To Caress the Air: Augustus Herring and the Dawn of Flight
St. Joseph, Michigan
Sunday, September 10, 1899
Pushing on the oil-stained wooden lever, George Housam disengaged the two-inch leather belt from the overhead power shaft, causing the bench lathe he was operating to coast to a stop. Stepping back from the machine, he removed his thick safety glasses before turning to observe Herring, who was busy sweeping up brass shavings. Leaning his broom against a bench, Gus reached inside his full body coveralls and pulled out his pocket watch, snapping the cover open with a single, practiced motion.
“Damn, it’s already 10:30! I have to quit. I promised Lillian I’d be home before 11 o’clock. If we get a move on, maybe I’ll make it by midnight!”
The men had been working at Engberg’s for the last four hours, but despite their best efforts, the steam control valve remained unfinished.
“The valve needs a little more work,” George said. “If it’s okay with the boss, I’ll finish it after work tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s get the shop back in order. You know how fussy the old man is about cleaning up.”
By 11 o’clock, Herring was seated on the passenger side of Engberg’s horse-drawn delivery cart as George struggled to lock up the shop in the dark. “Did you turn down all of the lamps?” Herring nagged. “You left one burning last Sunday, and Mike threatened to kick me out. Without the old man’s help, I’d be up shit’s creek without a —”
“Everything’s off!” Housam snapped. “I know what I’m—” Housam stopped in mid-sentence as he noticed a curious orange glow off in the direction of Silver Beach. “Look over yonder, Gus. What do ya see? That flickering light reminds me of the driftwood fires that kids sometime set on the beach.”
“Too damned cold and windy for any such shenanigans,” Herring said, as he pulled up the collar of his overalls. Maybe the volunteer fire department is training new recruits; sometimes they burn stuff down at the west end of—”
From a half-mile away, the men heard the muffled clang of the firehouse bell atop its tower. Listening intently, they counted the peals – two, pause, four, long pause – then the sequence repeated.
“That’s box 24,” Herring said. “Where’s box twenty— ”
“Somethin’s goin’ on over at Truscott’s!” Housam cried, as he slapped the reins.
A few minutes later, their cart drew near the outskirts of the boat works. Herring seized Housam’s arm, urging him to stop. As the rickety wagon skidded to a halt at Truscott’s northernmost outbuilding, Gus pointed to movement among the backlit trees.
“George, look over there,” Herring said in a restrained voice. “There’s a man runnin’ toward Morrison Channel... looks like he’s tryin’ to get away from somebody or something!” Seconds later, a pursuer hobbled across the same territory.
“That looks like old Phil, Truscott’s night watchman,” Herring shouted, as George urged the mare onto a dirt road that accessed the docks. “I’d recognize that limp anywhere!”
As they reached the edge of the channel, both Herring and Housam heard the unmistakable splash of oars and the labored exertions of an individual intent on putting as much distance between himself and his pursuer as possible. Seconds later, 67-year-old polio survivor Phil Graskowiak stumbled onto the dock waving his single-action Colt .45 revolver. As Gus and George ran to join him, the night watchman rasped, “Stop that son of a bitch! He just—”
At that instant a massive flash of white light accompanied a thunderous explosion that obliterated an outbuilding less than 300 feet to the south. Herring recognized the structure as Truscott’s paint storage shed, where hundreds of gallons of highly volatile liquids were kept. The ensuing inferno sent flames 100 feet high, bathing the entire area in an otherworldly orange-white brightness, fully illuminating the would-be arsonist. During these five or six seconds of daylight-like clarity, the men had an unobscured view of one another. The arsonist, dressed in black, wore a tight fitting knit cap that framed his chiseled face and black handlebar moustache – features that Herring recognized at once. Stunned and rendered momentarily speechless, Herring leaned forward as he crouched, staring into the distant eyes of a loathed nemesis. With little hope of hitting his target, Graskowiak unloaded his “Peacemaker” in the general direction of the criminal, who had reached the safety of the heavily overgrown northern shore. Seconds later, like a fleeing rodent, he had vanished into the brush.
