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Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Story of Herbert and Irene Wright

(Revised 4/30/19) Herbert Abeckett Wright and Irene Matilda May married on October 21, 1917 in Independence, Kansas. They named their son after Herbert's famous Uncle, Wilbur Wright, and their daughter after Herbert's famous Aunt, Katharine Wright. Wilbur Herbert Wright, born in 1920, never met his Great Uncle Wilbur, who unfortunately had died of typhoid fever in 1912. Katharine, born in 1922, did meet her namesake; her Great Aunt Katharine Wright married Harry Haskell, editor of the Kansas City Star in November 1926, moving from Dayton to Kansas City. But, we are way ahead of ourselves in this story; first some background information is in order.

Wilbur and Orville Wright's oldest brother Reuchlin married Lulu Billheimer on April 27, 1886 in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin and Lulu had three daughters and one son. Their son Herbert, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 7, 1893. Herbert's younger sister Bertha Ellwyn was born Christmas day, 1896. His older sister Helen Margaret, was born September 14, 1889. Reuchlin and Lulu's first born daughter Catharine Louise, birth date of June 23, 1887, died of diphtheria at the age of 4 1/2 years, on January 10, 1892. (For the account of Reuchlin's In-laws, and more on Reuchlin's family history, see my post Five Copper Cents- The True Account of Jacob and Amanda Billheimer- Reuchlin Wright's In-Laws )

Milton Wright mentions his grandson Herbert numerous times in his diary entries (2)-
Wednesday, July 27, 1910, "Went to Simms Station. Orville flew three flights; about 15 minutes twice, about 20 minutes once; once 800 feet high, once 1200 feet. We were over an hour coming home. The cause, a fuse burnt out. Letter from Reuchlin says that Herbert has engaged to teach six months at fifty dollars per month- five miles south."
Monday, August 9, 1910, ...."I connect at Richmond and get home a little after 6:00. Herbert Wright had come. Born Feb. 7, 1892 (Actually, 1893), in Kans. City. He begins school, Sept. 1, 1910." 
Saturday, January 17, 1914, ..."I wrote a letter to Herbert who had written me a nice birthday letter."
Friday, March 27, 1914, "It is a moderate day. I received a letter from Reuchlin to-day. Twenty-one from Baldwin City, including Herbert, started on a trip to California, the 23rd, to be gone about three weeks. Minnie Hanby, daughter of B.R. Hanby lives in Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles."
Monday, September 7, 1914, Editor of 'flying' took dinner with us. Winifred Ryder took supper with us. A letter from Reuchliln, the 4th, says that his motherinlaw Billheimer was that day seventy-nine years old. She is actively keeping house for Reuchlin while Lulu is visiting Herbert in Colorado."

Irene Matilda May was born in Colorado December 1895. Her sister Ruth was born February 1892. Irene and Ruth's father Thomas May died in 1909; Ruth was 17, and Irene was 14. The 1910 census indicates Ruth and Irene and their mother Bessie May, lived with Bessie's mother Sarah Devore. Sarah's occupation was indicated as housekeeper, and no occupations were listed for Bessie, Ruth, or Irene. The family lived at 501 East Myrtle Street, Independence City, Kansas. Ruth married Llewellyn (Lou) Campbell, and their daughter Elizabeth (Betty) Campbell was born in 1914. (Ruth and Lou's second daughter Sally was born 16 years later, in 1930).

In 1910, Herbert lived roughly 130 miles to the north of Irene's location, on the farm with his parents Reuchlin and Lulu, and sister Bertha in Stranger Township, Kansas. His sister Helen had married George Russel in 1908, and Helen and George's daughter Helen Louise Russel was born in 1909; their son George N Russel was born in 1915. (Helen and George's second daughter Elizabeth, was born in 1923).

