The Rise and Fall of the Queen of the Clouds

Her final descent, when it came, came quickly.

In 1905 she was Nellie de Vaughn, soaring through the sky in an airship as California crowds below watched and marveled:

nellie young actress 9-25-06 lah

In 1906 she was Minnie Crenshaw, buying strychnine from a druggist in downtown Fort Worth:

By the time Minnie Crenshaw committed suicide in Fort Worth on August 7, 1906, she had lived large: As a teenager Nellie de Vaughn had performed in Ringling Brothers’ circus, diving on her horse fifty feet from a tower into a twenty-foot-deep tank of water. She was billed as “the daintiest, most graceful, and beautiful lady bareback rider on earth.” Then she became a vaudeville entertainer, touring the country as she sang in Floradora and other musical comedies.

crenshaw 1904 CD

While touring in a show she met Adolphus F. Crenshaw. Crenshaw was described by some as an inventor, playwright, and producer, although he was listed in the 1904 Los Angeles city directory as a horseshoer. Nellie and Adolphus married and toured the Southwest in his show, “Crenshaw’s Comedy Company.”

In Los Angeles in 1905 Nellie and Adolphus heard that Professor Wordin F. Twombly was seeking a daring young woman to “chauffeur” his invention, the Bullet, the largest airship in America.

Just a few months earlier, the Los Angeles Herald reported, the “sky yacht” Bullet had been seized and impounded because Professor Twombly owed a creditor $13.72. But that contretemps was worked out, the Bullet was set free, and Nellie de Vaughn got the job as the airship’s “chauffeur.”

“It is the ambition of my life to be known as the airship queen,” she said. “To me, sailing in a ship is not a thing to fear. It is a joy, a pleasure, to soar, and I would rather do it than anything else.”

Her first flight ascended to two thousand feet but not without some peril. First the rudder was damaged, making the airship difficult to steer. Then the crank used to start the airship’s engines fell to the ground from the gondola. Then a strong wind carried the crippled Bullet beyond the view of spectators at Los Angeles’s Chutes Park. When Twombly and Nellie tried to land, the Bullet snagged in a tree. Then on a fence. When the Bullet finally landed, the gondola was so damaged that it had to be replaced.

Undaunted, Nellie made a second flight, reportedly reaching seven thousand feet. This time she was accompanied by her husband. Again they lost control of the airship in a high wind and drifted thirty miles before they could bring the airship down. The Los Angeles newspapers devoted their front pages to the wild flight. Remember that the Wright brothers had made the first controlled, powered, sustained heavier-than-air flight a mere two years earlier.

How did Nellie de Vaughn, the “queen of the clouds,” come to be living in Fort Worth as “Minnie Crenshaw” a few months after her historic flights in Los Angeles? A good question.

This ad, which ran in the Fort Worth Telegram just two days before her death, shows that she did perform locally as “Nellie de Vaughn.” North Side developer Sam Rosen’s White City trolley park at Northwest 24th and Grayson streets had opened in 1906. (After the success of the Chicago’s World’s Fair and its White City attractions in 1893, many cities had an amusement park named “White City.”)

Why did Minnie Crenshaw kill herself? Another good question. The Los Angeles Herald said she was bored with her life in Fort Worth as the wife of a blacksmith. She and her husband had moved from Los Angeles to Fort Worth about three months earlier. In Fort Worth, Adolphus F. Crenshaw worked for John Weiderkrantz, who owned one of seven blacksmith shops on Rusk (Commerce) Street in 1906. Was Crenshaw the inventor, playwright, and producer working as a blacksmith just to pay the bills? Yet another good question. The bottom clip is from Billboard magazine.

crenshaw 07 cd

The Telegram reported that husband and wife were happy, that Crenshaw had plans for an airship that his wife could more easily navigate. However, the newspaper said he did admit that his wife had been “hysterical” lately, had spoken of death and of the relief it would bring.

On the afternoon of Minnie Crenshaw’s death her husband gave her “shopping money.” She bought a blouse and a pair of shoes. Then, at Renfro’s drugstore at 317 Main, she bought some strychnine crystals—“for rats,” she told druggist J. D. Druchett. She then walked around the corner to the blacksmith shop at 409 Rusk, swallowed the strychnine, and told her husband what she had done.

This Telegram clip quotes part of the testimony of Adolphus Crenshaw at the coroner’s inquest. Crenshaw identified himself as a horseshoer, his wife as merely “Minnie.” He did not mention her stage name or her celebrity.

nellie recognized 8-10-06 lah

Only at her funeral, when a reporter recognized the woman in the coffin as Nellie de Vaughn, did Adolphus Crenshaw acknowledge that his wife had been the pioneering woman aerialist. Clip is from the Los Angeles Herald.

crenshaw burial 8-9-06 dmn

Burial, the Dallas Morning News reported in a five-line notice, was in Oakwood Cemetery, although the cemetery has no record of her burial.

The woman who was the “queen of the clouds,” who was both Nellie de Vaughn and Minnie Crenshaw, was nineteen years old.

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7 Responses to The Rise and Fall of the Queen of the Clouds

  1. Richard White says:

    Strychnine is a hell of an excruciating way to go. Perhaps she didn’t know its effects.

    • hometown says:

      It’s one of those stories in Fort Worth history that asks more questions than it answers.

  2. Colleen says:

    Very interesting story. Maybe she wanted to separate herself from the circus and someone found her out.

  3. Donna says:

    Adolphus F Crenshaw returned to Los Angeles, remarried, had a daughter, got into the automobile repair business and died in LA Feb 27, 1948.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Donna. Yeah, I had found that he went back to “home and hammer.” Interesting story.

  4. Mellinda Timblin says:

    Cold Case?

    • hometown says:

      The coroner ruled suicide, so the legal case was closed. Where she was buried, what became of the husband I could not find. Stories this old can be exasperatingly difficult to get closure on. I stumbled across this story while trying to learn the outcome of a case of that same era: Two inmates in the Fort Worth jail had argued. One inmate was released. Soon thereafter the remaining inmate received in the mail a box of bonbons. He ate, he died. Other inmates with whom he shared the candy were sickened. Strychnine poisoning. The released inmate was accused to having mailed the poisoned bonbons to the remaining inmate. I never could find out if he was formally charged with murder, convicted, cleared, etc. The story just disappeared.

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