“Phil!” Herring shouted. “What in hell is going on?”
Struggling to catch his breath, Graskowiak made a pained effort to tell his story. “That bastard set fire to the machine shop!” he wheezed. “Then he ran down the line throwing torches or somethin’ through as many windows as he could! Everything seemed to go up at once. I couldn’t catch up to him! I’m gonna lose my job for sure!”
“Did ya pull the hook on the alarm box?” Housam asked.
Hyperventilating, Phil managed to nod before sinking to the ground.
After making sure the watchman was in no medical danger, Gus and George ran back to Engberg’s cart. With Truscott’s main complex still a quarter mile away, George urged the horse to a near gallop. When they came within 200 feet of the intense flames springing from the machine shop, the mare reared and would venture no closer. Jumping from the buckboard, George grabbed the beast by its harness and led her away from the mayhem. In the meantime, Herring edged closer to the blaze.
After tying the mare safely to a distant tree, Housam trotted up behind Herring, who was solemnly watching the flames burst through the shop’s shattered windows. The radiating heat was so intense that the men felt the skin on their faces begin to blister. As they were forced back from the bedlam, Herring lost his composure. “All of my research is in there!” he cried. “The flying machines, the engines, the tooling for the Mobike... everything!”
Using his hands to shield his eyes against the intense heat, Herring stared through a familiar window, fixing his gaze on the shimmering image of his steam motor as it rested forlornly atop its steel assembly bench.
“Where the hell are the fire engines?” Herring screamed. “George, we’ve got to get some water on these flames! There still might be a chance to save the tooling, and maybe the steam motor!” Frustrated, Herring took off running. Following the railroad tracks, he headed toward Truscott’s main woodworking shop and showroom to the southwest. Although smoke had begun to issue from the eaves of the building’s gable roof, no flames were visible. As Gus, closely followed by George, slowed to a trot near the structure’s front entrance, he came upon several other Truscott employees, including his engine department supervisor, Henry Nelson.
“Gus! Help us with the big slidin’ door! We gotta save some of these showroom boats! Grab yer friend – he can help too!”
After the balky door had been successfully forced open, the crew of volunteers began hauling out boats, literally dragging them to an area beyond the railroad tracks. One notable 30-footer contained the latest version of Truscott’s two-stroke vapor motor, a sunshade canopy and a fully functioning group of electric running lanterns – the company’s latest innovation. As Herring struggled to help move the boats, he noticed that the first horse-drawn, steam fire engine had rumbled by on the red brick access road that led to the lake. He thought that he saw only two men aboard the hulking wagon, which meant that the volunteer fire department was short-handed. The big rig featured four, five-foot-diameter wooden spoke wheels that supported a vertical cast iron, 2,000-pound coal burner and boiler topped by a smoke-, steam- and cinder-belching stack. Directly behind the burner-boiler, a double-acting steam cylinder drove a piston-type force pump that discharged massive quantities of water through a flexible four-inch brass fitting.
Torn between assisting with the rescue of his employer’s launches and helping the firemen extinguish the machine shop blaze 200 feet to the northeast, Herring’s decision was made for him when three blasts from the engine’s steam whistle called for assistance. Breaking away from the boat rescue, Herring and Housam sprinted the 100 yards to where the fire engine was being set up adjacent to its water supply – the Morrison Channel. As they approached the engine, a two-wheeled hose cart pulled by a lone stallion skidded to a halt beside them, its two-man crew scrambling to attach its flexible hose to the fire engine’s pump outlet. Unhitching the horse, one of the cart men trotted the beast across the dock area to join its stablemates. Red-hot cinders from the fire engine’s stack constantly threatened both man and beast.
