John Simpson, a man with a love of adventure, has always been drawn to a figure who looms large in his family history, the Wild West showman and aviation pioneer Sam Cody. “I love the old boy,” says the BBC’s world affairs editor at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
Yet this is a love story with a schism at its root: John’s great grandmother, Lela Cody, left her husband, Edward King, to take up with Sam. She never divorced Edward, and pretended Sam was the father of three of her four children.
There’s a similar family breakdown in John’s own life. As a child, his parents separated and he chose to stay with his father rather than his mother, Joyce, Lela’s granddaughter. Partly as a result, John largely lost contact with his mother’s side of the family, something he now wants to correct.
He begins by researching Sam’s life. In 1908, Sam flew British Army Aeroplane No 1, which he designed and built, for 27 seconds before the craft crashed to the ground from 40 feet. It was the first official flight of a piloted heavier-than-air machine in Great Britain. In earlier years, Sam designed huge kites that could carry a person aloft.
Sam walked away from this crash, but in 1913 he wasn’t so lucky, and died when his plane came down near Aldershot. He was buried with full military honours and 100,000 people turned out for the funeral.
As to how Sam and Lela met, it appears likely they were both employed in one of the spectacular Wild West shows held in the Victorian era at venues such as the Olympia in Kensington. Lela was an accomplished horsewoman, while Sam was a sharpshooter. They pretended to be married to avoid embarrassment.
But what of Lela’s husband, Edward, John’s great grandfather? The 1881 census records show Edward living just 200 yards from John’s home in Chelsea. Only in his 30s, he was “retired”? What happened? Going back a generation further reveals a tragedy: Edward’s father, John, died of poisoning “through the carelessness of his son” who bought oxalic acid, which was decanted into one of John’s medicine bottles.
John was a publican and didn’t leave anywhere near enough money for Edward to retire on. Sadly, it seems likely Edward suffered with chronic kidney disease. In later life, he lived with his daughter, Liese, who didn’t go into showbiz like her siblings but married, to one Arthur Whittall. But there was another tragedy. Arthur died of typhoidin 1906, at around the same time as John’s mother was born. He was just 32 years old.
Liese and her three daughters went to live with Lela and Sam. She’s described on the 1911 census as a cousin. And as a housekeeper, too, yet it seems Liese had a key role in Sam’s aircraft-construction operation, making the silk covering for aeroplane wings.
Having met relatives he hasn’t seen for years and seen a picture of his grandmother for the first time ever, John says he’s “much more aware of the forces that made me” – and feels much closer to his mother, too. He’s even kept a promise to his wife not to “fuss and break down in tears”, but it’s been a close-run thing.