Friday, November 5, 2010

Laura H. Ingalls - Just One Flight Too Many!

Laura Houghtaling Ingalls was born in New York, but studied music and language in Vienna and Paris. She spent some time as a concert pianist, nurse, secretary, ballet dancer, and actress, but eventually made herself famous as a stunt pilot. She went on to become the first woman to graduate from a government approved flying school.

On May 3, 1930, Ingalls hopped into an airplane at Lambert-St. Louis, flew to an altitude of about eight thousand feet and started flying in loops. One hour and three minutes later, she had set a new women’s record for consecutive loops - three hundred and forty-four! The previous record had been a mere forty-six. Ingalls told reporters, afterward, that she was “terribly disappointed” that sixty-six additional loops could not be officially counted because she had to stop to pump gas from a reserve tank.

Ingalls was on the front page of the New York Times just twenty-four days later, and able to boast of a new record. This time she took off from the new Hatbox-Municipal Airport (in Oklahoma) and averaged almost four and a half loops a minute for three hours and forty minutes. When she landed, she had made nine hundred and eighty consecutive loops and won herself a little over one thousand dollars. Just in case anyone was not impressed, Ingalls took off in a plane in St. Louis and performed seven hundred and fourteen barrel rolls. The New York aviatrix had beaten the previous woman’s record (of sixty-seven) but she had also beaten the men’s record (of four hundred and seventeen) as well.

But, it seemed, Ingalls had another side. In 1934, the Times reported on her court appearance for running a red light while on her way to dinner with Mayor La Guardia. Ingalls had received a summons but failed to appear in court. When the magistrate announced that ignoring a summons was a “serious matter,” Ingalls responded, “Your Honor, if the officer who served me with the summons were as good looking as the judge, I would have remembered it.” A suspended sentence followed. In 1935, additional suspended sentences were awarded for operating an automobile without a license and parking in a restricted area.

Then, on September 26, 1939, Ingalls took the flight that doomed her legacy of extraordinary flight to scorn, if not general obscurity. Serving the interests of the Womens’ National Committee to Keep the United States Out of War, Ingalls flew over the nation’s capital for two hours and dropped red-white-and-blue “peace pamphlets” addressed to “All Members of Congress.” Officials of the Civil Aeronautic Authority (CAA) greeted Ingalls when she arrived at Washington Airport. They abruptly informed the aviatrix that her leaflet dropping was unacceptable given the fact that she had not been granted permission to do so by the CAA or the municipality of Washington. She was also informed that her flight had violated a restricted zone (including the White House). Ingalls was ordered to show cause why her license should not be revoked.

Far from discouraged, much less intimidated, Ingalls and Miss Catherine Curtis (Chairman of the Women’s National Committee to Keep the United States Out of the War) appeared at an important meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ingalls (clad in a leather flying jacket, slacks and a black tam) and Curtis (whose dress received no attention from the Times) demanded admittance to the proceedings, but were turned away at the door. Curtis promptly sent a message to the Committee’s Chair, Key Pittman (D-Nevada), and a second to Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan). Neither of the men answered. The Times reported Ingalls to have said:
And this is the government of the United States! I can’t understand it. Imagine! Holding hearings behind closed doors! This is a dictatorship already.
The Times had a somewhat lighter view of the incident, however. An editorial of September 29 entitled “Casualty of Peace,” suggested Ingalls appear before the Board of Education after her date with the Civil Aeronautics Authority. The charge? Splitting infinitives. The Times found this passage in one of Ingalls’ “peace pamphlets”:
American women do not intend to again have their men sent to die on foreign soil.
Ingalls stood before the Civil Aeronautics Authority on Friday, October 8 and - according to the Times - talked “long and hard.” She told members of the Authority that her flight was prompted by “patriotic fervor” and should not be considered a “lark.” She placed into evidence a photograph of a flight that she had made in 1935, in Philadelphia, where she had also dropped pamphlets from the sky. Ingalls argued that she did not “intentionally” violate the law by crossing the no fly zone over the White House. Furthermore, she had not dropped anything really heavy, like “monkey wrenches.” The aviatrix suggested that the CAA dismiss her technical violation as a mere “unfortunate incident.”

