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Amelia Mary Earhart (born July 24, 1897; disappeared July 2, 1937) was an American aviator, writer and feminist figure who gained notoriety for her ill-fated circumnavigation of the world by airplane in July 1937. Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean; she also set numerous records, was one of the first to promote commercial air travel and wrote about her exploits as a female pilot and explorer.
Her husband George "G.P." Putnam was instrumental in drumming up publicity for her flights and securing her status as an international celebrity, where she was often compared (and bore a passing resemblance) to her near-contemporary and Nazi boot-licker Charles Lindbergh; Earhart appeared in numerous commercial endorsements such as for Lucky Strike cigarettes and licensed merchandise under her name as well as speaking engagements, mostly to further finance her adventures. This celebrity status also helped with her reputation as a feminist icon, having been the poster lady for many a daring woman who wanted to stand out in male-dominated fields such as aviation.
Since her disappearance in 1937, her tragic loss spurred both genuine speculation and cranky conspiracy theories, ranging from the plausible such as running out of fuel and crashing in the ocean as well as having possibly survived and died as a castaway with her navigator Fred Noonan, to the more questionable and crank, like the possibility of being executed as a spy by the Japanese or faking her death and assuming a new identity.
Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, the daughter of Samuel "Edwin" Stanton Earhart (1867–1930) and Amelia "Amy" (née Otis; 1869–1962). She displayed a sense of adventure since her early childhood, having been characterised by biographers as a tomboy by her rough-and-tumble play and affinity for boyish pursuits such as "belly-slamming" her sled and other such antics. Earhart later developed an interest in flying, following a stint as a nurse's aide during World War I and a visit at an air show in Canada with a friend of hers. Following a variety of odd jobs and flying lessons from Neta Snook, Earhart made a name for herself in aviation; she was recruited to take on the record of being the first woman to fly (or be flown) across the Atlantic as the previous woman who was to hop aboard backed out of the idea and agreed to sponsor it to "another girl with the right image". After an interview with book publisher and publicist George P. Putnam (who would later marry Earhart), the transatlantic flight went on as planned… except that Earhart was to ride as a passenger on board a Fokker F.VIIb/3m named "Friendship", much to her chagrin as she lamented that she "was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes." Nevertheless the flight was a rousing success and Earhart emerged as a heroine and a national celebrity. Eventually, Earhart took on a solo flight to the Atlantic using a Lockheed Vega 5B where she wound up in Northern Ireland instead of Paris as originally intended.
Her magnum opus would have been the world flight of 1937; although others have done this before, her flight would be the longest at 29,000 miles (47,000 km) because it followed a roughly equatorial route. And while the Lockheed Electra 10E (which was heavily modified to her specifications, including but not limited to additional fuel tanks) was dubbed as a "flying laboratory", it was more of a publicity stunt to gather material and hype for her next book rather than an airborne science experiment. After a false start where her plane crashed and sustained significant damage which necessitated extensive repairs, the flight eventually went on as planned, though Captain Harry Manning, who was to be Earhart's navigator, noted that the flight carried significant risks (and thus was doomed to fail), not helping matters was that Manning was a skilled radio operator; neither Earhart nor Noonan knew Morse code.
During (and especially after) her lifetime, Earhart has been known to many as a feminist icon, having been a member of the National Woman's Party and championing causes for women such as the Equal Rights Amendment. Her career as an aviatrix made her a poster child of fellow women pilots, with her being a key member of the Ninety-Nines, an association of women aviators.
Was she really a butch?
Though she did dress for the occasion and designed women's apparel as part of her numerous celebrity endorsement deals, she was better known for her tomboyish if not androgynous public image, wearing shirts and pants and sporting a boyish pixie haircut not unlike the likes of Ellen DeGeneres decades later, in an era where women were expected to stay in the kitchen and don skirts — she even went so far as to wearing men's briefs at least during her flights.[note 1] This later led to speculation and questions surrounding Earhart's sexuality, especially as her marriage to George Putnam, or "G.P." as he was known, was considered more as a "partnership" with "dual control", i.e. an open marriage. In a letter written to Putnam and hand-delivered to him on the day of the wedding, she wrote, "I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil[ ] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly." One such rumour concerned that of her friendship with then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, where the two had an impromptu flight on board a twin-engine plane, Earhart herself piloting while still in her evening gown. Roosevelt was rumoured to be a closeted lesbian even as she was married to FDR, having allegedly had relationships especially with Lorena Hickok, and her intimate friendship with Earhart sparked further speculation and assumption over the aviatrix's orientation.
World Hide-and-Seek Champion (and coconut crab delicacy)
Ultimately, Earhart's attempted world tour was doomed to oblivion, with herself and her navigator Fred Noonan disappearing from the Pacific Ocean after a stopover at Lae, New Guinea. Numerous factors were blamed for the pilot's sudden disappearance, including but not limited to Earhart and Noonan's lack of expertise on Morse code. Regardless, her disappearance and suspicious circumstances relating to it have been the butt of both useful speculation and crankery.
A commonly accepted and simple explanation was her plane simply ran out of fuel and they ditched their plane to certain oblivion, something her stepson George Palmer Putnam Jr. believed — "the plane just ran out of gas". Others, most notably the non-profit organisation The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), believe that Earhart and Noonan landed at Gardner Island (now known as Nikumaroro, part of Kiribati) and survived at least for a time before dying from exhaustion and exposure. Further theories speculate that Amelia and/or Noonan's remains may have also served as a rare and sumptuous delicacy amongst the coconut crab population inhabiting the island. Despite TIGHARs best efforts, no definitive proof of Earhart's castaway days has been found; any purported evidence such as the remains of a woman's shoe and a bottle of freckle cream may or may not have been Amelia's, and TIGHAR received criticism for seizing on unlikely possibilities as circumstantial evidence and possibly promoting pseudohistory while they're at it.
