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The Great African Safari Bust

June 2024
19min read


Africa was part of my childhood. The attic in our Detroit home smelled like a zoo. There were lion, leopard, zebra, antelope, and colobus monkey skins that my sister and I and our friends used to take out of their trunks and forget to put back. There was also an elephant’s foot made into a wastebasket, ten or twelve elephant tusks and several small curved tusks of wart hogs, drums made out of antelope hide, and musical instruments with strings like the vines on which Tarzan swung from tree to tree.

Publisher William Boyce funded the Great African Balloon Expedition and later founded the Boy Scouts.
Publisher William Boyce funded the Great African Balloon Expedition and later founded the Boy Scouts of America.

The head of a Thomson’s gazelle hung over the door from the sun-room to the dining room. Its horns measured sixteen and a quarter inches. That quarter inch made it the world’s record in 1909, the year my father shot it. A Zanzibar chest stood under one of the windows in the sun-room. It was stuffed with photographs of animals, half-naked black men holding spears and shields, landscapes, native huts, and one of my father looking about sixteen—he was actually twenty-eight—and wearing a pith helmet as he sat under a tree with his typewriter in front of him and a smiling black man behind him. There were lots of guidebooks and pamphlets with pictures. They had titles like “What to See in Uganda” and “Beautiful Entebbe.”

The African trip was Dad’s honeymoon. But not Mother’s. Hers occurred at the same time but in Europe, and her companion was her mother.

Even though it did separate them, Africa was the catalyst that made it possible for my father, Charles Hughes, to marry my mother, Anna Corbin, with whom he had been in love since the age of nine, when he moved to Eaton Rapids, Michigan, from the nearby town of Grand Ledge and into a house next door to hers. It had seemed like a hopeless case until

Mother, who had been through Vassar and was teaching in a private school in Detroit, broke her engagement to another man and became engaged to Dad. But even then the waiting wasn’t over, because Dad’s salary as a baseball writer on the Chicago Record Herald wasn’t much more than Mother was making; and since she had grown up in a considerably more affluent household than he had, he was all the more anxious to give her the best.

The proposition that came to him out of the blue seemed too good to be true from whatever angle he looked at it. There were no limits to its possibilities. In addition to making it possible to marry immediately it offered high adventure and practically guaranteed fame and fortune.

W. D. Boyce, publisher of The Saturday Blade and The Chicago Ledger , with a combined circulation of 750,000 throughout the midwestern farm belt, had been swept off his feet by a man who was not only a noted photographer but claimed to be an expert balloonist as well. Only he, George R. Lawrence, had put the two accomplishments together, or so he told Boyce.

The whole country was in the grip of an African frenzy because former President Theodore Roosevelt was there collecting specimens that taxidermists would prepare for display in the Smithsonian—a decidedly secondrate approach to the wonders of Africa, Lawrence told Boyce. Boyce could finance and lead an expedition to produce a photographic record of animals against their natural background that would not only live for the ages but would also knock the readers of the Boyce papers for a loop. All Boyce had to do was put Lawrence in a captive balloon with cameras and let it float above the African veldt.

No other way of taking pictures could compare with this method, Lawrence explained to the publisher. On the ground a photographer had only a short time, probably only seconds, to get his pictures before the animals got wind of him and fled. In the balloon he had all the time in the world, for the balloon was as silent as a cloud and the animals never knew it was there. The photographer could take panoramic views to show the herds stretching across the horizon and at his leisure change to another camera better suited for close-ups of individual animals. There was nothing to hurry, fluster, or in any way discommode the photographer in a balloon.

Lawrence had some views of the Rocky Mountains that he told Boyce he had taken from a balloon, and they were indeed spectacular. There was no time to lose, because the African frenzy would start to peter out when Roosevelt left, and he would not remain in Africa forever.

Boyce bore a startling resemblance to William Randolph Hearst. It was conceivable that as a result of the W. D. Boyce’s African Balloonograph Expedition W. R. Hearst would begin to hear that he looked a lot like W. D. Boyce.