As the two “hose men” struggled to push their cart toward the blazing machine shop, Herring and Housam joined in, careful not to step on the rubberized canvas hose that was unreeling between them. When they were within 50 feet of the conflagration, the helpers were waved back to the safety of the fire engine, while the cart men prepared the 20-pound brass nozzle to accept an imminent surge of water. Back at the engine, Herring and Housam pitched in to assist one of the firemen in joining 15-foot lengths of rigid, six-inch water pipe, which would be coupled to the inlet side of the pump; the pipe’s opposite end was dipped deep into the channel.
The remaining member of the fire engine team, Chief Henry Hughson, struggled to shovel coal, monitor the steam pressure gauge, control the release of saturated steam to the motor, and man the whistle. Two blasts were the universal call for more coal, which George readily obliged by taking over the shoveling. Within five minutes, the boiler pressure had risen to 150 pounds, and the Chief, also acting as the throttle man, began directing steam into the engine. At first, it turned over reluctantly, sputtering a few times before coming up to speed. A single blast from the whistle was Hughson’s signal that water was on its way as he cracked open the valve on the pump’s outlet. Within seconds, the nozzle men braced themselves for the thrust of rushing water that shot a full 200 feet into the air.
Unfortunately for Herring, his area of the building was at a point farthest away from where the water put down. Hughson turned to face Herring, seizing him by the shoulder. “You’re Herring, the flyin’ machine man, ain’t ya?”
Not waiting for a response, he continued. “The men tell me that you’re an expert engine man, skilled with both steam and gas motors. Is that true?”
Not knowing where the conversation was headed, Herring nodded. “Good!” the Chief shouted “I’m puttin’ you in charge of this here engine! Don’t let the pressure get above 150 pounds, keep her rods lubricated and don’t hydraulic the damn pistons with boiler water! Your friend here can act as your ‘fireman’ – that’s coal man to you! Can you handle it?”
“Yes sir!” Herring and Housam shouted in unison. “But I need a favor!” Herring added.
“Make it quick, lad! As you can see... I’m shorthanded!”
“All of my equipment is located in the machine shop, at the other end of the building! Can you get a hose aimed through a window over there?”
“I’ll see what I can do!” Hughson hollered, as he and his assistant hurried off toward a second engine that had just raced up the roadway.
As minutes turned into hours, it became obvious that the valiant effort to save Truscott’s would come to naught. One building after another fell victim to the raging flames fanned by gusting 25-mile-an-hour winds. Well before daybreak, most observers conceded that the only remains of the company would be the 10 or 12 boats that had been pulled out of the showroom before it too went up in flames.
“Too bad the town only had three fire engines,” Housam said.
Tired and grimy, Herring slowly shook his head as he leaned up against the now-silent fire engine. “It wouldn’t have mattered, George. During the Great Chicago Fire, fewer than half of their 112 engines were in working order; even if they had had 200, the city still would have burned to the ground – just like here.”
To survey the damage, the men remained until well after dawn. Although the main building’s front and exterior walls were still standing along with its prominent brick smokestack, the structure’s interior was a total loss; machinery, tools, and an inventory of partially finished boats that resided in the woodworking shop... all ruined. The machine shop had been completely destroyed – a forgone conclusion since it had been the first building to become fully involved. Its brick walls were still intact but had buckled badly by the intense heat, and only the massive smokestack from the adjacent powerhouse still stood as a solemn reminder to Herring that this had been the location of his rented space. As he walked through the gaping cavity that once housed a three-inch-thick oak man-door, Herring plodded through ankle-deep slurry of ash and water, in the place that he had often referred to as his second home. Now he was hard-pressed to identify any of his possessions. The ’98 powered flying machine, the new ’99 powered flying machine, two motor bicycles, the prototype “Mobike,” his tools, sand-casting patterns, prototype engines including his steam motor and accessories, jigs, fixtures, materials, working drawings, models, static and flying – all were gone except the ’97 two-surface glider that Arnot had shipped to Elmira the previous week.
Herring’s sobering thoughts were interrupted by Phil’s gravelly voice. “There you are, Herring! I got somebody who wants to talk to ya!”
