Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Who Helped Build the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By all accounts, Emily Roebling had an exceptional mind. Born Emily Warren on September 23, 1843, in Cold Spring, New York, she graduated with top honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she excelled in science and algebra. But in the mid-19th century, a woman entering those fields was almost unheard of—the more acceptable path for her would have been settling into the standard life of raising children in the tiny Hudson Valley community where she was born. Thankfully for the sake of New York City's iconic skyline, Emily was anything but standard.

The Warren family had been part of the Cold Spring community for generations. Its most famous member was Emily's brother, who found a place in history books as General Gouverneur Warren, a prominent Civil War figure who also helped create some of the best maps of the land west of the Mississippi River for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

It was while Emily was visiting her brother during the war that she met Washington Roebling. The son of John Roebling—an engineer responsible for a number of prominent suspension bridges in Niagara Falls, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh—Washington himself was a civil engineer serving underneath Gouverneur at the time. He and Emily soon began a feverish courtship that ended with their marriage in January 1865, less than a year after they first met, and just months before the war's end.

It was only a few years later that John Roebling took on the biggest job of his career: the creation of a suspension bridge that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan. Originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, the project would eventually just be known as the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the late 19th century.

Washington and Emily were involved in the project from the start. In 1867, John Roebling sent the young couple to Europe so Washington could study the techniques used on some of the most notable bridges in France, England, and Germany, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, and the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.

Most importantly, Washington was to study the caisson technique, which had originated in Europe decades earlier. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction—built so that water could be kept out of them to provide a dry working environment, they gave engineers the ability to build underwater on sites that were once totally inaccessible.

Sadly, John Roebling's work on the Brooklyn Bridge would be short-lived: An injury sustained while scouting construction locations in 1869 proved fatal, leaving the project in Washington's hands. Luckily, the time spent in Europe had prepared him well.

As with any construction process, Washington knew he had to focus on the foundations—the caissons, which would become the base of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge towers. These took the form of mammoth, bottomless boxes of wood and iron that were piled with large granite blocks to sink them through the muddy ground toward bedrock. As the caissons slowly sunk to their destination, workers entered through a shaft at the top and excavated the riverbed until they hit stable ground. Each caisson was pumped full of compressed air to allow the workers to remove the mud and gravel, and when it settled into its final location, it was filled with concrete. The men who built the caissons worked around the clock in hideous conditions, with most of them earning around $2 a day.

In 1872, as construction on the bridge was well underway, tragedy again struck the Roebling family. Many of the men working in the highly pressurized caissons were becoming cripplingly ill, and even dying, due to an ailment that wasn't yet understood. It was known as "caisson disease," soon to be called "the bends," a potentially deadly reaction to changes in pressure. This was a time before the principles of decompression were fully fleshed out, and Washington's penchant for appearing deep underground with his workers—sometimes staying inside for longer than a typical shift—led him to come down with the affliction. It eventually induced cramps, hindered his eyesight, and threw off his equilibrium, leaving him in near-constant pain. Though he would live for another 50 years, he would never recover (although the extent to which the bends were to blame for all of his troubles is debated).

Portrait of Washington Roebling
Washington Roebling
Théobald Chartran, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Washington stayed on the project, but during the rest of the construction he observed progress through a telescope from his bedroom window on Brooklyn's Columbia Street. To communicate orders to his assistant engineers, Emily would write down detailed notes from her husband and give them to the various departments. She was his eyes and ears at the site, while doubling as nurse and confidant.

Soon enough, there were rumblings that Emily was doing much more than simply parroting information given by her husband. She was gaining a keen understanding of the engineering of the bridge and was able to speak to Roebling's assistant engineers on their level. As historian David McCullough says in his book The Great Bridge, "In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years he had been incapacitated."

McCullough stresses that Emily never took over for Washington as the bridge's chief engineer, but the rumors at the time said otherwise [PDF]. A New York Times article published in 1883 quoted a source close to the family as saying, "Since her husband's unfortunate illness, Mrs. Roebling has filled his position as chief in engineering staff."

While the news about a woman at the helm of one of the most significant construction projects in New York history must have sold newspapers, according to McCullough, it also led to whisperings about the mental condition of her husband. Washington's illness was still a mystery to most, and it led to speculation he'd given Emily a larger role in the construction only because he was losing his mind. But while people on the outside were worrying, those closest to the project knew Emily's worth was immeasurable, despite not having the formal education of her husband or father-in-law. She was even becoming an "idolized figure" among assistant engineers, McCullough writes.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
George Bradford Brainerd, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Histories of the Brooklyn Bridge are filled with anecdotes highlighting the importance of Emily during this time. One of the most well-known took place when representatives of a steel mill appeared on the Roeblings' doorstep to ask Washington a question about how a part of the superstructure should be formed. Only they didn't get to see Washington; instead, Emily invited them inside and sketched out the specs herself. Her quick decision-making had, according to the Times, "cleared away difficulties that had for weeks been puzzling their brains."

