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The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica

The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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How a Notorious Art Heist Led to the Discovery of 6 Fake Mona Lisas
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Human civilization has changed a lot over the past five millennia—but our instinct toward fakery, fraud, and flimflam seems to have remained relatively stable. In their new book Hoax: A History of Deception (Black Dog & Leventhal), Ian Tattersall and Peter Névraumont sift through 5000 years of our efforts to con others with scams and shakedowns of every description, from selling nonexistent real estate to transatlantic time travel. This excerpt reveals a convoluted art heist that netted not one, but six, of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait(s).

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is, by a wide margin, the world’s best-known Renaissance painting. The pride of Paris’s Louvre museum, it is hard nowadays for a visitor to get a good look at. Not only do heavy stanchions and a substantial velvet rope keep art lovers at bay, but a jostling horde of phone-pointing tourists typically accomplishes the same thing even more effectively. While you can expect to scrutinize Leonardo’s nearby Virgin and Child with Saint Anne up close and in reasonable tranquility, you are lucky to catch more than a glimpse of the Mona Lisa over the heads of the heaving crowd. And that’s just getting to admire the painting: With elaborate electronic protection and constantly circulating guards, stealing the iconic piece is pretty much unthinkable.

At a time when the standards of security were considerably more lax, around noon on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, horrified museum staff reported that the Mona Lisa was missing from her place on the gallery wall. The Louvre was immediately closed down and minutely searched (the picture’s empty frame was found on a staircase), and the ports and eastern land borders of France were closed until all departing traffic could be examined. To no avail. After a frantic investigation that temporarily implicated both the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the then-aspiring young artist Pablo Picasso, all that was left was wild rumor: The smiling lady was in Russia, in the Bronx, even in the home of the banker J.P. Morgan.

Two years later the painting was recovered after a Florentine art dealer contacted the Louvre saying that it had been offered to him by the thief. The latter turned out to have been Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had worked at the Louvre on a program to protect many of the museum’s masterworks under glass.

Vincent Peruggia, Mona Lisa thief
Vincent Peruggia
Courtesy of Chronicle Books/Alamy

Peruggia reportedly told police that, early on the Monday morning before the theft was discovered—a day on which the museum was closed to the public—he had entered the Louvre dressed as a workman. Once inside, he had headed for the Mona Lisa, taken her off the wall and out of her frame, wrapped her up in his workman’s smock, and carried her out under his arm. Another version has Peruggia hiding in a museum closet overnight, but in any event the heist itself was clearly a pretty simple and straightforward affair.

Peruggia’s motivations appear to have been a little more confused. The story he told the police was that he had wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, his and its country of origin, in the belief that the painting had been plundered by Napoleon—whose armies had indeed committed many similar trespasses in the many countries they invaded.

But even if he believed his story, Peruggia had his history entirely wrong. For it had been Leonardo himself who had brought the unfinished painting to France, when he became court painter to King François I in 1503. After Leonardo died in a Loire Valley château in 1519, the Mona Lisa was legitimately purchased for the royal collections.

So it didn’t seem so far-fetched when, in a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article, the journalist Karl Decker gave a significantly different account of the affair. According to Decker, an Argentinian con man calling himself Eduardo, Marqués de Valfierno, had told him that it was he who had masterminded Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa. And that he had sold the painting six times!

Valfierno’s plan had been a pretty elaborate one, and it had involved employing the services of a skilled forger who could exactly replicate any stolen painting—in the Mona Lisa’s case, right down to the many layers of surface glaze its creator had used. By Decker’s account, Valfierno not only sold such fakes on multiple occasions, but used them to increase the confidence of potential buyers, ahead of the heist, that they would be getting the real thing after the theft.

The fraudster would take a victim to a public art gallery and invite him to make a surreptitious mark on the back of a painting that he had scheduled to be stolen. Later Valfierno would present him with the marked canvas, which had allegedly been stolen and replaced with a copy.

This trick was actually accomplished by secretly placing the copy behind the real painting, and removing it after the buyer had applied his mark. According to Valfierno, this was an amazingly effective sales ploy: So effective, indeed, that by his account he managed to pre-sell the scheduled-to-be-stolen Mona Lisa to six different United States buyers, all of whom actually received copies.

