Chapter 51 — I Was Milly

May 10, 2012

Milly Hart’s safe deposit box was opened Tuesday morning and now the world knows what people in Walnut Shade have known for fifty years: that Milly Hart was actually Amelia Earhart. The town has been overrun by journalists and curiosity-seekers since then.

The plans for the L. Frank Baum birthday celebration have been put on hold because of the commotion in town.

Shirley says the cafe ran out of food yesterday, but she was able to get an emergency order delivered last night from the Sysco warehouse in Topeka, and folks around town dropped off produce from their gardens, so customers probably won’t go hungry.

Shirley and Susan Hall, at Bach’s Lunch, had to set up tables on the sidewalk to accommodate customers on Wednesday.

The Stop and Go had a run on bottled water, soda, and snack food yesterday. Those TV people sure do like Twinkies.

Here are a few things that happened around town before Tuesday:

Lori Mendenhall, and Ilene Wick played Mahjong on Tuesday with Ruth Stanford. Olive Jane Johnson filled in for Sherri Brown, who was originally planning to play, but had an emergency at the library. A pipe burst in the restroom, but fortunately Lucy Davis was in there at the time and shut off the water before it did any damage.

Sherri Brown says the library still has a lot of paperback books, vinyl records and CDs left over from its annual sale back in March. She says to stop by and make an offer.

Lillian Reeves has recovered from her bout with bronchitis and is helping her daughter, Jessica in the flower garden.

Rev. Katherine Derby, who is president of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ, will be in Cleveland, Ohio, next week on church business. Les says that meals at the Derby house while she is gone will be strictly vegetarian. Rev. Katherine is the only one in the Derby family who eats meat.

The Master Gardener Tour was a great success again this year, despite the weather being somewhat uncooperative. Twelve gardens in the Fremont, Longwood, and Parkersburg area were featured. The theme was “Anticipation,” a somewhat ironic choice since the growing season has been a bit delayed this year. Phyllis Dane says that she now thinks flower gardens will hit their peak around Memorial Day.

Sometime on Saturday night, someone planted a tree in the park. There is no indication who did it or why. Arnie Potts, the park superintendent, thinks it is a hemlock, but it is so small, he can’t be sure. It looks like something that might have come from the Arbor Day Foundation. If anyone has any information, let Arnie know.

Gwen Burton will be hosting a show of Spanish antiques at her store in Weston on Saturday.

Gene Boone was contacted by a representative of PBS about appearing in a proposed documentary about his distant relative, Daniel Boone. Gene can’t say, but there is a rumor that documentary will be produced by Ken Burns.

Cordelia Beck, Jeff’s mother, just finished a 200 mile bicycle race that began in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and ended in Hot Springs. Jeff said that she told him that riding through the Ozark Mountains was like being on one of the worst legs of the Tour de France: not a flat spot to be found.

And so, back to what seems to be the center of the universe right now, trying to avoid cameras and microphones…

Until next week, I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Craig Gilbert opened Milly Hart’s safe deposit box in Fremont on Tuesday, fifty years to the day after she died, just as she requested. From the beginning, everyone in town knew that Milly was Amelia Earhart and respected her privacy. That used to be one of the advantages of living in a small town: everyone knew who your were and kept it secret from the rest of the world if you wanted them to do so. That, obviously has changed significantly with the advent of the Internet, but occasionally, there are places where it can still happen.

Reporters and TV crews have been pouring into town from all over the world. We’ve even had meteorologists from local stations here, detailing the weather, as if it is different or more important than Topeka or St. Joe or Kansas City, somehow. Of course, in the next few days, we’ll also be getting inundated by “reporters” from the sensational TV shows and tabloids and no doubt, at some point, we’ll probably be visited by government officials interviewing people about what they knew, when. Some day, things will get back to normal. The revelation of Milly’s true identity will be one of the biggest news stories of the new century just as the disappearance of Amelia Earhart was the biggest story just before the beginning of World War II

Joyce O’Rourke and husband Mike were at the opening of the safe deposit box and the reading of the statement contained therein. Joyce only found out a few weeks ago that she was Amelia’s granddaughter when her mom, Grace, died. Here’s part of the story about what happened when Amelia/Milly came to Walnut Shade and I’ll include the letter here, too.

