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Tracking the Uncanny: Fortean Forays by American Photojournalists

Tracking the Uncanny: Fortean Forays by American Photojournalists

A few names stand out well and above all others in the annals of adventure reporting: broadcaster Lowell Thomas evoked mystery and romance from the four corners of the world through the magic of radio; wild animal hunter Frank Buck would "bring 'em back alive" to the delight of newsreel audiences; and writer Richard Halliburton thrilled readers with his cheeky accounts of astonishing adventures in exotic lands.

On the more esoteric edges of journalistic entertainment, two names shared the limelight. Cartoonist Robert L. Ripley's chronicles of "the strange, the bizarre, and the unexpected" challenged readers to Believe it or Not, while Charles Fort, through a series of books detailing occult, supernatural, and paranormal occurrences, became so firmly linked with research into scientifically unexplained events that this arcane niche now bares his name: Fortean phenomena.

Noteworthy for a measure of popular success along similar lines of journalistic inquiry, Europeans André-Gustave Citroën and Édouard Michelin, scions of wealthy French industrial families and close friends since childhood, shared passions for cryptids, Fortean phenomena, engineering, and the pure joy of travel. With the financing of major sponsors behind them (that is, "family money"), Mitch and Gus, as they were known in the popular press, organized a number of well-equipped expeditions to document with photographic evidence – "for the benefit of science" – the unexplained mysteries of the world and the "shadow creatures that flit just outside our peripheral vision, or perhaps, just outside our reality."

While history is made by many, fickle Mnemosyne grants anamnesis to but an arbitrary few; where one may be remembered in any given field, many others of similar accomplishment are as quickly forgotten, or indeed, fail to engender even in their own lifetimes the popular following accorded to those whom the Fates favor. The exploits of "Mitch and Gus" live on among both the close-knit clique of Fortean scholars and, to an extent, the public at large, thanks in part to a renewed popular culture interest in supernatural and paranormal occurrences, and also to the fortuitous late-1990s rediscovery in a cobwebbed Lothian whisky cellar of a cache of original photographic plates and negatives from their expeditions; but other names, like Elmer Morrow, Claude Laughlin, and even the delightfully alliterative Sally LaSalle, have faded into bleak obscurity.

During a European holiday in the late 1920s, Dayton, Ohio newspaper editor Darby "Gig" Dreyfuss of The Dayton Daylight, a mid-sized regional daily, had noticed the extent to which the strange tales and eerily impressionistic photography of Michelin and Citroën, or "Mitch and Gus," were driving newsstand sales of both general interest weekly magazines and tabloid-style news dailies. Shortly after returning to the states, Dreyfuss attended a conference of fellow editors and publishers in New York City. There he ran into an old newsroom colleague, Francis "Frank" Flynn, who helmed an upstate New York publication, The Rochester Rocket. Dreyfuss learned that Flynn, too, was aware of the success of Mitch & Gus, and had been toying with the idea of sending a similar pair of investigators on assignment to follow up mysteries both natural and supernatural. Flynn even had a reporter in mind, Claude Laughlin.

"He was something of a sourpuss," Flynn was later quoted in regard to Laughlin, "but a helluva reporter, and a stand-up Joe. I didn't want to see him pushing up daisies just yet." While working the police beat, Laughlin had broken a story on a local crime syndicate that resulted in a number of high-profile gangsters doing time in a federal penitentiary; collaterally, the story had also led to death threats against the reporter, and Laughlin had ultimately been wounded during an exchange of gunfire while covering a police standoff with suspected rumrunners, resulting in a permanent limp from the slug buried deep in the bone of his right hip. While Laughlin himself was eager to return to "digging up the real dirt," Flynn felt he could not in good conscience assign Laughlin to stories that might land him in the morgue. Instead, Laughlin was relegated to covering debutante balls and and prize-winning petunias.

What Frank Flynn needed to put Laughlin back to work, and to complete the team he had in mind, however, was a photographer with the creativity and open-mindedness to "capture the invisible." Gig Dreyfuss knew just the photographer. In a story similar to that of Claude Laughlin, Dayton Daylight photographer Elmer Morrow had crossed swords with some powerful people by capturing incriminating photos of high-ranking local and state officials, including legislators and police administrators, in the company of both suspected criminal figures and certain "ladies" other than their spouses. Twice since the front page publication of the photos, Morrow had narrowly escaped serious injury or worse, and his camera equipment had been destroyed a similar number of times, while covering political and police stories. Official reports declared the incidents, all of which involved police motor vehicles, "unfortunate accidents."

Over the course of the week-long New York conference, Dreyfuss and Flynn hammered out a joint agreement between the Daylight and the Rocket to send Laughlin and Morrow on the road in search of "the same stuff those French guys were finding." In addition to the backing of the two newspapers, Dreyfuss and Flynn managed to gain the sponsorship of Rochester's most successful business, a world-recognized name in photographic film. Fitted out with the latest in photographic gear and a bright yellow Ford truck emblazoned with company logos, the team of Laughlin and Morrow was formed.

Laughlin initially felt, as befit his general disposition, pessimistic about the project. "They'll see us coming before we see them… wherever, or whatever, 'they' are," he said when the garish golden Ford expedition vehicle was unveiled. Morrow, more optimistic, eagerly embraced the photographic challenge. Capturing images of things that were not meant to be seen was his forte, and he relished the idea of having the world's leader in photographic technology behind him.

