Tag Archives: amelia earhart

A Tragic Telegram and a Goofy Movie

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.

Course Reflection: The Technology and Culture of Flight

The following is a guest blog post by Katie Martin, who recently graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and American Studies.

As a senior History student, I had taken plenty of history classes. However, I have never experienced a class quite like HIST 395: Air and Space: The Technology and Culture of Flight. This junior research seminar was taught by Professor Michael Smith in collaboration with Tracy Grimm, the Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration at Purdue Libraries Archives and Special Collections. To facilitate discussion and use of archival materials, the class met in Swaim Instruction Center, right across the hall from the Archives and Special Collections.

Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam

Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam

On the first day of class, we knew we were in for a different kind of history course. Professor Smith explained that by the end of the semester each student would complete a publishable 25-page paper using primary sources held in the Purdue collection. With Tracy’s great assistance, each student identified a topic and used class time to peruse Purdue’s physical and digital collections. I chose to focus my research on Amelia Earhart, specifically, how she and her publicist husband, George Palmer Putnam, worked together to craft her enduring public image.

I looked through several Amelia Earhart scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings relating to her lecture tours, her flights across the Atlantic, and her failed world flight attempt. I also read various correspondences between Earhart and people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Edward C. Elliott, President of Purdue University during Earhart’s time on campus. I received permission to view the original materials.  Holding the physical materials in my hands provided a deep understanding of my topic and strong connection to the past. I also utilized the digitized Amelia Earhart Collection in Purdue e-Archives, which consists of more than 3,500 scans of photographs, maps, documents, and artifacts.

Daily Mirror newspaper clipping, June 19, 1928

Daily Mirror newspaper clipping, June 19, 1928

The research sessions were broken up by reading assignments and even field trips. During one memorable class period, we rode the Boilermaker Special to the Purdue Airport for a tour led by Dr. Thomas Carney, Professor of Aviation Technology. We also viewed and discussed the exhibit on display in the Archives at the time, Steps to the Moon: Selections from the Neil A. Armstrong Papers and the Eugene A. Cernan Papers. Most exciting of all, our class was invited to the opening of the Armstrong and Cernan papers on November 21. We heard Eugene Cernan and Carol Armstrong speak and even got the chance to shake their hands and discuss our experiences working with the collections.

The class picked up in intensity as we neared the end of the semester. In the final weeks, we were expected to submit a 5-page abstract to our classmates. One person per class presented their work for 30 minutes followed by a session of critique and discussion. Although this portion of the class was stressful, my fun and supportive classmates made the experience worthwhile. I completed my paper and am now in the process of publishing my work in a journal of popular culture. This class improved my research, writing, and presentation skills tremendously, provided opportunities to actively learn, and exposed me to persons and scholarship on an international scale.  I won’t soon forget working with the Amelia Earhart Collection and my experiences in this class!

This class is being taught again in the Fall of 2015 as HIST 495: Flight and Space Exploration: Archival Research Seminar.  Persons interested in the course are encouraged to speak with their advisor, Professor Michael Smith, or Tracy Grimm for more information.