Died as a spy?
One conspiracy theory alleges that Amelia and Noonan's round-the-world trip was secretly an espionage mission by the United States to spy on their adversaries, particularly Japan whom they'd later butt heads with during World War II, something which would be further popularised in the wartime-era propaganda film Flight for Freedom (1943). In most variants of the theory, Earhart's Electra was either forced down or that the Imperial Japanese Army spotted the pair and were taken hostage, either to be executed, questioned on her motives, or even taken to Emperor Hirohito's court to be his concubine. One problem with the Japanese capture theory was that the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands were considerably distant from Howland Island, something that Earhart and Noonan were unlikely to reach considering their plane's fuel supply. And even if the two were somehow captured, it would have been more likely for the Japanese to repatriate them to US authorities anyway, considering her celebrity status. Even shortly after the war, American authorities concluded that such espionage speculations were groundless; Jacqueline Cochran, one of Earhart's colleagues and later WASP official, personally did her own research of Japanese government records and concluded that her friend had no known beef with the Japanese.
In 2017, the History Channel aired a schlockumentary titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence alleging that a photograph in the National Archives of Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands was actually a picture of a captured Earhart and Noonan, positing that the two European-looking people in the photo were that of the pair as they (presumably) await their fate in captivity and further suggesting that the US knew of this and organised a coverup so as not to shock the American public. They even went so far as to enlist a forensic expert to further back up their claim. "History"'s claims later fell through when a Japanese blogger and historian named Kota Yamano pointed out that the photo was used in the travel book The Lifeline of the Sea: My South Sea Memoir (海の生命線 我が南洋の姿, Umi no seimeisen : Waga nannyou no sugata), published two years earlier in 1935 which therefore was unrelated to the aviatrix. The channel was forced to pull out the show from their programming, further cementing their reputation as a purveyor of low-brow pseudohistory.
A related conspiracy to the Japanese capture angle involves that of a woman named Irene Craigmile Bolam whom theorists alleged to be Earhart who, by some miracle, either survived the crash or was handed over by the Japanese to the Americans, took on a different identity and lived out the rest of her days in relative obscurity selling Tupperware in New Jersey. Bolam took umbrage and vehemently denied that she was the former pilot, suing the publisher who then withdrew the book from circulation. As detailed by TIGHAR, further forensic analysis concludes that Bolam, despite having been a pilot at some point in her life and was said to have met Earhart herself, is not Earhart.
And then there's this crank explanation for Earhart's disappearance where she and Noonan were abducted by aliens, something which Star Trek: Voyager explored in the episode "The 37s", alongside rumours about the pilot's alleged affair with her navigator as well as the aforementioned espionage angle.
- Though this was more likely for practical reasons owing to her occupation than any attempt at fetishism or gender expression
- No. 1057 - AMELIA EARHART
- Flights of Fancy
- AMELIA EARHART: A SYMBOL OF NEW WOMANHOOD
- Chater, Eric H. (July 25, 1937). "Letter to M. E. Griffin". Lae, New Guinea.
- The Famous Impromptu Flight Amelia and Eleanor Took in Their Dinner Gowns
- Amelia Earhart - QueerBio.com
- 1932: Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbian affair
- Kleinberg, Eliot. "Amelia Earhart's disappearance still haunts her stepson, 83." Archived January 22, 2011, at the Portuguese Web Archive Palm Beach Post, December 27, 2004. Retrieved: July 1, 2013.
- Meet The World’s Largest Land Crab That May Have Eaten Amelia Earhart Alive
- Coconut crabs may hold clue to Amelia Earhart fate
- Earhart Overview
- TIGHAR - Finding Amelia or Living the Good Life?
- SKEPTOID BLOG: More Amelia Earhart Nonsense
- Morell, Virginia (January 1998). "Amelia Earhart". National Geographic. National Geographic Society: 112-135
- Irving, Clive (July 9, 2017). "Amelia Earhart Captured and Killed? New Evidence Debunks History Channel's Crazy Theory" Archived July 9, 2017, at the Wayback Machine. The Daily Beast. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
- Cochran, Jacqueline (1954). Stars at Noon. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
- "Exploring the Lost Evidence". History.
- Katz, Brigit (July 5, 2017). "Smithsonian Curator Weighs In on Photo That Allegedly Shows Amelia Earhart in Japanese Captivity". Smithsonian.
- Glum, Julia (July 23, 2017). "AMELIA EARHART DOCUMENTARY PULLED FROM HISTORY CHANNEL LINEUPS AMID PHOTO INVESTIGATION". Newsweek.
- Goldstein, Donald M.; Dillon, Katherine V. (1997). Amelia: The Centennial Biography of an Aviation Pioneer. Brassey's. ISBN 978-1-57488-134-9.
- Protecting Earhart
- Strippel, Richard G. "Researching Amelia: A Detailed Summary for the Serious Researcher into the Disappearance of Amelia Earhart." Air Classics, Vol. 31, No. 11, November 1995.
- Amelia Earhart Live;: A trip Through Intrigue to Find America's First Lady of Mystery by Joe Klaas (1970) McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0070350108.
- Is This Amelia Earhart?