A young Herbert Wright and Irene Matilda May, original photo from Author's collection. (1)

Herbert married Irene Matilda May on October 21, 1917. They enjoyed their "10-month honeymoon" but then Herbert entered the National Army on August 19, 1918, reporting at Kansas City, Kansas. He soon was shipped overseas, serving in France. During their time apart, Irene wrote her husband the following-
"Coming home in the car this morning we were talking about how we girls who have sweethearts & husbands at war must not sit down & wait until apres la querre, but be busy every minute they are gone. For you will all be different bigger men when you come back and we must keep up with you. After all there are so many big things in the world and its up to us- human beings- to do them. Grace said what would life be if it weren't for death- the flowers die that they might live again and I think that is a wonderful thing to remember for its so with people too, don't you think? If we have died to save someone else we have done the noblest thing in the world. I'm not figuring on dying honey, don't misunderstand me, but figuring on making each day you are gone, or that I live for that matter, count for something. I'm going to try to carry on the big things- love, service, and ambition etc., that when I die my life through our children may perpetuate." 

Irene Matilda May, late 1890's (1)

Letter to Herbert from Irene, September 29, 1918-
"I have the sweetest bunch of girls in my Sunday school class. It's Helen Bo's class I don't care how long she stays away for I'm getting to like them so much! They are all about nine years old and I think that is such an interesting age. Today they struck me to have a picnic so I told them I'd have it some time next week.....
When I hear some one talk of the hardships you fellows have to endure someone who has gone through it, my heart nearly breaks with sympathy for you but it has to be, and the sooner it ends, the better. 'Be of good courage and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.'

Irene on right with her ukulele. Likey shown with her sister Ruth(1).

More from Irene's September 29th letter-
"Oh sweet heart, I can't begin to tell you how happy I am. I just know I'm the luckiest girl in the U.S. Well, now I'll tell you why. Last Monday, Sept 30, Helen Robley called up & said she had just been to the post office & there was a letter in the box for me & if I'd start down she would walk toward me with it. It was about 7:00 P.M. & I was hurring to get dressed to go to French class & I didn't think the letter would amount to much (never dreaming I could hear from you so soon only two weeks after you sailed & its been at least three weeks before anybody from here received the boys letters) but I slipped on my dress & started up to meet her. When she handed me that message from King Geo. I recognized your hand-writing and said "Oh Helen, Herbert must have landed in England for this is his handwriting" and she said "Well is this?" and handed me your letter. Oh honey, words can't express that feeling that came over me & my hands shook so with excitement that I had to wait until I got home to open it. I hurried on home & read it & read it (I didn't get to French class till after eight)"

Letter to Herbert from Irene, October 5, 1918-
"I just stopped to admire my diamond & remember the day we got it etc. It gets brighter & prettier everyday and yes, more precious."
We had some excitement tonight. There is a special train of war relics & pictures etc. going around to boost the 4th Liberty Loan that starts this week and it was here tonight until 6 o'clock tomorrow morning. It was very interesting to see the kind of guns the Germans use also gas masks of French. American & German & shells & all sorts of relics like that and they had one of those baby tractors camouflaged to look like a tank & it went up & down Penn Ave and the home guards & machine gun company firing blank cartridges at it. It was quite thrilling. Mother and I decided we couldn't either of us afford to buy a liberty bond alone, so we're going to buy one together."

Letter to Herbert from Irene, October 6, 1918-
"Have you ever gotten the letter & money order your Father sent? (Herbert's father Reuchlin Wright)
We are going to have an awfully interesting church tonight: Herman Eivers is just back from France & he is going to give an address & Mr Small who expects to leave next week for France in (?) work is going to talk & the chair & congregation are going to sing all of the allies' national hymns & some patriotic songs. Oh, this is some patriotic town. You sure can't forget one minute that we are at war when you live here.
I'll send you today's Star, tomorrow (Sunday Oct 6th) It had some interesting stuff in it. Of course that Peace talk of Germany's & Austria's is only propaganda to check the Liberty Loan that starts this  week, but Germany or anybody will stop it for Independence is "over the top" in subscriptions already & the drive don't start until tomorrow."

