CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

Percy Fawcett’s Doomed Search for the Lost City of Z

Getty Images
Getty Images

Tales of a lost city glutted with gold have been luring treasure hunters into the Amazon for centuries. The myth originated in the 1500s, when newly arrived Spanish conquistadors in South America heard stories of a chieftain so wealthy he dusted his body in powdered gold and washed it off in a lake as an offering to the gods.

Over time, the legend of El Dorado (“the golden one”) morphed from being about a gilded man to a kingdom overflowing with riches. Many European explorers scoured South America looking for the fabled city, including Sir Walter Raleigh, whose son was killed by Spaniards during a fruitless expedition in 1617. After centuries of searching without a nugget of gold to show for it, El Dorado was widely regarded as fiction by the Victorian era—at least until explorer Percy Fawcett showed up.

If there was any explorer alive in the 20th century capable of forging a path through the rainforest to an undiscovered city, it was Percy Fawcett. After a career in the British military, he led a daring series of surveying expeditions in previously uncharted parts of South America. His exploits traversing the Ricardo Franco hills of Bolivia, while surveying that country's boundary with Brazil, even inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World. At some point in these journeys during the early 1910s, Fawcett formed the theory that sparked his most famous expedition—that of a lost city of riches, not called El Dorado, but simply Z.

Victorian experts generally believed that the Amazon was too inhospitable to support civilization—a few tribes scattered throughout the rainforest, sure, but nothing that compared to the cities of Europe. Fawcett’s own experiences led him to believe otherwise. The natives he spoke to convinced him it was possible for large communities to remain isolated in the Amazon for centuries. He studied petroglyphs, gathered ancient shards of pottery, and read accounts from the continent’s first European explorers to gather more support for his ideas. (One particular tome in the National Library of Brazil, written by a Portuguese soldier of fortune, mentioned the ruins of a vast, opulent, and "very ancient city" discovered in 1753.) A complex city had once existed in the Mato Grosso region of western Brazil, Fawcett insisted, and its remnants were just waiting to be found.

By the 1920s, Fawcett had refocused his life around what he called the "Lost City of Z" (also the title of a new movie about him coming out this week). Fawcett knew his search would draw comparisons to doomed missions of the past, but he claimed that this time was different. El Dorado, he said, was an “exaggerated romance,” while Z was a theory based on solid evidence he’d gathered over years. But two trips, in 1920 and 1921, ended with Fawcett returning home in defeat.

Fawcett launched his third and most infamous expedition to find Z in 1925. He secured funding from organizations including the UK's Royal Geographical Society and the U.S. Museum of the American Indian, and in January 1925, he boarded a ship for South America with his son, Jack, and his son’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell, filling out his party.

His trip made international headlines. “Fawcett Expedition […] to Penetrate Land Whence None Returned,” one news bulletin announced. On his departure he challenged his doubters, shouting to journalists on the pier from his ship, “We shall return, and we shall bring back what we seek!” But before he left he shared some practical words of warning—if he didn’t return, he asked that no search parties come after him, lest they suffer the same fate.

Fawcett in 1911. Image credit: Daniel Candido via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Fawcett's team and their two native guides ventured into the rainforest on April 20, 1925, three months after leaving port in New Jersey. As they trekked deep into the Amazon, they endured stifling heat, blood-sucking parasites, and close calls with unfriendly natives. Despite the harsh conditions, Fawcett and his crew were able to cover 10 to 15 miles of ground a day. By May 29 they had reached Dead Horse Camp, the location where Fawcett had shot his exhausted horse and turned around at the end of a failed expedition years earlier. What lay ahead was unknown territory, and Fawcett and his two companions would be continuing alone, without their guides. In a letter he sent back with them, he wrote to his wife: “You need have no fear of any failure.” That was the last anyone heard of Fawcett or his company.

After two years passed without further correspondence from Fawcett’s team, people began to fear the worst. The Royal Geographical Society’s George Miller Dyott organized the first official expedition to find the men, disregarding Fawcett’s earlier instructions to stay away. Dyott called it quits after concluding that surviving in such a cruel environment for that amount of time would have been impossible. But when Dyott returned to civilization without a body to show, the lack of evidence confirming Fawcett’s death opened the floodgates for more search parties to follow. Over 90 years, more than 100 would-be-rescuers died trying to find him.

Several theories have emerged surrounding the expedition’s outcome. Some said Fawcett succumbed to predators or malaria, while Popular Science speculated in 1928 that he was living as a god among native tribesmen. Of the dozen-odd groups to go after Fawcett, a trip initiated by New Yorker writer David Grann in 2005 may have come the closest to uncovering any answers. While retracing Fawcett’s route through the Amazon, Grann spoke with Kalapalo Indians, who shared a story passed down by their ancestors. Decades ago, Fawcett and his group had stayed with the tribe. Before they continued on their way, the Kalapalos had warned them to avoid the hostile Indians that lived in the territory ahead. Fawcett ignored the advice, and as Grann later explained, the Kalapalos “watched his party head off and saw their fires at first at night but then they stopped."

And what of Fawcett’s lost city? His fervent belief in a lost Amazonian civilization doesn’t seem as unlikely today as it did a century ago. Archaeologist Michael Heckenberger recently discovered the remains of over 20 pre-Columbian communities, some as large as medieval European cities, in the same area that Fawcett hoped to reach. Whether or not Fawcett lived to lay eyes on the ruins is another mystery that, unfortunately, belongs to the jungle.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
The Ohio State University Archives
arrow
Excerpt
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios