Thursday, June 23, 2022

When A 28 Year Old Dancer From Williamsport, & A Groundhog, Died In A Flight For Science, 1932


A 28 year old dancer and night club host from Williamsport Pa, a ground hog, a retired gynecologist, and a barn stormer pilot, attempted a Trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Rome.  The purpose of the flight was to monitor carbon monoxide levels in the cabin during flights, and in addition, Edna Newcomer who also had training as a nurse, held a pilots license, and had parachuting experience, would parachute into Florence in a tribute to Florence Nightingale.  Two prior attempts to fly from New York To Rome had failed, so if they succeeded, they would also be the first to make this flight successfully.  Unfortunately, they never arrived in Europe, and the plane was presumed lost at sea.


The plane, the former Miss Veedol, was purchased by a group including Dr. Leon Martocci-Pisculli.  Pisculli recruited pilot William Ulbrich, with Gladys Bramhall Wilmer as co-pilot, for a record New York to Rome flight, including the proposed parachute jump in honor of Florence Nightingale over Italy. Wilner was a nurse, licensed pilot, and experienced parachute jumper, was an ideal candidate for the flight.  At some point however, Wilner decided not to take part in the flight.  She was replaced by Williamsport native, Edna Newcomer. 

Dr. Pisculli's intention for the flight was to study the effects of fatigue in long-distance aviation and to test his hypothesis that the loss of many previous long-distance flights had been due to the buildup of carbon monoxide in the crew compartment. Pisculli, who served as commander of the flight, held at least 3 patents for medical devices, he was also the founder and director of the American Nurses Aviation Service, which sought to promote the provision of medical care in aviation and through aviation to others.  As the flight was being sponsored by that Ameerican Nurses Aviation Service, the plane was renamed The American Nurse.

On the trip, the nursing assistant, who would also serve as co-pilot and parachute jumper, would take in charge of taking scientific data. When Ulbrich could leave the controls, Dr Pisculli planned to make examinations to discover the strain of flying on aviators.  "Heart, lungs, respiration, urine tests, and so on - a complete scientific examination."

A groundhog was also along on the flight, a mascot named "Tailwind".  Pisculli had found the woodchuck with a broken leg on a road in New York, and had nursed him back to health.  Tailwinds presence was presumably to be an early indicator of noxious carbon monoxide, much like a canary in a coal mine, however it was likely also, at least partially, a publicity stunt.

There were only two trained nurses in the US, at that time, that also held pilots licenses and also had a working knowledge of parachutes.  Once Wilmer declined, that left 28 year old Edna Newcomer of Williamsport PA.  
In September of 1932, 7 women had attempted to make Trans-Atlantic flights, and only two had succeeded.  Five had died trying.  Newcomer, the 8th woman to make the attempt,  was the first to have been invited along on a flight, the other women all having got their own backers and planes, and then found pilots to go with them.

Edna, 28 years old at the time of the flight, was the daughter of John Harrison Newcomer and Rebecca May [Shatto] Newcomer.   Her mother Rebecca, in 1932, resided at 812 Packer street, Williamsport Pa. Edna was born and raised in Williamsport, and attended the schools there.  

On her 20th birthday, she attended a musical comedy that was playing at the old opera house on West Third Street.  Soon after she left the city to become the bride of Jimmy Hodges, an actor. Upon her separation from Hodges, she retained her maiden name.

A few years later, Edna was one of a few actresses who submitted to a surgical operation in the hope of having her slightly bowed legs straightened.  After the surgery, she remained in a Chicago hospital for six weeks.  She then returned to Williamsport, where she had to remain in bed for the entire summer.  When the bandages were finally removed, she had forgotten how to walk.  Her brother John, who lived at home with their mother, took her out on the streets at midnight, where she could practice walking without being observed.

A  Broadway dancer and night club hostess, Edna soon became interested in flying, and by the fall of 1932 had 350 air hours to her credit.  She studied for 18 months at Roosevelt Field, and had recently became a parachute jumper.