A portion of October 11, 1918 letter from Irene to her husband Herbert. The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed 10's of millions worldwide. "On account of the influenza epidemic here all of the schools and picture shows, churches, and all public meetings are closed. Crowds of more than twenty-five are prohibited........ it spread to all of the camps and so many of the soldiers died from pneumonia as a result."
Herbert's sister Bertha Ellwyn, while visiting Orville and Katharine the summer of 1917 in their Hawthorn Hill home, tells the account "While there, I was one of the early victims of the World War I flu epidemic. Uncle Orv and Aunt Katharine were wonderful nurses, sitting by the hour putting cooling cloths on my head and bathing my wrists and hands. I was pretty sick for several weeks so they finally turned it over to a trained nurse."(5)

A portion of October 11, 1918 letter from Irene to her husband Herbert. Irene repeats an account of a German plane shot down by Allied planes. "He is a truck driver and there were just three on the truck and it was a pitch dark night but the plane spotted them and they drove into a place and soon discovered it was an underground railway tunnel so they stayed there until pretty soon they heard a crash and upon investigating they found a bunch of Allied planes had spotted the German plane and went after him and he and his plane fell 300 feet from where Pete was." Could Wilbur and Orville have  foreseen a coming World War with such an event involving airplanes just 15 years after their first flight in Kitty Hawk? A war that would involve their nephew who was just 10 years old when they first flew in December of 1903.

Letter to Herbert from Irene, October 14, 1918-
"Do you ever get to play a piano? I wonder about that so much.(3)Your being company clerk and corporal doesn't mean you get anymore than private's pay does it? I'm getting pretty anxious to hear from the U.S. treasury department. I expect you are too aren't you?
The letter finishes with the lines below:

Portion of last page of October 14, 1918 letter from Irene to Herbert, "Sometime when you have time just forget there's a war and write your wife a good old love letter. Will you?" Lovingly Irene (1). A very precious letter.

Irene wrote her husband the following on October 19, 1918-
"Well we're going to have a wedding anniversary in two days, Sweet heart. I wonder how you will celebrate it. With getting a bunch of mail I hope. You will probably be too busy to think about it much I 'spect. Oh honey, I won't. I'll relive every minute of that 21st day of October last year when you got here so early in the morning (before daylight do you mind?) and we sat down stairs and addressed envelopes and how happy we were! And then later in the morning we went to meet your folks and all ate dinner up at Ruth's...."

Below are pictured Lulu and Reuchlin Wright, Herbert's parents. Below this picture, Irene, and her sister Ruth share a moment.

Oldest brother of Wilbur and Orville Wright
Lulu and Reuchlin Wright, Herbert's "folks". Reuchlin passed away May 23rd, 1920, less than three months after the birth of his grandson Wilbur. (1)

Ruth May Campbell to the left of her sister Irene Wright. Ruth later states at this moment her mind was on her soldier instead of her sister Irene. Photo likely from 1918.(1)

More from Irene's October 19th letter-
"This influenza epidemic is terrible. The whole country is under a strict restriction tho' so they'll surely get it blotted out in a course of time. There are almost as many deaths in the camps as there are causalities from the active service. There are no picture shows, schools or churches or any kind of gatherings and everyone is staying close at home. Gladys Bo, who has been & still is working in Tulsa came home for over Sunday and she and Faye wanted the bunch to get together up at Ruth's tonight as John would be here too and Ruth said they could, but when Lou came home to dinner (Mother & I were there too) we all squelched it and said if there was a ban on parties etc to prohibit the spread of the decease then we ought to abide by it so Ruth said she hated to call Faye up & say she & the kids couldn't come down so Lou said he'd do it, so he did, which was the thing to do.
Wont' we have some reunion next spring when you come home?"

Prior to Herbert's return in the Spring of 1919, Madame Leon Bollee' contacted him, desiring to visit with him. Her husband Leon Bollee' had passed away in 1913.

From Wilbur Wright's Flights in France, Leon Bollee's Photographic Record 1908-1909, (4) "...Wilbur Wright's French admirers did not forget the bold American who, on their shores, demonstrated America's supremacy in the air. A memorial statue, which stands today beside the Le Mans Cathedral was dedicated in 1920....It was following this dedication of that memorial that the widowed Mme. Bollee' presented her album to Wilbur's younger brother, Orville Wright."

