Flying on One Wing

Laura Ingalls Was Fast, Famous and Fascist

By John Strausbaugh

Amelia Earhart is back in the news. A new book elaborates on the old theory that she was on a spy mission when she disappeared in 1937.

In her time, Earhart was just one of a generation of celebrated women aviators. Just as famous, or infamous, was Laura Ingalls (no relation to Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie), and spying was part of her story, too.

Ingalls grew up in a wealthy German-American home in Brooklyn and was educated in the finest private schools in Europe. Petite, with an impishly boyish face and a wild streak, she was for brief spells a concert pianist, a ballerina and a vaudeville dancer before she started taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Field on Long Island in the 1920s. She was only the fifteenth woman in the US to earn a pilot's license, and embarked on a glittering career as a stunt and race flyer in the 1930s.

In September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, Ingalls's right-wing politics came to the fore. Like another flyer, Charles Lindbergh, she was pro-Hitler and against America getting involved in any war to stop him. That September she flew over the White House, violating restrictions on the air space, and dropped antiwar leaflets. When she landed she was arrested and her pilot's license was suspended for a week.

In 1941 Ingalls went to the German embassy in Washington made a secret deal to spread pro-German propaganda for $300 a month. She went on speaking tours, citing passages from Mein Kampf and even giving the Nazi stiff-arm salute. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year, the FBI and Justice Department moved swiftly to round up pro-Nazi Americans. Ingalls was the first woman among them. At her trial in February 1942, witnesses remembered her wearing a swastika pendant and calling Hitler "a marvelous man." The prosecutor called her a "missionary for the Nazi cause."

Ingalls claimed that it was all a ruse. She said that she had gone to see Herbert Hoover and offered to spy on the Nazis for the FBI. When he turned her down, she said, she went ahead on her own, ingratiating herself at the embassy so that she could gather intelligence on Nazi activities in the U.S. She admitted that she'd said and written much in praise of Hitler, but only to maintain her cover. Questioned about why she'd passed no information to the FBI, she said she'd been arrested before her investigations were complete.

The jury didn't buy it. It took them only an hour to convict her. She gave a grand prepared speech at her sentencing hearing. "My motives were born of a burning patriotism and a high idealism," she said. She declared herself "a truer patriot than those who convicted me." The judge gave her eight months to two years behind bars and sent her to the District of Columbia Prison. According to the New York Daily Mirror, when she was denied parole in October 1942 she began to "act up. She continually praised Hitler as a great man and expounded on 'what a wonderful place this will be' when Hitler takes over." She was placed in solitary confinement "because her ranting and screaming so disrupted prison routine." When she tried to organize white women inmates against black ones, the white women beat her up, reportedly breaking her nose and a few ribs. She was removed to the West Virginia Women's Reformatory in July 1943 and served the remainder of her sentence there before being released that October.

She was unrepentant. Her response to D-Day in June 1944 was that it was a "blood drunk orgy" and the Germans were fighting for "the independence of Europe -- independence from the Jews. Bravo!" The following month she was stopped in El Paso trying to cross into Mexico, and government agents found her suitcase stuffed with pro-Nazi and pro-Japanese literature. She was turned back.

After that she settled in Burbank, California and pulled her own disappearing act. She died quietly in 1966.

Published January 7th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.