Qualifications: Daredevil, Prior Bicycle and Lion-Taming Experience a Plus

The Cleveland Plain Dealer described it best in an article titled, “Where’d All These Plague-take-it Aviators Come from, Anyway?”:

Aviators have sprung from almost every walk of life, but the greater number have come from the ranks of those who follow lives of adventure. They include former lion tamers, tight-rope walkers, automobile racers, motorboat racers and loop-the-loop bicycle riders, along with college athletes and sportsmen. All have demonstrated that they possess iron nerves and probably most of them would not care a fig about going up in the air if danger did not lurk in every wire of the canvas-winged bird that carries them aloft. [1. “Where’d All These Plague-take-it Aviators Come from, Anyway?” Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 August 1911, page 7.]

So far, I have found only a few hints at William Evans’ early life and career, but clues in newspaper accounts show that he had experience risking his life in the name of daredevil entertainment before joining the ranks of the birdmen.

The Rochester, New York Post Express reported that Evans was “a young westerner who is going into aviation professionally, having been formerly a bicycle loop-the-loop performer.” [2. “Rochester’s First Plane,” Post Express (Rochester, NY), 9 August 1910, p. 8] Evans was also described by the Kansas City Post as having successfully tried ballooning and as emulating his hero, Captain Thomas S. Baldwin, by becoming “a parachute jumper of great daring and skill.” [3. “Daring Young Aviator Competes with Experienced ‘King of the Air'” Kansas City Post, 7 October 1910, page 3. ]

Evans was by no means the only Kansas Citian to make the leap from bicycle daredevil to aviator.  C. B. Clark (real name Charles Clark Bunting ) was an amateur aviator and bicycle circus performer who grew up in Kansas City. Clark had earned a medical degree from the University of Chicago and practiced medicine in Kansas City. When bicycles came into fashion, the 27-year-old Clark became so good at trick riding that he was hired to tour with circus and vaudeville acts. He performed in Madison Square Garden and was credited with inventing the “loop the gap” and “loop the loop” tricks copied by others. [4. “Inventor of the Loop the Loop is Dead,” Bellingham Herald, 26 September 1911, page 8.]

According to the Washington Post, Belgian aviator and circus performer Frank Morok (Charles F. Morok or Charles Frank van den Merrscat) “used to be a six-day bicycle racer,” and later became a loop-the-loop performer who traveled the U.S. and Europe under the stage name Diabolo or Diavolo. [5. “Flight to New York Fails.” Washington Post, 27 December 1910, page 11.]

Ralph Johnstone, a native of Parsons, Kansas and one-time holder of the world altitude record was well-known as a bicycle rider and was another of several men credited as the first to do a bicycle loop-the-loop.[6. “Johnstone’s Terrible Fate,” Portsmouth Herald, 18 November 1910, page 3. ]  Tony Castellane was famous as a bicycle loop-the-loop and leap-the-gap performer before becoming a daredevil aviator.[7. Wellsboro Agitator, 27 September 1911, page 5. ] Sadly, both men died as the result of falls during aviation exhibitions.

It seems logical for Evans to go from flight on a bicycle to flight by balloon and parachute to heavier-than-air flight in an aeroplane. “He will learn to fly near Kansas City at once and will then make professional engagements,” said the Rochester Post Express. “As he has had much experience in pursuits where nerve and judgment were necessary to the preservation of his neck and he is lightly built, it is thought that he will be successful in the somewhat risky business of artificial flight.” [8. “Rochester’s First Plane,” Post Express (Rochester, NY), 9 August 1910, p. 8]