors.
There are a whole host of delightful ship cat superstitions. According to Wikipedia, polydactyl cats were believed to be the best at catching rodents, because their extra toes supposedly gave them better balance while at sea. Sailors also believed that cats had preternatural powers that could help keep ships safe from dangerous weather, and that superstition even extended to the wives of fishermen, who would often keep black cats at home, hoping that they might be able to protect their husbands from afar. If a cat approached a sailor on deck, that was considered lucky, but if they only walk up to the sailor halfway and then turned around, that was an omen of bad luck.
Cats were said to have meteorological powers, as well. Some people seemed to believe that cats could start storms using magic that was stored in their tails. If the cat fell overboard, it would create a terrible storm that would sink the ship. Even if the ship survived that storm, it would be plagued by nine years of bad luck. Some people believed that if a cat licked its fur against the grain, there’d be a hailstorm. If it sneezed, it would rain. And if it was playful, there would be a strong wind.
Apparently not all of these beliefs are so far-fetched. Cats are sensitive and can detect changes in the weather, such as low atmospheric pressure, a precursor to storms. Cats grow restless in low pressure.
Also, I can’t recommend the Wikipedia page about this enough, because there are a number of pictures of sailors with ship cats that I find very sweet and endearing. So check that out if you want to see and hear about some famous ship cats.
The cat on the America
To get back to the 1910 voyage of the airship America, Simon brought Kiddo on board, but not everyone was pleased to have a feline companion there. While a tugboat was bringing the airship away from the coast, the chief engineer put Kiddo in a bag and tried to lower him into the boat. But instead, the cat was dumped into the ocean and then, luckily, there able to pull them back into the airship.
Wikipedia claims that Kiddo's bad behavior was the reason for his attempted expulsion:
At the first attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1910, [Melvin] Vaniman sent one of the first aerial radio transmissions when he urged the launch boat to "come and get this goddamn cat!" The cat, named Kiddo, had caused such a ruckus that it finally had to be placed inside a gunny sack and suspended below the airship's gondola.
(That being said, there's a very cute photo of Vaniman and the cat, so I suppose they made peace eventually.)
The airship left from Atlantic City, and the voyage didn’t go well. From the beginning, there were issues with the equilibrator and the engines, causing the airship to sink to a low height of 20 feet at times. At another point, the chief engineer accidentally let out some oxygen rather than hydrogen which made the balloon soar from 200 feet to 3600 feet.
Despite that, the airship initially made decent progress, but then a gale hit it and pushed it back toward the shore, and then a hurricane started brewing to the south. On top of that, the engines failed about 38 hours into the flight.
Luckily, Simon knew that a Royal Mail Ship was on its way from Bermuda to New York, so they were able to find the ship, communicate with the crew, and then lower a lifeboat with the crew (Kiddo included) down to the sea. The airship blew away, and the crew was rescued.
Kiddo the cat became fairly famous, and at one point was housed in a gilded cage at Gimbel’s department store. Eventually, he ended up living with Wellman’s daughter, Edith.
While the America didn’t end up crossing the Atlantic, it broke a lot of records, such as being the longest flight (in both time and distance.)
After the evacuation, the America was never seen again—officially, at least. However, there have supposedly been sightings of it in South America and Ireland.
That being said, I would be shocked if an airship would be able to float that sort of distance on its own, which makes me wonder whether the people who saw what they thought was the America might have actually been seeing some sort of UFO (like the mysterious airships that I'll talk about in the episode that drops tomorrow).
Either way, whether witnesses saw a ghostly airship or a UFO, the story of the America and its feline mascot is a bizarre and delightful historical footnote.
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