By David K. Bowman
“Merciless life, laughs in the burning sun, and only death, slow circling down, Shadows.
On a stormy day in June 1928, the Fokker tri-motor Friendship dipped down out of a leaden sky to land in the bay near Burry Port, Wales. The airship taxied through the pouring rain to a nearby buoy and cut its engines. A moment later, crewman Louis “Slim” Gordon, opened a door in the fuselage, hopped out, and moored the ship to the buoy.
At the controls of the airship was Wilmer Stultz, and in the passenger compartment was a woman, who up until that flight, had been a recreational aviator and a social worker in Boston. On that rainy morning, however, she was catapulted to international celebrity. Her name was Amelia Earhart.
A few months before, the young, boyish woman with tousled hair, had been asked to an interview by George Palmer Putnam, the wealthy and powerful head of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, publishers. An athletic adventurer, writer, and promoter, Putnam had been asked by wealthy New England socialite Amy Guest, who had purchased a Fokker tri-motor aircraft from Admiral Richard Byrd, to find a woman to fly across the Atlantic in that aircraft. Initially, Mrs. Guest planned to make the flight herself, to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but had been pressured out of the flight by her worried family.
A masterful promoter, George Palmer Putnam, or “GP” as he liked to be called, immediately seized upon the young Amelia Earhart at their first meeting. Earhart was tall, slim and had a remarkable physical likeness to recent aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, whose nickname was “Lucky Lindy.” Putnam instantly christened her “Lady Lindy”, a nickname which Earhart deplored.
When asked if she wanted to make the flight, Earhart unhesitatingly jumped for it, as she was plucky, adventurous, and ambitious. She knew an opportunity when she saw one. As she said later, “You don’t turn down an opportunity like that!”
The rest was history. Immediately after the flight of the Friendship, commemorative medals were struck and sold, and the young aviatrix embarked upon a number of product endorsements.
At the same time, GP hustled his young protégéé off to his luxurious estate, Rocknoll, in Rye, NY, so that she would have the privacy and peace to write an account of her famous flight. This she did, and before the end of 1928, 20 Hours, 40 Minutes was published. To this day, it is an important historical source and a sought after collectible.
Earhart then embarked upon a lucrative and busy lecture tour to discuss her new book. Upon her return to New York, she was appointed Aviation Editor for Cosmopolitan Magazine. By then, in 1929, she was all the rage.
Dissatisfied with being just a passenger on the first Transatlantic flight, Earhart determined to pilot the Atlantic Ocean herself and spent the next four years in preparing for this. Preparations were set back by a crash during a practice flight in Norfolk, Virginia in 1930, which necessitated lengthy repairs that weren’t completed until 1931. Shortly after the Norfolk crash, GP obtained a divorce from his wife, Dorothy, and the following February, in 1931, he and Earhart were married in a quiet ceremony.
In the spring of 1932, the aviatrix took off from Newfoundland and successfully crossed the Atlantic in 15 hours, 18 minutes, landing in a pasture in Londonderry, Ireland. Earhart was now the first woman to successfully pilot the Atlantic.
Over the next five years, under GP’s guidance, Earhart set more aviation records, participated in various aviation events, continued to tour the lecture circuit, was the spokesperson for a multitude of products, and lent her name to several businesses. One of them was a line of women’s clothing, which she personally designed. Another was a high quality line of luggage that continued be manufactured for years after her disappearance.
Additionally, Earhart became actively involved in establishing commercial air routes and founding airlines. But beyond that, she was an ardent feminist, who eschewed the conventional female role and forged a new one for herself. On her passport, under “occupation”, she had entered, “flyer.” And whenever she was on an airfield, she habitually wore custom tailored gabardine slacks, an open throated man’s sport shirt with a knotted silk scarf, and a leather-flying jacket. They became her trademarks. She was one of the most talked-about, fashionable, admired, beloved, and emulated women of the 1930s. She was an icon. Her name was a household word. Even the press referred to her more often as not as just “Amelia.” Everyone knew whom they were talking about.
During her brief career, she was always thinking about the next flight, because these flights kept her in the public eye. During her preparations for the round-the-world flight, she told a friend, “I think I’ve only got one more good flight left in me.” That remark turned out to be more prescient than Earhart could know.