Laughlin's and Morrow's relationships with their bosses, their sponsors, and frequently with one another were often strained. Creating stories about the Unknown "with at least a thread of truth woven into the whole cloth" on a steady schedule was grueling, expensive work requiring countless hours and miles of travel to remote regions. While they never became as popular with the public at large as the Frenchmen Mitch & Gus, the Daylight and the Rocket continued to support Laughlin and Morrow's partnership, and color gravures of their yellow truck emblazoned with the familiar film logo were a standard feature in the regional Sunday supplements for many years.

By the close of the 1930s the focus of Laughlin and Morrow's assignments had begun to shift away from the "unknown" toward "celebrity" stories, albeit usually with an eccentric twist. In the spring of 1939, photographer Morrow flew to Kowloon, China, to document the trans-Pacific voyage of flamboyant author-explorer Richard Halliburton aboard the sailing junk Sea Dragon. Laughlin set up base in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, to transcribe the expected wireless dispatches from Morrow into a series of articles about the expedition. Shortly after the journey commenced, however, contact with the Sea Dragon was lost during a furious typhoon hundreds of miles west of Midway Island. Laughlin joined several search parties both by air and sea. Eventually, with no trace of the Sea Dragon or any of her passengers having been found, the search was called off. "Well, I guess that's the end of chasing monsters," Laughlin was reported to have said.

When his newspaper asked him to return to Rochester, Claude Laughlin instead submitted a letter of resignation, electing to remain in Honolulu. Rather than retire to the Waikiki beachfront, however, Laughlin continued to search for the missing Sea Dragon, financing ever-expanding ocean journeys from his own pocket. In the early winter of 1941, Laughlin claimed to have received reliable information suggesting that wreckage resembling an over-sized Chinese junk had been spotted on the reef surrounding Kure Island, 1,500 miles northwest of Honolulu, and that smoke from what may have been an encampment of shipwrecked mariners had been observed. Additionally, Laughlin had been compiling and documenting reports and rumors of occasional weak radio signals attributed to missing aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan. In late November 1941, Laughlin set out on a hired sailing sloop with a crew of two experienced sailors, having plotted a course for Kure Island to be followed by a loop southward toward Earhart's last calculated position. A little over a week after Laughlin's departure from Honolulu, the U.S. naval station at Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy, and the world was plunged into war. Laughlin's little boat never returned.

Overshadowed by the dramatic events at Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of hostilities throughout the Pacific, the disappearance of Claude Laughlin failed to merit even a single line in any contemporary publication. Latter-day hobbyist-scholars concur that Laughlin's ship likely encountered the approaching Imperial navy, who, to ensure the secrecy of their mission, would have quickly destroyed the little wooden boat.

Similarly inspired by the tabloid popularity of Messieurs Michelin and Citroën, and to compete directly with Morrow and Laughlin on the East Coast, the powerful Hearst newspaper syndicate launched a series of Fortean investigations with added allure: Sally LaSalle, a perky, petite young woman journalist (or "girl reporter" as she was billed) from California, was selected by "people, important people," to become the "Maid for Adventure Girl." LaSalle, who maintained winsome teen good looks well into her thirties, churned out, or lent her name to, volumes of newspaper copy and magazine articles under the "Maid for Adventure" tagline (accompanied by the all-important "pretty girl faces peril and mystery" photos) for well over a decade, and appeared in numerous short newsreel clips. LaSalle was often paired with an associate, or "sidekick," on her expeditions, including a beefy mechanic ("He keeps the machinery oiled, and he knows how to turn a screw"), a number of attractive "girl reporter" protégés, and, for a period of time during the height of her popularity, a chimpanzee or young gorilla. While newspaper columns and film shorts often implied that LaSalle's "missions" were directly assigned by the head of the mighty media empire, whether LaSalle consulted with, or even met, the publishing magnate was a subject of some academic debate (and social gossip) in later years, after the syndicate's influence waned. Unsubstantiated accounts suggested that a "certain powerful woman from Hollywood" went to great lengths to insure that LaSalle and "her boss" never met in person, and as time passed, LaSalle's assignments seemed to take her to ever more remote corners of the globe, far from the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles and New York soirees.

While on one of these lengthy excursions, to the Philippine archipelago in late 1940 or early 1941, Sally LaSalle and her newsreel team disappeared, purportedly seized by the advancing Imperial Japanese army. The few pertinent documents uncovered following the war suggest that LaSalle may have perished, likely of Yellow Fever, while detained in an internment camp for non-combatant enemy civilians. Rumors persist, however, that LaSalle survived the war and returned to the U.S.; but, realizing there was little call for her style of adventure in a post-nuclear world, retired quietly and anonymously to the American midwest.

Unfortunately, little evidence of the effervescent LaSalle's work remains extant; most of the topical newsreel films were recycled for their silver and nitrate content during the war, and the newspapers and magazines in which her exploits were detailed succumbed to paper drives or the ravages of time.

In a burgeoning, prosperous post-war economy, the modern marvel of television captured the fancy of a public eager to put the scarcities of the depression and the war years behind them. As the space age dawned, the mysteries of the cosmos beckoned; the exotic names of formerly remote, enigmatic regions of terra firma evoked only the horrors of war and the tragedy of bloodshed on a mind-numbing scale. With few tangible examples of their contributions to the annals of journalistic entertainment and edification remaining to stir the imaginations of future generations, the stories, the names, and the very purpose of the intrepid scribes of the uncanny -- Elmer Morrow, Claude Laughlin, Sally LaSalle, and scores of a similar ilk – faded, forgotten, into obsolescence.
Tags: André-Gustave Citroën, claude laughlin, cryptid, elmer morrow, fortean, history, journalism, photography, pseudo-history, sally lasalle, Édouard Michelin

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