Amelia Earhart came to Walnut Shade in late September, 1949. The day she arrived, she knocked on the door of her, Frances Earhart Benton and asked if she could stay for a few nights. In the early days after Amelia’s disappearance in 1937, Frances and Oscar Benton had regularly been visited by journalists, writers, movie-makers, government officials, representatives of airlines, and general curiosity-seekers trying to get information on her. When the war broke out, the interest in Amelia died down and so did the visits. By 1949, she had mostly been forgotten, so her appearance on Dorothy’s doorstep was at once joyful and almost frightening. Imagine what it must have felt like to see standing before you someone who was once the most famous person in the world and at the same time, the most missing person in the world.

After a healthy dose of smelling-salts had been administered to Frances, Oscar put on a pot of coffee and sat down with her and Amelia to talked about what to do. Amelia had decided before she arrived in Walnut Shade that she wanted to remain as anonymous as possible, at least for a while. Her earlier fame, and the subsequent notoriety of her supposed death, together with what she had been through the previous twelve years, had taken it’s toll on her physical and mental health and she desperately needed to continue to be as invisible as she had been. After some discussion, Oscar made two calls, one to Harlan Bradford, who was the mayor at the time, and the other to Rev. Harry Carlson at St. Stephen’s, both of whom immediately rushed over to the Benton home. After listening to Amelia’s incredible story and her desire to avoid publicity, Mayor Bradford suggested that a town meeting be called to explain the situation and discuss the implications of what could happen in the future if Amelia’s presence in town leaked out. Rev. Carlson suggested that perhaps Amelia could move into St. Brendan’s Convent for a few weeks while the inevitable talk around town was at it’s peak; after that, if she decided she wanted to stay, a permanent place could be found for her to live.

At first, Dorothy was insistent that Amelia stay with them and that together they would face together whatever repercussions might come, but eventually, it became obvious that a short period of seclusion might be the preferable course. Oscar and Rev. Carlson then walked over to St. Brendan’s and sat down with Father Macauley and Sister Mary Frances to discuss whether Amelia might spend some time in the Convent. After the initial shock wore off, Sister Mary Frances said that it was a splendid idea and that she and the other Sisters would help to make Amelia’s transition back into society as smooth as it possibly could be.

Amelia moved into the Convent on September 30, 1949 and for the next three weeks, she stayed mostly out of sight while her introduction to the town was being planned. The six who originally knew she had come to Walnut Shade, Oscar and Frances, Mayor Bradford, Rev. Carlson, Father Macauley and Sister Mary Frances, began quietly letting people know what was happening. Each person they told was initially astonished, then skeptical, then accepting, then elated, and finally delighted to be in on the intrigue. Dorothy said that when she told Rose, one of her close friends, Rose said, “At first I couldn’t believe that it could actually be Amelia and that she was here in Walnut Shade after all these years, but when I thought about it, I said, ‘Where else should she be? This is the perfect place for her.’”

By Thanksgiving of that year, everyone in town was aware who the new person in town was. There was general agreement that a new name was needed to insure that she would not be hounded by reporters and other celebrity-seekers. After a bit of consideration, Amelia settled on Margaret Hart, a nod to one of her pre-war friends, Margaret Bourke-White, the famous photographer, and as a way to hold on to at least a part of her past, Hart for Earhart. She would eventually be known around town as Milly.

Oscar and Frances owned a small house a few blocks from downtown and they made it available to Milly, who was eventually able to purchase if from them. This is the house that Joyce and Mike O’Rourke inherited earlier last year and in which they are now living.

