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The Death of Wilber Wright

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Wilbur Wright

This is the poem that Frank J. Gilbert, president of the Board of the "Ten Dayton Boys Club" wrote for Wilbur Wright's funeral.

Oct. 12, 1912

A funeral wreath in the shape of a Wright Model B Flyer. The wreath is inscribed with "Our President, From the Factory."

Funeral wreath for Wilbur Wright

Wilbur returned from a trip to Boston on May 2, 1912. During the trip Wilbur was ill, and while he was healthier, his family noted he was still not himself. On the afternoon of his return, he, Orville, and Katharine, along with their nephew Milton, went on a picnic at the site of their new home. That evening, Wilbur complained of a fever, and the family called Dr. D.B. Conklin. Dr. Conklin diagnosed Wilbur with malarial fever. The fever did not stop Wilbur from going to the Huffman Prairie Flying Field on May 4, 1912, or writing a letter to Frederick Fish, The Wright Company patent attorney. But this activity proved too much for Wilbur, and his father recorded in his diary that Wilbur suffered from a high fever on the evening of May 4, and he called Dr. Conklin once again. As the fever progressed, Dr. Conklin began thinking that Wilbur suffered from typhoid fever instead of malaria.

Wilbur developed full blown typhoid fever over the next several days. Wilbur, knowing that his health was failing, sent for Ezra Kuhns, a lawyer who was Orville's high school classmate. With Kuhns as the witness, Wilbur dictated his will to Mabel Beck, his secretary, who formerly worked for Knabenshue when he managed the exhibition team.

Wilbur continued to fight the fever, and assured that his brother was in no immediate danger, Orville left for Washington on May 16 to deliver an airplane. When his brother fell unconscious two days later, Orville immediately returned to Dayton to be at his bedside. Dr. Conklin and Dr. Spitler, the physician who treated Orville's bout with typhoid in 1896, prescribed opiates to treat the fever. When Wilbur's condition failed to improve, the two doctors called in a specialist from Cincinnati.

To assist in caring for Wilbur, the family hired two nurses. Miss Nellie Sullivan was the first nurse they hired, and she was followed shortly thereafter by Miss Marie Sheets. The two nurses worked eight-hour shifts. Miss Sullivan shared the information that Wilbur was rarely conscious, but during her shifts she could revive him to take nourishment and medicine through a medicine dropper.

Wilbur's prognosis continued to go up and down. Some days he appeared to be better and, then the following day, he would be worse. As Wilbur's illness progressed and his condition became more grave, the citizens of Dayton carefully followed the state of his health in the local newspapers. Detailed reports including Wilbur's temperature, respiration, and pulse appeared in articles informing people of the city's hero.

By May 27, the family believed that Wilbur was near death. Both Conklin and Spitler arrived early in the morning and spent most of the day at the house. Reuchlin, who had traveled from Kansas, saw Wilbur in the afternoon, and Milton, believing his son was very near death, slept with his clothes on that night. Wilbur continued to grow worse, and at 3:15 in the morning on May 30, 1912, he passed away.  Milton recorded his thoughts on the death of his son in his diary:

A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturable [sic] temper, great selfreliance [sic] and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died.

Over a thousand condolences were received at the Wright home, and the news of Wilbur's death brought many tributes in newspapers throughout the world. At forty-five, Wilbur had lived a relatively short life, but his achievement as co-inventor of the airplane was recognized worldwide.

Wilbur's funeral and burial was on June 1. His body laid in state at the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Ludlow and Second Streets from ten in the morning until one o'clock in the afternoon. All who wished to view the body were guaranteed admittance. Many thousands of people stood in line at the church and a constant flow of individuals passed by the body to pay their last respects to the man who with his brother solved the problem of human flight.

The funeral began at the church at three o'clock, and it was open to the public. The Dayton Journal reported that the family planned a quiet and simple ceremony in keeping with Wilbur's tastes and personality. Reverend Maurice E. Wilson, pastor of the church, officiated at the short funeral. He read the hymn "Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past," an entry from the Presbyterian Book of Forms, and several scriptures including the twenty-third Psalm. The service ended with a brief sermon by Reverend Wilson on the many admirable qualities of the deceased.

The honorary pallbearers for the service were Robert J. Collier, Charles Jerome Edwards, Russell A. Alger, Fred Alger, John H. Patterson, Honorable James M. Cox, Dr. Levy Spitler, and Dr. D.B. Conklin. Those bearing the casket were two representatives each from the Dayton Aeroplane Club, Ten Dayton Boys, and The Wright Company: Oscar J. Needham and Frank B. Hale represented the Dayton Aeroplane Club; Charles Olinger and Edgar W. Ellis the Ten Dayton Boys; and Arthur Gabel and James Jacobs The Wright Company.