The Authority returned for more of the same on Monday. Ingalls informed her well-rested listeners that she had made her leaflet dropping flight voluntarily and received no compensation. After a weekend of thought, she decided to admit that she was aware of the fact that it was not acceptable to drop “objects” from the sky. But Ingalls told the Authority that she did not consider her leaflets to be “objects.” These subtle arguments were taken under advisement for a couple of months.

Three days before Christmas, the Authority announced its conclusion that there were “disturbing deficiencies” in Ingalls’ knowledge of the Civil Air Regulations. In order to promote “safety in air navigation,” the CAA suspended Ingalls’ pilot certificate until she passed an examination dealing with aircraft certificates, pilot ratings and air traffic rules.

Then, to the amazement of America, in December of 1941, the the thirty nine year old Ingalls was charged with being a paid agent of the German Government and failing to register as such under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The arrest followed what J. Edgar Hoover described as “several months” of investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover claimed Ingalls made frequent “contacts” with “representatives” of the Government of the Third Reich in Washington and received a salary from a German agent.

Unable to make the $7,500 bond, Ingalls was initially taken to the District of Columbia jail. She was released three days later, but read about her own indictment on Christmas Eve. A federal grand jury concluded that she had been a public relations counsel, publicity agent and representative for the German Government from March 1 to December 18 through Baron Ulrich von Gienanth, second secretary of the German Embassy. The indictment said Ingalls received “unknown sums” from the German Government for speeches aimed at “influencing, persuading and moulding American public opinion.” Federal Judge F. Dickinson issued a bench warrant for Ingalls' arrest.

Ingalls expressed some interest in a plea of nolo contendere (or no defense) but the front page of the Times covered her January 16 plea of innocence. When M. Neil Andrews, special assistant to the Attorney General, was finally able to bring his case to a trial jury of ten men and two women, he was loaded for bear. In his opening statement, Andrews called Ingalls an “intense German Sympathizer” and “missionary for the Nazi cause.” He noted her speeches before various organizations throughout the country were interspersed with quotations from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Andrews followed with a witness who testified that Ingalls wore a swastika pendant, referred to Hitler a “marvelous man,” and looked forward to the day when Hitler’s “new order” reached American soil. A second witness testified along similar lines.

Ingalls’ attorney, James Reilly, told the jury his client was “a woman of daring initiative, ambition and a tremendous amount of egotism.” His opening statement explained that his client had approached the FBI on three occasions for assignments in “counter-espionage” work. When the FBI refused to hire her, she decided to do such work on her own initiative. So, what the Times would describe as “one of Washington’s most spectacular trials” featured a blunt, up-front admission by Laura Ingalls’ lawyer that she had indeed ingratiated herself to Nazis and accepted payment for her services. The strategy of the defense was simply to convince the jury that Ingalls was prying for information that might be valuable to the United States.

On Tuesday, four FBI agents testified that they heard Ingalls make pro-German statements at America First rallies. One Julia Kraus told jurors that she had arranged a meeting for Ingalls with Baron Ulrich von Gienanth and produced a letter in which Ingalls wrote that she would be “ashamed” to be an American if the United States entered the war.

The government rested its case on Wednesday, but not before introducing a one hundred dollar payment to Ingalls from the German Embassy that had been intercepted by the FBI and personal letters from Ingalls that ended with “Heil Hitler!” Miss Kraus also returned to the stand to testify that she carried one hundred and fifty dollars to Ingalls from the Embassy in November and that Ingalls had a regular monthly salary of three hundred dollars.

Of course, Ingalls’ appearance on the stand was front-page news. The “fashionably dressed” aviatrix testified that she thought of herself as a kind of “female Mata Hari” or “international spy.” She nervously repeated that she had tried to get a job with the FBI, but Director Hoover turned her down. So, she explained, she decided to ingratiate herself with the Germans, earn their confidence, and learn and expose their secrets on her own. Ingalls added that she did not believe she could “outwit” the Germans, but she did believe that if, she “appealed to their emotions,” she might be able to accomplish much more than Hoover’s little Department in the government. Unfortunately, her work was “incomplete” and she had not been able to turn over any information of value.

