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October/November 2005
 
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The Flying Cows of Biloxi, by Benson Bidwell (1907)

CHICAGO at the turn of the last century is famous for one literary humbug, the man who posed as Oz the Great and Terrible in L. Frank Baum's famous book. Living there at the same time was another humbug, one [Joseph] Benson Bidwell (1835-1912), self-promoter, supposed inventor, and author of two books: a short epistolary fantasy, The Flying Cows of Biloxi, and an autobiography, Benson Bidwell, Inventor of the Trolley Car, Electric Fan and Cold Motor. The latter is one of the most unintentionally funny books I have ever seen, describing events of Bidwell's life on the level of myth and with numerous oddball illustrations captioned "Baby Brother Petting Snake," "He Scalds His Mother's Foot," "Live Indian Roasted on Logheap," "Old Horse Resents Singeing," etc. The prose is similarly heightened. Ah, what Monty Python could do with this tale!

The Flying Cows of Biloxi (similarly illustrated) collects Bidwell's letters to a friend about how, when visiting Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1893, he observed that the cows fed upon Spanish moss, which grows only high up in the trees. So Bidwell invented a way to graft branches of orange trees onto the cows so they could fly up for their feed. The wings have the added advantage of growing oranges! Another great invention for the learned Bidwell!

The truth is another story. A perusal of the Chicago Record-Herald from 1907-09 finds Bidwell arrested and charged with embezzlement. Investors in his cold motor engine claimed that their money was used solely to fund the publication of his two books. Benson was convicted of running a confidence game and sentenced to ten years in prison. His son (and partner) accepted the prison term so his elderly father could remain free. The Flying Cows of Biloxi lives as a curiosity for many reasons.

—Douglas A. Anderson

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