Mona Lisa returned to the Uffizi Gallery in 1913
Museum officials present the (real) Mona Lisa after its return to Florence, Italy's Uffizi Gallery in 1913.
The Telegraph, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those copies had been smuggled into America prior to the heist at the Louvre, when nobody was on the lookout for them, and the well-publicized theft itself served to validate their apparent authenticity when they were delivered to the marks in return for hefty sums in cash.

According to Valfierno, the major problem in all this turned out to be Peruggia, who stole the stolen Mona Lisa from him and took it back to Italy. Still, when he was caught trying to dispose of the painting there, Peruggia could not implicate Valfierno without compromising his own story of being a patriotic thief, so the true scheme remained secret. Similarly, when the original Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, Valfierno’s buyers could assume that it was a copy—and in any case, they would hardly have been in a position to complain.

Decker’s story of Valfierno’s extraordinary machinations caused a sensation, and it rapidly became accepted as the truth behind the Mona Lisa’s disappearance. Perhaps this is hardly surprising because, after all, Peruggia’s rather prosaic account somehow seems a little too mundane for such an icon of Renaissance artistic achievement. The more flamboyant Valfierno version was widely believed, and is still repeated over and over again, including in two recent books.

Yet there are numerous problems with Decker’s Saturday Evening Post account, including the fact that nobody has ever been able to show for certain that Valfierno actually existed (though you can Google a picture of him). Only Peruggia’s role in the disappearance of the Mona Lisa seems to be reasonably clear-cut. Still, although it remains up in the air whether Valfierno faked his account, or whether Decker fabricated both him and his report, the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre today is probably the original.

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Courtesy of Chronicle Books
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How a Scottish Swindler Lured His Countrymen to a Fake City of Untold Riches
Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Mythological mountain ranges, illusory oceans, and apocryphal islands crowded the maps of early navigators. Some imaginary features, though, remained on charts well after satellite imagery and GPS should have confirmed their nonexistence. As Edward Brooke-Hitching writes in his new book, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps (Chronicle Books), some fake places made a lasting impression simply because their promoters were so brazen. In this excerpt, Brooke-Hitching describes one scoundrel's scheme to lure settlers to a fictional Central American city of untold riches—with disastrous results.

There are shameless liars, there are bold-as-brass fraudsters, and then there is a level of mendacity so magnificent it is inhabited by one man alone: ‘Sir’ Gregor MacGregor. In 1822, South American nations such as Colombia, Chile, and Peru were a new vogue in a sluggish investor’s market, being lands of opportunity, offering bonds with rates of interest too profitable to pass up. And so, when the charismatic ‘Cazique of Poyais’ sauntered into London, resplendent in medals and honors bestowed on him by George Frederic Augustus, king of the Mosquito Coast, and waving a land grant from said monarch that endowed him his own kingdom, he was met with an almost salivary welcome.

Perhaps if he had been a total stranger there might have been more wariness, but this was a man of reputation: Sir Gregor MacGregor of the clan MacGregor, great-great-nephew of Rob Roy, was famous from overseas dispatches for his service with the ‘Die-Hards,’ the 57th Foot regiment that had fought so valiantly at the Battle of Albuera in 1811. As a soldier of fortune, he had bled for Francisco de Miranda and for Simón Bolívar against the Spanish; the man was a hero. And now here he was in London, fresh from adventure, with the glamorous Princess Josefa of Poyais on his arm, looking for investment in his inchoate nation.

And the tales he told of his new homeland! Some 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of abundant natural resources and exquisite beauty; rich soil crying out for skilled farming; seas alive with fish and turtles, and countryside crowded with game; rivers choked with ‘native Globules of pure Gold.’ A promotional guide to the region was published, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore: Including the Territory of Poyais (1822), featuring the utopian vista below and further details of ‘many very rich Gold Mines in the Country, particularly that of Albrapoyer, which might be wrought to great benefit.’ Best of all, for a modest sum you too could claim your own piece of paradise.