Nine years later, in July 1937, the aviatrix suddenly vanished without a trace on the Lae to Howland leg of her round-the-world flight.
Many have tried to discover the ultimate fate of this charismatic flyer, but there is an aspect of Amelia Earhart’s life and disappearance which nobody has explored. I discovered it during my research for my book LEGERDEMAIN: Deceit, Misdirection and Political Sleight of Hand in the Disappearance of Amelia Earhart (Author House 2005). This aspect is almost more interesting than her aviation career and even her disappearance.
For, aside from being the First Lady of Aviation, as she was dubbed, Amelia Earhart was also a considerable psychic. Since she almost never discussed this side of her life publicly, information regarding it is scarce. However, through the use of an online newspaper database, I was fortunate enough to uncover a few accounts not seen for nearly seventy years.
The first is a lead item in a column entitled “The Washington Merry-Go-Round” by legendary journalist Drew Pearson and his partner, Robert S. Allen, in the February 16, 1937 issue of the Coshocton Tribune. It reported as follows:
“One development in connection with the recent air crashes which has been intriguing air officials is the way Amelia Earhart has gone psychic.
“America’s foremost woman aviator has now become the No. 1 seeress of the air. She believes she has developed a contact with the occult world by which she knows what happens in air crashes.
“Her latest prediction is that May 10 she will make a startling discovery regarding the crash of the Western Air Express plane lost over the Wasatch Mountains on Dec. 15 between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, and not yet located.
“Officials at first were inclined to laugh at Miss Earhart’s psychic messages. But her accuracy now has them mystified. When a United Airlines plane was lost just outside of Burbank, Calif. Dec. 27, Miss Earhart called the United Airlines office and told them to look on a hill near Saugus, a little town north of Burbank.
“There the wreckage was found.
“Again when the Western Air Express plane carrying Mr. and Mrs. Martin Johnson crashed Jan. 12, Miss Earhart reported the plane to be near Newhall, 15 miles north of Burbank, where it was found.
“In the earlier crash of the Western Air Express in Utah, Miss Earhart had a vision to the effect that the bodies of the dead had been robbed by a trapper. Two days later, a trapper near Salt Lake City reported finding the wreckage, but then suddenly disappeared without giving the location of the plane.
“This is the unfound plane regarding which Miss Earhart expects to make a startling discovery on May 10.”
Two days later in the Elyria Ohio Chronicle-Telegram, for February 18, 1937, an interview with Earhart in Cleveland was published. In part of the interview, she commented on the Drew Pearson column. Given the details of the Drew Pearson column, it was quite clear that Earhart was trying to completely downplay her psychic ability. That portion of the interview ran as follows:
“A few days ago a Washington columnist reported Washington agog over Amelia’s ‘psychic’ ability to predict the location of lost planes. Commenting on the story today, Mrs. Putnam said:
‘I suppose the story got started when I was searching north of Salt Lake City when all the others were searching south. The reason I went that way was not because I had been visited by spirits, but because that plane had a 50 mile tail wind and I reasoned it had been further along than the others thought.’”
A check of newspapers for later in the year, revealed news releases in June regarding the missing plane. The Hammond Times for June 8 reported on operations to remove the bodies of the crash victims and retrieve the mail and valuables from the wreckage. Evidently the craft had been discovered within the previous day or so, and interestingly, there was no mention of Amelia Earhart or the trapper who had reported the downed aircraft.
The two events are the only ones of Amelia Earhart’s psychic ability to be found in the records so far. They seem to represent the only instances in which Amelia Earhart’s psychic side was revealed.
It’s understandable why Earhart would have all but debunked herself in the manner she did, as in a conservative era like the 1930s a celebrity wouldn’t want to be thought of as psychic. In those days, to be known as a psychic carried the risk of being thought of as a “kook”, and Earhart’s ambitions allowed no room for distractions such as this. Not long after her interview in the papers, another editorial confirms Earhart’s concern, when it remarks that it is pleasant to hear that Miss Earhart has denied the reports of her psychic ability.