Strutting alongside Graskowiak was Chief of Police Charles Sauerbier, easily recognized by his blue parade uniform, gold- plated buttons and ceremonial hat. The portly 5-foot-6-inch 45-year-old had just completed his second year as chief, having previously been employed as a patrol officer under the former Chief C.H. Stuckey. Sauerbier’s pronounced hooknose, black handlebar moustache and steel-gray eyes highlighted his otherwise pallid complexion.
As Herring trudged out of the sludge that inundated his shop’s floor, he extended his hand to each of the men. Graskowiak obliged, but Sauerbier, the stench of whiskey on his breath, ignored the offering.
“Well Mr. Herring,” the Chief said, “you disturb the peace with your damnable motors, and now you’re party to an arson!”
Stung by the callous remark, Herring took a short step backward. “Pardon my frankness, Chief, but I’ve just lost more than $20,000 in machinery, tooling and materials in this fire. Furthermore, I’ve spent the entire evening assisting the fire department in trying to extinguish the inferno, while you were undoubtedly home... snoring! So please, don’t give me any twaddle about being involved in an arson!”
Tilting his chin toward the overcast morning sky, Sauerbier teetered on the toes of his black leather shoes as his hand instinctively jerked to his holstered Billy club. “That’s all well and good, professor, but I’ve got some questions that need answerin’. You can cooperate and give me what I want... or we can head back to the stationhouse. Which would you prefer, smartass?”
“Either way is fine with me,” Herring said, staring down at the shorter man, “but my soiled shoes might foul your interrogation room.”
Tiring of the verbal sparring, Sauerbier got to the point. “Look, Herring, I want the name of the guy who escaped across the Morrison Channel last night. Phil seems to think you recognized him.”
Sauerbier waited with restrained impatience, his hands on his hips, his stubby fingers tapping.
“That’s right... his name is Butusov. William Paul Butusov.”
“How do you spell that?” Sauerbier asked, as he scribbled on his notepad.
“B-U-T-U-S-O-V,” Herring replied.
“What’s your relationship with this Butusov character?”
“We worked as assistants for the same man back in ’96.”
“What type of work were you doing?”
“Experimenting with heavier-than-air flying machine gliders. Mine flew, his didn’t.”
“So, Butusov is a crackpot, too,” the chief muttered under his breath.
Turning a not-so-subtle shade of red, Herring nonetheless kept his mouth shut.
“What’s the name of the guy you worked for?”
“Chanute... Octave Chanute.”
Looking up from his notepad, Sauerbier nodded. “The retired civil engineer? Bridges and railroads... yeah, I’ve heard of him. Before last night, when was the last time you saw this Butusov character?”
Hesitating, Herring shrugged. “Back in the fall of ’96.”
“What were the circumstances?”
“I was flight-testing a machine at the Indiana dunes, and he tried to kill me, but I thwarted the—”
“Did you file a report with the authorities?” Sauerbier cut in.
“No, but I made sure that he wouldn’t try to pull anything again. I had my family’s safety to worry about.”
“Herring,” the Chief said, “what the hell are you talking about?”
“Butusov emigrated to this country under false pretenses. As an enlisted man in the Russian Navy, he stabbed a fellow sailor to death and then deserted.”
“How do you know this?”
Herring shrugged again. “I paid an investigator to look into his past. I still have the report.”
“How was this information supposed to protect you and your family?”
“Mr. Chanute delivered a copy of the report to the Russian. An accompanying letter stated that if anything should ever happen to members of my family or me, the document would be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Russian embassy in Washington. I knew that Russian officials would be anxious to have him extradited. Until last night, I hadn’t heard or seen anything of him for almost three years.”
Sauerbier removed his hat and scratched his bald pate.
“Tell me, Herring: why would Butusov want to burn down this here boatyard?”
Staring beyond the Morrison Channel, Herring gazed out at the endless waters of Lake Michigan. “In my opinion, Butusov was hired to destroy my flying machine work. To cover it up, he torched as many buildings as—”
Interrupting, Sauerbier raised his tinny voice. “Who in their right mind would risk going up the river over a foolish flying machine?”
