By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Sometimes, reading old newspapers leads to places unintended.
Here’s a recent example:
Reviewing press coverage of the 1929 stock market crash, I found myself sidetracked into mystery and intrigue, a con game and a failed trans-Atlantic flight.
In September 1908, Yakima, Wash., police were called to an address on North Naches avenue. The homeowner was sure there were burglars in the house, but a thorough search found nothing – in fact, according to the Yakima Herald, “every door and window was securely locked from the inside.”
The brief newspaper account was notable because the homeowners were notable. Two years earlier, Mrs. Urban F. Diteman had been identified as one of 165 U. S. heirs to a mysterious, alleged $250 million fortune left by the explorer Sir Francis Drake.
Fast forward to October 22, 1929. The homeowner’s son, Urban F. Diteman Jr. (without advance notice to anyone but his wife) took off from Newfoundland in a Barling NB-3 monoplane (named the Golden Hind – after Drake’s ship) heading for London, only the third such trans-Atlantic attempt in history.
In Montana, news of the flight overshadowed all other headlines, including the panic on Wall Street. That’s because the Diteman story was “local.” The young man and his family, two years earlier, had lived in Missoula, where Diteman had taken flight training lessons from legendary aviator Bob Johnson. They then settled down in Billings.
As 32-year-old Diteman took off from Newfoundland, Johnson was getting ready to leave for Wichita to pick up a new $6,000 Travelair biplane to add to his Missoula air service. Johnson asked to be sent updates on his student’s daring flight.
Diteman, who was in the stock business (buying cattle and sheep), had a ranch in the Polson area and had moved to Missoula in 1927 with his wife and two small boys. They lived in a modest apartment at the Missoula Hotel.
Douglas McCallum, a local resident and friend of Diteman, told a Missoula newspaper reporter the aviator was “an expert and somewhat reckless automobile driver,” who pursued flying as a hobby but also dreamed of having a plane of his own to “cover more ground in less time” in his stock-buying business.
An Associated Press article in the Missoulian quoted Diteman’s ailing mother in Portland as saying, “Urban is going to win. Of that I feel certain.” The flier hadn’t told his parents of his plans. He didn’t want to worry them because of their frail health.
Initial reports of the flight were concerning. The weather was foggy and cold with an east wind of more than 30 mph. Diteman’s plane was outfitted with only 165 gallons of fuel, “barely sufficient” to make it to London.
By Friday, October 25, 1929, the panic on the stock exchange was beginning to push the Diteman story aside.
There were still a few items. One indicated the aviator had purchased a $40,000 short-term policy from a Kansas City insurance company, something immediately denied by his wife in Billings.
Another (in the Canadian press) hinted that Diteman’s motive for being in Newfoundland was not just for the trans-Atlantic flight. The story said he was researching his grandfather Joseph Tobias Drake and the Sir Francis Drake estate mystery.
But in a note left behind, Diteman nixed that idea, apologizing for his “impromptu lies about Drake. He did not bring me here, nor to London, albeit I am his descendant.”
That leads us to Oscar Merril Hartzell, an Iowa farmer.
A couple of con artists had tried to bilk his mother out of $6,000 in exchange for a $6 million share of the Drake fortune. Hartzell exposed the scam, but then decided to play the game himself.
Starting in 1919 he began searching for anyone with the Drake surname, telling them he was one of the explorer’s distant relatives and was putting together a lawsuit against the British government. He claimed the Brits had been squirreling away the interest on the Drake estate, now worth billions of dollars.
Despite denials from the British and American governments that any “Drake fortune” existed, Hartzell (who by 1924 or so had moved to London) continued to rake in money from his followers.
Even when his con was exposed and he was deported to America for trial in 1933, many folks still believed in him, raising nearly $70,000 for his defense.
The story of the monumental scam can be found in a book by Richard Rayner called “Drake’s Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World’s Greatest Confidence Artist.”
Although the Diteman story faded quickly, interest in aviation still captivated Montanans.
Bob Johnson made headlines a week after the Diteman disappearance, arriving back in Missoula with his new training plane.
A few days later, the local paper announced another famous aviator was headed to Missoula as part of a promotion for a Missoula car dealership, owned by H. O. Bell.
Today, though his dealership is long gone, Bell’s name lives on in Missoula aviation history.
Think about it.
Missoula’s airport is actually named “Johnson-Bell Field.”
Bob Johnson’s friend, Bell, will be the subject of next week’s article.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula journalist and broadcaster who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current.