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Aviator's stunt part of courthouse's story

It's not just urban legend Milton Sandy Jr. obtained a photo showing that Roscoe Turner, as the story goes, did, indeed, drive a car up the courthouse steps.

(Editor's note: In anticipation of the Alcorn County Courthouse 100th anniversary event at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Milton Sandy Jr. shares a rare photo and a story of aviator Roscoe Turner driving a car up the courthouse steps.)

I have been searching for this photograph of pioneer aviator Roscoe Turner for 25 years. I knew it had to exist but I long ago gave up hope of ever finding it. The picture to me tells quite a story.

This photo was taken sometime between 1923-1925 when Roscoe would have been about 28 or 29 years old, a young man destined to set many aviation records, become nationally known, travel to Hollywood and mix and mingle with celebrities around the world. Roscoe's career was always a struggle to overcome his lack of financial resources. His ideas for the future always left him scrambling for capital and investors. You can see such excitement and wonder in the crowd of faces both at the automobile, at the central figure of the young man confidently standing beside his vehicle, and at the sheer novelty of what was happening in front of their eyes. This was not an era of television, animation or computer graphics, you just didn't see stuff like this every day or even in a lifetime. You also didn't get your picture taken all the time.

No doubt this picture shows Roscoe among people he related to in a very basic fashion, yet he stood apart with very different aspirations and visions for the future. The earliest family picture I've ever seen of Roscoe shows him with his brother plowing mules in a field, barefooted and in farm work clothes, as many of the young boy spectators in the crowd on the steps of the courthouse are dressed. This event probably took place on a Saturday on court square in downtown Corinth. In my lifetime, I remember the courthouse square and surrounding area was always abuzz on Saturdays with the courthouse central to a hub of retail activity and crowds of people — primarily farmers and their families from the countryside, who came to town on Saturday to shop. It was always a spectacle with preachers holding forth on street corners to whittlers sitting on benches shaving endless piles of fragrant cedar shavings around their feet. There was a smell of humanity there as well from a time when bathing and personal cleanliness was not the same frequency or standards as today. When I was growing up in the 1950's, school buses were used on Saturdays to transport many people who did not own cars to town, arriving early in the morning and returning late in the afternoon. I'm sure the majority of the people in this picture arrived by walking or by horse, buggy or wagon.

In 1993, Roscoe Turner's only sister, Mary Emma Turner Whitaker (22 Dec 1918- 9 Jul 2001), contacted me and asked me to help Col. C.V. Glines, a well-known military history author, research information about Roscoe Turner's early life in Corinth. Col. Glines had been commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution Press to write a biography of Roscoe Turner. Mary Emma was 18 years younger than her famous brother and was an infant or young child during most of Roscoe's early life in Corinth. Her son, Cecil McCarley "Mack" Whitaker (24 Aug 1943- 14 Apr 1994), had been a friend of mine in high school. What is amazing to me is that Mack told some amazing stories during our high school years about his uncle "Roscoe" which we all took with a grain of salt at the time. I was later amazed to find that most of his stories were true and Mack didn't even know some of the best ones. Regrettably, I never personally met Roscoe Turner while he was alive.

From 1993 until the Smithsonian biography of Roscoe Turner was published in 1995, my late wife Stephanie, myself and our son, David, enjoyed a historical adventure back into another era when airplanes and autos were just emerging from early inventions into vehicles of importance in everyday life. Before the internet, much of our research was done by traveling, visiting libraries and searching microfilm copies of old newspapers. The resulting biography, "Roscoe Turner — Aviation's Master Showman," was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press,Washington, DC, in 1995, ISBN 1-56098-456-2. Everything in the first two chapters of the book about Roscoe's early life in Corinth was based on our research.

