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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,013

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This is the grave of Martin and Osa Johnson.

Martin Johnson was born in 1884 in Rockford, Illinois, but grew up in Kansas farming towns. Osa Leighty came out of the town of Chanute, Kansas in 1894. Martin’s father was a jeweler and this required him to be connected to the world. After all, the good stuff came from Europe. Martin was fascinated by this and had a spirit that made him seek adventure. So as a teenager, he stowed away on a ship to Europe and evidently did make it there and spent some time rambling around. While on the way back to Kansas, he read that Jack London wanted to travel around the world is his own boat. So Johnson cabled him to join the expedition. London actually replied asking if he could cook. Johnson, mostly lying I think, said sure! So he was on the Snark, which seems like a good name for a boat for a writer, which sailed around the Pacific in 1907. Didn’t make it around the world, but did receive plenty of attention (London wrote a book about it) and they saw a lot of cool stuff in the Pacific, landing in places such as Hawaii, Fiji, Bora Bora, Tahiti, and Guadalcanal, where they ditched the boat and took a steamer to Australia. And there we have it, turns out Guadalcanal does have some other history outside the battle in World War II.

Anyway, all this made Johnson decided he wanted adventure. And he meant this in the most classic possible way. It’s not just that he wanted to travel. He wanted ADVENTURE! I don’t know if there’s something particularly American about this sort of thing, probably not, but he seems like a guy who had this sort of fetish for exoticism and dangerous situation, like someone who read too much Theodore Roosevelt. On his return to the U.S., Johnson did a tour of cool artifacts and stuff to show the yokels in small towns around the Midwest. While in Chanute, Kansas, a small town that’s about as far into the middle of nowhere as you could ever want, a met a local singer named Osa Leighty. They soon married as she was excited about adventure as he was. Can’t blame these people for wanting to get the hell out of small town Kansas, a goal for kids in these places for well over a century now. They married in 1910 and spend the next seven years traveling around the U.S. and Europe with their artifacts, doing what seems to be a sort of show based around them. They did keep a home in Chanute though, which became their home base in the rare times they were in the United States and not touring.

But even the touring got boring after awhile. So in 1917, an interesting time to decide to go play around the world, they got a ship and went back to the South Pacific, touring what is today Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. While there, they ended up in real trouble. By this time, these islanders were pretty sick of the sometimes violent and always exploitative whites they faced so a chief of one tribe refused to let them leave, keeping them as slaves of some sort. But a British gunboat came by (guess it didn’t have anything better to do in the middle of World War I) and that forced the chief to let them go. This story became a film Johnson made called Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific, released in 1918 and which pretty much says how whites saw these people. You can watch it here.

This became their hallmark–travel to the world’s most exotic places and take camera footage they could release as films. Other films included Jungle Adventures, from 1921, Headhunters of the South Seas, from 1922, and Trailing Wild African Animals, from 1923. This was very much an imperialist form of travel, often using armed guards after their first issues in the South Pacific, and exploiting people for their own personal gain. Now, one can argue that all travel does this. There’s a whole literature on how tourism affects the people toured upon. In fact, when the Johnsons returned with an armed guard to the south Pacific in 1920, it turned out they didn’t need it because when they showed the tribe the earlier film, it so shocked and changed them that they laid down their arms.

They continued traveling and shooting films through the 1920s, going to Kenya for a three year stretch between 1924 and 1927. Then in 1929-31, they were in the Belgian Congo. Let’s just say they weren’t overly concerned with the conditions of colonization the evil Belgians had created there. By the 30s, they also learned to fly and so used airplane footage frequently in their films, being the first people to film Mt. Kilimanjaro from the air. Their 1935 film Baboona, about their time in Kenya, turned out to be the first sound film ever shown on a commercial aircraft. Martin also published a book in 1929 titled Lion: African Adventure With the King of Beasts. Even more exciting, they were the first couple displayed on a box of Wheaties, in 1934.

In 1937, the Johnsons started a new lecture tour of the United States. These were very popular. But while they were on a flight early in the tour, the plane went down. Osa survived but Martin died. He was 52 years old. Osa was mostly paralyzed after this and was in a wheelchair. But she was still an adventurer and this had defined her life. So she wrote a memoir called I Married Adventure, which was a huge bestseller in 1940. In fact, it was the year’s top selling nonfiction book, which gives you a sense of just how popular these people were. She also hosted the first nature show in TV history. The Big Game Hunt premiered in 1952. Mostly this used the Johnsons’ old footage. As the title suggested, it definitely built on the colonial mentality of their work, seeing both the animals and people of these places as scary and with a lot of need for guns. She died the next year though, at the age of 58. I don’t know if her injuries are why she died so young, but one can guess they contributed.

The Johnsons had no children of course (no adventure there!) but they did have supporters and friends and so in 1961, they opened a museum in Chanute dedicated to their safaris. I did not visit it, but I suppose I should have to to critique all of this even further. Alas, next time I am in rural south central Kansas………………

Martin and Osa Johnson are buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Chanute, Kansas.

If you would like this series to visit other Americans who became famous for “adventurous” travel, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frederick Russell Burnham is in Three Rivers, California and Electa Johnson is in Hadley, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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