Even though Amelia was a nominal Episcopalian, she began going to St. Stephen’s UCC and worked for a short time as the church secretary. When Lois Heath retired as town clerk, Mayor Bradford asked the council to hire Milly, which gave her a steady source of income and daily contact with town’s people who came to City Hall to pay their taxes, water bills, electric bills, parking tickets, buy dog licenses, ask to be put on the council agenda, or just generally pass the time of day.

From December, 1949 to May 1, 1962, the day Milly/Amelia died, not one person in town revealed her secret. It was clear that they loved Milly for who she was, not who she had been, and Milly loved them.  The following is an excerpt from the narrative Milly/Amelia wrote shortly before her death. It, along with papers and memorabilia that only the real Amelia could have had, were stored in the safe deposit box in the Farmers Bank in Fremont.

I Was Amelia Earhart

If you are reading this, I assume that I have been long dead. I leave this letter to explain how I came to live in Walnut Shade and to thank my family and many, many friends for allowing me to spend my final years in the peace and quiet that can only be found among people who care.

I was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. My father, Samuel Stanton Earhart, who went by the name Edwin, was an unsuccessful lawyer in town, owing to his affinity to drink. My mother was a bit of a free spirit, from whom I got my adventurous side. When I was ten years old, my father took a job in Des Moines and that is where I saw my first airplane, at the State Fair. My father thought that I should take a ride in it, but even at the age of ten, I could tell that it was not very well constructed, so I declined. When I finally did take my first flight, it was in a much more substantial aircraft, one that I was certain wasn’t going to fall apart in mid air.

My father’s career took him to several different cities in the midwest. Until my twelfth birthday, I was mostly taught at home. After that, I attended a variety of schools, depending on where my father was able to find a job. I eventually graduated from high school in Chicago and the next year, during a break from classes I was talking at a junior college in Pennsylvania,  I went to Toronto to visit my sister. This was during the time of the First World War and I volunteered to help with the returning soldiers at the Spadina Military Hospital. It was difficult, heart-breaking work, but I felt like I was bringing some comfort to the men, many of whom had been horribly wounded in the war.

I contracted the Spanish flu when it reach Toronto in 1918 and it seems to have affected me in some ways for the rest of my life. After a long convalescence, I decided to enrolled Columbia University, intending to become a doctor, but my parents had moved to California and when I went to visit them, I stayed. I’m not entirely sure, even now, why I did not return to Columbia, but it was in California that my life took its most significant turn: on a whim, I enrolled in flying lessons and I immediately knew that flying was what I was meant to do with my life.

The details of my flying career and much of my personal life during the subsequent years have been well-publicized, so I won’t go into them here, except that I do want to recount something that is important to people who are now living in Walnut Shade. As you know that I was married to George Putnam, who was a well-known publisher and who supported my flying adventures. George was a sweet man who pursued me for months before I agreed to marry him. Our partnership was not based on love, at least on my part, and we lead mostly separate lives. In 1933, I was introduced to Frank Lowell, an aide to Eleanor Roosevelt, at an air show in Washington, D.C., the First Lady was attending. Frank and I seemed to have an immediate connection and over the next few month, we became quite close. As these things happen, I became pregnant with Frank’s child and gave birth in May, 1934, to a daughter, who we named Grace, in honor of my sister. Because of the circumstances of both Frank’s and my lives, I agreed to let Grace be adopted by a family in Wichita connected to the Roosevelts. Frank and I remained close and I saw him a week before I began my around-the-world flight on June 1st, 1937.  I later learned that Frank had been killed in the Second World War, during the invasion of the island of Tarawa, the place, ironically, I had been held by the Japanese for several years after the crash of my plane, but I’m getting a little ahead of the story.

As early as 1928, I first dreamed of flying around the world. That was the year that I flew across the Atlantic Ocean, like Charles Lindbergh. In order to make the dream a reality, though, I needed to prepare both myself and the proper equipment. I took additional flying lessons and worked with a number of aeronautical engineers to design just the right plane to make the trip. With help from Purdue University and the Lockheed Aircraft Company, a plane was constructed that met my specification, a Lockheed Electra 10E. It was a marvelous aircraft and we tested it on a flight from Oakland, California to Honolulu in March, 1937. I say we, because my crew included Harry Manning as navigator, my business partner, Paul Mantz, who was a marvelous flyer in his own right, and Fred Noonan, along as an additional navigator. Because of a variety of technical problems, our attempt ended in Honolulu and we return to the mainland.

