Friday, March 16, 2012

Science, Showmanship and Suspense: Part 3: Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Lowe had taken off from Cincinnati, Ohio at around 3:00am on April 20th, 1861 and landed in a shanty town nine miles west of Unionville (now known as Union), South Carolina that same morning. He had traveled between 900 and 1,200 miles in less than nine hours, utilizing the high altitude easterly wind currents, the existence of which he had sought to prove. Unfortunately, the residents of rural South Carolina were at best suspicious and at worst hostile toward this enigmatic Yankee and his contraption.

As the locals debated whether or not to shoot the aeronaut, the young woman who had first emerged to assist Lowe told him not to worry as the men were “all cowards” (perhaps the brave ones had gone off to join the Confederate army). After releasing the remaining gas and folding the balloon, the woman invited Lowe into her family’s home for a meal of corn-dodgers. The “conservatives” of the town finally agreed to take Lowe and his balloon, under armed guard, to Unionville—the county seat a number of miles distant. After an awkward and uncomfortable wagon ride, Lowe and his escorts arrived in Unionville at about 10:00pm.

As the town officials made ready to incarcerate Lowe, the local newspaper editor (A.W. Thomson, who was also a member of the state legislature) and innkeeper both recognized Lowe’s name from publicity surrounding The Great Western. Lowe was therefore allowed to spend the night at the inn rather than the county jail—the first sleep he had enjoyed in over 40 hours. Lowe was awoken early in the morning of the 21st by an angry crowd in front of the inn. Fortunately, the innkeeper and Mr. Thomson were able to calm the mob and inform them that in their midst was not a spy, but a famed scientist. Lowe was paraded around town and met with several important locals who presented him with a signed certificate stating the time and location of his landing the day before.

The following day Professor Lowe boarded a train to Columbia, SC with the intent on continuing to Washington from there. Shortly after his arrival in the state capital, however, Lowe was placed under arrest. News of his coming preceded him and Confederate officials had ordered him arrested. A secessionist mob seemed inclined to “tar and feather the damn Yankee,” while others suggested simply hanging him from the nearest tree. Despite these threats, Lowe made it safely behind the bars of Columbia’s jailhouse. Here, he was visited by the city’s mayor and convinced him to confer with the faculty of South Carolina College. Indeed, the faculty had heard of Lowe and his pursuits and vouched for him as a scientist rather than a spy. Again, Lowe was released from incarceration and given a celebrity’s tour of the city. Mayor Boatswain even presented him with a signed “passport” to ensure unmolested passage out of the Confederacy.

As Lowe, with his balloon in tow, finally made his way back to Cincinnati he took note of the plethora of encampments, recruiting posts, military bands, army trains, and well equipped rebel troops along the way. Other than a few propaganda-spouting southern officers, the other travelers on the train were extraordinarily quiet. The aeronaut began to realize that his plans for a trans-Atlantic flight seemed trivial in light of the reality of civil war. “I was fully convinced,” he later wrote, “that the country was facing a severe struggle.” Upon finally arriving back in Ohio, Lowe’s formerly somber fellow travelers suddenly let out cheers at the sight of the flag of the Union—they were all displaced refugees or northerners returning home. Lowe came to the decision that he would abandon his plan of crossing the ocean by air, but instead offer his skills as an aeronaut to the US government in the conflict to come.

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