While researching Roscoe Turner's early life in Corinth, both Stephanie and I had heard the story behind this picture from numerous sources. In Stephanie's journal she records a telephone call, July 27, 1993, from Frances (Griffin) Abernathy (Mrs. John R. Abernathy), Harper Road in Corinth. "Mrs. Abernathy called to say she remembered Roscoe Turner driving a car up the courthouse steps. She said she was born in Corinth in 1917, making her 76 years old. Although a young child at the time, she vividly remembered Roscoe Turner driving up the Alcorn County Courthouse steps. She also remembered the 1924 December downtown fire. Her father had a grocery business on the lot that is now Biggers Appliance (now 606 Cruise Street)."

In every case, we always asked the person relaying the story if they had a picture, had ever seen a picture or knew anyone who might have a picture of this event. In my mind, I knew a photograph had to exist. Roscoe would have ensured that a stunt of this magnitude was recorded for posterity and maximum publicity. His uncle was sheriff at the time and his father worked as a deputy sheriff part-time, so I don't think he was worried about getting in any legal difficulties. Newspapers at the time rarely ran photographs because the letterpress printing process required an elaborate and expensive engraving to be made which would have taken several days and required the photograph to be sent to Memphis. This photograph has great detail and sharpness which seems unlikely the work of an amateur in the crowd. The photograph was obviously carefully composed with Roscoe Turner standing confidently beside the automobile with the crowd parted, an advertisement clearly on the side of the climbing automobile, and a sizable crowd of spectators eagerly looking on. My friend Bill Jackson noted the early Mississippi dealer license tag, likely 1923 or 1924, and identifies the model car as the Gray Touring car.

The most likely photographer was Walter F. McCord, whose studio in the 1920's was upstairs directly across the street from the courthouse. Before her death, I purchased several early photographs of Roscoe Turner from his daughter, Zelma Katherine McCord, who had continued her father's business after his death, but she was never aware of a picture of this event. I largely quit looking for Roscoe Turner memorabilia after the biography was published in 1995, but, in 2017, I noticed a listing on eBay for a family album mostly with family pictures that I recognized as Roscoe Turner that I had never seen. The seller had purchased it at a flea market in Arizona from, I suspect, deceased in-laws of Roscoe Turner from his first wife, Carline Hunter Stovall Turner. When I received the album, I was elated to find the picture of Roscoe driving up the courthouse steps, which I had been searching for 25 years to find.

Throughout Roscoe's life, his defining character was his flair for showmanship and his ability to generate publicity for himself and his ventures. This picture at the very start of his career illustrates his ability to gather attention in innovative, crowd-pleasing acts that set him apart from his contemporaries. No doubt, in his earlier barnstorming days, before returning to Corinth, he had also developed a flair and crowd-pleasing personality, while hawking rides and performing stunts with his partner primarily in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

A young and struggling Roscoe Turner had returned to Corinth in 1922 and secured a dealership with Gray Motor Corporation, a somewhat obscure automobile manufacturer that had formerly manufactured marine engines. The automobile industry was in its infancy during this time period. Henry Ford began building cars in 1896 along with many other small-scale automobile companies. Ford opened his own company in 1903 and built the first mass-production assembly line in 1913. The Model T first priced at $850 dropped to $290 by 1924, making automobiles much more affordable for the average person. The Gray was an automobile manufactured in Detroit, Michigan, by the Gray Motor Corporation from 1922-1926 which was an attempt to win a share of the mass market dominated by Ford's Motel T. Early models of the Gray were priced at $490. Apparently the primary selling point for the Gray was its fuel economy and ability to climb hills where the Model T sometimes suffered. Roscoe Turner often drove vehicles on test drives up Turner hill where his boyhood home was located to demonstrate the vehicle's abilities, but the most memorable visual and physical proof which persisted in memories and stories told long after was captured in this photograph on the courthouse steps.

Roscoe Turner was a young man from Corinth, Mississippi, who achieved legendary fame during the period between W.W.I and W.W.II, which is now referred to as the Golden Age of Aviation. Roscoe was born on a farm near the Jones Community (now called Gift) in Alcorn County on September 29, 1895. His parents were Robert Lee Turner and Mary Aquilla Derryberry. He was the first-born of eight children, six of whom (five brothers and one sister) survived to adulthood.

