World War I created a series of revolutions in American society. One such revolution related to the status of women. The war created opportunities in fields not typically associated with women. Enterprising women were fascinated by aviation. One of the first women to become a pilot was Ruth Bancroft Law, who became a symbol of the war effort.
Ruth Bancroft Law was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1887. Her older brother, Rodman Law, a parachutist and movie stuntman, had been her inspiration to take up flying. Even though she had watched Harriet Quimby, the first woman licensed to fly, fall to her death at the Boston Air Meet in July 1912, that did not deter her ambition to become a pilot.
She approached Orville Wright for lessons at his school. While he refused, saying women were not mechanically minded enough, he did sell her a plane. She enrolled in the Burgess Flying School that summer. One of her teachers was Harry Atwood, the pilot famous for landing and taking off on the White House lawn in 1911. She took her first flight on July 5, 1912, and soloed on Aug. 12. She was the third woman to earn a pilot's license.
After getting her license, she and her husband, Charles Oliver, moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. She became a commercial pilot, ferrying passengers to and from the Sea Breeze Hotel. The beach at Daytona was an ideal place for aviators testing planes. She bought a Curtiss Pusher, which she used to perform acrobatics. She gave aerial exhibitions at Daytona. Prior to one in 1915, she announced she would perform a "loop-the-loop," much to her husband's dismay. She promptly completed two "loop-the-loops."
She took part in numerous aerial competitions, losing two altitude competitions to male contestants in 1916. She was determined to establish a stand-alone record. At the time, the longest cross-America speed flight record was 452 miles. She planned a Chicago-to-New York state flight with the goal of reaching New York City. She set out in her Curtiss Pusher with 53 gallons of gasoline on Nov. 19 from Chicago. She wore a woolen suit and two leather suits, a leather flight helmet, goggles and gloves.
She had no compass but used a set of maps strapped to her leg and another set of "sailing instructions" sewn on her right hand. She hadn't flown more than 25 miles before that. At 590 miles, she had reached Steuben County, New York. She set down in a field after 8 hours and 55 minutes in the air. With just a one-hour stop, she headed toward New York City, still 300 miles distant. She made it to Binghamton before nightfall forced her to land on a horsetrack.
The next morning, she was in the air by 7:12 a.m. Despite fog and headwinds, she reached Fort Jay at 9:27 a.m. with just "fumes and a few drops left in her tanks." Gen. Leonard Wood, commander of the U.S. Army Department of the East, met her first, saying, "Well done, little girl, you've beaten them all. We all feel proud of you. Your pluck and self-control are almost inconceivable." She replied, "Thank you. I am none the worse for wear, as you can see." When a reporter commented that she had completed the longest flight by a woman, she quickly corrected him: "I have made the longest flight an American ever made."
The next month, President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the first lighting system for the Statue of Liberty. Henry Doherty & Co. prepared the electrical works. Doherty arranged for Law to fly her plane around the statue with electric lights spelling out "liberty" on the wings and towing a banner with the word "liberty."
Doherty sponsors tour
Doherty headed the holding company for Empire District Electric Co. When the U.S. entered WWI, Doherty's company bought $1.25 million of the Liberty Loan. Law had been prevented from joining the Army as an aviator, so she proposed an airplane tour to promote bond sales. She broached the idea with Doherty; he adopted it, underwrote the campaign and promised aid from all the company facilities across the country.
Law began June 5 with "Buy a Liberty Bond Now!" painted on the wings' top and the Doherty emblem on the underside. She planned to drop paper "bombs" with her picture in uniform, her signature, the Doherty emblem and a slogan encouraging the purchase of bonds. She flew from Cleveland to Toledo, then shipped her plane by rail to Lincoln, Nebraska, hitting Doherty properties in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.
She flew to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and then on June 12 to Joplin. She made the 110-mile journey in 80 minutes despite a strong headwind. Oak Hill golf course had prepared a canvas cross on one of the greens to mark her landing strip. She landed at 11 a.m. greeted by a crowd of several hundred well-wishers and handed out "Liberty bombs."
She gave an interview to the Globe while her mechanic disassembled her plane to be taken by special train to St. Louis on the way to Chicago. "Yes, this is the same machine I flew in from Chicago to New York, and it hasn't been overhauled since. ... I fly because I like to. I like the feel of the air, and I like to do things that other girls can't," she said.
Empire announced her arrival with a full-page ad in the Sunday Globe promoting Liberty bond sales and hosted her at a luncheon at the Connor Hotel. Other Doherty assets in Kansas and Oklahoma created giant electric signs to advertise the loan. The tour gave Law great notoriety.
She formed Ruth Law's Flying Circus after the war as a three-plane troupe doing acrobatic stunts as well as wing-walking. Her flying career came to an abrupt end when she awoke on a Sunday in 1922 to read in her newspaper that she had retired. Her manager/husband had tired of her dangerous work and wanted her to end her flying career.
She died at age 83 in 1970. Her scrapbook of photos and memorabilia is in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.