A remarkable article, entitled “Is Amelia Earhart Still Alive?” was published in the December 1939 and January 1940 issues of Popular Aviation. It described the communications from psychics received by GP, and also gave further hints regarding Earhart’s own psychic side. The relevant portion ran:
“In looking back through the bright pages of Amelia Earhart’s adventurous life, George Putnam remembered something that might explain the curious fervor of all those men and women who wanted to help in his hour of despair. It was simply that Amelia Earhart herself had a fragile psychic quality, some strange susceptibility to conditions beyond understanding. She rarely mentioned it to friends, never discussed it publicly. But whenever AE participated in mental telepathy or psychic experiments to further her curiosity, observers were astonished at the results. And yet she never involved or followed the advice of countless clairvoyants and astrologers who besieged her at every stage of her great flights.
“She used to say, laughing gaily:
“I haven’t the courage to tell people my plans in advance. A pilot shouldn’t worry and if I listened to every prediction I’d probably never leave the ground.”
And, indeed, Earhart received profuse advice from psychics before her various flights. The feedback was usually in the form of warnings to her not to attempt her flight. And of course, each flight had been successful after all. That’s probably the reason that, despite her knowledge of the reality of psychic phenomenon and her own psychic ability, Earhart disregarded all psychic warnings just before her round the world flight.
After Earhart’s disappearance, psychics entered the picture again, via huge numbers of telegrams, letters and phone calls to GP. Commendably, he gave impartial consideration to every communication, even occasionally spending considerable sums to follow out promising leads.
Of all the strange communications that Putnam received after his wife’s disappearance, the telegram he received on a late July morning at his Hollywood home in 1937 may have been strangest. It ran:
“Amelia Earhart alive on coral shoal on one of Gilbert Islands latitude 2 above equator 174 longitude. This message received by Mr. L— New York Medium.”
An hour later, Putnam received a short note from a Captain T__ M__ of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia:
“…I am the retired captain of a copra boat that used to trade in the South Seas. I just happened to remember an uncharted island that we frequently visited for turtle eggs. The Gilbertese natives know where it is, too. The island is at—“
Here Putnam stopped in surprise and called his son David to locate the telegram he had received earlier that day. A few moments later, David returned with the telegram and the two compared the position given in that document with the position given in the note from Nova Scotia. Amazingly both positions were the same!
Putnam called the captain in Nova Scotia and the medium in New York for additional details. The details seemed sufficiently promising that the publisher immediately left for New York City, where two days later, he was able to arrange a check of the island by British authorities. A ship dispatched from Makin Island a short while later steamed for the location given in the two communications to GP.
But eerily, there was no island at the given location. This baffled Captain M— and his former crewmembers, who all swore they had visited the island a half a dozen times. The only explanation that could be put forth was that the island had suddenly been sunk by volcanic activity. GP spent $1000 on that adventure.
In September 1937, G.P. Putnam was contacted by a friend of his who was prominent in literary circles, and who was a serious student of psychic matters. Putnam considered his friend of unimpeachable character and integrity. His friend told him that he had encountered a medium of amazing ability, whose performance was yet to be explained. According to Putnam’s friend, the medium in question was a woman who had two voices, her own and another, which came from someplace in her chest.
“Ventriloquism, perhaps?” Putnam interjected.
“No—I’ve already eliminated that possibility. The point is, George, she gave me a brief message from AE the other night.”
There was a moment of surprised silence.
“Oh…” GP said.
“And there may be more. I just thought you’d like to sit in for a demonstration.”
“Of course,” GP agreed, and a date was set for the next night at 7:30 p.m.
The next night the medium appeared at the home of Putnam’s author friend in Los Angeles. Before the séance started, the woman was thoroughly examined for items hidden on her person and mouth taped shut. Untypical of such events, the lights were all kept on, with all participants crowding close to the medium. After just a few moments, a strange voice, like a soft whisper, erupted from the woman, although there wasn’t a sign of motion in the muscles of her throat or chest.
The following is the portion of the transcript of the séance which Putnam had recorded, including some of his responses, in parentheses) to specific statements the medium.
Voice: Fred was not at fault. It was unavoidable.
Putnam: Were they killed instantly?