When Edna spoke to her mother about the invitation to join the flight, her mother said "Go to it Edna!  You'll make it." Rebecca had occasionally traveled with Edna when she was in the musical comedy shows, she went to Chicago to be with her daughter after her surgery, and she planned to live with Edna when Edna returned from Rome.

The Williamsport Grit reported, in August of 1932, that Edna was "heralded as the first flying nurse of the American Nurses Aviation Service Inc, breveted as a flight nurse assistant and graduate parachute jumper." 

Edna was not a graduate nurse, but she had studied nursing in a private sanitorium in Williamsport.  

When asked how she felt about the "flight for sciences sake", Edna answered:
"It'll be the greatest thrill of my life - this flying the ocean.  I'm doing it for adventure.  I had my first parachute jump the other day, and it was great.  No, I won't be afraid of the long grind across the ocean or the leap at Florence".

Note - This contradicts earlier articles saying Edna had prior parachuting experience.

"I've had my ups and downs in life, and if anything goes wrong, its just too bad. "

When the crew first went to the airport in New York, Rebecca Newcomer, Edna's mom, accompanied her.  Bad weather however, delayed the flight, and Rebecca soon returned home.  She told her daughter, " not to bother about letting me know about the flight until you get to Rome."

Edna's uniform for the flight included a white cap, a trim blue naval looking coat with white pants, and a collar decorated with the emblem of the new American Nurse Aviation Service - a cross, wings, and intertwined caduceus.

Before the flight took off, Edna sent a telegram to a friend.
"Your lady bird spreads her wings to span the Atlantic, so wish me well before I go to hell. Or is it just another transatlantic flight? Answer cablegram to Rome if..."

Before boarding the flight, Edna Newcomer ran back to an automobile and got a small handbag she had packed with clothes "to use on the other side"

The American Nurse took off from Floyd Bennett field a little after 6am on Tuesday September 13th 1932.   Ulrich planned to fly over Cape Cod, and from there fly 1,000 miles due east along the 42nd parallel, and then veer slightly south to strike the Spanish coast in the vicinity. 

 Pisculli hoped to set down at Rome 24 to 26 hours after take off.  He announced that, before landing,  Miss Newcomer, a former dancer with "million dollar legs", would step out of the plane and descend by parachute at Florence, Italy, as a tribute to Florence Nightingale. 

By Friday, September 16th 1932, the plane was officially missing. Air officials felt certain it had not arrived over Europe at all, "for if she had, the pilot would have flown low to get his bearings and doubtless would have been recognized."

There were numerous reports of possible sightings, but the last verified sighting was by the S.S. France, 400 miles from its European landfall.

This was the 3rd failed attempt to reach Rome from New York, by airplane.  In 1927, Old Glory was lost at sea.  In 1929, pilots Roger Williams and Lewis A Yancey started for Rome, but only got as far as Spain.

For the Genealogists:

Edna's mother was named as Rebecca in many news reports.  She was 83 years old in September of 1923.

Rebecca Newcommer waited for news at the home of her sister, Mrs Frank Blaker, Russell avenue, Kenmar.

A photo shows a younger Edna Newcomer, listed as the grandaughter of Rebecca, waiting by the radio for news.  There's no mention of Edna having a daughter sharing her name, so this is likely a niece of the Edna who made the flight.

[Birth record for Edna Newcomer, 1910, lists William & Mimi as parents]

Asher M. Newcomer, of Meriden Connecticut, was mentioned as a cousin of Edna.

The Bellanca J-300 Miss Veedol, with pilot Clyde Pangborn and passenger Hugh Herndon, Jr., made the first successful nonstop flight across the Pacific. The aircraft was sold to a group including New York gynecologist Leon Pisculli and renamed THE AMERICAN NURSE with the intention of flying the Atlantic to Rome with pilot William Ulrich, copilot, nurse and parachutist Gladys Bramhall Wilner and a pet woodchuck named "Tailwind"  (Wilner declined to make the flight, and Edna Newcomer took her place)

The plane was formerly known as Miss Veedol, which was originally  intended to make the first non-stop trans-Pacific flight, in an attempt to win a $25,000 prize offered by a Japanese newspaper.

