Putnam’s bizarre search for Amelia Earhart, Part I

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.

Amelia poses with her husband, George Palmer Putnam, in a 1935 photo that must have raised some eyebrows, given the idea, popular among some, that their marriage was simply one of convenience.  Putnam was actively engaged in the search for Amelia for years, even after he had her declared legally dead in January 1939.

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 cover of the December 1939 issue of Popular Aviation magazine, with its sensational headline, “Is Amelia Earhart Still Alive?”

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. . . . 

Amelia Earhart, with her stepson David Binney Putnam,  July 1932.  (AP photo.)

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.)

 

15 responses

  1. A very interesting and well written article, which certainly shows how much people thought of Amelia both before and after her 2 July 1937 disappearance.

    The huge volume of letters and messages sent to George Putnam would probably include every possible scenario on can imagine. But certainly the ones which tend to support theories or stories which later emerged are among the most interesting.

    An “eminent psychic” coming up (in early July 1937) with a narrative about both Amelia and Fred surviving a crash on or near a reef northwest of Howland, is very similar to the story told by a woman in Texas who claimed to have received a radio message on her shortwave set stating much the same information.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Personally, it is my belief that Amelia made a surprisingly good wheels down landing on the reef near Barre Island doing minimal damage to the aircraft if any. Has anyone done a study of the tide state at the time Amelia and Fred are believed to have reached that location in order to verify that is possible? Also, is it physically possible for Amelia to have taxied the aircraft on to the beach at the island to prevent damage to the aircraft from salt water immersion?

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  3. “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”…….and from a psychic? Amazing, especially the part about Fred.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Tom,

      It makes one wonder if there really is something to “remote viewing.”

      All best,

      William

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      1. By all accounts the Army wasn’t wasting the taxpayer’s hardearned on that project at SRI. Some believe that USG efforts have gone black. The cool thing is that most people supposedly can learn to do it. There are almost certainly con artists out there now claiming they can teach it so I would want to be trained by one of the original SRI group who was an actual participant and not just a support person.

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    2. Not that great. They were 1200 mi. from Howland and the Electra could not have been too badly damaged if it was later found on Saipan in flying condition.

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      1. Maybe not exact, but not bad; NW of Howland, yes; landed on a reef, yes; plane cracked up (broken wing?), yes; Noonan hurt worse than AE (as far as we know), yes.

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      2. It certainly didn’t help in the search. I believe the outer wing was removed by the recovery crew from Koshu so they didn”t have to cut down more trees to move the aircraft. We don’t know how Fred was injured. Everyone presumes it was from crash landing. He might have tripped and fallen on the reef.

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  4. What an amazing collection of correspondence that overwhelmed George Putnam. Things like this always seem to follow famous people and incidents. Such a sad collection of claptrap. Thank you for posting this, Mike.

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  5. The reference to a psychic offering (in 1937) information regarding Amelia Earhart landing safely on an island northwest of Howland got me to looking for other “psychic” references to the case. There were many over the years. Here is a very interesting recent blog which includes information allegedly obtained from psychics. But in addition to that information, the article contains photos of various eyewitnesses and their statements linking Amelia to Saipan.

    http://www.earhartonsaipan.com/

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  6. Women were so much less liberated in 1937 than they are now.

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  7. One of the most well known psychics of the 20th century was Edgar Cayce. Three days after Amelia’s last airborne transmission, Putnam contacted Cayce through a friend (referred to as 1293 below) and this is what Cayce had to say about Amelia’s disappearance:

    July 5, 1937, a member (1293) of Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE) and an acquaintance of Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, requested a reading to help locate Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. The request given to the sleeping Cayce was as follows:

    Suggestion – “You will have before you the request from [1293], for information regarding locating Amelia Earhart who according to radio reports on July 2, 1937, was approximately 100 miles from Howland Island in the South Pacific Ocean, in her plane. You will locate the plane as of this time and then trace it to its present position, giving specific directions for locating this plane now. You will answer the questions regarding this.”

    As soon as the sleeping Cayce began the reading he noted that conditions for Earhart and Noonan were “rather serious” but that both were still alive. Cayce suggested that the two could be found if a ship followed the reef that extended from Howland Island in a northwesterly direction for approximately 100 miles.

