Monday, April 22, 2024

Stand up for Safety: Aviator Leon "Windy" Smith

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

    “It is mighty easy Mr. Praeger for you to sit in your swivel chair in Washington and tell the flyers when they can fly…”

Windy Smith in the cockpit

When Leon D. Smith sent this message, it ended up getting him fired from his job and blacklisted from the post office air service. It also set off the first ever pilots’ strike.

Born in Millerton, PA, in 1889, Leon D. Smith was the youngest son of Dr. Frank W. Smith and Mary Anne Miller Smith. His father was a dentist who opened a practice in Elmira at 328 East Water Street. Leon Smith had been called “Windy” since he was a child, because he talked a lot. In school, he was known as an athlete and excelled in football. 

His two older brothers went into farming, but Windy was looking for something different. It wasn't until he met and became friends with aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss in nearby Hammondsport, that he discovered his lifelong passion for flying. In 1913, Smith graduated from the Curtiss Aviation School, and immediately became a flight instructor. He was 24 years old. The country had a growing need for more pilots. Less than one year later, World War I broke out, and the demand for skilled pilots increased even more.

Teaching flying in Alabama

Flying was new and people were looking for what aviation could offer including moving the mail farther and faster. The first mail flights were in 1911, but regular service didn’t begin until May 15, 1918. The first issued airmail stamp cost 24 cents. The early routes used government-operated planes, and pilots logged valuable long-distance flying time and aerial navigation experience. Establishing regular service meant the mail could be more reliable. The first flight of scheduled service consisted of six U.S. Army “Jenny” biplanes, piloted by military officers. President Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson were two of the dignitaries that attended to witness their take-off. Each of the six planes carried over a hundred pounds of mail from Washington, D.C., to Belmont Park, New York City. The flight was 218 miles, necessitating a brief stopover in Philadelphia. Of these six planes, one didn’t make it. The pilot became disoriented soon after take-off, and he needed to return to earth. Upon landing, the plane was badly damaged, so his payload of mail was loaded on a truck and driven back to Washington.

After four months, the Aerial Mail Service of the U.S. Post Office Department was established and took over mail delivery. Now, the department had a fleet of purpose-built biplanes staffed by a crew of civilian pilots. In December 1918, 28-year-old Leon D. “Windy” Smith was hired as one of those pilots.

Six months later, on June 22, 1919, the weather turned to heavy fog and the pilots complained to each other. Smith took it farther and wrote directly to Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger with his objections. He pointed out that only a week earlier, Charles Lamborn, whom he called one of the best flyers in the United States, had lost his life while attempting to deliver the mail.

Praeger immediately fired pilots Smith and E. Hamilton Lee for refusing to fly. This motivated all the pilots to go on strike and for weeks, airmail service stopped completely. When it was over, all pilots, except Smith, were rehired. Praeger held fast to his grudge against Smith.

Praeger had been appointed to his position by Postmaster General Burleson, his one qualification being that he was Burleson’s fishing and hunting buddy. Praeger was ambitious but lacked experience and understanding of the new kind of transportation. Between 1918 and 1926, thirty-five pilots lost their lives in service to the U.S. Postal Service. Being denied his job with the Post Office didn’t stop Smith from flying. 

Posing with his stunt woman

He went back to teaching pilots to fly, and he started “Windy Smith’s Air Circus,” an aerial acrobatics and stunt business. One of those daring stunts was covered in another one of our blogs titled FallingWomen: Elmira’s Lady Parachutists.

Leon D. “Windy” Smith, always known as a safe pilot, died in 1960 at the age of 70. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.


Monday, April 8, 2024

True Crime Reporting

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


On March 15, 1964, 12-year-old Mary Theresa Simpson went missing after heading home from her cousin’s house. After a few hours of waiting, her father called the police. For the next few days, the police combed the city looking for her. On March 19th, a trio of hikers stumbled across her body in a wooded area just off of Combs Hill Road in Southport. 

