Samuel Franklin Cody: Horseman on High

Born this day the Wild West showman, music hall performer, actor, aeronaut, and hoaxer Samuel Franklin Cody (Samuel Franklin Cowdery, 1867-1913).

What an American moniker, eh? The first name of Samuel Adams, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Samuel Clemens, combined with the surname of Benjamin Franklin, combined with the last name of Buffalo Bill. And the latter is the principal cause for labeling him a hoaxer, for he tweaked his name so he could claim to be the son of Buffalo Bill Cody despite not having been any such thing.

Cowdery was from Davenport, Iowa, where he likely had the opportunity to cultivate the riding and roping skills which became his stock and trade. Events of Cody’s early adulthood unfold with whiplash-inducing velocity. In 1888 he joined the Wild West contingent of the Forepaugh Circus. The following year he married Maud Maria Lee, with whom he developed a sharpshooting act not unlike the one of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, all the while claiming to be Buffalo Bill’s son. The pair toured England starting in about 1890. They then incorporated three local boys into the act, teaching them the necessary skills. In 1891, Maud returned to the States due to some infirmity, and Cody replaced her in the act with the mother of the three boys, Elizabeth Marie King (1852-1939), taking her as his common-law wife and renaming her Lela Marie Cody. (This is perhaps another instance of Cowdery’s penchant for fraud. Both he and his new spouse remained legally married to other people). At any rate, this ready made “Cody Family” continued to tour the British music hall circuit exhibited their skills of shooting, roping, and equestrianism. In 1898, they also toured with a stage play, a melodrama called The Klondyke Nugget. Cody gave out that he himself had done some prospecting in the Great North but it seems unlikely, for when would he have done so? The Gold Rush was contemporaneous with his play and yet he’d been fully immersed in show business for a decade by then.

In the mid ’90s, when the fad for bicycling swept the industrialized world, Cody staged a series of races (horse vs. bikes) in the spirit of Paul Bunyon vs. the steam-powered saw. Soon, he would be taking the side of technology in a big way. And, thrillingly, this was no hoax. Today, Samuel Franklin Cody is best known and revered as an aeronautics pioneer. This career change may seem unexpected but a moment’s reflection reveals it to be a logical one. Rodeo stunts require physical courage. Cycling requires mechanical skill. And daredevil stunts generate publicity. So by pursuing this new direction, Cody was not only an aviation pioneer, but a show biz one. Nearly a decade after Cody, Harry Houdini had his own brief aeronautical phase. And Flying Circuses became a big craze after that.

Like his namesake Franklin, Cody became associated with kites. As early as 1901 he patented his own design for one, and over time he continued to build them bigger, lighter and boxier, until they could bear the weight of men and go thousands of feet aloft. It sounds impossible but it’s quite true. It’s the same principal as The Flying Nun, but with better science! The initial application was military; they were to be used for observation purposes, in the same way balloons had been employed since the mid 19th century. The interesting thing about kites is that they’re kind of the opposite of balloons. When the wind is too wild for a balloon, it’s strong enough for a kite. So kites could be used supplementally to balloons for observational purposes. And kites were also smaller than load bearing hot air balloons and dirigibles. He made numerous demonstrations of his Cody War Kites in the early 20th century, and the British military did indeed use them as well as Cody’s expertise for a time.

Cody’s experience with designing and flying manned kites also led him to experiment with other devices. He helped design Britain’s first powered airship Nulli Secundus and rode on its maiden voyage in 1907. Inspired by the Wright Brothers, he also developed his large box kites into gliders, and later added engines as well, for his own version of the airplane. His 1908 test run of his own device was the first airplane flight in the U.K.

In 1913, Cody was testing his latest design, the Cody Floatplane (an aircraft that could land on, and take off from, water), when the machine broke apart in mid-air, killing himself and his passenger. If you think about it, this was amazingly late for this bold man to have suffered such a fate. The Floatplane collapsed due to design flaws. Cody was not a trained or educated engineer. This new science had passed the point where amateur showmen could bolt some metal and fabric together catch-as-catch-can and throw caution, ha ha, to the wind. To fly farther and faster safer and more efficiently from this point forward was going to require an army of math nerds with drawing boards and pencils, far, far from the fairgrounds.

We’re not yet done with Cody heroism, though. His only biological son, Samuel Franklin Cody, Jr (1895-1917) was killed while serving in Belgium with the Royal Flying Corps during World War One.

Is your mind blown yet! I don’t know why every American schoolchild isn’t taught this man’s name. They seem to know him well enough in Britain. They have monuments to him all over the place! Sure, he was an expat. But honestly, it seems more like he was just dragging a whole bunch of America around with him.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.