In Wright Reminiscences (5), Ivonette Wright Miller wrote "Madame Bollee' was the widow of Leon Bollee' who was so kind to Uncle Will when he was in France in 1908. Bollee' invited him to use space in his factory (where he manufactured automobiles) to assemble and store his plane. Uncle Will told Madame Bollee' that he would make his first flight in France on the day her baby was born." (That baby was named Elizabeth, and later, Countess Jean deVautibault).

Several notes were sent to Herbert in an attempt to arrange a time to meet.  On March 19th, "My Dear Mr. Wright, Madame Bollee' has been wondering what has happened to you, she quite expected to see you before this......Today I went to Ecommoy to ask, on behalf of Madame Bollee', a few days leave for you so that you could go to Paris. But I was told you had been granted 14 days leave to Beordeaux, Pau etc, & that you had not yet returned, but were expected to-morrow- I saw the chief of staff, Colonel Majer who undertook to tell me that it was not in the usual army regulations to allow you new leave when you had barely returned from the other. But if Madame Bollee' can arrange it, she will do so......"

March 17, 1919 letter to Herbert A. Wright in the interest of Madame Bollee', sent by H. B. Cheatle (1)

The above letter was followed by another 4 days later, "Dear Mr. Wright, I received your letter this morning & Madame Bollee' & I hope you enjoyed your trip down South! I was pleading the tale finely to Colonel Majer (your chief of Staff) & had just succeeded in awaking his pity when the phone message came through "the one in question is away now on leave of 14 days". 
Madame Bollee".....will speak to the Commanding General about a 48 hours leave for you, so that yo can see Paris before you return to the States....In any case let us know when you will be passing by Le Mans...."

March 21, 1919 letter to Herbert A. Wright in the interest of Madame Bollee', sent by H. B. Cheatle (1)

Short note written by Madame Leon Bollee' to Herbert A. Wright during his stay in France, 1919 (1).

Herbert returned safely, to enjoy the "reunion" Irene wrote of in her October 19th, 1918 letter. Irene traveled to Kansas City on May 4th to welcome the arrival of her husband.(11) The couple lived at 2904 Prospect Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri. Also living at this address was the Cameron family, Hugh and Elsie, with their teenage sons Danah and Herbert.(7)

On May 9th of 1919, Herbert and his sister Ellwyn participated in a musical at the Independence First Presbyterian Church, with Herbert playing piano and Ellwyn as soloist. "Miss Ellwyn Wright of Kansas City was the soloist for the evening....the selections rendered by Miss Wright...had been written by her brother, Herbert, who has just returned from service overseas. Both Mr. and Miss Wright are musicians of more than ordinary talent. The selections written by Mr. Wright and sang by Miss Wright, were 'The Robbin', and 'Sweet and Peaceful'. The piano solo played by Herbert, was also one of his own compositions." (12) After their visit in Independence with Irene's mother Bessy May, and Irene's sister Ruth Campbell, Herbert and Irene traveled to Dayton to visit Orville, Katharine, and Lorin's family.(13) 

Orville and Katharine came to McLouth, Kansas to attend a triple wedding held October 8th, 1919. "The wedding took place at the United Brethren church, the largest audience room in McLouth being well filled before the appointed hour of 3:30 p.m.....The pianist for the occasion was Mr. Herbert Wright, of Kansas City, brother of one of the brides...The couples were met at the altar by Rev. O. H. Deever, pastor of the United Brethren church, who pronounced the ceremony uniting first Irene Steeper and Dr. Schaeffer, then Lucile Steeper and Mr. Roos, and lastly Miss (Ellwyn) Wright and Harold Steeper." Others attending included of course, Reuchlin and Lulu Wright, Irene Wright, and Lulu's mother, Amanda Billheimer.(14)

In August of 1918, Irene had written "I'm going to try to carry on the big things- love, service, and ambition etc., that when I die my life through our children may perpetuate." She had spoken in faith of the children she and Herbert would raise, but as yet, were unborn. The couple were soon blessed with the birth of a son. Weeks after Wilbur's birth, the family moved to 2923 Agnes Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri. Wilbur Herbert Wright, born to Herbert and Irene Wright on February 28th, 1920, was named after his famous Great Uncle Wilbur Wright. His sister Katharine, who would be born on November 10th, 1922, would be named after her Great Aunt Katharine Wright.

