Jerry Kuntz (Writer)

Exploring American History through Unique Individuals

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In Search of Human Heads

Ernest T. Morris (1856-1891), known as the “Boy Naturalist” or “Boy Explorer,” made seven trips to the Amazon valley between 1875 and 1884. He was a Special Correspondent for the New York World, writing many columns describing his journeys. This text covers his first and second journeys, including (starting in Chapter IV) his 1876-1877 trek up the Tapajos and Cururu rivers to reach the villages of the Campineiros, an isolated sub-group of the Munduruku tribe. Morris made this trip on a shoestring budget, when he was just twenty years old.

I have spent the past few months transcribing, editing, and annotating this previously unpublished manuscript, passed down through his family to the current owner, Marianne Lanman Salaymeh. Now it’s available to the world!

In Search of Human Heads by Ernest T. Morris at


William Hannis Taylor- Unheralded Genius?

It isn’t difficult to understand why William Hannis Taylor (1806-1848) ended his short life impoverished and forgotten. He was a terrible businessman, who convinced others to invest in high-risk schemes, and appeared have had no ethical hesitations in doing so. This trait was in evidence from an early age: in 1827, at age 21, he was a privateer captain raiding shipping while in service to Argentina. He was arrested by a US Navy vessel, but asked permission to return to his ship to retrieve papers needed for his trial on the charge of piracy. Instead, he slipped away and reappeared in North Carolina, vehemently protesting to President Andrew Jackson that he had been mistreated.

In my book I detail his central role in the development of apparatus diving in America. He was granted a patent in 1837 for his “diving armor,” a fact that few historians have noted, since there were several diving suit patents in America in the 1830s–not to mention the already=successful diving apparatus invented years earlier in England by the Deane brothers (and improved upon by others). Taylor’s patent drawing looks silly by comparison–almost like the Tin Man from Oz; but the facts speak for themselves: from 1837 through to 1849-50, all diving done in the United states was performed by Taylor divers. Moreover, looking at the text of his patent, Taylor made no claims about helmets or air valves–his patent was on the “closed-dress” rubber-coated mesh suit.


During the 1840s, it’s likely that Taylor’s junior partner, George W. Taylor (who was no relation), quickly abandoned that mesh-suit and tin plate arm and leg protectors, and started to copy the suit designs of the English. Even so, the quality of the Taylor gear in the 1840s was said to be exceptional; when tested against other gear used to dive to the wreck of the USS Missouri in Gibraltar, Taylor’s equipment beat European designs.

William H. Taylor wasn’t around to see that. In fact, just two years after founding “Taylor’s Submarine Armor Company” in New York, Taylor left that business and went to England to promote an electric motor he had designed.

The motor he created was no tabletop toy. It was what is known today as the Switched Reluctance Motor (SRM)–a design concept that has persisted for two centuries due to its high efficiency (countered by torque fluctuations).


After not making much headway in promoting his motor, Taylor opened an automated coopering business that had all the cooper craftsmen in England up in arms. He could have made a fortune in that business, had he not been distracted by the search for the treasure of the Telemaque, a barge that sank in the Seine, supposedly with Marie Antoinette’s jewels. Taylor invested heavily in the search, conned other investors, ran up unpaid bills, and was eventually thrown into a French debtor’s prison.

He never really recovered. There was one attempt to invent a new, silent ship propeller, but it came to nothing. Taylor returned to the United States broke, and died at age 42 a few months later. He was a very flawed character–but nonetheless a visionary genius.



Henry Wells and the Flagstaff Finial

The centerpiece of my new book The Heroic Age of Diving involves the efforts, from 1852-1856, to recover an American Express Company safe from a stateroom within the wreck of the passenger steamer Atlantic, which sank in August, 1852 in the deepest part of Lake Erie.

Within days of the sinking, which cost the lives of as many as 250 passengers, the nation’s top marine engineers were summoned to Buffalo to survey the possibility of recovering the safe. They came at the request of Henry Wells, the president of the American Express Company. I explain why this meant more to Wells beyond the financial loss:

“…one man was interested in recovering not the whole ship itself, but just one object within it: a safe located in a stateroom behind the Atlantic’s wheelhouse. That man was Henry Wells, founder and president of the American Express Company, owners of the safe. Earlier in 1852, Wells had also founded Wells, Fargo, and Company to offer express services extending west to California. Wells had a pattern of expanding the express business into new territory. In the period around 1840, Wells had worked for Harnden & Co.’s Express and urged them to extend their delivery lines from Albany to Buffalo. The Harndens hesitated, but urged Wells to go ahead on his own, and the result was the American Express Company.

Wells had known and worked with the Harndens at the time when Adolph Harnden died in the shipwreck of the Lexington. The Lexington went down with a cache of Harnden money, a significant loss to the business. Wells was undoubtedly aware that, over the years, different divers–including George W. Taylor and the team of John E. Gowen–had not been successful in recovering the cash from the Lexington. Wells was determined that the Atlantic would not be his Lexington. He wanted his safe from the Atlantic and offered $5000 for its recovery on top of the Wards’ offer of $15,000 for raising the wreck.”

Wells and his engineers ultimately had to rely on the intrepid efforts of diver John B. Green to descend 165 feet to where the ship lay on the lake bottom. No one (as best can be determined) had gone so deep in those early standard dress hard-helmet diving suits, supported by hand-cranked air pumps and imperfect hoses. And absolutely no one was aware of the physiological dangers of dives made so deep.

Green reached the deck of the Atlantic in those efforts of 1852, but could not endure more than a couple of minutes and remain conscious. Wells reluctantly gave up the effort, and later contracted with Albert Bishop, the inventor of a huge floating crane, to raise the Atlantic. Bishop’s efforts, too, met with failure in 1853.

And so, by 1854, it appeared as though the Atlantic was to remain forever out of reach. Diver John B. Green had brought to the surface in 1852 an artifact that proved he made it to the lake bottom. I didn’t know about this until this past week, after publication of the new book.


The Atlantic, an elegant palace steamer, had several flag staffs. It was from one of these that Green took his prize. I recently contacted the archives at Wells College, and the Aurora NY, village historian. They found a photo from the 1870s of Wells’ mansion, Glen Park. It contains two flags: a large free-standing flag pole (seen below in foreground) and a pole coming off the left of the roofline of the house, angled like a bowsprit.

Glen Park 1870s AM

Image courtesy of the Wells College Archives, with assistance from librarian Lisa Hoff and Village Historian Dr. Linda Schwab

My guess is that the Atlantic finial may be the one on the house flag, but neither flag exists today, and the fate of the ball is unknown. Strange that a hard-headed business magnate would want a memento of a failed venture–unless he believed that Green’s reaching that depth was a triumph of human courage and ingenuity in itself.

Note: the safe was recovered in 1856. John B. Green touched it in 1855.




SCUBA, circa 1855

While preparing book talks for my forthcoming title, The Heroic Age of Diving, I came across a long forgotten, failed attempt at self-contained underwater breathing apparatus–in 1855!


So far, no other experts I’ve checked with recognize Levy’s name. However, Levy was not the only one working on the concept in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Another Frenchman, Pierre Aimable De Saint Simon Sicard, patented an underwater rebreather design in 1849; and Theodore Schwann, a German professor living in Belgium invented a rebreather for miners in 1853.

But Levy’s device appears to be different in that he had an oxygen bladder rather than a tank. The lime and caustic soda carbon dioxide scrubber was fairly well-known by the 1850s.

The only other reference I’ve found relates the same story, with additional details, from the October 27, 1855 edition of Scientific American:


Had Levy been a bit more cautious in his testing, the history of diving might have changed dramatically.



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