Dad attached only one condition to the agreement that made him the expedition’s writer and secretary—which really meant general manager—and that was that the publisher would finance the European stay of his bride and her mother. Boyce readily agreed.

Boyce went immediately to New York, Baltimore, Washington, and on to England. He collected letters of introduction to governors, princes, and other bigwigs and in London got in touch with the people who organized and outfitted safaris. At one point he wrote Dad that he had found someone to take him up in a balloon, even though there was something more enjoyable that he would have to forgo; but after all ballooning was now business, and it had always been his policy to put business before pleasure.

Boyce wrote or cabled promotion ideas every day. Many English newspapers had entered into contracts to buy the African pictures and stories. The London Daily Mirror , for one, was “immensely interested in your plan for taking Central Africa by storm photographically.”

“You can give out that I received a cable from London today, stating that my agent there has secured the only moving picture artist in the world who has successfully taken moving pictures of dangerous wild beasts—and that with him I got two cameras and 50,000 feet of film as well as developing outfits etc.,” Boyce wrote Dad from the Waldorf Astoria in New York before leaving for England. “Make up any story from this that will show whole expedition for pleasure and preserving actual conditions for scientific purposes. Pictures will live when hides will rot. Pictures now and later will show improvement in the natives.”

Dad added negotiations with moving-picture theatres across the country to all the other things he had to do in only a few weeks.

Boyce kept up a steady stream of orders about buying and shipping equipment. Very often it meant that Dad had to undo something he had already done or change plans completely. Dad in Chicago was a sort of relay station between Boyce in London and one of the few people whose advice he ever asked, a photographer who had retired to a farm in Alberta, Canada, where the mail was only delivered once a week. Dad was finally able to relay to Boyce the Albertan’s advice to buy the silk balloon in France to save money. Boyce, however, vetoed it and ordered Dad not to leave the United States without not just one but, to be on the safe side, two silk balloons. Dad had informed Boyce that balloonists advised him that hot air should be used to lift the balloons. Boyce cabled Dad to buy and bring with him a tank of sulfuric acid and a large amount of iron scraps and filings to make hydrogen gas, which he, Boyce, had been advised was far superior.

Dad also bought two towers and several box kites, back-up camera-lifting equipment just on the off chance that the balloons didn’t do all that was expected of them. He bought wires and flash equipment for night pictures of big game that Lawrence had promised would be almost as sensational as the views from the balloons. There was telephone equipment for communication between tents and from tent to camera location, film, projectors, screens, equipment for recording sound, and an Edison Talking Machine to play it back. Dad bought enough guns for an army—four, including two Mausers, for Boyce—and enough ammunition to wipe out all the game in Africa. He bought khakis, puttees, boots, and pith helmets. He was also supposed to find a doctor who would agree to give up his practice and go to Africa for several months.

Dad showed up in Eaton Rapids on July 31 long enough to say “I do” and hurried back to Chicago with Mother to wrestle with the many muddles that made it touch and go as to whether the expedition would ever pull away from the shores of the United States. Over and over in his letters (which always began “Dear Hughes”) Boyce had ordered Dad to oversee personally the loading of every item that was to go into the ship’s hold. Then Dad learned that the North German Lloyd refused to load either the ammunition or the tank of acid. Wells Fargo came to Dad’s rescue and had the acid shipped from Germany, guaranteeing to have it in Mombasa when the members of the expedition arrived—which it was. Wells Fargo found another way to ship the ammunition and took another load off Dad’s mind by telling him to forget about the iron scraps and filings ; they were plentiful in Africa and would also be awaiting the expedition’s arrival in Mombasa.

In one of his long lists of orders Boyce had sounded a prophetic note and underscored it: “ See that Lawrence gets everything on board ship.

As they sailed out of New York Harbor, Lawrence discovered he had left one of his cameras behind. Dad spent the first few days of the voyage sending cables to people suggesting the most likely places to look for it and, when it was found, arranging to have it forwarded.