    Asked, “What is the present condition of Amelia Earhart and her companion [Noonan]?” Cayce replied: “Amelia Earhart … [is] much better than the companion; for the companion has been panicky…”

    When asked about the condition of the plane, Cayce replied that it was no longer flyable: “It is broken up somewhat, but this as we find is more from the attempt in the landing when gas was gone than from anything else; though to be sure, the winds and the inability to stabilize same has made all very out of order; not able to proceed even with gas.”

    In terms of their supplies, Cayce stated that there was “mighty little” of either food or water. When asked about their chances for recovery, Cayce replied that the conditions were growing worse all the time but that, because of rescue attempts already set in motion, the best possibility for recovery would be by the next morning, provided rescue attempts continued along the same path “in the right direction.”

    For weeks, a fleet of planes scoured the area looking for any signs of the aircraft, without success. Thirteen days later, the search was called off. It was feared that Noonan and Earhart had perished and lay somewhere beneath the Pacific…

    A follow-up reading was given on August 1, 1937. The suggestion given to the sleeping Cayce was:

    Suggestion – “You will have before you the desire of George Putnam for further information regarding his wife, Amelia Earhart, as requested through Mrs. [1293] of N.Y., and the information given through this channel on July 5, 1937. You will give any further information which will be helpful at this time, and answer the questions that may be asked.”

    Cayce immediately responded with the fact that it was too late. He stated that Earhart had lasted until July 21, 1937, before succumbing to the elements. Apparently Noonan had died earlier, as the sleeping Cayce noted that Earhart perished alone. In an attempt to pin-point the location of the body with a little more accuracy and offer what help he could to Putnam, Cayce added that her body was located “between eighty-nine and ninety miles northwest from her intended destination” … [of] Howland Island…

    LINK:

    https://www.edgarcayce.org/about-us/blog/blog-posts/did-famed-psychic-edgar-cayce-once-locate-amelia-earhart/

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  8. David Atchason | Reply

    I just read rhese comments, have not been reading them all as they came in. Didn’t Bilimon in his recount of his first aid say that Fred’s knee cut was infected? Sudddenly it came to me as a possibility that Fred in “tying one on” the night before the flight may have fallen drunkenly and cut his knee, because it was a short time after they crashed until Bilimon treated him. Maybe Fred banged his head on something if he took a bad drunken fall. Just a thought.

    What I really wanted to ask is this: I have read of the conjecture that she was shot down by a plane from the Akagi, but another opinion says that she was shot down by planes from the “Kaga”. I could only learn on Wikipedia that she was in “home waters” in July 1937. I have read that there is a compendium of movements of IJN ships in the war, maybe William Trail has this book. Is it possible that the Kaga was near Mili Atoll at the time of Amelia’s landing there? Or am I hallucinating again?

    Of course this brings back the thought that if she was landing on Mili Atoll that would have been about the same time as radio messages from her saying the was “On you, but cannot see you” and acting as if she was not replying directly to messages from the Itasca. This brings back the possibility of recordings being played. Another detail that is a little puzzling is that while Ann Pellegrini had trouble finding Howland I. she had no smoke signal from the Itasca. Some would claim that such a smoke signal would be visible from possibly 40 miles. Now I am leaning again to the spy theory. I will have to get out my map and compute distances an flight times, maybe she did fly over Truk and the Marshalls, I’m going to rethink this option.

    Of course if she got a brand new “souped up” plane as Lloyd Royer claims, she might have been able to overfly Truk and the Marshalls and still not be late for Howland. Speaking of which it WAS a terrible island to pick with all its flocks of birds, etc. and maybe this was just a decoy, there certainly were much better islands around, Canton was one of them.

    All Best,
    David

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    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      David,

      Good evening. Please see the attached web site. It contains a lot of good, detailed information, including Tabular Records of Movement (TROM) for IJN vessels such as the aircraft carriers Akagi and Kaga as well as many others.

      http://www.combinedfleet.com/kaigun.htm

      All best,

      William

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  9. THanks, William. I will get to work on this in the next few days. Maybe the Kaga presence is pure speculation and misinformation, but I will try to find out.
    All Best,

    David

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