Flying Fool: Charles Lindbergh’s Story
Exhibit on view April 28-August 21, 2017
Charles Lindbergh became a household name when he was the first person to complete a successful, solo, non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris.
Born in 1902 to a Swedish immigrant and congressman, Lindbergh was pursuing a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison when his growing interest in aviation prompted him to drop out and enroll in the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation. Lindbergh took his first flight on April 9, 1922. At the age of 20, he bought his first plane. In order to raise money, he took to barnstorming all over the country, performing stunt flights, and charging for rides. This experience caused him to become more daring with his piloting.
After being delayed due to bad weather, Lindbergh took off from Long Island in New York at 7:54 a.m. on May 20, 1927. His plane was designed to minimize weight, which meant no radio, parachute, or gas gauge. He designed lightweight boots for himself and sat on a wicker chair. He packed 4 sandwiches, 2 canteens of water and 451 gallons of gas. It was a grueling 33.5 hours to France; Lindbergh dealt with fog, sleet on the plane’s wings, and his compass malfunctioning, but by far his biggest battle was staying awake. When he landed, he had not slept in 55 hours. In France, he was met with a hysterical crowd that stormed his plane. “I saw there was danger of killing people with my propeller,” he said, “and I quickly came to a stop."
Lindbergh became an instant hero. His flight was covered in many Swedish-American newspapers. “I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world. To me, it was like a match lighting a bonfire.”
Charles was well prepared for his flight, but not for the fame that followed. He went on a three-month national tour; flying Spirit of St. Louis to 49 states and 92 cities, giving 147 speeches, and riding 1,290 miles in parades. His homecoming ticker-tape parade in New York City drew 4 million spectators. He was honored with awards and medals from around the world. Nicknamed the “Flying Fool” and “Lucky Lindy,” Lindbergh resented the press and attention. He felt there was nothing foolish or lucky about his endeavor. “I began to realize,” he wrote, “that as one gains fame, one loses life.” Because of this publicity, airmail usage surged and the public began to recognize air travel as the way of the future.
Charles wanted to lead a more private life, which included settling down and getting married. He was 25 and had never been on a date. While in Mexico visiting the American ambassador Dwight W. Morrow, Charles met Anne Morrow, an equally shy 21-year old. After just two dates, Charles asked for her hand in marriage.
Anne quickly began flying with Charles. She was more than a co-pilot; she learned to fly on her own, navigate, and operate the short wave radio. Together they broke the transcontinental speed record and established commercial air routes to both Europe and Japan. Anne was also an acclaimed author, who wrote everything from poetry to nonfiction.
On August 19, 1927, Charles Lindbergh visited the Quad Cities (at that time, the Tri-Cities) in Spirit of St. Louis. Twenty-thousand spectators lined the hillside of the Moline airport, waiting to catch a glimpse of the famous pilot. As Lindbergh touched down, the barriers to the airfield gave way and hundreds of fans ran after the plane. All four city mayors were present to meet Lindbergh, who then toured the Quad Cities by car with thousands of residents lining the streets.
On Anne's 24th birthday, June 22, 1930, she gave birth to a baby boy they named Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. However, tragedy struck when, on the night of March 1, 1932, baby Charles went missing. A ransom note demanding $50,000 was found on the windowsill, along with muddy footprints and a broken wooden ladder.
Dubbed the "Crime of the Century,” the child’s disappearance caused one of the largest missing persons cases in history. Many famous people, including Al Capone, offered to pay the kidnappers. Negotiations were underway when the body of baby Charles was found about 4.5 miles from the Lindbergh home. The private Lindberghs had to suffer heartbreak in the public eye. Because of this case, the Federal Kidnapping Act was enacted, which allowed federal law enforcement agencies to become involved in a kidnapping case once state lines were crossed.
Later in life, Lindbergh campaigned to protect endangered species, such as the humpback whale, as well as indigenous peoples. His writings emphasized the need to balance technology with nature. “If I had to choose,” he said, “I would rather have birds than airplanes.”
Today, Spirit of St. Louis is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C.
Charles Lindbergh later became the center of more unwanted media coverage. With WWII just around the corner, Lindbergh believed the U.S. should remain neutral in the conflict, supporting the antiwar American First Committee. Having visited Germany several times, he made a comment that the nation’s air force, the Luftwaffe, was the best in the world. These comments and actions caused many to accuse him of being unpatriotic.
Charles Lindbergh was TIME’s first Man of the Year in 1927. Later issues of TIME continued to follow Lindbergh and his family, including the kidnapping story. TIME listed Lindbergh’s characteristics as "Modesty, taciturnity, diffidence (women make him blush), singleness of purpose, courage, occasional curtness, phlegm."
“The Lindberghs: Three Generations” by Nancy Eubank, Minnesota Historical Society, 1975, pgs. 3-4, 5-8.
“The Lindberghs: The Story of a Distinguished Family” by P.J. O’Brien, International Press, 1935, pgs. 21-27, 50-58
“Stories from the Swedish Heritage” by Arland O. Fiske, North American Heritage Press, 1992, pg. 107
MSS P:339 Scandinavian American Portrait Collection
MSS P:31 Richard Holtman papers
Swedish American Newspaper database on Minnesota Historical Society website
Rock Island County Historical Society
Augustana Special Collections
Minnesota Historical Society