In addition to Dad, Mother, and her mother, the members of the Balloonograph Expedition on the first leg of the voyage to Africa consisted of Lawrence and his son and another photographer named Caywood. Lawrence attached a camera to a kite and took an aerial shot of the ship. He developed it, and it was spectacular. They were all jubilant.

Boyce, the moving-picture photographer, and three film and sound technicians were waiting in Naples, where Mother disembarked and they came aboard. She stood on the dock and waved good-bye to her bridegroom. It was the latter part of August. She and Dad planned to meet in Paris in December, when my grandmother would go home without them and they would have a few weeks together on the Continent. Whether they would get home for Christmas or not they didn’t know and didn’t care.

In Nairobi Lawrence unpacked the balloons, and everybody gathered to watch the proceedings. The acid and the iron scraps and filings did what they were supposed to do and formed hydrogen gas, which was conducted into the balloon. The balloon went up, and the blacks who were watching said Lawrence was going up to dine with Mngu, the Swahili word for God. Lawrence was ecstatic over the view of the surrounding countryside. The rest of the expedition had to take his word for it, as his pictures didn’t come out.

When the W. D. Boyce’s African Balloonograph Expedition finally headed into the bush, it was the largest safari ever to have left Nairobi. It took four spans of sixteen oxen each and four hundred black bearers just to move the equipment. It might have been known as the most luxurious if it hadn’t been for a man from St. Louis, N. W. McMillan, whose path crossed theirs frequently. McMillan owned a farm near Nairobi. When he left it on safari, it took a hundred blacks just to carry the food and drink and, at five in the afternoon, to wrap the champagne in damp cloths and fan it until it was chilled to exactly the right temperature.

The nine white men in the Balloonograph Expedition had three personal servants apiece—a valet or tent boy, a gun bearer, and someone to look after the horse or mule. The tent boy had the bath ready each morning. There was a bathroom attached to each tent. Dad was amazed at how quickly he got used to having his boots put on for him and his puttees wrapped and how quickly he and the other Midwesterners adjusted to sitting down to tea promptly at four every afternoon. The white men, with the exception of Boyce, took turns shooting the game not only for their own table but for the army of blacks as well.

The main white hunter, whose name was Outram, had the final say in matters pertaining to safety and keeping the safari in the vicinity of the herds of game. Not even Boyce questioned Outram’s judgment when it came to choosing campsites. But Lawrence had some objection to every place they camped. It began to seem as if what Lawrence really wanted was for the vast army to remain always on the move. It also began to appear that they were never going to find the precisely right place to send up a balloon. First it was too hot. Then they reached the higher altitudes near Lake Victoria where the temperature was surprisingly cool, dry, and comfortable, and it was the wind that held Lawrence back. Sometimes there wasn’t enough, and the rest of the time there was too much.

Well, then, Boyce ordered, get on with the flash pictures at night.

After a night when the lions roared so close to camp that Dad got up and got his gun and took it back to bed with him, Lawrence went out to get the camera he had rigged up with bait, tripwire, and flash. He found gigantic paw prints all around and the camera chewed to bits.

Well, if it doesn’t work one way, try another. Boyce insisted that the only thing was for Lawrence to post himself close to the bait and take the pictures himself, and if the lion charged, there would be someone there with a gun to shoot the beast.

Lawrence had a better idea. He rigged the telephone equipment up so that his bearer could listen in from the tent and call him when he heard a lion at the bait. One night his bearer called him three times. From his bed Lawrence mumbled “Those aren’t lions” and went back to sleep each time. In the morning he swore that he hadn’t been called at all.

Boyce, who received anxious queries from Chicago every time a runner arrived from Nairobi, convinced himself that all the troubles lay with Lawrence’s son, who did nothing his father told him to and paid no attention to orders from Boyce, Outram, and Dad. This, Boyce reasoned, made it impossible for the senior Lawrence to give his best effort. Boyce sent young Lawrence back to Nairobi.

But still nothing happened, and time had just about run out. If things had gone according to schedule, they would have wrapped up the picture taking and story writing and would have been enjoying the greatest hunting in the world.

