June 9, 1911. Fargo, North Dakota. With every bank and store in town closed for the occasion, Robert C. “Lucky Bob” St. Henry soars over Fargo in Sweetheart, his Curtiss biplane. It isn’t the first aeroplane flight in North Dakota—nearly a year earlier, Arch Hoxsey appeared in the skies above Grand Forks—nor does the exhibition have a wider significance than that the aviator hails from North Dakota. What is remarkable is that “Lucky Bob” St. Henry, a man who has been flying for less than four months, does not really exist.
Castle W. Shaffer was born in Nebraska in 1882, the son of a carpenter. Following his high school graduation, he served a machinist apprenticeship with the Union Pacific Railroad. Shaffer met and married Ellen Kerr in Colorado in 1901, when they were 19. Two years later she sued for divorce, claiming desertion.
It turned out that Shaffer had moved to Detroit, where he joined the Buick Motor Company under the assumed name Robert C. St. Henry, with a claimed birthplace of Texas. In the course of demonstrating Buick’s “horseless carriage” throughout the country in 1903, Shaffer married nineteen year-old May Padbury in Ontario, Canada (just across the river from Detroit). They had a son in 1904, but soon afterward St. Henry left them, supposedly returning to Nebraska.
St. Henry’s movements and employment over the years that followed are something of a mystery. By 1909 he was operating an automobile garage in Carrington, North Dakota, where the local newspaper described him as a “doughty little redheaded mechanic, . . . wiry and a daredevil to the core.” He left North Dakota, turning up more than a year later in San Diego, where he paid a thousand dollars to take flying lessons from Glenn Curtiss. Just where he came up with that money, equivalent to roughly $25,000 today, is unclear—as is the basis for his interest in aviation.
St. Henry was one of the first two civilian students accepted by Curtiss; the other was Charles C. Witmer from Illinois. Tuition money could be applied against the purchase of a flying machine if the student proved adept, and within a month St. Henry was clearly good enough to go on the road. Curtiss wrote to his business manager:
We can sell him a 4-cylinder. The original plan was [for him] to give some exhibitions in Canadian towns [on his own] and pay us a royalty, but, as he is hardly proficient enough, and the aeroplane is not ready to deliver, he is [g]oing up [north] and book[ing] these towns, which he has already lined up, for [Hugh] Robinson to play, . . . or if Robinson goes to Dallas and south, Witmer can play them. This will leave Robinson in the Northwest for June engagements, which I understand [advance man] Moore has booked. We can then ship a machine to St. Henry and he can work in as a 2d man in these engagements.
St. Henry thus quickly became an established member of the Curtiss exhibition team, billed initially as a “Special Student of aeronautics under Glenn Curtiss, and the most daring and foolhardy aviator of them all.” Within a month, however, he was appearing as “Lucky Bob” St. Henry. Even though he hadn’t suffered any notable crashes, the name pithily suggested the riskiness of his flights.
Along with Witmer and Jimmie Ward, St. Henry traveled to Wichita for a Curtiss exhibition beginning May 4. The meet was to be headlined by Eugene Ely, whose January 1911 ship landing was being hailed as the greatest aviation feat ever accomplished. As it happened, St. Henry prudently declined to risk his new machine in the uncertain weather, but the more experienced Ely gave a performance that delighted the crowd.
During that Wichita meet, Curtiss advance man R.R. Young arranged for a two-man exhibition to take place in Butte, Montana, on June 11-13, at which the aviators were to be Ely and Hugh Robinson. The cautious promoters of the Butte meet vowed that spectators would get “the worth of their money”:
It will be “no fly, no pay” with the Butte men. And more than that, the aviators are compelled, according to the agreement, to remain in Butte until they make the number of flights named in the contract in a satisfactory manner.
Those “Butte men” insisted on having at least two aviators present, as the contract specified. Unfortunately, by the time Ely headed for Montana, compliance was out of the question. Robinson was stuck on the east coast with Witmer, Charles Willard and J.A.D. McCurdy had quit the Curtiss team, and St. Henry was booked for a tour of central Canada and North Dakota.
