Jerry Kuntz (Writer)

Exploring American History through Unique Individuals

The Accidental Homage to Ernest Morris

The photo below was taken three days ago of the Old Washington Street Bridge in Indianapolis, which is now a pedestrian walkway linking downtown to the White river State Park and Indianapolis Zoo. It was built in 1914 to replace the original wooden bridge that was destroyed by a flood in 1913.


That foot of that wooden bridge was the starting point for Ernest T. Morris’s solo canoe trip down the White, Wabash, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers, from Indianapolis to New Orleans, a journey of about 1000 miles. He make this trip in 1874, having just turned 18, and was described as a small, sickly youth.

Today, the pedestrian walkway on the bridge also offers public sculptures, one of which is a piece titled “Travelogue” that represents a canoe. I’m sure the artist, Eric Nordgulen, had no idea who Morris was or that he had started his journey at this spot–but I was still delighted to find it in this spot, and sent an email to Nordgulen to tell him about it.



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I have spent the past few months transcribing, editing, and annotating this previously unpublished manuscript, passed down through his family to the current owner, Marianne Lanman Salaymeh.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



Poignant Letter of Reference

In the summer of 1862, a wagon-maker from Charles City, Iowa returned to his former home near Detroit, Michigan in order to volunteer for the United States Army, now at war with the South. His name was Elliot P. Harrington, and six years earlier he had accomplished the most stunning feat in the history of underwater exploration to that point. However, his fame had been a brief few weeks, and did not earn him any great reward. He retired from diving and moved to Iowa to earn a living as a mechanic.

When war came, Harrington knew he had a skill that might be needed–underwater work. But he needed to document his background in that vocation. Therefore, he contacted the people who best remembered his exploits and could vouch for him: officers of the American Express Company. The following letter of reference is included in the Charles Harrington papers collection at SUNY Fredonia:


“Office of American Express Company, Buffalo, Aug 8, 1862,

To Whom it May Concern,

In the month of August, 1852, the money chest of the American Express Company was sunk in the steamer Atlantic to the depth of one hundred and sixty feet off Long Point, Lake Erie. Was recovered by E. P. Harrington in the month of June, 1856.

For American Express Co., William B. Peck”

With this credential, Harrington was assigned work on the Union wrecking steamship Dirigo.


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.




Bridge Engineering Nerds

I’m not a bridge engineering nerd (yet), but I have been following the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction for one reason: the “I Lift NY” derrick-crane, which is officially the Left Coast Lifter.

Here’s what it looked like yesterday from the Nyack public viewing area:


The Left Coast Lifter is one of the largest, if not The Largest, floating derricks in the world. As such, it is the direct descendant of Bishop’s Patent Floating Derrick, which is mentioned prominently in my forthcoming book, The Heroic Age of Diving. I’m always impressed when engineers try to do something big that has never been done before, and that is what these two vessels have in common.

Here’s a video of it’s first lift job at the Tappan Zee site:


I recently learned that the Left Coast Lifter‘s first job out in San Francisco was not bridge construction, but salvage of a sunken tugboat. That puts it right in line with the intent of the Bishop derricks I mention in my book.

More on Maud Lee

Additional digitization and indexing of old newspapers has elicited a few new items on Maud Lee, the tragic Wild West show sharpshooter I wrote about in 2010’s A Pair of Shootists. One reason I find Maud (stage name: Lillian Cody) so compelling is that she saw such wonderful things during her career–and then spent her last four decades within the walls of an asylum.

One gap in the timeline I had for her was the performing season of 1897. In January, 1897, she was severely burned while preparing coal-ash resin target balls over a stove. It was the fault of a careless fellow performer horseplaying around with a bucket of water. I previously thought it might have taken her a full year to recover.