Finally Boyce stopped answering the frantic queries from Chicago with hopeful promises. From Camp Number Seven at the south end of Victoria Nyanza he ordered the man in Chicago in charge of both papers to remove the name W. D. Boyce from the stationery, which then read simply “African Balloonograph Expedition,” and went on from there with a list of things that had gone wrong: FAILURE NO. . Balloon no good. … Lawrence … had to take gas from his balloon and put it into [another] to save it. Brought w hole outfit to Kijabe and hauled sulphuric acid and iron 80 miles into desert to first water. Then he informed me that the wind was too high to do anything with a captive balloon. Will send the whole outfit (balloon) and acid back from Aggett’s to Kijabe and realize whatever I can on acid for mining purposes. There is a limited amount of acid used at the south end of Victoria Nyanza lake. There is plenty of wind to put up his kites, but he has done that only once and his picture was not very good. … NO. 2 . You could not get any pictures of game from a balloon or kite if they did work all O.K. as he DID NOT BRING ANY TELEPHOTO LENS OR TELESCOPE WITH HIM . He says Eastman fell down on him at the last minute. … NO. 3. His big camera with six foot bellows that would photograph 100 to 500 yards is so heavy and long and takes so many porters to carry that you scare all the game out of the country trying to get near and all he has got is one zebra and its legs are cut off in the picture. … NO. 6. Ever since I met Lawrence and his party at Naples, Hughes and I have been coaxing, requesting, ordering prints but can never get them on time. … [Lawrence] uses up a good deal of time telling what he is going to do and then about the same amount of time explaining why he failed. … The flashlight experiment, including outfit, transportation, safari expenses and salary and expenses of Caywood, whom Lawrence, as you remember, insisted upon adding, amounts altogether to $4500. AND HAVE NOT ONE PICTURE YET .


The best picture they had was not from a balloon or taken by flash but was a posed portrait of two baby ostriches that the owner of an ostrich farm had brought over to the camp.

Boyce went on to tell the man in Chicago that if it hadn’t been for the worry over the business end of it, he would have been having the time of his life. The only trouble with the hunting was that the vast quantity of game made it almost impossible to be selective, particularly when there were only a few specimens that he needed to round out his collection.

There were frantic attempts to salvage something from the disaster. Boyce wrote to Chicago that he knew the schemes weren’t going to come to anything but that he didn’t stop them, because if he did, the others would always have it in mind that if they had only tried such and such, they would have gotten the sensational pictures after all.

They had high hopes for a game drive, which did result in the world’srecord Thomson’s gazelle that hung in our sun-room but hardly did anything to threaten the pre-eminence of William Randolph Hearst.

“Outram, the guide, took forty porters in one direction,” Dad wrote, and I went in another with a like number of men. We stationed them about 100 yards apart and told them when they heard the signal—two shots—to start up the valley herding the game ahead of them. While picketing the men we passed myriads of game. I feel sure they never had seen a white man before. Beautiful topi gazed at me and my black boys as we passed them and other specimens of antelope cavorted around us. Often a buck would hold his ground within a dozen paces of us when we walked past, being supremely confident that he was in no danger. The boys were begging me to get them some meat without further delay but I told [them] to wait till we had taken the picture. When all of our men had been stationed I gave the signal and we started up the valley. Such a sight! The boys had turned the most dazzling array of faunal nature into the valley that I had ever seen—and my brain had been set whirling many a time previously by such sights. Wildebeest by the hundreds, the royal topi with their shimmering coats and splendid heads, zebra, Granti, “Tommies,” the graceful impala—never have I seen such grace in any creature—oribi, Robertsi, the tiny dikdiks, Oh, everything on four legs except of course the night prowlers! They were going up the valley in solid regiments towards our cameras. Everything was going all right when a storm broke loose. It came up in a minute, it seemed. The sky was so overcast and dark that I doubt if a picture would have been possible but we kept pushing the menagerie up the valley till they stampeded in the storm and broke out in all directions. A herd of fully 300 topi came at me and my gun-bearer but it took only a wave of our hands to turn them back. But when they dashed at the porters, the boys made feeble efforts to stop the mad rush of the brutes and in a minute the whole parade had sifted through our lines and the woods and hills were once more claiming the finest animal collection I ever expect to see. Sore and disgusted, I started back to camp, quite forgetful of my promise to the boys. My gun-bearer soon refreshed my memory and I told him we would take a shot at the first thing on four legs we saw. I feared all the game had got beyond reach but in a moment we spotted a Thomsoni which had remained behind when the big exodus took place. He was grazing about seventy-five yards away and his horns did look splendid. That .35 Remington never sent a bullet home in more satisfactory manner and a moment later the gun-bearer was dancing around the trophy, claiming it must be a record.