Herring fired back his response. “If you expect me to name the people who want me to fail, you’ll have a long wait! I will not subject myself to defamation lawsuits! However, I’ll say that the Russian’s previous employer would be an excellent place to start an investigation.”
“I presume that you’re referring to Mr. Chanute?”
“You said it, Chief... not me.”
During the early afternoon of Monday, September 11, Chief Sauerbier placed a telephone call to the Chicago Police Department. In a candid conversation, he requested that Octave Chanute, a retired civil engineer and flying machine advocate, be interviewed regarding the whereabouts of William Paul Butusov, a former employee. Sauerbier identified the Russian as a suspect in his city’s day-old arson.
Sauerbier also requested that a separate interview be conducted with William Avery, a neighbor and sometime assistant of Chanute. Avery was purported to have information concerning a dispute between Butusov and another former assistant, A.M. Herring. Sauerbier inferred that Avery might be able to provide investigators with a possible motive for Butusov setting the fire that destroyed the Truscott Boat Works, where Herring kept his flying machines and related materials.
Rochester, New York
Wednesday, November 9, 1921
It had taken Herring all of the court’s morning session and half of the afternoon’s to relate the events of 1899, culminating with his recollection of the devastating fire and his identification of Butusov as the alleged arsonist. Gus was exhausted.
As courtroom spectators caught their collective breath following Herring’s dramatic testimony, Attorney O’Grady pressed on. “Mr. Herring, what was learned about the status and whereabouts of William Paul Butusov from the interviews of Octave Chanute and William Avery?”
Herring took a deep breath as he struggled to maintain his composure. “According to Chief Sauerbier, Chanute claimed that he hadn’t seen or heard from the Russian since the winter of ’97. After some arm twisting by the Chicago police, Avery reluctantly recounted the sordid events of Chanute’s espionage-like actions that occurred in his shop during February, March and April of ’99.”
“What reaction did Chief Sauerbier have to these interviews?”
“He was skeptical of my allegation that Butusov was hired by Chanute to torch the Truscott complex for the sole purpose of causing a ‘temporary setback’ in my research. Sauerbier concluded that Chanute’s connection to the fire was entirely circumstantial, and that until the Russian could be found and interrogated, the arson would remain an open, unsolved crime.”
“How did Chanute and Avery react to being involved in a criminal investigation?”
“Outwardly, Chanute laughed off the entire episode, but Avery felt that I had betrayed his trust in divulging Chanute’s jealous behavior concerning my latest flying machine.”
“Did your personal and professional relationship suffer because of this breach in trust?”
“To my regret, Bill Avery avoided speaking to me for almost five years.”
“What, if anything, was done to apprehend Butusov?” O’Grady asked.
Herring shook his head. “There was an intensive local search, and Sauerbier sent a copy of my private investigator’s report to the Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice, who reviewed its contents and turned it over to the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, then a division of the Treasury Department. The Immigration people subsequently forwarded the report to their Board of Special Inquiry, who eventually got around to conferring with the Russians at their Washington, D.C. embassy.
“A month later, Russian Embassy officials confirmed that Butusov had indeed falsified his U.S. immigration papers, having fled his native Russia to avoid the capital offense charges of murder and desertion from the Imperial Navy. The Russians then demanded that our Justice Department act promptly to capture Butusov and his family for deportation.”
“With the highest levels of the U.S. government now aware of this fugitive,” said O’Grady, “what steps were taken to apprehend him?”
Herring slumped in his seat. “In addition to the Justice Department assigning agents to track him down, the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation printed ‘Wanted’ posters featuring Butusov’s photograph; these were displayed on post office bulletin boards throughout the country!”
“When was he taken into custody?” O’Grady asked.
“To the best of my knowledge, Butusov avoided the nationwide dragnet and wasn’t heard from again... until the summer of 1904.”
-End of chapter-