The Disappearance Of Captain Mansell R. James

The Disappearance of Captain Mansell R. James

By Jim Ignasher

     One of New England’s most intriguing aviation mysteries relates to the unexplained disappearance of 25-year-old Royal Air Force Captain Mansell R. James, who vanished without a trace in the spring of 1919. James was a native of Ontario, Canada, who’d served overseas with the R.A. F. during World War I downing eleven enemy aircraft. He’d come to the United States to enter a contest sponsored by the Boston Globe newspaper for the fastest flight-time between Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Boston, Massachusetts. To the winner would go a trophy and cash prize of one-thousand dollars.

     On May 28, 1919, James made a flight from Atlantic City to Boston in a Sopwith Camel biplane, the same type of aircraft he’d flown in combat during the war. He landed in Boston having flown at an average speed of 115 miles per hour, successfully eclipsing the fastest speed to date of 90 miles per hour. To this, the Boston Globe reported in part, “This is one of the fastest flights ever made in this country and will in all probability capture the Globe Trophy and cash prize of $1,000.” 

     When it came time to leave Boston, James reportedly flew to nearby Saugus, Massachusetts, to have the air ballast tank on his airplane refilled.  Prior to leaving Saugus it was discovered that the compass of his aircraft wasn’t working properly, but James was an experienced airman, and intended to navigate by following the railroad tracks of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad towards Atlantic City.      

     He left Saugus about 6:00 p.m., but while passing over Boston he inadvertently began following tracks belonging to the Boston & Albany Railroad.  These tracks led him in the wrong direction, leading him across central and western Massachusetts.  At about 7:30 p.m.  he landed in the small town of Tyringham, Massachusetts.  There he spent the night with the intention of resuming his trip in the morning.

     Newspaper accounts of what happened next vary slightly, but the basic facts are this; on the morning of May 29, 1919, Captain James took off from Tyringham, Massachusetts, bound for Mitchell Field on Long Island, New York, where he intended to refuel.  (Some news reports state he left from the town of Lee, Massachusetts, a town that borders Tyringham.) From Mitchell Field James was expected to continue on to Atlantic City.

    In leaving Tyringham, James reportedly stated he intended to follow the Housatonic River, which flows southward through Massachusetts and Connecticut all the way to Long Island Sound.  From there he intended to cross the Sound to Long Island. (Other reports say he intended to follow railroad tracks.) When he failed to appear at Mitchell Filed it was initially assumed that he’d changed his plans and flew to Toronto, Canada, instead.  However, inquiries from Mitchell Field officials proved this not to be the case.

     A search was begun, but it was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It was almost June, and the trees were in full foliage thus making it difficult if not impossible to spot a downed airplane. Furthermore, the New England countryside in 1919 was very rural, with literally thousands of square miles of forests, rivers, and lakes, capable of easily swallowing a small airplane.

     At least five military aircraft from Mitchell Field were brought in for the search, and in some areas ground volunteers probed the woodlands, but it was all mostly guesswork, for there were many possibilities. Captain James could have gotten lost or disoriented in low level clouds, and with an inoperable compass flown miles off his intended course. He could have gone down in the Housatonic River, flown into a thickly wooded hillside, or even fallen into Long Island Sound.    

     With no immediate leads, authorities appealed to the public for information, and possible sightings of James’s plane began to trickle in. One early report had James over the town of Winchester, Connecticut.  Another report held that an airplane, possibly in distress, had been heard over West Cornwall, Connecticut. Still others came forth with sightings that ranged from the Mt. Riga area of Salisbury, to Windham, to Stratford, as well as the town of Millerton, in upstate New York. Unfortunately the reports lacked confirmation that it was actually James’s airplane that had been sighted, and investigators had to keep in mind that Captain James’s airplane wasn’t the only one in the sky at the time of his disappearance.

   On June 7th it was reported that one of the military aircraft taking part in the search suffered engine failure and crash-landed in the town of Newburgh, New York. By this point James had been missing six days and since he wasn’t known to have taken any food or water with him, hopes that he may still be alive, but injured, began to fade. It was assumed that if or when James was found, it would likely be by accident.        

     There were no significant developments in the case until two months later when a hiker from Lakeville, Connecticut, reported that he may have discovered the wreck of James’s airplane in a valley between Mt. Riga and Bear and Monument mountains. The man reported that on July 31st he’d been berry picking on Mt. Riga about three miles in from the nearest road, when he came upon a foul odor wafting in the air. From a rocky ledge, he looked down and saw what may or may not have been the remains of an airplane; he couldn’t be sure due to the distance involved.  

     The man returned to the area the following day with his nephew, but they were unable to locate the place from which he’d made his observation. Further expeditions were carried out, and in one instance a reporter from the Hartford Courant newspaper went along, but no sign of the missing aircraft was found.

     On October 2, 1919, a small but intriguing news item appeared in the Norwich Bulletin, a now defunct Connecticut newspaper that read as follows: “A badly mutilated body was washed ashore in Hempstead Bay, L.I. A wrist watch thought to be that of Capt. Mansell R. James, a lost British aviator, was the only clew to identification.” (The word “clew” was their spelling.)

Norwich Bulletin, October 2, 1919

     Could this have been the body of Mansell James four months after his disappearance, or that of some other unfortunate person who happened to wear a similar watch?  Unfortunately contemporary research revealed that there doesn’t appear to be any further information available concerning this incident.

     Several Long Island libraries with historic newspaper microfilm collections were contacted via telephone, but none were able to locate any articles in local papers about this incident.  However, it should be noted that some collections were incomplete.