Map of the imaginary Territory of Poyais
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

For a mere 2 shillings and 3 pence, MacGregor told his rapt audience, 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of Poyais land would be theirs. This meant that, if you were able to scrape together just over £11, you could own a plot of 100 acres (40 hectares). Poyais was in need of skilled labor—the plentiful timber had great commercial potential; the fields could yield great bounty if worked properly. A man could live like a king for a fraction of the British cost of living. For those too ‘noble’ for manual labor, there were positions with prestigious titles available to the highest bidder. A city financier named Mauger was thrilled to receive the appointment of manager of the Bank of Poyais; a cobbler rushed home to tell his wife of his new role as official shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais. Families keen to secure an advantage for their young men purchased commissions in Poyais’s army and navy.

MacGregor himself had got his start this way in the British Army at the age of 16, when his family purchased for him a commission as ensign in 1803, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. Within a year he was promoted to lieutenant, and began to develop an obsession with rank and dress. He retired from the army in 1810 after an argument with a superior officer ‘of a trivial nature,’ and it was at this point that his imagination began to take a more dominant role in his behavior. He awarded himself the rank of colonel and the badge of a Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ. Rejected from Edinburgh high society, in London he polished his credentials by presenting himself as ‘Sir Gregor MacGregor.’ He decided to head for South America, to add some New World spice to his reputation and return a hero. Arriving in Venezuela, by way of Jamaica, he was greeted warmly by Francisco de Miranda and given a battalion to help fight the Spanish in the Venezuelan War of Independence. He then fought for Simón Bolívar when Miranda was imprisoned. Operations extended to Florida, where he devised a nascent form of what he was later to orchestrate in London, raising $160,000 by selling ‘scripts’ to investors representing parcels of Floridian territory. As Spanish forces closed in, he bid farewell to his men and fled to the Bahamas, never repaying the money.

MacGregor was intelligent, persuasive, charisma personified, with a craving for popularity, wealth, and acceptance of the elite. This was the man to whom the prospective Poyais colonists were faithfully handing their every penny. Every detail of his scheme was planned to perfection. They never stood a chance.

On September 10, 1822, the Honduras Packet left London docks, bound for the territory of Poyais, carrying 70 excited passengers, plenty of supplies and a chest full of Poyais dollars made by the official printer to the Bank of Scotland, for which the emigrants happily traded their gold and legal tender.

Having waved off the Honduras, MacGregor headed to Edinburgh and Glasgow to make the same offer to the Scots. The dramatic failure of the Darien scheme in the late 17th century (in which the kingdom of Scotland had attempted to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama) had virtually bankrupted the country, and any indication of history repeating itself would have been met with extreme caution. But MacGregor was a Scotsman himself, a patriot and soldier. Unfortunately, he was also in possession of a tongue of pure silver. A second swath of Poyais real estate was sold off, and a second passenger ship filled. Under the captaincy of Henry Crouch, the Kennersley Castle left the port of Leith, Scotland on January 14, 1823, carrying 200 future citizens of Poyais, eager to join the Honduras Packet travelers in their new home.

Phantom Atlas book jacket cover
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

To their utter confusion, when the colonists arrived at their destination, they found only malarial swampland and thick vegetation with no trace of civilization. There was no Poyais, no land of plenty, no capital city. They had been fooled by a conniving fantasist. Unable to afford the journey home, they had no choice but to unload their supplies and set up camp on the shore. By April, nothing had changed. No town had been found, no help had arrived, and the camp was in total despair. Disease was rife and claimed the lives of eight colonists that month. The cobbler who had been promised the role of ‘Shoemaker to the Princess’ gave up hope of ever seeing his family again, and shot himself in the head.

At this lowest point, a vessel appeared on the horizon—what’s more, it flew a British flag. The Mexican Eagle from Belize had been passing nearby on a diplomatic mission when it had caught sight of the camp. The weak settlers were brought aboard and began their slow and awful journey back to London, via the hospitals of Belize. Of the 270 or so men and women who had set out for Poyais, fewer than 50 made it back to Britain. By this time MacGregor had high-tailed it to France, where he tried and failed to run the scam again. (He was foiled when the French government noticed the rush of applications for visas to a country that didn’t exist.) He was eventually forced to flee to Venezuela, where he later died in 1845, never properly brought to answer for his extraordinary and terrible crime.

From The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, published by Chronicle Books.

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