Evidence of the respect the citizens and business community of Dayton had for Wilbur was visible throughout the city the day of his funeral. The flags at The National Cash Register Company were at half mast for the day and a notice of Wilbur's death and a portrait were posted on all the bulletin boards throughout the company. The Chamber of Commerce requested that all retail establishments close from 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. and that citizens cease all activity for that time. In addition, all the church bells in the city rang from 3:30 to 3:35 p.m. and the street and interurban cars as well as the railroad trains stopped out of respect for the memory of Wilbur. During those five minutes, telephone service in the city also ceased.

Immediately after the services, the family, pallbearers, and close family friends traveled in twenty-five carriages to Woodland Cemetery for the grave side service. As Wilbur's body and those going to the cemetery traveled through the streets, they were observed by throngs of people who lined the two-mile route. At the grave, side still more people waited for the family. The grave side service was very short, consisting of a prayer and benediction. At the completion of the service, flowers were dropped on the casket as it was lowered into the ground.

The day following the services, Ezra Kuhns came to the Wright home to read Wilbur's last will and testament. Wilbur's estate was eventually valued by the Montgomery County Probate Court at $279,298.40. The first beneficiary listed in the will was Wilbur's father. Wilbur thanked Milton for his "example of a courageous, upright life, and for his earnest sympathy with everything tending to my true welfare" and bequeathed to him the sum of $1,000 for "little unusual expenditures as might add to his comfort and pleasure."

The bulk of Wilbur's estate, the sum of $150,000, was divided equally among Reuchlin, Lorin, and Katharine. The remainder of the estate, including the patents and jointly held stock in the Wright Company, went to Orville. Wilbur felt that Orville, "who has been associated with me in all the hopes and labors both of childhood and manhood, and who, I am sure, will use the property in very much the same manner as we would use it together in case we would both survive until old age."

As the executor, Orville distributed Wilbur's various bequeaths. The only problem he experienced was with Reuchlin who returned $1,000 of the $50,000 to his father. Many years earlier, Reuchlin had distanced himself from the family by moving to Kansas, and he felt he should not receive the same amount as Lorin and Katharine. Reuchlin believed that if Wilbur had had more time to consider the various bequeaths in his will that he would have done it differently. Milton returned the $1,000 to Reuchlin with the comment, "Everyone of us wants it carried out in every particular, as if it were sacred Writ....Orville regards the will as if sacred, and will carry it out precisely."

With Wilbur's death, Orville was forced to continue without his partner. Milton believed that Orville and Katharine felt the loss of their brother most of all the family members. In response to their loss, they dedicated themselves to each other and the patent litigation. With Wilbur no longer part of the team, Orville focused his energy on the battles that Wilbur had been fighting by becoming more involved in the patent suits, and he also became more involved in the daily operations and business side of The Wright Company. Katharine whole-heartedly supported her youngest brother, just as she had both brothers. Orville learned to function without his lifelong partner and filled some of the voids by further depending upon his sister.


funeral procession

(Courtesy of William Mayfield Collection, Marvin Christian Photography)

Two significant events adversely impacted the future of the Wright Company. The first was the death of Wilbur in 1912. He contracted typhoid fever while on a business trip, possibly from contaminated shellfish, and died. It didnít help that he had been under stress at the time from the pressure of business and the legal fight defending their patent.

The second significant event was the 1914 decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the Wrightís patent as airtight

The death of Wilbur was significant because he was the businessman and visionary of the two brothers. Orville, who became president of the company after Wilburís death, was not that interested in the business side of the company. He was more concerned with "technical things."

For instance, papers needing his signature would pile up in his office while he was out in the factory working on some engineering problem. He didnít even maintain an office at the company headquarters, preferring to keep an office in the old bicycle shop.

By the time of Wilburís death, Wright aircraft were no longer the best airplanes flying. An estimated five year lead on the competition that the Wrights had at one time had evaporated. Much of their time had been spent in pursuing numerous lawsuits against competitors, such as Glenn Curtiss, who violated their patent and generally managed to circumvent injunctions and continue flying while their suits were pending.

Also, the management of Wright Companies formed in Europe was fraught with problems and took up valuable time. Quality of manufacturing was often poor and unauthorized alterations to designs were common.

Consequently, there was too little time to spend on research and engineering activities and as a result they lost momentum. Others were making important technical advances such as replacing wing warping with ailerons, enclosing fuselages and utilizing single-wing design.

The Wrights did make improvements in their designs but lost leadership to the Europeans who were supported by their governments arming for the World War I. Another reason they fell behind is that the brothers may have believed that changes to basic designs would invalidate their patent.

One of the Wright improvements was the Model B. In 1911, the Wright Model B used wheels and incorporated control services in the tail. The Model B was the first Wright plane to be built in quantity. Some 80-100 were believed to have been built.

One Model B was sold to Pancho-Villa in Mexico.

In 1912, the Model C incorporated an automatic stabilizer. In 1913, The Model F, built for the U.S. Army, was built with a fuselage.

Between 1910 and 1915 the company produced ten distinct designs. Only two of them - the model B and the Model C - were manufactured in significant quantity.



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