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In this week’s Untapped Cities mailbag, reader Bradley Laing wrote us saying, “I have two requests, they may be completely silly, but I am asking for your help.” Let’s just say, we love these kind of requests. Bradley’s NYC-related question was as follows:

Charles Fort, who dug up a lot of old newspapers, wrote in one of his books about a newspaper article, written in the 1800s, claiming a flying, winged man was seen by a huge crowd over Coney Island. This starts at the bottom of the list, so far as believable claims go. But has anyone done the simplest of double checking, like more newspaper articles, later confessions of reporters making things up, private diaries confirming the sighting, police reports, or anything else beyond one old newspaper story?

We asked our Coney Island expert, Untapped writer and urban planner Alex Wallach, who previously wrote about his family’s roots on Coney Island.

Alex told us:

The story about the flying frog/bat person appears on several websites, but they all reference that same New York Times article. I couldn’t find any other sources that corroborate it. So I dug up the original article, which actually did run on page 6 of the New York Times on Sunday, September 12, 1880. It appears that newspaper articles didn’t have bylines in this era, so there’s no way to find out who wrote it.

The article describes the bizarre sight of a flying man fitted with bat’s wings and frog’s legs 1,000 feet in the air heading towards New Jersey with a “cruel and determined expression.” Now, I assumed that this was some sort of natural phenomenon that couldn’t be explained, but parts of this story do seem clearly fabricated. For example, faces cannot be recognized at this distance, based on what I’ve read. According to the article there was “no doubt” that this was a man who had invented a pair of wings and legs to sustain flight. Yet the article concluded that since this man did not proclaim himself as an “aeronaut” and reveal his invention to the world to make a profit and headlines, he must be an “aerial criminal,” perpetuating some sort of crime.

When you read further, the article actually names the man suspected of making this flight! The article names a “Mr. Talmage,” saying that “if there is a man in this country whose arms and legs are fitted to endure the muscular strain inseparable from the act of flying, that man is Mr. Talmage.” So I looked into this “Mr. Talmage,” and I’m fairly sure this refers to Thomas De Witt Talmage, who was a Brooklyn-based preacher and one of the most prominent religious leaders of the age. Talmage had a devout following and led a famed mega-church in Brooklyn Heights, that Untapped Cities covered as one of the ocations that galvanized the abolition movement and Underground Railroad in NYC .

IThomas Dewitt Talmadge. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

From what I can tell, it looks like Mr. Talmage was a bit of an unusual preacher. He was called a “gymnastic preacher,” an “acrobatic preacher,” and according to one article from 1879, he took “the belt for  muscular and gymnastic preaching.” and “no tight-rope performer has every presented such a dazzling display of arms and legs.” He was known for his physicality on the pulpit, and seems to have preached about the virtues of exercise. He was trained in gymnastics and even wrote about “Christian Gymnastics” in one of his books. The article about the flying man claimed that Talmage “is now flying to and fro over Coney Island, preparatory to preaching a scathing sermon on the wickedness and indecencies of our bathing resorts.” This was called a “natural and probable explanation of the flying man.”

Now, Mr. Talmage had many detractors who accused him of heresy, and there was some sort of huge scandal involving his church’s trustees and the firing of the church organist that resulted in what was called “the trial of the century.” Naturally, this earned him fame and notoriety in the press, which might offer an explanation for the Coney Island story. A New York Times article I found from 1878 claimed that “certain irreverent journalists, envious of the transcendent ability of his arms and legs, have repeatedly written of him in a strain that there is too much reason to believe was intended to bring him into ridicule.” Given the tone of certainty in the flying man article, I think it is likely that the bizarre Coney Island story is such an example, designed to ridicule Mr. Talmage. I’m guessing here, but I think that’s the “natural and probable explanation,” as they said. Whether there was a grain of truth to a flying apparition seen above Coney Island, or the whole thing was a complete fabrication, I guess we’ll never really know!