Irene Matilda Wright, Wilbur, and Herbert A. Wright (1).

Birth announcement for Wilbur Herbert Wright (1).

Wilbur H. Wright (1)

The letter below was sent by Herbert's Great Aunt Lizzie Collier, on his mother's side. Ruth Elizabeth Hanby was born November 26, 1849, in Circleville, Pickaway, Ohio. Her father, Herbert's Great Grandfather, was Bishop William Handby of the United Brethren Church of Christ. Her sister, Herbert's Grandmother, Amanda Handby Billheimer, was still living at this time.(6)

Dear Niece and Nephew, Let me congratulate you upon the event that was heralded in a dainty little pink and white card. Consider the little fellow a gift from God and train him up to be a good christian man, and your work will be something worth while. With love from us all- your Aunt, Lizzie Collier. Wish I could see a picture of the 3 of you. (1)

Bishop William Hanby's son Benjamin Russel Hanby (composer of "Up on the Rooftop") had a daughter named Minnie (Minnehaha) Hanby, born in 1862. She married Frederick Jones in 1891. Minnie wrote Wilbur a note in 1920 "Dear little Wilbur, We were all glad to hear of your safe arrival on this planet of ours. We are hoping that your stay here may be long and happy. I am particularly hoping that you will be like your dear father whom I had the pleasure of seeing for a little while. You cannot choose a better example of manhood. And do be musical, Wilbur. It means so much fine pleasure to yourself and others. Give my love to your father, also to your mother though I have never had the pleasure of seeing her. Ever affectionately, Cousin Minnie H. J." 
Perhaps when Milton Wright mentioned in his diary March 27, 1914, "...Twenty-one from Baldwin City, including Herbert, started on a trip to California, the 23rd, to be gone about three weeks. Minnie Hanby, daughter of B.R. Hanby lives in Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles.", this may have been the timing of when Minnie met Herbert,  "your dear father whom I had the pleasure of seeing for a little while".

Note to Wilbur H Wright from Cousin Minnie Hanby Jones, granddaughter of William Hanby.(1)

From a humorous congratulatory letter from March 1920, written to Herbert and Irene from a family friend, addressed to their newborn son, a clue is provided as to where Herbert and Irene first met, though the circumstances are not clear- "Dear little Wilbur Herbert, I was indeed glad to receive the announcement of your arrival. I know you must be glad to be here, I hope you like your home........I hope you will be a very good boy, and not make your Grandmother May sorry they did not send you back and order a girl in your place. We hope you can come out to Colo. this summer and see all us, I know you would be interested in the place where you Mother lived when she was a little girl, and where your Father and Mother first met....
P.S. I wanted to say further that I approve of your name"- A.B.M.
The letter was sent by Annie B. and Francis Merrick from 6 Cheyenne Blvd, Colorado Springs, Co.

The young couple were provided gifts for Wilbur by family and friends. A blanket was given by Grandma Devore, Wilbur's great grandmother on his mother's side. Mother May, Irene's mother, gave a carriage robe. Herbert's sisters Helen Margaret (Helen Russel) and Bertha Ellwyn (Ellwyn Steeper) are on the list. Herbert's Aunt Katharine Wright gave two hand made dresses and booties. Herbert's mother Lulu Billheimer Wright is listed as Mother W. Irene's sister Ruth, and Ruth's daughter Betty are listed. Orville and Katharine Wright's housekeeper Carrie Grumbach is listed as Aunt Carrie, gifting a pillow. In the early 1920's and before, pink was the color associated with baby boys, and baby boys wore dresses (easier during potty training).

Gift list of family members and friends welcoming Wilbur into the world (1).