Curtiss knew about the “no fly, no pay” provision in Butte. Of his four aviators other than Ely, the only realistic possibility was St. Henry, who just might be able to get to Butte in time. But that would mean missing his dates in North Dakota—where the promoters, like those in Butte, had an “ironclad contract with the Curtiss company.” In early June Curtiss, Ely and St. Henry exchanged a flurry of telegrams as they tried to figure out what to do. “While you were away” on the west coast, Curtiss wrote to his business manager, Fanciulli, “I got mixed up in the Butte affair.”
St. Henry first wired it would cost $150.00 to get a special train [to Montana]. He later found out it would cost $800, which makes it practically prohibitive for him to go to Butte. I wired Ely repeatedly to re-arrange the contract for one man. He could do it if he [wanted to], I am satisfied. . . . I don’t know what will happen, but we might as well have a law-suit in Butte as in Dakota, and from what I know I think St. Henry should stick to his dates.
To be fair, it’s not clear that Ely would have had the success predicted by Curtiss. Two days before the meet was to begin, Butte newspapers were reporting the fiction that “Robbins” had wired from Denver that he would be coming, while Charles Walsh (at the time, an independent aviator reported to fly a “Curtiss-Farman” biplane) had done the same from Portland. And soon enough the story changed again: Ely was heading a party of “three more aviators and a dozen mechanicians, hang[a]r attendants, watchmen, etc.” Ely was said to have expressly promised spiral glides, altitude flights, and an attempt to cross the Continental Divide. The suspicious Butte promoters nonetheless added motorcycle races and horse races as a hedge against the failure of the three aeroplanes they were expecting. Having arranged the “Most Auspicious Event Butte Has Had in Years,” they were disinclined to give an inch on the terms of the contract.
In any event, while St. Henry amazed the Fargo crowd, Ely was left on his own in Butte. The weather didn’t cooperate, and his exhibition was consequently a failure. At the end—unsurprisingly, in light of the promoters’ insistence on strict adherence to the terms of the contract—Ely “appeared to be willing to do almost anything to make reparation to the disappointed spectators.” Reports came in that St. Henry had sought to arrive in time to fly on the final day; when that proved impossible, “it was decided to call his engagement off.” Although Curtiss dodged the lawsuit he feared, the Butte promoters unilaterally withheld $1,000 of the amount due, because the “contract called for three machines and three [sic] aviators, and [Ely] came here by himself and brought but one machine.”
St. Henry never saw Ely again. Present when nineteen year-old Cromwell Dixon fell to his death in Spokane at the beginning of October 1911, St. Henry agreed to fill Dixon’s upcoming engagements for the Curtiss company. But when Ely himself died three weeks later, the man known as “Lucky Bob” canceled a planned world tour and announced that he was quitting aviation.
He must have reconsidered, because he flew again during the summer of 1912 before publicly leaving the business in 1913. He also claimed, much later, to have delivered Curtiss aeroplanes to the Chinese government, as well as to Russia, where he said he had taught several novice aviators.
St. Henry resumed using the name Castle W. Shaffer, remarried yet again, and settled in Nebraska. For half a year in 1915 he served with the rank of captain as chief aviation officer in the Nebraska National Guard. In connection with that position, he was expected to give exhibitions. Although he was an experienced aviator, his unaccountable inability to make any successful flights led to his dismissal. Later he would tell of instructing aviators in England during World War I. Whether he did so is unknown.
Using his real name, Shaffer became a member of the Early Birds of Aviation. Throughout the 1920s he was associated with an underwriting company and other businesses in Lincoln, Nebraska. During the Great Depression he moved across the state to the small town of Sidney, where the son of a carpenter opened a cabinet shop that he operated for the rest of his life. He died of a stroke in 1954, at the age of 72.