When she was questioned about her denunciation of Churchill in private correspondence, Ingalls said she had admiration for the Churchill and the British “character,” but she preferred that that “character” remained where it belonged, “on the British Isles.” When she was asked if she had expressed admiration for the German Government to a fellow New Yorker, Ingalls replied that she had simply agreed with the person in question that Hitler had done “wonderful” things for the German people. Ingalls also admitted that she signed letters with the phrase, “Heil Hitler.”

On the following day, the jury returned a verdict of “guilty.” The deliberation process lasted a little more than an hour. The Times reported that the flier “was smiling confidently” as the jury filled the box but her face became “grim” when the verdict was announced. She then “glared angrily” at each juror. Ingalls faced a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a one thousand dollar fine. She told reporters, “Well, it’s Friday the 13th.”

Justice James W. Morris sentenced Ingalls to eight months to two years in prison. The Times observed Ingalls “stood defiantly” in court and gave a brief “dramatic” statement that “appeared to be rehearsed.” She informed Justice Morris that the “liberty of conscience” was “one of the great fundamentals implicit in the Constitution” and that she had the “right” to “follow the dictates” of her conscience. She had just as much right to oppose the war as those who tried to “push” America into it. She recognized that she was “technically guilty,” but she had never been “in conscience or in fact” a foreign agent. She had done what she had done “individually,” like any “real” American would have done it. Ingalls told Morris her motives were “born of a burning patriotism and high idealism” and, in fact, she was a “truer patriot” than the members of the jury that convicted her. She intended to eventually turn in the “evidence” that she had “gathered” in due course. She then bowed and loudly proclaimed, “I salute the Republic of the United States.”

Ingalls was eligible for parole in October of 1942, but the chairman of the District of Columbia parole board said the “nature” of her crime and her “poor adjustment” in prison made it inadvisable to act on her application. On July 14, 1943, she was transferred from the District of Columbia jail to the Alderson West Virginia Women’s Reformatory. She was finally released the following October (1943) and described by officials as a “model prisoner.”

Ingalls completed and signed an application for a presidential pardon in February of 1950. She described herself in the petition as “a descendant of pre-Revolutionary American stock” who “was born into and grew up in the American tradition and in a normal American home.” She also claimed that she could, at last, see that she admitted that she had “acted impulsively and emotionally” without “consulting” those who were more “experienced” than she was at the time. But, Ingalls argued, she had “paid” for her “mistake” and she wanted a chance to “remake” her life. The application concluded with the comment that she was having difficultly obtaining “gainful employment” and believed a pardon would “assist” her in doing so.

Ingalls attached character affidavits from a sister-in-law and aunt. Additional affidavits would eventually come from a family dentist, a Presbyterian Minister and an attorney who was willing to describe Ingalls as “intensely patriotic.” But the most notable character affidavit had to be the one that came from 10 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York, and the office of World War I flying-ace turned Eastern Airlines executive, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Rickenbacker wrote that he known Ingalls for twenty years “through her activities in aviation” and confessed that, after receiving a personal letter from her, he was convinced that she had “learned her lesson.” Rickenbacker recommended a pardon be granted because Ingalls was “now” patriotic and “eager to serve her country.”

Had he stopped there, the flying-ace and winner of a congressional medal may have had considerable effect. But Rickenbacker wrote, “copy attached” in his affidavit and attached a copy of the personal letter. Ingalls’ letter to “Captain Eddie” was decidedly more mixed in its message than the statement of her clemency application. It said nothing of “impulsive” or “emotional” behavior, initially. Instead, it observed that a “political conviction” had created the need for a presidential pardon. Ingalls further explained to Rickenbacker that she had “spoke and acted too freely, in spite of the guarantee of free speech” and “incurred the displeasure of a powerful Administration.” But, she had indeed “learned” her “lesson.” There were “prescribed limits” which a citizen could not “over-step,” even if he/she were concerned for the “welfare of the much loved-country.” In addition, Ingalls observed that the United States was (now many years after her conviction) “surrounded” by the “menace of an alien ideology” with an “avowed purpose to conquer America.” In her view, “every ounce of loyalty and cooperation” was needed from citizens.