    Furthermore, the Norwich Bulletin didn’t name the town where the body allegedly washed ashore.  Hempstead Bay is a large body of water located on the north shore of Long Island and faces out to Long Island Sound.  It’s bordered by four separate municipalities along its shoreline: Sands Point, North Hempstead, Glen Cove, and Oyster Bay.  Contacting town halls revealed that none of these municipalities seem to have any vital statistic record of an unidentified body being recovered from the water during the time frame of late September to early October of 1919.  However, it should be noted that one stated their death records only go back as far as 1920.

    Therefore, as of this writing, the mention of the body adds yet another page to this unsolved mystery. 

   In the spring of 1921, some fishing boats began snagging their nets on “something” lying on the bed of the Hudson River about three miles north of Poughkeepsie, New York. In mid-June a group of fishermen got together with their boats and attempted to raise whatever it was and remove if from the river. Unfortunately the attempt was unsuccessful, for the ropes reportedly broke just as the object was coming to the surface. However, those who were able to get a brief glimpse of the object claimed it was an airplane. On June 22ed, the New York Tribune reported in part, “A vain attempt of the fishermen to raise it resulted in a partial view of the object and the report was that it is an airplane.” Some of the ropes that had been attached to the object reportedly had green paint coloring on them, and it was noted that James’s plane had been painted green on its underside.

     On June 25th a second attempt to raise the object was undertaken, and this time it was successfully brought to the surface. Instead of an airplane, the object was positively identified as a huge log. The alleged green paint was attributed to algae on the log.

     Four-and-a-half-years later interest in the disappearance was renewed when in December of 1925 a hunter reported finding a wrecked airplane in the woods of Tyringham, Massachusetts, the area from which Captain James began his ill fated trip. Unfortunately the hunter was from New York, and unfamiliar with the area, and was unable to lead searchers back to his discovery.  

   Then on May 19, 1927, the U.S. Coast Guard boat 290 was involved in a search for the missing French aircraft, White Bird, when the crew recovered an aircraft wing found floating in Fort Pond Bay near Montauk Point on the southern tip of Long Island. The wing bore no markings and had evidently been in the water for a long time. After examination, authorities didn’t believe it to be related to the missing French airplane, but some raised the possibility of it being connected with Capt. James’s disappearance, however this was never established.

     The disappearance of Captain James eventually faded into obscurity, but the mystery of what happened to him still remains.  


Boston Daily Globe, “Capt. James Loses Way Lands In Tryingham”, May 29, 1919, page 1

Boston Daily Globe, “Briton Makes Remarkable Flight For Globe Trophy”, May 29, 1919.

New York Times, “Seek British Ace Missing In Flight”, June 2, 1919

New York Times, “Air Search For James”, June 3, 1919

The Barre Daily Times, (Vermont), “Missing Airman Being Sought”, June 3, 1919

Hartford Courant, (Conn.), “To Search West Cornwall Woods For Lost Airman”, June 3, 1919

Hartford Courant, “Airman Here Seeking Missing Canadian Ace, Believes He Is Dead”, June 4, 1919

Hartford Courant, “No Trace Yet Of Missing Aviator”, June 4, 1919

New York Times, “Five Army Planes Hunt Lost Aviator”, June 4, 1919

Hartford Courant, “Find No Trace Of Missing Ace”, June 5, 1919

The Bennington Evening Banner, (Vermont), “Hope Of Finding Captain James”, June 5, 1919

New York Times, “Seek Missing Airman In Wooded Wilderness”, June 5, 1919

Hartford Courant, “Believe James Fell Into Sound”, June 6, 1919

Harrisburg Telegraph, (Penn.), “Stunt Aviator To Hunt James”, June 6, 1919

The Washington Herald, (Washington D.C.), “Fliers Abandon Hunt For Lost Brisitsh Ace”, June 6, 1919

The Bridgeport Times And Evening Farmer, (Conn.), no headline – news item of W. C. Magune sighting James’s plane over Stratford, Conn.

Hartford Courant, “James Traced Close To Sound”, June 7, 1919

Norwich Bulletin, (Conn.), “Tracing Course Of Missing Aviator James”, June 7, 1919

The Evening World, (N.Y.), “Pulitzer Trophy Draws Crowds”, June 10, 1919

Hartford Courant, “Believe British Ace Gone Two Months Lies Dead In Mt. Riga Gully”, August 6, 1919

The Sun (New York),”Thinks He Saw Aero Of Lost Capt. James”, August 6, 1919

The Bennington Evening Farmer, (Vermont), “Saw Wrecked Airplane”, August 7, 1919

Hartford Courant, (Conn.) “No Hope Held Out Of Finding Aviator’s Body”, August 9, 1919

New York Tribune, “Obstruction In Hudson May Be British Plane”, June 22, 1921

New York Times, “Wreckage In Hudson May Be Lost Plane”, June 22, 1921

New York Tribune, “Captain James’s Plane Believed Found In River”, June 23, 1921

Norwich Bulletin, (Conn.) “Fishermen Unable To Raise Hudson Obstruction”, June 23, 1921

Hartford Courant, (Conn.) “Sunken Object In Hudson River Is Not Airplane”, June 26, 1921

Ottawa Citizen,(Canada), “Search Tyringham Woods For Plane”, December 17, 1925, page 5

Buffalo Courier, (N.Y.), “Find No Trace Of Airplane Reported Wrecked In Woods”, December 18, 1925

The Meriden Daily Journal, (Conn.), “Missing Plane Wing Claimed”, June 7, 1927, page 3

Canadian War Project,



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