2009.20(55) Vernon Castle and Jeff

On this day in 1918 Vernon William Blyth Castle was killed in a flying accident at Camp Taliaferro in Texas. The official casualty report noted the following details:

…Date of Casualty: 15.2.18
Where occurred: Canada Camp Taliaferro
Type of Machine: Curtiss J.N.4. C663
Nature and Cause of Accident: In trying to avoid a mach[ine] which was taking off the pilot who was about to land took control and stalled his mach.
Result of Accident: Killed
Name of other Occupant of Machine: Cadet R.O. Peters. U.S.A. Injured
Remarks: Capt Vernon Castle instructing in the front seat giving some landings to Cadet Peters before sending him off on solo. C of I [Court of Inquiry] as over.

The finding of the Court of Inquiry on the reverse of the report card reads:

The Court having examined all witnesses, weighed all evidence and examined machine C.663, is of the opnion that Capt. Vernon Castle, while on duty in machine C.663 No.84 C.T. [Canadian Training] Squadron, in trying to avoid collision with machine C 449 of No. 85 C.T.Squadron did an Immelmann turn from which he was unable to recover before hitting the ground and was killed.

Castle was killed as a result of being in the front seat of the aircraft, a position he often took after being involved in the crash which killed Cadet Allan Walton Fraser in May 1917.

This photograph, from the collection of Sergeant Christopher Paulus Devos, shows the aircraft after the crash.
Devos’s annotations read:

Capt. Vernon Castle
How this brave man met his death.
Pinned under engine in front seat.

Castle’s death made front-page news around the world. Here’s the Seattle Star‘s report on the evening of the crash:

Seattle Star 15th Feb 1918

Front page of the Seattle Star, February 15th, 1918, courtesy of Chronicling America from the Library of Congress

In the Washington Times‘s version of the story, Castle was described as “America’s most famous dancer” and it was noted that:

Vernon Castle was the highest paid dancer in all dramatic history…During the height of the dancing craze Castle’s salary averaged $6,000 per week.

Castle was born in Norwich, England on May 2nd, 1887, the son of William Thomas Blyth and Jane (née Finley). He arrived in New York in July 1906 and started his career on the stage shortly afterward. He married Irene Foote on May 28th, 1911 and the two established themselves as dance stars in Paris and then on Broadway. Vernon learned how to fly at the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station in Newport News, Virginia, in early 1916, as this record from the Royal Aero Club shows:

Royal Aero Club Aviator Certificate details for Vernon Castle, courtesy of the Royal Air Force Museum

Royal Aero Club Aviator Certificate details for Vernon Castle, from Ancestry, courtesy of the Royal Air Force Museum

He travelled back to England to join the Royal Flying Corps in March 1916 and served on the Western Front until the following March, when he was transferred to Canada as an instructor at Camp Mohawk. With the rest of the Deseronto Wing, Castle spent the winter of 1917-1918 training cadets at Camp Taliaferro in Texas.

Vernon Castle was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. In 1966 a memorial to Castle was erected at the site of his death in Benbrook, Texas.

Vernon Castle Memorial in Benbrook, Texas

Vernon Castle Memorial in Benbrook, Texas, courtesy of Flickr user QuesterMark