But Emily's job stretched far beyond her burgeoning engineering know-how. She was heavily involved in the politics of the bridge, at one point successfully lobbying for her husband when the bridge company was to vote on his ouster due to absence. And when rumors emerged that one contractor was trying to renegotiate their contract, the company sent a letter of reassurance addressed to Emily Roebling, not Washington.

For all her work on the bridge, Emily was still a doting wife, and stayed vigilant about protecting her husband's health and privacy. She made sure that visitors were rare, including Washington's own assistant engineers, and that no interviews were conducted from the bed where he was so vulnerable.

After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly ready for its unveiling in May 1883. A week and a half before the official opening, the engineers wanted to test the new structure with an inaugural carriage ride. Everyone agreed the first rider to cross the bridge should be Emily—and she did so with a rooster on her lap, a symbol of victory, as the workers and other onlookers removed their hats and cheered her on.

At the official unveiling ceremonies on May 24, hundreds of thousands of people rushed over to celebrate the completion of the bridge that would forever alter Manhattan and Brooklyn, two separate cities on the path to becoming one. President Chester A. Arthur was among the guests, as was the governor of New York (and future president) Grover Cleveland. There was music and fireworks so dazzling they could be seen in New Jersey. Though Emily stayed for a few of the speeches, she enjoyed much of the opening day at the home her husband had been confined to for years.

It's possible that Washington Roebling never stepped foot on the bridge that he dedicated his life to. It was the bridge that killed his father and left him in constant pain, but that also helped Emily Roebling contribute to a world of engineering otherwise inaccessible to her. Today, her contributions are far from forgotten, and, along with her husband and father-in-law, she is immortalized on a plaque on the Brooklyn-side tower, which reads:

THE BUILDERS OF THE BRIDGE
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
EMILY WARREN ROEBLING
1843 - 1903
WHOSE FAITH AND COURAGE HELPED HER STRICKEN HUSBAND
COL. WASHINGTON A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1837 - 1926
COMPLETE THE CONSTRUCTION OF THIS BRIDGE
FROM THE PLANS OF HIS FATHER
JOHN A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1805 - 1869
WHO GAVE HIS LIFE TO THE BRIDGE

“BACK OF EVERY GREAT WORK WE CAN FIND
THE SELF-SACRIFICING DEVOTION OF A WOMAN"

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

Lydia Locke, the Early 20th Century Opera Singer With a Life Ripped From the Tabloids

Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.
Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.

If the events of Lydia Locke's life ever became the inspiration for an opera, the plot would probably get accused of being over the top.

Locke rose to prominence in the early 1900s, when mass celebrity was still a relatively new concept. But the American soprano embraced the label, making news both for her performances at the world’s most prestigious venues and for her fashion choices. Yet it was her tumultuous personal life that garnered the most attention: Between seven marriages, two dead husbands, and one fraudulent baby, her life was scandalous even by the standards of today's news.

'Til Death Do Us Part

Lydia Locke was born into a humble household in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1886. She started performing on stage as a teenager, and had reached full-fledged stardom by her early twenties. As a young adult, she performed at Oscar Hammerstein’s London Opera House and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She maintained an extravagant persona off-stage, with magazines writing about where she traveled on vacation and what she wore to the latest party at the Ritz-Carlton.

There was a messy love life hiding behind the glamorous image. Around age 22, Locke married her first husband, 43-year-old Reginald W. Talbot, in Reno, Nevada. Their marriage was stormy from the start. Talbot, who had already been married three times before, was a gambler who had hoped for a wife that would make home life a peaceful contrast to his time at the casino. Locke wasn’t interested in becoming a model of domesticity, and after a year of arguing over the matter, Talbot beat her brutally one night.

They met with Locke’s divorce lawyer the next morning, but having a third person in the room did little to defuse the tension. They started arguing, Talbot became violent, and Locke retaliated by pulling a pistol from her fur muff and shooting her husband three times.

Reginald Talbot died in the lawyer’s office, and Locke was charged with his murder. The prosecution attempted to paint her as an amoral killer, but thanks to testimony of Talbot’s abuse from the house staff, as well as Locke's sweet voice and good looks, she won over the jury. They even applauded when the singer was acquitted.

A Honeymoon Cut Short

Now single, Locke redirected her energy into her professional life, performing in operas in Paris and Chicago. But it didn’t take long for her to find husband No. 2. Orville Harrold was a former hearse driver from Muncie, Indiana, and an opera tenor who worked for Oscar Hammerstein. He was also married. That didn’t stop him from falling for Locke, and a few days after finalizing his divorce from his wife back home, he married Locke in 1913. He told publications that his new wife was “one of the greatest things in my life. Lydia is of intellectual assistance to me. She possesses an amiable and loving disposition.”