I originally planned to fly from California west to Hawaii and continue across the Pacific Ocean, but while the plane was being repaired, I changed my mind and decided to head east instead. From Burbank, California, on May, 20, Fred Noonan and I began our adventure by hopscotching across the country to Miami and from there we made our way to Brazil, Africa, India, Australia, and landed in Lea, New Guinea on June 29. After a couple of days rest and repairs to the Lockheed, we set off on the last and longest leg of our journey.

Fred and I were exhilarated to be starting this part of the trip, but also a bit weary, having flown over 20,000 miles in just over a month. We expected to arrive at Howland Island the next day where we would meet a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Itasca. We had been having problems with our radio equipment off and on during the flight and as we got closer to what we thought was Howland, we failed to establish contact with the Itasca. Running low on fuel, we searched for a place to land and spotted an island that I have since learned was probably Onotoa, a part of the Gilbert Island chain. We were well short of our expected rendezvous point, which is, I’m sure, one of the reasons that we were not found by the searches that were organized in the days and months after our disappearance.

Our landing on Onotoa was anything but smooth. There were only a few stretches of beach that were potentials, so we set down on one of those and as we landed, one of our wheels got caught in some driftwood. The plane flipped over and that is the last I remember, until days later, I awoke in a small structure resembling a bungalow. The woman who attended me told me, in perfect colonial English, that she and her husband had found me on the beach with a concussion and a broken arm. Unfortunately, Fred had died in the crash and they had buried him in a part of the island that is considered sacred to the natives. At this point, I was suffering from a severe loss of memory and had no idea who this Fred was that they were talking about. It was not until months later that I began to regain some understanding of what had happened and who I was.

For more than a year, I lived like the natives of the island and then one day, several men dressed in uniforms arrived and said in Japanese that I was to go with them. I learned later that the main island of the Gilberts, Tarawa, had seen a large number of ships from Japan begin to land there, in preparation for the annexation that was to happen two years later. I was put on a boat and taken to Tarawa where I was told that they had discovered who I was and that I was going to be sent back to the United States, but that there were some negotiations going on between the two governments and that it might be a couple of months before I could leave. Those two months turned into two years. In December, 1941, of course, Pearl Harbor was attacked and at the same time, the Marshall and Gilbert Island were invaded by Japan.

During the time before the invasion of the island, I was held in what amounted to a house arrest. At the time, the Gilbert Island were a colony of Great Britain, yet the British did not know I was there. I learned much later that there were secret negotiations between the United States’ ambassador in the South Pacific and the Japanese aimed at securing my release, but when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the discussions ended. Soon after that, I was shipped to Saipan and then to the Philippines where I spent two years at the Bagiuo Internment Camp.

In late August, 1944, I was sent, along with around 500 other prisoners to a camp in Burma to build fortifications against the British and the Burma National Army, who were slowly beginning to regain control over the country. Shortly after I arrived, with the help of some of my fellow prisoners, I was able to escape and eventually make my way to Dacca at the start of 1945, where I stayed to recover from my ordeal in the camps. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that my health was very bad, as well as my spirit. I needed time to recover and I found that in an ashram just outside of the city.

When the Second World War ended, I first thought that I would return immediately to the United States and let people know that I was alive. During my time in confinement, no word had leaked out as to who I was, so I was free to resume my previous life at any time I wanted. My teacher in the ashram suggested that I take my time to rediscover who I was and to consider whether I wanted to be the person I was before. He encouraged me to travel and experience the spiritual possibilities in that part of the world. I had never been a very religious person, but I found something very invigorating about spending several hours a day in meditation.

