Today we reach back into the dusty archives that chronicle the early years following Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, for an up-close-and-personal look at the strange and bizarre experiences that Amelia’s desperate husband, George Palmer Putnam, encountered during his vain search for his doomed wife.
For added realism, I’ve included the original headings from the November 1994 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter article; forthwith is the first of three parts of “Is Amelia Earhart Still Alive,” by Dean S. Jennings (1905-1969), taken from the December 1939 and January 1940 editions of Popular Aviation. (Boldface emphasis both mine and in AES Newsletter original version.)
The judge’s voice had the tone of unwilling finality: “With all the evidence before me, I can reach no other decision: Amelia Earhart Putnam died on or about July 2, 1937. . . ”
And so, in the court of Superior Judge Elliott Craig at Los Angeles on January 5, 1939, ended another tragic chapter in-the dark glories of aviation.
Ended? Indeed not! For the next morning the postman arrived at the home of George Palmer Putnam in North Hollywood with his usual batch of strange letters from psychics and others who said: “She is not dead” . . . “I spoke to her last night” . . . “I saw Amelia in a dream.” There were more telegrams for a file already choked with some 500 wires. There were phone calls, local and long distance, from persons who challenged: “No court can govern nature. She is still alive.”
What is the answer to this mass controversy? Is Amelia Earhart alive? Did she find a refuge on some remote, uninhabited island? These are the questions that emerge from deeply moving appeals — more than 3,000 of them — to Mr. Putnam since America’s premier aviatrix vanished with her navigator, Capt. Fred Noonan, in the sunlight of a South Seas morning months ago.
Hundreds of writers, asking neither publicity nor reward, insist they have seen Amelia Earhart in their dreams. Many others claim they have talked to her in an astral world. One man in New Mexico insists Amelia told him she was murdered, not drowned. And Mr. Putnam himself, on several occasions, has conversed with weird spirit voices, at least one of which was supposed to be that of his lost wife. The letter writers ask the question: “Mr. Putnam. do you believe she is alive?” Now at last, 20 long months after the disastrous flight, her husband has given the answer he feels deep in heart and mind — an answer echoed by a court of law: “NO.”
In that agonizing interval George Putnam has had some of the most extraordinary experiences ever allotted to one man in a lifetime. Some of them were uncanny with truth and fact — and without explanation
He has been besieged, hoaxed, heckled, and strangely stirred by thousands of correspondents in every comer of the world. Open-minded, he has attended séances, read horoscopes, corresponded with mediums. He has received rambling messages written by spirit hands; has examined sketches of Amelia Earhart, handwriting, maps — all supposedly emanating from unworldly sources. And once, through one of the cruelest plots ever born in a criminal mind, he was actually convinced that Amelia had been found alive — and brought to New York.
The deluge began less than three hours after that last pitiful radio whisper from a plane floundering in the sky south of Howland Island. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca heard that SOS. Georgia Putnam heard it, crouched over a receiver in a Coast Guard station at San Francisco. The whole world soon heard it.
Here is the first telegram, copied verbatim from the original in Mr. Putnam’s personal files which, never before shown to anyone, were made available to this writer:
NEW YORK N.Y. DL
OPERATIONS MANAGER OAKLAND AIRPORT.
PLEASE GIVE THIS INFORMATION TO PUTNAM. EMINENT PSYCHIC SAYS BOTH SAFE ON REEF LESS THAN 200 MILES NORTHWEST HOWLAND ISLAND. PLANE PRETTY WELL CRACKED UP BUT BOTH SAFE.MISS EARHART IN BETTER SHAPE THAN NOONAN. ITASCA WILL FIND THEM IN MORNING. HASTE IS NECESSARY BUT THEY WILL BE RESCUED. PLEASE TAKE THIS FOR WHAT IT IS WORTH FROM A WELL WISHER.
The Itasca did not find them the next morning. Or the next. Or ever again. But the telegrams and letters and phone calls kept coming. By nightfall operators at the airport telegraph office had stopped sealing the messages; they gave them to Mr. Putnam in bundles. The telephone company installed a special wire. Postmen trudged a weary path to the Coast Guard office and his rooms at the airport hotel in Oakland. Today — more than two years later — those messages are still coming.
In those first anxious hours and days, George Putnam was surrounded by friends and well wishers, most of whom, openly skeptical, saw something grimly humorous in the flood of bizarre messages. He himself was faced with conflicting emotions–an ingrained doubt of the supernatural, a natural curiosity heightened by grief and worry. AE was down. And any thread was a line of life. . . .
George Putnam tried to answer every wire and letter, tried to run down every meager clue that offered any hope at all. By the end of the third day the task assumed staggering proportions. He had gone without sleep for 70 hours, had taken virtually no food. and friends tried to intervene.
“Now look, George,” said Dr. Harry Clay of San Francisco, an old friend, “you can’t stand much more of this. And anyway, you certainly don’t believe in that psychic stuff.”
“Believe?” George Putnam said wearily. “At a time like this, Harry, I’m willing to believe almost anything that might help.”
“But those letters are based on dreams. On spook voices. Probably fakes.”
“Perhaps, Harry. You’re a doctor. You know how close dreams are to reality. And who really knows how to find the dividing line?”
Dr. Clay smiled at his friend and patient. “There are some things people shouldn’t know. Oh, I know you and AE have sat in on table-tappings and other experiments out of your healthy curiosity.”
“With some astonishing results — ”
“–and others plainly ridiculous.”
“Of course. Someone asked me last night,” Mr. Putnam added a little bitterly, “whether AE carried a good luck piece on her plane.”
“Certainly not. She said the only lucky charms she wanted were a good engine and a first class mechanic.”
“That sounds like AE.”
George Putnam said no more, and walked back to the airport office and his long vain vigil. On the fifth day, when Mr. Putnam was on the verge of a physical disintegration that might have left permanent scars, the wise and determined San Francisco physician saw to it that he found rest. He slept 48 hours and rode the crisis.
Then, with his son David, and others who remained at his side during that humbling period when men and planes and ships searched the south Pacific, he began sorting the messages with a calmer mind. One of them might keep hope alive. . . .
One of the first telegrams, significantly, was from a woman now recognized as one of America’s leading astrologers. It was she who had written to Miss Earhart before the flight, counseling: “Flying conditions on the first and second of July (italics are the author’s) are very good indeed, and this would be an excellent time to make the last lap.”
On July 7, plainly stunned, the noted forecaster telegraphed to Mr. Putnam at Oakland:
YOU CAN IMAGINE MY STATE OF MIND AND I CAN IMAGINE YOURS.
CONSULTATION OF THREE PSYCHICS SIX ASTROLOGERS SAY ALL WILL BE WELL.
Still later, in a humble and poignant letter that reflected her perplexity, she wrote:
“I don’t want to alibi. I have none. I failed in the biggest job I’ve ever had and there’s no alibi for that. About psychics and astrologers, our work has been wrong many times right many times. That is about as much as one can say for it. It has a long way to go.”
In the same mail came a letter from another astrologer, Mrs. K___ S___, gently and wistfully reproving Miss Earhart and Mr. Putnam for having ignored a warning she had given them before the fatal flight. And she was right. Her first letter dated May 7, 1937, was found in the files, and it read:
“I beg of you to postpone your trip . . . you can expect at best only delays, obstructions, and difficulties, even if you avoid a dangerous crash. Please believe that this letter was motivated by a sincere desire to keep you from possible disaster.”
These ironic contradictions were noticeable in all the letters and telegrams that reached Mr. Putnam, first at Oakland, then in his North Hollywood home. (End of Part I.)