History and Oddities: When Humans Attempted Flight

Photos from Undiscovered Scotland, and the Oshawa Museum.

Originally published on LinkedIn: September 27, 2019

There are several stories throughout history that explore how humans have tried, and failed, to fly before the Wright brothers successfully soared. Here are two examples, one from Stirling Castle, Scotland in 1504 (or 1507 depending on the source), and one from Oshawa, Ontario, Canada on February 14, 1843.

John Damian de Falcuis took the first recorded attempt in human aviation history. Damian, an Italian born alchemist and doctor, was working in Scotland for King James IV at Stirling Castle in an attempt to turn regular metals into gold. Damian had previously lived in France as a doctor. Poet William Dunbar satirically wrote that “in leechcraft he was homicide”, not something you want to be remembered for. Instead, he would be remembered for his failed attempt to fly to France (or Turkey according to Dunbar, but that is likely a flightless bird pun).

Although the date could be incorrect, according to some sources,[1] on September 27, 1504, Damian fashioned wings out of feathers from the royal falconer, however it is noted that he blamed the incorporation of chicken feathers for his failure, as chickens do not fly. He leapt from a wall of Stirling Castle known as the “Ladies’ Lookout” and fell 70-ft onto a midden (dunghill) below. He broke his femur and damaged his credibility with the King’s court.

Closer to home, one mile east of Oshawa on February 14, 1843, Sarah Terwilligar attempted to fly to Heaven, due to William Miller’s and the Second Adventists’ predictions that the 15th was the end of the world.

According to Thomas Conant in Upper Canada Sketches, over the course of the Winter of 1842-43, Millerites in Oshawa fervently believed that the end of days was nigh and began selling their livestock and farms.[2] Terwilligar believed in this religious hype, who along with her sister Clarissa (aka Clara), were supposedly clairvoyant; and religious and supernatural believers.[3] She leapt from the second storey porch of her father’s house with wings made of silk and fell to the ground 15-ft below. According to Conant, “she was shaken up severely and rendered wholly unfit to attend at all to … [chores] the next day.”[4]

Although these instances of human flight may be embarrassing to modern readers, it shows that people believed in something greater than themselves. Maybe we should all try to take a metaphorical leap and try out something we haven’t before. Just don’t break any bones or hurt yourself along the way.

[1] Jeff Kacirk, Forgotten English, Maine: Sellers Publishing Inc., 2018. September 27, 2019.

[2] Thomas Conant, Upper Canada Sketches, Toronto: William Briggs, 1898, pg 92.

[3] Laura Suchan, “Sister Act: The story of Clarissa and Sarah Terwilliger,” Oshawa Museum Blog, online at <https://oshawamuseum.wordpress.com/2019/03/29/sister-act-the-story-of-clarissa-and-sarah-terwilliger/#_ftn1>

[4] Conant, 92.

Published by AncestryByAlicia

After obtaining my Master of Arts degree in History, and working on my genealogy for over 13 years, I decided to write about interesting historical matters from not only my family, but other interesting tidbits as well. I also research and present free walking tours in my city, including "Haunted Oshawa" and "Murder and Mayhem in Oshawa." I am currently writing two books. One is a historical account of small-town murders in Ontario. The other is a historical novel about the Royal African Company's James Fort on the Gambia River, 1715-1740.

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