For a year, I traveled around eastern India, Nepal and into Tibet. There were times when I thought that I had been recognized, but my hair had grown long and I was quite dark from the sun. It is amazing that someone can stand before you whom you believe is dead and not realize that they are in fact alive. People thought that I was lost at sea and so I was lost at sea. I couldn’t possibly be that person who disappeared so completely so long ago. Only one person during that time actually recognized me. I had made my way to Lhasa to visit the Dalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup, who was at that time only ten years old, but already showing the wisdom for which he is now so revered. You may have heard mention of an assistant to the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who was the tutor of Dalai Lama. I had been hired to teach English and science to the young student. One day, during his lessons, the Dalai Lama looked at me and said, “You have a secret that you want me to know, but I already know who you are. Some day, you may reveal that secret to the rest of the world, but until then, only you and I will know.” How did he know who I was when no one else had an inkling? I can only think that it was because of some spiritual connection between the two of us.

By the end of 1947, I knew that my time in Tibet was coming to an end. I had intended to travel through India after its independence from Britain was declared in August, but the country was in turmoil with what amounted to civil war breaking out. Rather than risk the violence, I decided to head to Afghanistan with the ultimate goal of trying to reaching France at some point. You might wonder how I supported myself during this period. While I was in Tibet, of course, I earned a small amount of money giving lessons to the Dalai Lama, which I saved (should I say?) religiously. As I traveled across the Middle East, I was able to make connections in British outposts along the way and work for short periods of time as a nurse, for which I had been trained years before, or more surprisingly, as a mechanic at some of the airfields. As I said before, the people at these places would look at me and for an instant, thinking that they recognized me, but then I could see them say to themselves, “No, it couldn’t possibly be her. She died years ago.” During this time, I often went by the name Anna Sigerson and told people that I was Norwegian.

After several months in Persia and Palestine, I caught a freighter to Marseilles, where I intended to stay, thinking at the time that perhaps going back to the United States was too fraught with difficulties. I was certain that I’d be found out immediately and then my life would cease to be the uncomplicated existence it had become. Had it not been for an amazing coincidence, I am sure that I would have lived out my life in that city on the Mediterranean. I had been working in a bakery near the Universite de Provence when one morning, a short, older, frumpily-dressed woman walked in with a man who seemed to be looking after her. She asked in perfect French for a cafe au lait and a croissant. There was something about her speech, though, that made me think that she was not really French; her accent seemed to indicate that she must be an American. I had only glanced at her when she came in, but when our eyes met, I knew instantly who she was and there was a spark of recognition in hers. Her companion paid for her food and they went outside to one of the tables lining the sidewalk. It was a beautiful early fall day and I was feeling very happy with my life at that point.

After a few minutes, the woman walked back in, this time by herself, walked up to the counter where I was arranging the pastries and Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “Amelia, where have you been?”

“I’ve had a rather quite remarkable adventure, ma’am,” I replied.

“We were all devastated when you didn’t show up at Howland and we’ve mourned you many times since then. Tell me, what are you doing here?”

I told her that I had been in the city for several months and that I was planning to stay. She told me that she was staying at a hotel close by and that she was in town for a few days, speaking on behalf of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that she was then chairing. She asked me to come by her hotel later that evening and tell her my story. She said, “I won’t divulge your identity to anyone, but I’d really like to know how you are doing. I’ll let them know at the front desk that Anna Sigerson will be stopping by to discuss the Commission.”

She touched my hand and left the shop. Later that evening, I sat with her in her suite at the hotel and told her my story. She let me know that Frank Lowell had been killed in the battle to take Tarawa Island from the Japanese and had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery. She also told me that our daughter, Grace, who was then fifteen was still living in Wichita with who she believed were her real parents.

“Grace is a lovely, smart girl. You would be so proud of her. I hope that one day you will have a chance to meet her,” Mrs. Roosevelt said.

Before I left, she gave me her phone number in the United States and encouraged me to give her a call if I decided to return at some time in the future. She left Marseille the next day and I never saw her or talked to her again.