The safari headed back to Nairobi while Boyce went into elephant country, where a mammoth specimen was brought down. But even that was not the unmitigated triumph it might have been because of acrimonious charges and countercharges as to whether it was Boyce who shot it or his white hunter, shooting to save Boyce, who, the white hunter claimed, was where he had been warned not to be: in high grass and in danger of being trampled.

It was time for them all to go home.

Boyce bought a first-class ticket to England for himself and two in second class for Lawrence and his son. Second class was where the cattle and pilgrims to Mecca rode together.


But Dad was not about to join his bride in Europe. He and the other photographer, Caywood, were left behind “to scour Africa,” as Boyce told them, the two of them alone to produce the results that had eluded the biggest safari in history.


Now Dad was sentenced to Africa knowing his bride in Europe had not only her disappointment to contend with but dwindling finances as well. There was only one way that Dad could buy release for both of them, and that was to produce sensational pictures. It looked as if he would roast in steaming Africa and Mother would freeze in dingy rooms in northern Europe not only for Christmas and New Year’s but for heaven only knew how long afterward.

“Everything is up to you and Cay,” Boyce unnecessarily reminded Dad just before embarking at Mombasa. Uganda was the first place to be scoured for every picture possibility there was. They were to get panorama pictures if it was the last thing they did, buy also every other good picture they could, see if they could get some from Kermit Roosevelt, who, Boyce had heard, had taken some dandies with his taxidermist, and go through the files of every newspaper they could find for story and picture possibilities. Dad was also to dispose of the balloons, the tank of acid, horses and mules, guns and ammunition, and all the other equipment, realizing as much as possible on them; to arrange for trophies and other memorabilia to be sent to Chicago; to buy Boyce six leopard skins; and to keep Boyce posted on how he was making out. Boyce would expect a letter when they put in at Aden.

The letters that were waiting for Boyce at Aden guaranteed the publisher a miserable voyage all the way from the Red Sea to the Thames. Dad wrote that the picture possibilities in Uganda were practically nil because “it rained every day we were in the country. … The light at all times was bad, and especially in the morning,” that they had gone to Kampala to photograph the colorful king but he and his whole court had gone off on safari, and that almost everyone who could have helped them was down with the fever.

“At Jinga we were none too fortunate,” he went on. Dad and Caywood had wanted to get pictures of the falls, but the place to photograph them from was closed off because of tsetse flies. Forced to travel as light as they were—pared down to “one valet for the two of us"—they had had to leave the kites behind; but it really didn’t matter, because there hadn’t been a single day when they could have flown them. On the little steamer crossing Lake Victoria they ran into such a terrible storm that their stateroom was knee-deep in water and many passengers were hysterical. They had heard that Teddy Roosevelt was due to leave for home, and they had time to get back to Nairobi for pictures but their train was shunted onto a siding and when they got to Nairobi Roosevelt was gone.

“As regards leopard skins: I didn’t find any more in Uganda than you did.” But he was still trying, Dad wrote, and he continued in every letter to report relentlessly about the people who promised to find him six of the finest leopard skins but who never made good on their promises.

“Civilization didn’t hit Nairobi as hard as we thought it had. Alas! the two papers there keep no files,” he reported. He did, however, buy the rights to the pictures in a book called The Baganda at Home for $250.