Mary Theresa Simpson

 This March, I received multiple research requests about her murder from self-identified true crime enthusiasts.

People’s fascination with true crime is nothing new. Beginning in the 1500s, British publishers began printing thousands of pamphlets and broadsides describing the exploits of various criminals. The publications tended to focus on the gory details of especially violent or unusual crimes and often carried strong moralizing crime-doesn’t-pay messages regarding the criminals’ eventual comeuppance. By the 1700s, America had its own criminals and presses with which to write about them. Newspapers provided readers with minute-by-minute accounts of crimes, manhunts, and trials as they unfolded.

The 21st century is no less interested in true crime than our ancestors, although today the format is a bit different. TV documentaries about crime and criminals first gained popularity in the 1980s. Hits shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted, which presented new, real-life, stories each week, captivated audiences. In 2020, the streaming platform Netflix brought Unsolved Mysteries back. After the success of their documentary series Making a Murderer (2015), Netflix quickly became the king of the true crime docuseries with over 11 shows focusing on different cases.

True crime podcasts got their start in 2014 with Serial, the first season of which focused on the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999. The podcast was an instant hit. Since its release, it has been downloaded 340 million times, making it the most downloaded podcast in the world. Its popularity spawned literally hundreds of copycats.

In US, women make up 73% of consumers of digital true crime media. Studies show that people who listen to true crime are more likely to be afraid of being victimized themselves, although it is unclear if that is a result of consuming true crime or the reason they seek it out. There are numerous complaints against true crime. The genre has been criticized for the way third parties make money off of other people’s trauma, often re-traumatizing them in the process. Some works blend actual facts with fictional elements and rampant speculation in ways that can give audiences distorted views of the case.

The true crime genre isn’t all bad. The first season of Serial, for example, helped shine a light on a miscarriage of justice that lead to a man being released from prison. Shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted have actually helped to solve crimes. The original run of Unsolved Mysteries helped spark renewed interest that lead to the solving of 260 cold cases. America’s Most Wanted helped lead to the capture of 1,400 wanted fugitives and the recovery of over 60 missing children.

In 1964, the local press gave extensive coverage to Mary Theresa Simpson’s murder. The day after her body was discovered, 50 men, including an Elmira Star-Gazette reporter, did a sweep of the area where her body was found. They uncovered her glasses, several buttons off her blouse, and an assortment of trash. Every part of the search was documented by the reporter’s camera. The newspaper coverage included interviews with her family, a timeline events, search photos, a map of the crime scene, and a detailed description of the girl’s body. In the days following her murder, the Star-Gazette and WELM Radio offered a reward of $1,000 for any information leading to her killer’s arrest.

Search in the area where Mary's body was found


Patrolman Robert Loomis with button found during search

The police were hard at work on the case. They established a joint special task force consisting of officers from the Elmira PD, state police, and Chemung County Sheriff’s Department. Together, the task force interviewed over 300 people across multiple states including some as far away as Arizona. Seven suspects agreed to submit to a lie detector test, but no one was ever charged. After six months, the task force was dissolved. After a year, the reward money fund was donated to the Arctic League in Mary’s honor.

Eight years later in October 1972, the Star-Gazette re-ran the details of the Simpson murder and offered $5,000 for information leading to an arrest. They created a special system for accepting anonymous tips that could still let people collect the reward. Over the next few months, tips flooded in. The Elmira Police Department briefly re-opened the case, but ultimately, nothing came of it. To this day, Mary Theresa Simpson’s murder remains unsolved. 


Star-Gazette's instructions on submitting tips to the secret witness program, 1972

By all accounts, Mary was a shy girl. Her family moved around a lot and she struggled to make friends. She was wary of strangers and once turned down a ride from an uncle because she didn’t know him well. No one except her killer knows how she ended up dead on Combs Hill. Maybe the renewed interest in her case will lead to justice, or at least answers. We can only hope.