Sadly, the celebration of Wilbur's birth was followed by the funeral of Herbert's father Reuchlin Wright, who passed away on May 23, 1920. Reuchlin had suffered a stroke on May 17th, but seemed to be recovering, until hit by a second stroke. His obituary indicated he had been "employed by the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis railroad for about 10 years. He afterward took up farming at Tonganoxie, Kansas, and retired after two years of farm life. He moved to Lawrence, Kansas, and then, after a two year's stay, returned to Kansas City."(8)

Young Wilbur H. Wright and cousin Betty Campbell. Betty was Irene's sister Ruth's daughter. Betty and Wilbur had just returned from attending Sunday School. Betty had received the parasol on her birthday (July 22). This photo likely dates to Summer of 1922. Wilbur's sister Katharine would be born November 10 of that year. (1) 
Wilbur H. Wright (1)

Irene and son Wilbur H. Wright (1)
By 1925, the family had moved to 3501 East Waterman Street, Wichita, Kansas. Orville Wright's sister Katharine married Henry (Harry) J Haskell, associate editor of the Kansas City Star on November 20th of 1926, and moved to Kansas City from Dayton, where Harry lived. In a January 13, 1928 letter written by Harry to Griffith Brewer, he mentioned that Lulu Wright and her three children and their families had visited Katharine and Harry in Kansas City over Christmas. (9) This would have been quite a gathering, including Lulu Wright, Helen and George Russel and children Helen, George, and Elizabeth; Bertha and Harold Steeper and children Margaret and Charles; and Herbert and Irene and children Wilbur and Katharine.

On January 2nd, 1931, Irene was driving near Howard, Kansas, with both Wilbur and Katharine in the car, when a tire blew. The vehicle overturned, severely injuring Irene, but sparing the children. Irene was taken to a hospital in Wichita, where she died four days later, at the age of 35. Wilbur turned 11 years old on his birthday the following month. His sister Katharine was just 8 years old when her mother died.(10)

The story continues in my next post- Raising Wilbur H. Wright

Related Posts-

Index of Topics

Revisions- Letter from Minnie Hanby Jones to Wilbur added 7/10/17
                  Letters of March 17 and 21, 1919 in the interest of Madame Bollee' added 7/12/17
                  Details of Irene's car accident added 4/20/19
                  Additional details from news stories added 4/27/19, 4/30/19


1. Photos and letters from my personal collection. Most photos are likely one of a kind. I have not seen this specific photo of Reuchlin and Lulu published elsewhere. Pleased to have temporary possession of it.
2. Diaries 1857-1917 Bishop Milton Wright- Wright State University Libraries, Dayton, Ohio 1999.
3. Concerning Irene's wondering if Herbert had been able to play the piano while away- Herbert Wright's obituary mentioned the following "Funeral services were held yesterday for Herbert Wright, 67, nephew of air pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright. A native of Kansas City, Mo., the former concert musician lived in Wichita, Kan. for 30 years and came here in 1952. Wright died at Riverside Community hospital Sunday after being stricken with a heart attack at his home..........On the death of the Wright brother's sister, Katharine (Mrs. Henry J. Haskell), a relative here said today, Orville Wright presented her concert grand piano from his home, Hawthorn Hill, to his nephew, Herbert Wright."
4. Wilbur Wright's Flights in France, Leon Bollee's Photographic Record 1908-1909, edited by Stanley W Kandebo and Dawne Dewey, Images from Wright State University Libraries, 2003.
5. Wright Reminiscences, compiled by Ivonette Wright Miller, 1978, published by The Air Force Museum Foundation, Inc. WPAFB
6. Milton Wright mentions Lulu visiting her Aunt Lizzie in his diary entry of Saturday October 28, 1916, "Lulu went to her Aunt Lizzie's, at Ravenna, Ohio. Reuchlin went to Lorin's and remained over Sunday, till eve."
7. From 1920 Census, and also from addressed envelopes to the family March of 1920. Their address changed just weeks after the birth of Wilbur.
8. The Kansas City Times (Missouri) Monday, May 24, 1920. 
9. Harry Haskell, grandson of Katharine's husband, Harry Haskell, graciously provided this information to me at my inquiry of any documented account of a visitation between Katharine Wright and her grand niece Katharine Wright. Harry is author of "Maiden Flight, a novel" 2017, 
10. The Manhattan Mercury, Wednesday, January 7, 1931. 
11. The Independence Daily Reporter, May 5, 1919, Local News.
12. The Independence Daily Reporter, May 10, 1919.
13. The Independence Daily Reporter, May 21, 1919, City and County News.
14. The Wathena Times, October 24, 1919, "A Triple Wedding".