Around 1902, the family moved to West Corinth to a home site thereafter known as Turner Hill. Roscoe attended the Glover School, a one-room schoolhouse, during most of his educational career. Roscoe said that he finished the 10th grade there and then tried a stint at a business college in Corinth. Roscoe's father was a farmer and part-time deputy sheriff for his wife's father, who was sheriff of Alcorn County during this time period.

Roscoe left home around 1913, after a disagreement with his father, to seek his fortune in the big city. Boarding with his aunt, Mollie Bailey, in Memphis, Tennessee, he obtained a job as chauffeur for Frank F. Hill, president of Union & Planters Bank. In 1915, Roscoe resided at the Hill Mansion, 1400 Union Avenue, in Memphis. During this time, Roscoe undoubtedly got a taste of a lifestyle far different from his background in the country. By 1917, Roscoe's experience and interest in automobiles led him to a position as a mechanic for Jerome P. Parker-Harris Co., distributors for Packard trucks in the Memphis/Mid-South area.

In later years, Roscoe stated the first airplane he ever saw was flown by Katherine Stinson, a famous aviatrix of her day, at the Memphis Fairgrounds. In 1916, Katherine Stinson lit up the night skies of Memphis in a spectacular exhibition at the Tri-State Fair. Thousands witnessed this slight girl skillfully fly her massive military plane with magnesium flares attached to the wing tips. From that moment on, Roscoe's ambitions took a distinct skyward direction.

In 1916, Roscoe tried to enlist in the Army aviation section, but was turned down because of his lack of a college degree. When war was declared in April 1917, Roscoe enlisted on May 25, 1917, in the medical department in Memphis. He was assigned to the ambulance service as a driver. After being sworn in, he was sent to Ft. Riley, Kansas, where he was promoted to sergeant on August 25, 1917. In November 1917, he was accepted as a cadet in the Army Signal Corps, aviation section, and was sent to Camp John Wise, San Antonio, Texas, for training as an aerial balloon observer. On March 19, 1918, he completed the course and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He sailed from Newport News, Virginia, on September 29, 1918, for Brest, France. He completed balloon training in France as the war ended and was assigned to the Third Army, which moved into occupied Germany. He returned to the United States and was discharged as a First Lieutenant on September 4, 1919.

In the fall of 1919, Roscoe met an Army Air Service pilot, Lt. Harry J. Runser, from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Runser owned a Canadian surplus Jenny aircraft and had started on a barnstorming tour when he had an accident near Memphis. Roscoe was a skilled mechanic, knew how to parachute jump, wanted to learn wing-walking, and, most importantly, had $500 cash to put into a new partnership. Together Runser & Turner toured from late 1919 until early 1922, performing at county fairs and expositions, primarily in North and South Carolina. Business prospered, and in April 1920, they sold the Jenny and purchased a three-seat Avro aircraft. Since there were few airports anywhere at that time, an advance man was hired to handle bookings and to line up suitable fields for landing.

One of the other local events widely recalled in Roscoe's career occurred in October 1921. Runser and Turner came to Corinth and Roscoe parachuted from an airplane over the old high school, the present-day site of the post office. A week later, they went to Memphis where they had an engagement to perform the "CRASH" at the fairgrounds. In this stunt, Runser flew a Jenny into a specially constructed house with a wide front door. Roscoe parachuted from the diving plane as Runser continued downward and zoomed straight through the front door. The wings of the plane and the house were destroyed. Shortly thereafter, the partnership terminated as well. Runser left for Danville, Illinois, to start a flying school and Roscoe returned to Corinth where he opened an automobile repair shop in partnership with Earl E. Cobb around August 1922. While still selling airplane rides and giving flying lessons, Roscoe worked as a mechanic and sold Gray automobiles for the next three years. After 1926, Roscoe Turner's career led him to places and events that are recorded in the history books far from Corinth, Mississippi, but this photograph brings back his connections to the Alcorn County Courthouse on its 100th birthday.

© 2018 Milton Sandy Jr.