The Man Who Wanted to Go to the Moon

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

FitzgeraldPhotographer unknown: Police Aviation Force

Captain Charles N. Fitzgerald performing

a stunt, New York, 1920

Took me a while before I could even look at this one. Photographs of people endangering themselves at great heights are among the photographs that can give me such a strong visceral reaction that I can’t look at them. Can’t watch parkour videos, sorry. Free climbing, nope.

A few armchair experts have declared this to be Photoshop, but that probably just indicates the degree to which people’s default now is to assume fakery. The trouble with that assumption is, there are old newspaper articles that include the picture and other views from the same outing:


And one writer even found a one-page bio in an old comic book!


The guy was apparently Knievel before Evel. (Evel Knievel, if you’ve never heard the name, was a motorcycle daredevil who did things like jump over canyons and multiple Greyhound buses 50 years ago.) Fitzgerald also did things like stand on the upper wing of a biplane as it did a loop-de-loop. He had 18 occupations in 26 years, most of which were dangerous. These included high diver, Texas Ranger, motorcycle racer, and vaudeville strongman. His status as Police Aviation Commander apparently came about because he talked the city of New York into giving him a biplane. He was that short-lived corps’ one and only member. He subsequently fell out of the plane and spent a year in the hospital; further details, regrettably, appear lost to history.

According to the stories—which, I’ll admit, do all sound a mite suspicious—his last adventure, like Evel’s jump over the Grand Canyon, never came to pass. Evidently the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, for whom Goddard Space Flight Center is named, once made an offhand comment about how hard it would be to hit the moon with a cannonball. Directly after which, dozens of people volunteered to get shot to the moon. The press wouldn’t leave the story alone. The unwanted publicity and pesky questioning so exasperated Dr. Goddard that he became reticent with the press from there on out. However, our hero, Charles N. Fitzgerald, not only promptly volunteered to ride inside the cannonball (apparently assuming it was going to have to be a giant cannon), but went so far as to call it his “last adventure” and to formally say goodbye to his Mom!

I like the picture, anyway…now that I have steeled myself against my acrophobia and can look at it. I look at a lot of old pictures, one way and another.


(Thanks to Caramel and 1-900-Hotdog, among others)

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Featured Comments from:

Herman Krieger: “Another girder, or rather a bridge crawler. This fellow was drunk, and crawled over the bridge on a dare from a drunken companion.”

Bill Tyler: “Perhaps Fitzgerald and/or Goddard had been reading Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, in which the Baltimore Gun Club constructs and uses a giant cannon to carry three intrepid travelers on just that journey.”

Tony McLean: “As a former rock climber, and having climbed a few routes on this limestone crag overlooking the town of Matlock, in Derbyshire, U.K., Paul Hill took this photograph of his daughter dangling her legs over the precipice. Here is an account of this famous image.”

Mike replies: Probably Photoshopped. Just kidding!

It is a famous picture and it’s a charming article. I very much like that series.

Gary Merken: “Wow, has it really been 50 years since Evel Knievel’s heyday? Where’d the time go? I remember watching his motorcycle stunts on television when I was a kid. Jumping over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. A line of buses at Wembley Stadium. A rocket-fueled attempt over the Snake River Canyon (I forget if he was successful in that one). Broke every bone in his body, twice.

“There was a hill with a narrow dirt path behind my elementary school. One day after school a group of us boys built a small ramp from a piece of wood and some logs and took turns riding our bicycles down the hill and over the ramp. My attempt didn’t end so well; I crashed off the ramp and the handlebar dug into my stomach. No lasting damage, at least to my body. My pride, well, that was another story!”


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