But no…here she is running a shooting gallery at the “Vanity Fair” midway of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition:


The Tennessee Centennial Exposition was another one in a series of extravagant exhibitions, with unique buildings, lakes, and pathways built on a large campus. The main attraction of the Nashville show (in an effort to compete with the Eiffel Tower and the giant Ferris Wheel of the Chicago World’s Fair) was a giant see-saw with a 20-passenger car on each end; and a full-scale model of an Egyptian pyramid. The Exposition lasted six months, so that Maud could have spent the entire 1897 performing year there.

A Pair of Shootists makes it clear that Maud suffered often during her high-risk career. A newly unearthed clipping adds another example:


Maud’s career ended shortly afterwards; this indication of a head trauma may be telling, since her family blamed her later mental problems on a parachuting accident in the early 1890s. My text suggests she already suffered from schizophrenic episodes–does head trauma worsen schizophrenic tendencies?



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.



Al Lawson’s Passenger Seating Patent and New Airbus Stacked Seating

Airbus made news recently with the announcement of a new patented “stacked” seating arrangement, involving two seating levels within one cabin. Here’s one of the drawings from their U.S. Patent application.

I don’t believe that Airbus is claiming that the concept is new–it’s been in continuous use in trains and buses for over eighty years. So I’m unsure about what exactly it is that they are patenting.

Alfred W. Lawson, the subject of my book Baseball Fiends and Flying Machines, patented the same concept in 1925, and claimed it could be applied in buses, trains, and airplanes.

In fact, in 1926 Lawson began construction of his Superairliner, which included the double tier passenger seating:


The similarity in the patents could be dismissed as coincidental…if not for a fact that is tucked away in my research correspondence. About 10 years ago, I exchanged emails with a high-ranking Airbus Cabin Interiors manager, who not only knew about Lawson, but had discovered some previously unpublished images of the SuperAirliner under construction in, of all places, a Paris bookseller’s stall. So, when I saw the recent Airbus announcement, I had to smile: Alfred W. Lawson is still influencing the aviation industry!

Albert D. Bishop and the Great Chain

Albert D. Bishop was a marine engineer from the 1830s to the 1880s, based in Brooklyn, and best known as the inventor of Bishop’s Patent Floating Derrick. His derrick was designed to use a series of block and tackle mechanisms suspended from a mast in order to lift chains wrapped around sunken hulls. As the derrick on a barge lifted a sunken ship, the barge was counter-weighted using either a catamaran or flooded water compartments.

Bishop’s design made it possible for a floating platform to lift very heavy weights with a minimum of effort and expense. It made a big impact on the business of wrecking/salvaging.

Bishop was one of the marine engineers engaged to recover the steamer Atlantic after it sank in Lake Erie in 1852. Bishop first tried to lift the wreck of another steamer, the Erie, and suffered a spectacular disaster, described in my upcoming book The Heroic Age of Diving.

Following his Lake Erie debacle, Bishop returned to the New York area and managed a successful wrecking business. He was never known to have chased after treasure ships–but in 1855 he was tempted to attempt retrieval of a valued icon of the American Revolution: links of the Great Chain that had been erected across the Hudson River near West Point to prevent passage of British war vessels.

In the years leading up to 1855, huge iron links were auctioned as remnants of the Great Chain (many of which were counterfeit), but it was thought that much of the chain was still on the bottom of the Hudson. In reality, it was later documented that the chain had regularly been retrieved from the river during winter, and that most of it had likely been hauled in and melted down. Unaware of this, Bishop brought in barges to dredge that section of the river.

He didn’t find any of the chain links, but he did recover a section of the log boom that was used in conjunction with the chain to prevent the British from attempted to ram into and break the chain. Bishop donated (or perhaps sold) that boom section to the managers of the nation’s first historic landmark, Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, New York.

Today, that boom section is a prominent artifact on display at the Headquarters museum. It now represents not only one of the few examples of marine fortification from the Revolutionary War, but also as a reminder of the career of one of the notable marine engineers of the Industrial Revolution in America.


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