By June, 1949, I had decided that perhaps returning to the United States was a good idea. I had been suffering from headaches from chronic sinusitis and a doctor in the city seemed to believe that I needed treatment beyond what was available there. It was a frightening prospect, going back to the country I had avoided for so long, but having saved a good bit of money by being excessively frugal, I took the train to Lisbon and from there, caught a ship heading to America. You might ask why I didn’t take an airplane. Perhaps you might understand that given what had happened on my last flight, I was a bit reluctant to get on another plane, especially one I wasn’t flying myself. Actually, the truth is, I just wanted to take my time approaching the country of my birth.

It might be good to point out that I was able to travel because of a forged passport which I had obtained during my time in Afghanistan. Before leaving Marseilles, I got a visa to visit the United States from the consulate there, saying that I was intending to visit relatives in Minnesota. So, Anna Sigerson from Oslo, Norway, left for America and an unknown future.

On June 18, our ship docked at the Port of New Orleans. At that point, I had no idea what I was going to do once I got to the U.S., other than try to find a doctor to help me with my headaches. A couple of days after I arrived, I asked the clerk at the hotel where I was staying if he could recommend a doctor and he suggested that I go to the hospital at Tulane University, which was only a few block away. I was able to see a doctor there who diagnosed my condition as the result of the my long-ago flu and the treatment that I had received then, together with the neglect of my health over the last ten years. I was relieved to find that I did not have a brain tumor, which one of the doctors in Marseilles suggested might be the problem. After a course of antibiotics over a couple of weeks, I was feeling much better, and during that time, I decided what I wanted to do.

Before I left on my last flight in 1937, I had spent a couple of days with my cousin Frances Sappington in Walnut Shade, Kansas. I had always been fond of the town and Frances was one of my favorite relatives. I remember spending the summer with Frances and her family and my sister, Pidge, probably in 1905 or 1906, before my father and mother moved us to Des Moines. It was one of those idyllic times, being outdoors from sun up to sun set, chasing frogs and catching lightening bugs. Walnut Shade seemed like the place I should return to and when I found out that my cousin still lived there, the decision was made. Plus, the town was close to Wichita and at some point I was sure I would make contact with my daughter, if not acknowledging that I was her mother, but at least as a friend of a friend of the family.

From New Orleans, I took the train to St. Louis and then headed west on the Missouri Pacific. At Kansas City, I got on a Greyhound which took me to Topeka and from there, I hitched a ride to Walnut Shade. When I knocked on Frances’ door, I had no idea what to expect and I must confess that it was probably a bit thoughtless of me to do so without some warning. The look on Frances’ face is one I will never forgot: a combination of surprise, disbelief, joy, and a little bit of fear, for after all, I might have been a ghost.

Walnut Shade is one of those places where you can be a part of the community and yet be left to yourself if you want to be. I told Frances and her husband, Oscar, that I no longer wanted to be Amelia; that I had discovered during my captivity in the South Pacific and my journeys through the Indian Subcontinent that the old Amelia was gone and that I was an entirely new person. If it was discovered that Amelia was still alive, I would be expected to return to my former self. I told them that I had come to Walnut Shade to be anonymous. At first, they couldn’t understand what I was talking about, but slowly they came to accept my intentions. With the help of a small group of people, including the sisters at St. Brendan’s, who I came to regard as my sisters, I settled into the town as Margaret Hart, known to everyone as Milly.

For twelve years, no one, as they say, “spilled the beans.” I was able to connect with my daughter, Grace, in 1953, when she was going to the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Grace became a nurse in Topeka and we saw each other regularly. I was so happy when my granddaughter, Joyce, was born and it was a joy seeing her discover the world around her much as I and my sister, Pidge, had in Atchison.

Seeing the world from a small town like Walnut Shade is much the same as seeing it from Chicago or Burbank or Dacca or Lhasa or Marseilles. There are people in each who will help you through each day and there are also a few who will stand in your path. There are those who will see you and know you, and those who will see you and have no idea that you are who you are. In Walnut Shade, I was seen and known, and in the end, I was Milly.

April 23, 1962


About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
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