Dad had unloaded a lot of the equipment on a storekeeper in Nairobi—“telephone apparatus, dry batteries which long since lost their effectiveness, and the sulphuric acid which was leaking all over the place and would have cost us twice as much as it’s worth had we attempted to repack it and move it. I still have a mess of those .22 automatics and there seems to be no sale for them.”

Now he and Caywood were stuck in Nairobi, and all attempts to get pictures and carry out all the other orders had to stop for the time being. For how much longer depended on how fast Caywood recovered from the fever that he undoubtedly had picked up in Uganda. He had a temperature of 104.2 degrees. Dad could not leave the hotel, because Cay was out of his mind and there was no telling what he would do if he were left alone. Not that anyone would want to venture out in any case. It was December, the hottest time of the year. Dad wore his pajamas all day, as it was the only way to survive in the sultry inferno.

The news that reached Boyce in London was not much better.

Dad had tried to get the depositions concerning Lawrence’s failures that Boyce had asked him for. He had found a man from whom Lawrence had tried to buy photographs to pawn off on Boyce as his own, but “so far I haven’t been able to get him to swear to it before a notary or to give me a signed statement.” However, Caywood was much better and they were about to leave for Zanzibar.

Perhaps Dad thought he had heaped enough coals and now it was time for a bit of relief. On the other hand, maybe he thought Boyce wanted another reminder of Africa the way he wanted more silk balloons. In any event, Dad told the publisher that the storekeeper who had bought so much of their equipment had presented T. R. with a Zanzibar chest and advised Dad to buy one in Zanzibar, since they were the finest things made in Africa, and Dad said if his money held out, he would buy one for the publisher too.

And speaking of that storekeeper, Dad wrote: “His troubles have just begun. The acid has broken out in new quarters and eaten up one side of that store which an Indian owns. They tried to shift it and several boys were badly burned and Mr. Branwhite’s shoes were eaten almost off his feet (Branwhite being the chief clerk).”

One morning Boyce left his London hotel. If it had been a bright sunny day, he would have proceeded to wherever it was he was going—perhaps to some office on legal business in connection with the myriad unpleasantnesses surrounding the expedition, perhaps to some newspaper office to bolster hopes for the eventual arrival of those sensational African pictures.

If it had been a bright sunny day, heaven knows how much longer my father would have spent trekking through the heat and rain of Africa in search of the elusive pictures or how much longer Mother and her mother would have stayed in their third-rate pension in Brussels before their money was used up completely.

But it was not a bright sunny day. It was thick fog, and Boyce found himself out in the middle of a street, unable to see his way across it.

“A little lad of twelve noticed my futile efforts, and led me with a lantern in the right direction,” Boyce was quoted in the Washington Star of April 21, 1910, among hundreds of other papers. “I thanked him and offered him a penny. But he said: ‘Thank you, sir, but I am a Boy Scout, and we never take tips for doing kind acts.’


” ‘What are the Boy Scouts?’ I asked him in surprise. Then he told me that all Boy Scouts were in honor bound to do one kind act every day. Further information from the lad led me to decide to start the Boy Scout movement among American boys.” Boyce sent for Mother and my grandmother and had rooms waiting for them at the Savoy, where they were when Dad arrived from Capetown to start publicizing the incident in the foggy London street and other information about the Boy Scouts.

Back home Dad went directly to Washington to keep the publicity flowing. The Boy Scouts of America was officially incorporated in the District of Columbia on February 8, 1910, and a national charter was granted by Congress six years later.

When Dad wrote to someone in Africa to thank him for the trophies that had arrived in Chicago in fine condition, he said that Boyce hadn’t looked at them yet and that “he acts as if he never even heard of Africa.”

In 1916 Charles Hughes founded the D.A.C. (for Detroit Athletic Club) News, an unusual club magazine devoted to literature, for which his daughter, the author of this article, wrote a column from Washington during the 1940’s and 50’s. Now a free-lance writer, she is married to James G. Crowley of the Boston Globe.

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