His bride, meanwhile, declared her commitment in interviews. "Woman is spoiled," she said. "So many of her sex have demanded affection and given nothing in return for so long that she hasn't awakened to the fact that the ideal companionship of man and woman must consist of equal parts of affection, sacrifice, and sympathy."

Despite these optimistic words, the honeymoon phase didn’t even last through the literal honeymoon. The pair went to Italy after the wedding. As Jim Logan, superintendent of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—where Locke is buried—tells Atlas Obscura, Locke shot at Harrold with a gun on the trip; it's not entirely clear why. Lucky for him, her aim wasn’t as sharp as it had been the last time she pointed a pistol at a spouse. Their union somehow continued for several more years, likely aided by the fact that Harrold’s work took him around the world and out of the immediate path of his wife’s rage. When he wasn’t around, Locke found other outlets for her temper, including punching a chauffeur over 25 cents and brawling with a maid over eight days’ rent.

Eventually her second marriage did end, this time in divorce instead of death. The legal process was still underway when Locke met the man who was to become her third husband: A wealthy organ company president named Arthur Marks. The pair wed around 1918, not long after her divorce from Harrold went through.

A Hefty Bribe and a Stolen Baby

The marriage to Marks turned out to be one of the opera singer’s longer romantic entanglements, and arguably the one that most closely resembled a soap opera. The couple stayed married for six years, and even adopted a son together, before the union proved too much for her husband. Suffering from severe exhaustion, Marks checked into a sanitarium around 1924, where he was promptly badgered by calls from his wife. The doctor spoke with her, and following their conversation, told Marks: “You’d better pack up. I can’t do anything for you. What you need is a divorce.”

The exact details that led to this breaking point are unclear, but after the couple officially split in 1924, things got much uglier. Locke continued to pester her ex-husband by calling him on the phone at all hours. He couldn’t take it anymore, and offered her a deal: He would pay her $100,000 on top of the $300,000 alimony she had already received if she agreed not to contact him for at least a year.

The arrangement didn’t last long. She broke the agreement and reached out after six months, but only because she had news she thought Marks would want to hear. She told him she had given birth since they saw each other last, and claimed that he was the father. Anticipating any doubts he might have, she showed up with a birth certificate, affidavits, and an actual baby to prove it.

Arthur Marks was prepared to support his alleged child, but knowing his former wife too well, he hired private detectives to investigate the matter further. His suspicions were confirmed: The child wasn’t his. And it wasn’t Locke’s either; she had “borrowed” the baby from the Willow Maternity Hospital in Kansas City under a fake name and forged the birth certificate. When the police came to collect the infant, she admitted that she “made an error somehow” and avoided any criminal charges.

"Like a Vamp in the Movies"

Lydia Locke was around 38 years old during her interlude with the stolen infant, and the second half of her life was no less exciting than the first. After discovering that Marks had married one of her former friends, she sent him a “poison pen” letter filled with descriptions of his new wife's behavior too salacious for newspapers to publish. She was indicted by a federal grand jury for spreading obscene accusations through the mail and sued by Mark's wife for defamation. Locke showed little remorse. She painted herself as a victim and her ex-husband as the villain when speaking to newspapers. "This is a frame-up," she said. "I will be completely vindicated and that man—that man; I'll see that he is properly punished for this." Though she was never "completely vindicated" in the eyes of the public, neither case made it to trial.

Meanwhile, Locke had found a new husband in her personal assistant, Harry Dornblaser. Husband No. 4 was out of the picture almost immediately, skipping out on their honeymoon in Europe and turning up dead from apparent suicide in a cabin in Cleveland, Ohio, a few months later.

Her next husband was a former Balkan count she married in 1927 and divorced in the 1930s. Her last wedding, to businessman and real estate tycoon Irwin Rose, was listed on her marriage certificate as her seventh—indicating there had been a sixth marriage after the count, though the identity of this mystery groom remains unknown.

The seventh time proved to be the charm for Lydia Locke. The pair moved into a mansion on Locke’s 1000-acre estate in Yorktown, New York, and ran an inn together on the property. Following 12 years of marriage—a personal record for her—she died in 1966 at age 82.

By the end of her life, Lydia Locke’s media reputation had transformed from fabulous socialite to a woman who was “like a vamp in the movies” and “veteran of the divorce wars." Following her death, she did receive a little recognition for something other than her love life: In 1968, one of the concert gowns that made her a fashion icon was displayed at the Davenport House [PDF] museum in Yorktown. But even in today’s age of nonstop celebrity gossip coverage, Locke is remembered, above all else, for her scandals.

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