Last year, near the anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, I started digging. It was a momentous occasion–Earhart is one of the more famous historical figures who spent time at Purdue and whose life is documented in our collections. I was searching our databases, looking for some materials from around the time of Earhart’s round-the-world flight. Often if I find something interesting, I will share it with our followers on Twitter. As I scanned the list of search results, I came across this:
I wasn’t prepared for it. The telegram, sent from George Putnam, Earhart’s husband, responding to his son, David Binney Putnam, was sent shortly after contact was lost with Earhart’s plane. It reads: “THANKS DEAR BOY IT HELPS THERES PLENTY OF HOPE YET LOVE DAD.”
When I read it, I felt a sense of dread sinking into me. Knowing that Amelia was not coming back–ever–made George’s hopes all the more tragic. But reading this note, with its short, desperate prose, and knowing that it was just a family thing in that moment, between father and son and an absent stepmother, gave the document a sacred quality. I shouldn’t be reading this. I wasn’t meant to read this. But why feel this way? It’s history. It’s public.
History is often interesting to read about from a distance. We can reflect on how day-to-day life has changed since a famous person’s time, such as Earhart’s heyday of the 1920s-30s. We can joke around about silly fashion and customs from the past. The past is removed from us; we don’t have access to it, so it feels foreign and alien and often quite backwards. We cannot understand why, for example, Purdue students used to race around Memorial Mall on tricycles while people threw buckets of water at them. It makes no sense.
But some things make too much sense. And its in those moments of discovery, when history recorded in writing or film becomes less distant. It comes closer to our own experience as people and becomes less alien. It’s someone we know. It’s how we feel now. For all its strangeness, the tricycle water-bucket race does appeal to a certain sense of goofy fun. The people in the film look like they’re having a good time–and why not? They’re racing around a circle or throwing buckets of water on people. It’s not just hilarious because it’s strange; it’s hilarious because it looks like it might be fun to do.
George’s letter to David about Amelia made sense. The hope still hanging over both of them, the hope that she might show up, somewhere, adrift in the sea, or stranded on an island–a little worse for wear, but still smiling–that hope made more sense than anything. If you’ve ever lost someone, you know about hope. And you might have also felt that same sense of sinking dread I did when you read the telegram, knowing she didn’t come back. That the hope was disappointed. And in that moment, Amelia Earhart wasn’t just a famous missing person. Not just a feminist role model. She was more than her ideals or legend. She was someone like you or me.
And we lost her.
This year marks the 78th anniversary of Earhart’s final flight. For me, that short telegram reveals so much of the power of history and the importance of preservation. History research does more than just generate academic knowledge and understanding–all of which is important, good, and necessary for our society. It is notes like George’s that tell us what history can be: a moment of human connection transcending time.
The telegram can be viewed online with other materials from the time of the initial search for Earhart’s plane. These materials are within the full George Putnam Palmer Collection of Amelia Earhart papers, as well as the Amelia Earhart at Purdue Collection, and can be viewed in Archives and Special Collections digital repository e-Archives.