Mrs. Louise Tuba Whitehead, Mrs. Mari Horvath and Mrs. Elizabeth Koteles
The Women Who Supported Whitehead’s Flights:
“You are the wind beneath my wings”
Martha Matus Schipul
Ever since the time I was a youngster and my Uncle Julius, visiting from Detroit, sat me down and told me his account of the flights of Gustave Whitehead in the Bridgeport area, in which he participated, I was hooked on this wondrous adventure our family had been a part of. After showing me antique airmail letters to Mr. Whitehead from Gustave Lilienthal (brother of Otto Lilienthal, who died in a glider crash) and Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, he mentioned that his mother, my great-grandmother, Mari Horvath, helped sew the wings for Mr. Whitehead’s aircraft.
For many years thereafter I only knew of the identity of two of the ladies involved in that historic sewing circle: Mrs. Louise Tuba Whitehead and Great-grandma Horvath. Now I know of one other: Mrs. Koteles, after reading Steve Link’s excellent article in the May edition of Magyar News Online and talking extensively with him. I would wager that there were several other ladies from the Hungarian community of the West End who gave their time and skill to make Mr. Whitehead’s project a reality. This supposition is based on the size and complicated nature of the project.
Life was difficult for the immigrant community in turn of the 20th century Bridgeport. Both men and women worked long, hard hours just to survive. They really had precious little leisure time to relax and enjoy being with their families. They made do with worn, patched clothing, suffered poor health, and some, like my great-grandparents’ family, had lentil soup on the menu every night because meat was too expensive. Therefore it is an enormous tribute that so many Hungarian immigrants had enough faith in Mr. Whitehead’s efforts to work for free helping to build his airplanes.
Now there was one woman who said that she never saw Mr. Whitehead’s planes in the air and some critics point to that as proof that no such flight ever happened. That would be Mrs. Louise Tuba Whitehead. There are several possible reasons why she did not witness her husband’s flights. One could well be the danger of his undertaking. So many early flight pioneers had died trying to fly, particularly Otto Lilienthal. Also, there had been a serious accident when Mr. Whitehead had flown in Pittsburgh in 1899 in which his assistant was badly injured when the plane crashed into an apartment building. It is entirely understandable that his young wife (and the mother of his four little children) might have been emotionally unable to witness the possible violent death of her beloved husband.
Perhaps Gustave did not want her to come for the very same reason. He also might not have wanted his family there because they might be injured in a possible explosion. Also, Louise needed to be home tending to the children including a young infant.
Louise’s devotion to her husband’s effort is readily demonstrated by her organizing a group of her friends to attach the fabric to the wooden ribs of the wings that could fold like a Japanese fan. It would have taken a great deal of effort and skill to accomplish this task flawlessly. A failure to properly secure each wing section might result in a disastrous accident. Mr. Whitehead was putting his life in the hands of these ladies, and Mrs. Whitehead must have taken great pains to ensure that the sewing done under her supervision was completed to the highest standard.
Where did these ladies learn the skill of attaching fabric to the wing supports of a heavier than air flying machine? It is known that many Hungarian women in Bridgeport’s West End and South End worked at Warner’s Corset Factory, where they learned how to attach fabric to whalebone or metal “stays” or rods in order to achieve the wasp waist so desirable for fashionable women at the time. It appears that the skills learned on the job by one immigrant population helped another immigrant make history.
Who was this Louise Tuba? I truly wish I had more information about her. What is known is that she was born on July 24, 1875 in Csoth, Hungary to Paul Tuba and Elizabeth Brcz and travelled to the United States on the S.S. Amsterdam in 1894. Louise first lived with her brother in Buffalo, New York. She must have been quite a beauty. When an ardent suitor demanded her hand in marriage, she escaped to New York City. She obtained a position at a boarding house where she met Gustave who was living there while working in the City. He soon fell in love with her and pursued her all the way back to her brother’s house in Buffalo. Finally, she said yes. They were married in Buffalo and subsequently moved to Baltimore where she had family and then to Pittsburgh. She and her daughter Rose followed him to Bridgeport in 1900.
Louise and Gustave had four children together: Rose, Lillian, Charles, and Nellie. She could not always afford to be a stay-at-home mother. When Gustave was not bringing in enough money, she would have to go to work herself. Whether she took in laundry, went to work in factories, or cleaned other people’s houses, we do not know. What we do know is that her life was undoubtedly very hard. Gustave tried to provide for her and the children. After they moved from Pine Street in Bridgeport, they moved into one of two houses he built for them in the Tunxis Hill area of Fairfield. When Mr. Whitehead died young in 1927, exhausted from overwork and disappointment, Louise was left with eight dollars in his bank account and the house on Tunxis Hill.
According to Mr. Link, Louise died in Florida where she had gone to live with her daughter Rose.
Mrs. Koteles donated her precious wedding gown to help cover the wings of No. 21 (See May issue of Magyar News Online). Great-grandma Horvath, besides assisting with the sewing of the wings, allowed her beloved younger son, twelve-year-old Gyula, aka Junius (sic!) Harworth, to assist in this rather dangerous venture. I wonder if she were told at the time that her son was the occasional test pilot for Mr. Whitehead?
The loyalty, hard work, and courage of these women helped make Gustave Whitehead’s dream a reality so many years ago. If any of your ancestors were involved in the sewing circle, we would certainly like to hear from you.
Please contact Whitehead Researcher John Brown at
Martha Matus Schipul is a writer and author of the screen play Aeronaut (originally copyrighted in 2000), which deals with the life of Gustave Whitehead.