Ingalls attorney, Ivy Lee Buchanan, submitted the pardon application materials on March 6, 1950. A over expressed “trust” that a pardon would be “promptly granted.” But April, May, June and July passed without any word from the President or the Pardon Attorney. As the month of August also passed, the impatient Ingalls decided (on her own initiative) to send a three-paged letter to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. Ingalls begged Hoover - as “nerve center of the nation” - not to give much credence to “hearsay” in his Department’s investigation of her background. She asked the Director to remember that there were few “strong or positive characters” in the world that did not have “enemies or detractors.” So, “hearsay evidence” was not always reliable.

F. Abbott Ingalls, Laura’s brother, and Chief of the Department of Social Assistance for the Allied Military Government (British - United States Zone) decided to send an additional letter of complaint to Director Hoover on September 20. Abbot, who served as an officer in both World Wars, expressed exasperation over the fact that his sister had tried “every reasonable and proper way” to obtain a pardon for her “alleged offense” and yet no “evident action” had been taken. He then described Laura as “utterly and entirely” loyal to the United States and suggested that it was against “American standards of fair play” to punish her “indefinitely for one mistake.” She should be “helped to make a new start” not “continually frustrated and hampered.” Hoover’s response to letters was to say that all of the files related to Ingalls’ clemency petition were no longer in his hands. Ingalls quickly wrote an additional letter to Pardon Attorney and attached copies of both of the letters that were sent to Hoover.

Lyons finally responded to Ingalls’ application on October 3. In a letter addressed to Miss Buchanan - and consisting of all of eight lines - Lyons wrote that he had made a “careful study” of the case and, despite Miss Buchanan’s “thorough and lawyer-like” presentation of the case, he felt “constrained to the conclusion” that the Department of Justice would not be “warranted” in presenting Ingalls’ petition to the President for consideration. Lyons also took the time to express his “regret” and “appreciation” for Miss Buchanan’s “ardent advocacy.”

A little over a month later, Senator Herbert H. Lehman (D-New York) expressed interest in Ingalls’ application. The Pardon Attorney waited two weeks before responding to Senator Lehman, and, this time, found the energy to produce an eighteen-line letter. Lyons made brief reference to Ingalls’ conviction, sentence, imprisonment and release. He claimed Ingalls’ clemency file had been “examined” again - in view of the Senator’s interest - but the Pardon Attorney was of the opinion that the Department should “adhere to the conclusion already reached.”

The permanent files of the Office of the Pardon Attorney indicate Senator William F. Knowland (R-California) asked a staff member to inquire about Ingalls’ case six years later, in March of 1956. The new Pardon Attorney, Reed Cozart, informed Senator Knowland that Ingalls' clemency file had been “inactive” and “in a closed status” since Lyons’ decision back in 1950. Cozart also made passing reference to Ingalls’ indictment, conviction, sentence, imprisonment and release. But he also discussed evidence at the trial and described Ingalls as having been of “special value of the Nazi propaganda machine.” The letter ended somewhat cryptically:
If and when Miss Ingalls submits a new petition, her case will be subjected to further review. However, the acceptance of another application is not to be construed by her as an indication of prospective favorable action. 
Laura Ingalls died in January of 1967, unforgiven.


beth said...

love this story.

P.S. Ruckman, Jr. said...

Editor Thanks, Beth!

Anonymous said...

Great to find out what one of my relatives was doing. She deserves her rightful place in history. She was railroaded because she was a peace activist.....and quite a balsy aviatrix.
Wallace Ingalls

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. There was apparently, at least in 2001, according to various Google entries, a good deal of unfortunate confusion with this Laura Ingalls and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the wonderful author. Thank you for this very interesting story of someone I've never heard of.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this fascinating story. It's unfortunate that this Laura Ingalls has been confused with the wonderful children's book author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I appreciate learning about someone I'd never heard of previously.

Anonymous said...

FBI records now reveal that Baron Gienanth only gave Ingalls money so that she get home to California and not for espionage.

Allison Williams said...

Oh, I love the story.

Allison Williams Esq. said...

What a fascinating story! Absolutely loved it!

bruce vodka said...

Wow what a character, an original blue-blood family who sided with Hitler. I can imagine she was born born in Brooklyn and must have had one too many bad experiences with the Jewish immigrants that were living there. She believe whole-heartedly that she was right, but she was wrong. I would love to see her as a character in a film.

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