Voice: No, on a reef…
Putnam: What direction from Howland?
Voice: Almost directly north. (There are no islands north of Howland.)
Putnam: Is it Kingman Reef?
Voice: Near there. There are Navy planes flying near there now. (This is November. The Navy search ended in July.)
Putnam: What will they find?
Voice: They will find wreckage, in the water near the island. (Nothing was ever found.) Putnam: What did Fred Noonan call his wife?
Voice: Fred want you to tell B. that it was not his fault… He is living. (Evasive answer)
Putnam: Who is living? Nooonan?
Voice: He is not dead. He wanted you to know there is no death… Maitland. He is here.
Putnam: Is Kingford-Smith there?
Voice: Yes. Maitland and Kingsford-Smith]
Putnam: Wiley Post? And Will Rogers?
Voice: Yes. Yes. Amelia is among a lot of friends.
Putnam: What about her mother?
Voice: She has not given up hope. (That was true.)
Putnam: Can you ascertain from Amelia what word she used in addressing me? Does the name begin in with the letter “K”?
Voice: No, “P”.
Putnam: This is important; I want to get this right.
Voice: Pug, Pug or Pugsy. (AE actually gave me a nickname similar to this, although only one or two intimate friends knew it.)
Putnam: What was it Amelia always carried with that she didn’t take this time and left it with me?
Voice: Her bracelet. (This is true. No one knew but myself.)
Putnam: What country did the bracelet come from?
Voice: Africa. (Only AE and I knew that.)
Putnam: What would she like me to do with the bracelet?
Voice: Keep it. You gave it to her, so you keep it.
Putnam: Will any of Amelia’s things, like her watch, ever be found?
Voice: No. Parts of the plane.
Putnam: Will you ask Amelia, please, if she had the Seagraves watch.
Voice: She did not. (Wrong. She did have it.)
Putnam: Where is her will?
Voice: In the safe-deposit box. With the watch. (Wrong).
Putnam: Ask Amelia if she knows about the trip I am contemplating. [In December 1937, Putnam left on a trip aboard the yacht Athene, owned by film producer Tay Garnett.]
Voice: Yes. That is very good. By all means go. (I was planning a cruise. I did go later.)
Abruptly, the seance ended, and George Putnam went home, puzzled by the séance. He was never able to explain the correct information presented by the medium. Had the medium merely read Putnam’s mind, or had she really relayed messages to the publisher from his deceased wife?
Probably the most famous psychic incident involved Jackie Cochran, one of Amelia Earhart’s closest friends, who was said to have psychic abilities of her own. After Earhart’s disappearance, Cochran contacted GP, telling him that she had received strong psychic impressions that Earhart was floating at sea at a particular location northwest of Howland Island. Putnam practically moved heaven and earth to get the navy and coast guard to search that location. But the search was, unfortunately, fruitless, and two days later Cochran told Putnam that it was too late, that AE had perished.
Some twenty-five years after Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, a strange psychic postscript occurred on the Island of Saipan. Researcher, Eugene Sims began employment on Guam, from which Saipan could be reached by air in thirty minutes. As a part of his business activities, he began making weekly trips to Saipan.
Sims soon made friends with numerous families on the island, frequently discussing the disappearance of Amelia Earhart with the older members. He soon noticed that few people were comfortable openly discussing the aviatrix’ disappearance.
On one visit, Sims brought his wife with him and as part of a tour of the island, the two were shown Garapan Prison. They were taken to a cell that they were told once held Amelia Earhart. Sims took copious photos of the jail. A few days later, when Sims got the photos back from the processor, he was stunned to see, in one photo of Earhart’s cell a ghostly white figure standing in the metal doorframe.
Thinking the photo to be some sort of laboratory error, Sims had another print made. It came out exactly the same. In an article in the Kwajalein Hourglass for January 7, 2003 , Sims reminisced that as far as he was concerned, the image was a message from Earhart.
Had Gene Sims captured the restless spirit of the long-missing aviatrix on film? And what could she have been trying to tell him?
The 70th anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is now approaching, and after all those years, we are left with more than just the mystery of her last flight. We are left with the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s remarkable ability and the even more profound mystery of the human psyche.