That flight was a bit of a disaster, with the plane being loaded well beyond maximum capacity, it could barely take off.  Then the engine became starved for fuel, and the pilot had to dive to 1400 feet to get the ending restarted.  When Panghorn took a break to get some sleep, his co-pilot wandered off course, missing both Vancouver and Seattle.
Then the weather would not cooperate, and they could not find a safe place to land.  They finally made a belly landing, having disposed of the landing gear over the pacific. The plane was damaged, but repairable, and the propeller is still on display at the  Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center in Wenatchee, Washington.

The flight did qualify for the prize money offered by the Japanese newspaper, but as Herndon and his mother were the primary financial backers of the flight, they kept most of the prize money, in addition to the money from the sale of they sold the plane.

Nov 1, 1910


Heiser, W. H. (2006). U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Aviation, Volume I, 1916-1942 Chronology. (n.p.): Dihedral Press.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

When A Train Dumped a Load Of Chocolate In The River At Sunbury, 1925

On May 27th 1925, a freight train traveling from Tamaqua to Williamsport derailed while crossing the reading railroad bridge  in Sunbury.  One of the derailed cars was delivering Hersheys chocolate, which was spilled into the river.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Why Is The F.B.I Searching For The Legend Of The Dents Run Treasure?

In 1973, Treasure magazine published a story about civil war soldiers hiding a wagon full of gold in  North Central Pa.  In 1974, a folklorist rewrote the story for True Treasure Magazine .   It's a nice legend, or campfire tale, repeated locally from time to time.  

 And then in 2018, The FBI took a team into the woods and dug holes, looking for the treasure.  A treasure of which there is no record, and no reputable historian believes ever existed.  The story of the treasure has been thoroughly disproved, in many ways.  So what was the FBI doing?  That may  actually be a  more interesting story than the original tall tale.  But it also may be a story we never hear.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

When Mozart's Librettist Lived In Sunbury

When reading through a list of early Sunbury Merchants, you will find the name Lorenzo Da Ponte. The man who wrote the text for three of Mozarts greatest operas, a close friend of Clement C. Moore, and a man who had his portrait painted by Samuel Morse... this same man  also later ran a grocery store & held a distillers license in Sunbury Pa.  

As one essayist wrote, "How many lives was Lorenzo Da Ponte able to live in the eighty-nine years that took place between his birth in a Jewish ghetto outside Venice in 1749 and his death in New York? The mere outline of dates and places is already somewhat astonishing: for someone to reach such longevity at a time when the median life expectancy was under forty years"

 Da Pontes time in Sunbury is very well documented, not only in countless books, but also in Da Ponte's own memoirs.  It's also commemorated on a historical marker in town: 

Monday, May 30, 2022

Memorial To The 6 From Montgomery Who Died in WWI

In Montgomery Park stands a memorial to the Montgomery Men who lost their lives in WW1.  Six trees were planted, and a cannon once stood here. 

 The cannon was scrapped during World War II, and the 1972 flood destroyed most of the original memorial, but a new stone was later placed, and today, markers remain for each of the 6 killed in World War I.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Soldiers Monument, Montgomery Pa


"Guard it carefully you sons and daughters of Veterans. It is a glorious legacy from your fathers and should live and be kept in good order after the memory of the last member of the Grand Army of the Republic is but a memento of the past"

In October 1892, The Grand Army Of The Republic Col. D.L. Montgomery Post No 264 presented the soldiers and sailors monument to the citizens of Montgomery, placing it in Fairview Cemetery. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

When Montgomery Had A Ferry

Until the bridge was completed in the early 1920's, a ferry crossed the river at Montgomery.

When A Boy From Montgomery Pitched For The Major Leagues

 Byron Wardsworth Yarrison, known as "Rube", was a professional baseball player in the 1920s.

Born March 9th 1896, the son of Martin & Ada Yarrison of Montgomery Pa, 
Yarrison was a pitcher for Philadelphia Athletics, and  the Brooklyn Robins. 

Yarrison in a uniform with an A on the Hat.  (Philadelphia Athletics?)