Ask Donald Davidson: A little Wilbur Shaw and Carl Fisher mythbusting

Published On December 2, 2015 » 2363 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Uncategorized

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In the Brock Yates book on Mike Boyle, entitled “Umbrella Mike,” it states that Wilbur Shaw was only 5-foot-2. Is that correct? – J. Williams, Fort Wayne

No it is not, and we have to agree with a number of bloggers out there who suggest the Boyle book is not exactly what one would consider to be an error-free offering! In fact, the dynamic Shaw was believed to have stood somewhere between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-8, but with that stated, we do have a theory on where the “5-foot-2” misinformation may have originated. There is a frequently published photograph taken at the 1936 victory banquet in which the brand new Borg-Warner trophy is being presented to Louis Meyer, who the day before had won the “500” for the third time. In the shot with Meyer is chief starter Seth Klein (a giant of a man), and on the left, a diminutive, mustachioed gentleman dressed in a business suit who is often misidentified as being Shaw. In fact, it is the advertising manager and a publicist for Borg-Warner, named Freddie Lockwood, who was still around in the 1960s to tell entertaining stories about life at the track in the 1930s.

Louis Meyer is feted for his third Indianapolis 500 win in 1936. But that's not Wilbur Shaw next to him.

Louis Meyer is feted for his third Indianapolis 500 win in 1936. But that’s not Wilbur Shaw next to him.

While we are about it, perhaps we could take this opportunity to try and dispel the decades-old myth that when track founder Carl Fisher married Miss Jane Watts in 1909, he was 35 years old and she was only 15!

Oh really?

Take a look at their engagement photo which appeared in the Indianapolis News on the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 23, 1909, and ask yourself if that is, in fact, a 15 year-old girl?

And take a moment to read the accompanying article which states that “the bride is well known in social circles” and that “there has been a rumor of engagement for months.”

We began to question the “age thing” many years ago, and based upon the findings of several other suspicious individuals who have approached us in the interim, we respectfully put forth that the “blushing bride” was really 24, not 15.

The origin of the myth most likely dates back to the 1947 book “Fabulous Hoosier,” which was Jane’s version of Carl Fisher’s life. In it, she claims at least a half-dozen times that she was a blushing bride of 15, and she further claims that she had always worn her long hair in pigtails and had never worn it “up and rolled in the back” until her wedding day. In deference to that claim, the mature and confidant-looking woman in the engagement photo is wearing her hair “up” just as she had likely done so numerous times before.

As an aside, there are numerous exaggerations and errors of fact in the book, not the least of which suggests that the track was 15 miles from downtown (it was/is approximately five miles); that their home on Cold Spring Road was 12 miles from downtown (it was about four); that there were 75,000 people in the grandstands for the 1909 balloon race (there were about 3,000 in the stands, with the rest of the crowd milling around inside and outside the grounds) and that after the disastrous automobile races in August 1909, Carl announced that only a 500-mile race would be held the following year. Obviously, there were several multi-day racing programs and various other contests in 1910, with the first “500” coming in 1911.

Jane Watts was quite difficult to track through the normal genealogical channels because she was adopted. Her name at birth was Millsagle, rather than Watts, and friends with whom she grew up knew her as Jennie, rather than Jane, this being confirmed in the 1907 Indianapolis street guide where she appears as Jennie Watts, using the same address as Roy Watts, her half-brother.
And she is listed as being a stenographer!

Well, for heaven’s sake! Considering that the 1907 guide contained mostly 1906 information, this means that according to her, she would have been a stenographer at age 12!

And then there is the matter of the 1900 census records which shows she was already 15, back then.

Unfortunately, while marriage application records from the time typically show a full date of birth for both bride and groom, the entries for Fisher and Watts in 1909 list only a year.

This can be explained.

With the nuptials to be performed at the home of the bride’s parents at 724 N. Capitol Ave. at 11 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 23, Fisher suddenly realized, with little more than an hour to spare, that he had neglected to obtain a marriage license. He and a friend, Frank Moore, went tearing out of the house and made a spirited drive down to the county clerk’s office several blocks to the south. While it is understood that the office in those days more than likely would have been closed for the weekend, the energetic and persuasive Fisher obviously had plenty of connections and was able to get some special attention. There was one further predicament, however: the application required the signature of the bride-to-be.

So back up to the home of the parents they raced, grabbing Jane’s signature and thundering south again to the county clerk’s office, finally to return to 724 N. Capitol with everything in order, the scheduled 11 a.m. ceremony finally getting underway about 20 minutes late.

While Jane would claim in decades to come that Carl had advised her to “fudge” about her real age to prevent tongues from wagging, it appears that any “fudging” came much later and was hers alone. Her year of birth given on the marriage application – 1885 – appears to be correct, considering all of the information which later came to light, making her 24 when she married Fisher, not 15!

The best guess is that during her several decades of being a socialite in Miami, during which time she had divorced Fisher and remarried several times to a succession of husbands who were younger than herself, she had taken to knocking off a year here and there to the extent that when it came time for the publication of her book in 1947, she had to make herself 15 back in 1909 in order for everything to work out.

So there you are! Another one of those annoying myths which have been around for so long and perpetuated in print so many times—including several times in 2015 alone – that they are probably never going to go away.


About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.

Uh, Donald, where's the picture of the happy couple?