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Did You Know There Was a Wright Sister?

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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough is a master class in how little most of us really know about Orville and Wilbur Wright, two men of humble origins who would give humanity the impossible gift of flight. Theirs was more than a singular good idea executed at the right time. The Wright Flyer was less the work of two aeronautic savants than it was the result of tireless and obsessive labor and study by two men whose full-time careers were running a bicycle shop. To invent the airplane, they had to invent inventing; no reliable mathematics tables existed for scaling wings to carry humans, and much to their surprise and dismay, no usable research existed at all on the workings of this thing called a propeller.

The magnitude of the problem was (and remains) virtually inconceivable: how to build the wings; how to control a flight; where to position a person on this contraption; how to launch it; how to land it; how to build it; and how to build a suitable motor to run the thing. They had to deal with such problems while facing mockery by science journals of note, which dismissed the idea of human flight as the lunatic notions of suicidal cranks. To overcome the challenges intrinsic to changing the world, the Wright Brothers, as McCullough's masterful biography describes, depended on another person, largely unheralded, who played a vital role in the creation of the airplane: their sister, Katharine.


Katharine Wright was the youngest of five and the only of her siblings to graduate from college. After finishing Oberlin, she took a job teaching Latin at Steele High School, where "she would flunk many of Dayton's future leaders." Brilliant, sociable, and vivacious, she provided an unshakable foundation of support for her brothers in all their endeavors: the print shop they co-founded, then the bicycle shop they started, and finally their interests in flight. Though she did not design, build, or pilot the famed Flyer, she played a vital role in its creation and later popularization.

Katharine was the sounding board for her brothers. While Orville and Wilbur tested their prototype flying rigs at Kitty Hawk, a desolate North Carolina village chosen for its windy skies and sandy beaches (perfect for landing), they corresponded extensively with Katharine. They explained their successes and setbacks, and after particularly tough trials which left them certain that their idea was a hopeless one—that the journals were correct about human flight being impossible—Katharine offered support, encouragement, and advice. Her contributions to the initial tests at Kitty Hawk were both big and small. She packed food for the brothers to enjoy in their initial austere environs. Through humorous correspondence, she gave them an outlet to share and consider problems outside of engineering and physics.

More substantially, during school holidays, while her brothers were at Kitty Hawk and beyond, she kept the Wright Cycle Company solvent, firing incompetent managers and helping in its day-to-day operations. The Wrights were privately funded. Their bicycle shop was crucial to their work, and provided every penny they spent in the development of the airplane. They wanted no government assistance and no outside investors.

When word later spread of the brothers' modest successes, engineering societies requested public talks—something the Wright Brothers were hardly prepared for or eager to attempt. It was Katharine who pressed them to attend such events, and even chose the clothes they should wear. The most notable of these speeches—"Some Aeronautical Experiments," delivered by Wilbur—would later be described as the "Book of Genesis of the 20-century Bible of Aeronautical Experiments." It wouldn't have been given without Katharine's insistence.

Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Wrights were a close family. Orville and Wilbur never married, and Katharine married in 1926, three years before her death. (Wilbur had died 14 years earlier of typhoid fever.) Because of the family's closeness, the health of their beloved father was always a concern. In addition to tending to the bicycle shop, Katharine cared for their father, freeing her brothers to continue their work without guilt or anxiety.


For Wilbur and Orville, achieving the impossible and actually building a working airplane wasn't enough. The Wrights faced the challenge of showing people that their airplane actually existed. People simply didn't believe it. Long after the Wright Flyer was zipping through the skies of Ohio, Scientific American ran a skeptical and dismissive piece titled "The Wright Aeroplane and Its Fabled Performances." Witness accounts were roundly ignored, and photographs were asserted to have been forgeries.

The Wrights were undaunted by this. They wrote the War Department and explained what they had created, providing photos of their invention. Their correspondence was ignored. The French government approached the Wrights, however, and expressed great interest. The brothers had to box up their creation and ship it overseas, guarding it jealously throughout—once details of the design breakthroughs of their plane leaked, their invention would be rendered valueless.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Public demonstrations in Paris proved sensational. Far beyond attracting the interest of military officials, they captured the imagination of the entire country, and soon, the entire continent. Hundreds of thousands of people showed for public demonstrations, and the Wrights were feted in every corner. This was more troubling than one might think. The Flyer worked marvelously, but it wasn't idiot-proof; on every flight, one wrong move would mean catastrophe for the pilot. Parties at palaces hardly left time for the serious business of pilot preparation. Wilbur, who ran the Europe operation, needed someone to handle the social aspects of the job.

Back in the United States, Orville ran the demonstration flights for the now-very-interested U.S. government. When he suffered a devastating and nearly fatal crash in Washington, however, it fell to Katharine to help him when doctors had all but written him off. As McCullough writes, "There was never a question of what she must do. Moving into action without pause, she called the school principal [where she worked], told her what had happened, and said she would be taking an indefinite leave of absence. Then, quickly as possible, she packed what clothes she thought she would need and was on board the last train to Washington at 10 that same evening." She would devote herself to the rehabilitation of her brother.

The terrible nature of Orville's injury and his recovery took its toll on her. She later wrote to Wilbur, "Brother has been suffering so much … and I am so dead tired when morning comes that I can't hold a pen." Orville would later say that without his sister, he would not have survived.


Eventually, the furor in Paris became too much, and Wilbur beseeched his sister to come to Europe and act as his "social manager." She agreed, bringing Orville with her. In addition to caring for the greatly weakened brother while in Europe, she took public pressure off of Wilbur by wining and dining the world's aristocracy, who simply could not get their fill of the astonishing Wright Brothers and their miracle of human flight. She entertained kings, prime ministers, and business titans alike. She took French classes two hours every morning. Because she was fluent in Greek and Latin, she picked up the language quickly, and with a native speaker on their roster, the Wrights were able to cause an even greater splash in Parisian society. According to McCullough:

"The less Orville had to say, the more Katharine talked and with great effect. She had become a celebrity in her own right. The press loved her. 'The masters of the aeroplane, these two clever and intrepid Daytonians, who have moved about Europe under the spotlight of extraordinary publicity, have had a silent partner,' wrote one account. But silent she was no longer and reporters delighted in her extroverted, totally unaffected Midwestern American manner."

One account of Katharine put it most succinctly: "Who was it who gave them new hope, when they began to think the problem [of flight] impossible? … Who was it that nursed Orville back to strength and health when the physicians had practically given him up after that fatal accident last September?"

During all of this, Katharine maintained correspondence with their father back home—freeing desperately needed time for the Wright Brothers to maintain their plane and the bearing necessary to fly it. Moreover, when the Wrights needed to take someone up as a passenger, they often took Katharine, if only to demonstrate their confidence in the flying machine. Katharine had flown "longer and farther than had any American woman." She was, in fact, the "only woman in the world who had made three flights in an aeroplane," and she would become, at the time, the only woman ever invited to a dinner at the Aéro-Club de France.  

She was an ambassador of sorts for America in Europe, and later, for Europe in America. She took the American press to task for diminishing the European fascination with flight. "She loved America, she said, but the American people did not always understand Europeans, who were an appreciative people. She could not listen to anyone saying unkind things about them without protesting."

All of this set the stage for her later life. She was a visible member of the suffrage movement. She traveled the world and devoted her time to Oberlin College. After the death of Wilbur, she supported Orville's successful business ventures to the last.

Katharine, the Wright Sister, died in 1929.

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps

The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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Warner Bros.
This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]


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