A shorter version of this story appeared in the July/August edition of the Library of Congress Magazine.
The best clues to a person’s character lie right in the palms of their hands. That, at least, is what Nellie Simmons Meier believed.
Meier, you see, was one of the world’s foremost practitioners of the “science” of palmistry in the 1920s and ’30s. She and other palmists thought they could divine one’s character, personality and, perhaps, even their future by studying the shape of the hands and the lines of the palms.
Meier was so renowned for her work that some of the world’s most famous folks — Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Gershwin, Booker T. Washington and Susan B. Anthony, among others — sought her insight. Many trekked all the way to Tuckaway, her cottage in Indianapolis, for consultations.
Sitting in the parlor, Meier examined their hands, seeking clues to what made them tick. She also made prints of their hands and wrote character analyses based on her readings. In 1937, she published her work in a book, “Lions’ Paws: The Story of Famous Hands.”
Eventually, she donated a portion of her original material to the Library — the Manuscript Division holds autographed handprints and photographs of 135 notable figures as well as the character sketches she wrote for each.
In 1933, Meier examined a pair of hands that, wrapped around the controls of a Lockheed Vega 5B, helped make aviation history. Just a year earlier, Amelia Earhart had flown from Newfoundland to Ireland — the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic by a woman. When visitors see Earhart’s handprint in the Library today, they often comment upon its size. Earhart stood 5 feet and either 7 or 8 inches (both are listed in official records) tall, about four inches taller than the average American woman in 1930, and the handprint gives an impression of athletic, physical capability.
In her own examination of Earhart’s hands, Meier saw signs of a natural caution that, she wrote, “acts as a preventive to her taking unnecessary risks or doing foolhardy stunts.”
Yet, flying was inherently risky, and Earhart was pushing boundaries.
So it was that, four years after that meeting with Meier, Earhart took flight on another attempt to make history, this time as the first woman to fly around the world, aided only by navigator Fred Noonan.
Following a shakedown flight from Oakland, California, Earhart and Noonan departed Miami on June 1, 1937, in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra bound for Puerto Rico, South America and points far beyond. After covering more than 19,000 miles over the next month, the pair took off from Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, headed for the pin-drop-sized Howland Island, more than 2,500 miles away. The uninhabited island, little more than a coral atoll, covers less than one square mile and rises just 20 feet above the sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, anchored off Howland Island, made radio contact with the pair repeatedly over the course of seven hours in the early hours of July 2. The signal was eventually strong and the reception clear, with Earhart’s plane reporting at one point they were less than 100 miles from Howland. The Itasca sent up a smoke screen to help the pilot and navigator spot them in the early morning glare.
But something went amiss; the cutter and the plane never spotted one another. After a few hours, Earhart reported they were running out of fuel and still couldn’t find the island. Radio contact ended. By 11 a.m., the ship’s officers concluded the plane had gone down.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately authorized the most extensive (and expensive) air and sea search in U.S. history. It turned up nothing. Earhart and Noonan were declared lost at sea by the end of the month. A government report concluded the pair had run out of gas and crashed in the open sea, but books, theories and searches continue to this day, spurred by radio signals that some say came from Earhart days after the plane went down. High-tech expeditions have searched the ocean floor around Howland Island, while others have focused on an uninhabited atoll 350 miles away, Nikumaroro, on the theory that the pair managed to land on a reef that was dry at low tide, were badly injured and survived for several days. None has been proven conclusively.
Today, though, Earhart’s pioneeering legacy lives on, and the Library still preserves the images of those hands that made history.
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