The Airship Scare and War Hysteria

by: Steven A. Arts

What was the cause of the airship fever that began in western Canada and northern California in late 1896? It is likely that we will never have a certain answer to that question. After eight years of airship research I propose one motivating force behind the phenomenon, although I certainly do not pretend that it is the only cause.

Airships was a term used by people in the 19th century, especially in America. The closest term we have in modern times is "unidentified flying objects," or ufo's.

It is well known that war hysteria can lead people to believe all sorts of things. Just such hysteria afflicted the people of late 1896, barely two years before the United States became involved in the Spanish-American War, and Cuba was at the center of it all. But there were other war-related concerns as well.

During this period of airship excitement, headlines about airships in Sacramento and San Francisco, California newspapers had to give way to often lurid stories about Cuban rebels fighting Spanish colonial troops. In my opinion these stories of war, combined with a burning desire by people to fly, figured largely in airship mania. All one has to do, to see that this is true, is to check the pertinent newspapers on microfilm.

Cuba and the airships were connected in many people's minds. Consider, for example, the page one headline from the San Francisco "Call" of November 25, 1896: "Mission of the Aerial Ship-Will Probably Be Used to Destroy the City of Havana." The article that followed reported that William Henry Harrison Hart, former attorney general of California, had taken over representing the airship inventor from attorney George "Airship" Collins, or so claimed Hart. Hart's inventor changed identity, and even nationality, at the drop of a hat.

"General Hart admitted his new and mysterious responsibilities yesterday," the article reported, "and then made the sensational announcement that the airship was to be used in the service of the Cuban insurgents and intimated that Havana was to be the first point of attack."

Hart appears to be the main pro-rebel proponent of the period, but it must be said that most Americans sympathized with the Cuban rebels. After all, two years later the United States went to war with Spain, supposedly to support the rebels.

A headline in the rival "Examiner" the same day read: "General Hart Advises That the Ship be Sold for Millions to Cuba and Used to Destroy Havana." Hart gave interviews to the local press. "I said that from the airship the city could be destroyed in 48 hours," he claimed. "The ship would be taken to Cuba or to the neighborhood." Hart was not the only person prophesying the airship's future terrible use to bomb from above.

The next day the "Examiner" attacked General Wyler, the Spanish commander of Cuba. "The Thunderbird Preparing to Throw Eggs at Wyler," said part of the headlines on page 10. The Thunderbird, obviously the airship, "is busy getting ready to drop a hot bomb on Weyler's head," the paper alleged.

True, Hart was pro-rebel, but he was a capitalist at heart. On November 27 the "Call" declared on page 14: "It Is to Be Used to Destroy City of Havana for Junta-Ten Millions is Demanded." Hart must have been an early version of a modern arms dealer, except that his product obviously didn't exist.

The next day the "Call" reported on page 1, "Attaches a Balloon to the Warship of the Air." The former attorney general claimed now that the airship was the invention of an associate of General Antonio Maceo's electrician's counsin. Maceo was a rebel commander in Cuba.

This claim was further advertised the next day when the "Call" published a letter written by Hart and discussing the airship inventor he supposedly represented. "He also stated," Hart wrote of the reclusive inventor, "that he was a cousin of Mr. Linn, who was Antonio Maceo's electrician, and that he expected to take it to Cuba for the purpose of aiding in the capture of Havana as soon as he could perfect it and acquaint his associates with the handling of it."

On December 1 an article in the "Call" said: "The subject uppermost in the general's mind, the freeing of Cuba from Spain, came to the surface in the conversation, and the attorney said that 'the inventor is likely at any time to pack up his smaller airship and start for the scene of bloodshed and trouble.'"

Even as late as January 16, 1897, the "Call" published a story on the Cuban airship. This long article dealt almost entirely with the role the airship was to play in Cuba's fight for freedom.

When the airships crossed the Rocky Mountain chain and invaded the Midwest, Midwestern editors were aware of what had been written in California newspapers. On April 17, page 1 of the "Daily Globe" of Atchison, Kansas, discussed alleged airship inventor Pedro Sanchez of Cuba. It intimated that the airship was somehow connected to General Wyler. Perhaps to blow him up?

On page 1 of the April 18 issue of the "Sunday Democrat" of Sedalia, Missouri, was a partial headline reading: "A Trip From Maine to the Pacific Ocean in the Interest of Setting Cuba Free." The article consisted of a letter written by a supposed Cuban airship inventor. He wrote at length of liberating Cuba from Spain, but he also had other ambitions: helping the Greeks and freeing Constantinople from the Turks. An all-purpose liberator!

While it was the plight of Cuba that Americans thought of most, I have also come upon illustrations and articles dealing with the Greco-Turkish war. There were fears that the great powers, including America, would be dragged into the fighting. This was particularly evident in Midwestern newspapers, even small town weeklies.

As if there were not already enough war hysteria, Japan contended with the United States for control of Hawaii. The Burlington (Iowa) "Hawk-Eye" told of the airship Ian Chang. J. Rudolph wrote to his mother: "I have been taken prisoner by Japanese officers from near Waihaihow plantation near Honolulu. The republic of Hawaii is doomed."

During this period there were also tensions between Germany and its neighbors. The Boer conflict in South Africa was stirring.

Remember that literally thousands of people saw these mysterious lights in the skies, all over America, but it got a good head of steam in northern California.

All of these elements have to be taken into consideration if we are to understand the psychological atmosphere of late 1896 and early 1897, and to understand how the airship scare took the particular shape it did. The events, including the sightings and the landings, did not occur in a vacuum, but in an atmosphere of fear and expectation.