John Van Valkenburg and his mysterious 1917 Wonderplane

John Van Valkenburg and his mysterious 1917 Wonderplane mysterious plane invented in Utah

John Van Valkenburg and his mysterious 1917 Wonderplane

It was 1917.  All of Europe was aflame. The United States had entered the World War in April. A few months later, from Salt Lake City, Utah, there were stupendous headlines:


John Van Valkenburg Is Called to Washington to Make Personal Demonstration; Called Mystery. 


It was a proud moment for the people of Salt Lake City. One of their own, John R. Van Valkenburg had conquered the laws of gravity and created a miraculous aircraft that could fly from Salt Lake City to the Pacific coast and back in a single night. The government was interested in producing the airship for the War effort.  

Here are early reports of the invention: 

Three Salt Lakers To Test War Device On Western Front

John Van Valkenburg, 129 South Second West Street, and two of his associates who have been working on a war machine, will leave here next week for the European battlefields where they will make a test of their implement of war. In the event that their machine proves a success, all rights to its use and manufacture will be turned over to the United States government to aid in the defeat of Germany in the world war. No information as to the details of the machine will be made public until after the tests have been made. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 30 June 1917: p.10 


John Van Valkenburg Is Called to Washington to Make Personal Demonstration; Called Mystery.

How a Salt Lake inventor has struggled for two years to perfect a marvelous mechanism which defies the laws of gravity, and which, it is believed, will give American and the allies the mastery in the war, is one of the big national mystery stories of the day.

Not only has the affair been hinted at locally for some time past, but government patent experts have been delving into the dynamic power of the new force, and word has come to the Salt Lake inventor that the government is delighted and has sent for the inventor to hurry at once to Washington. He will leave tomorrow for the national capital to amplify his written plans with personal demonstrations, according to present reported plans.

John Van Valkenburg, 129 South Second West Street, the inventor, is a typical explorer into the realms of the unknown, and he is typically secretive. For two years he has been working on the new force, and during all that time even the members of the household have believed that he has been working somewhere on a salaried night job.

But those nights have evidently been passed in making a marvelous machine, by whose use the laws of gravity are said to have completely mastered, and through which the allied powers are about to achieve a triumph, it is hoped, that will make them victors of the war.


So closely has Van Valkenburg guarded his secret that working models of the great invention have been seen by but few. The model is described by one to be a sort of aeroplane. Air navigators using it are compelled to wear a sort of fireman’s oxygen mask and to carry a supply of air with them.

Night before last, a few Salt Lakers obtained a glimpse of the air-wizard’s machine and a neighbor who heard of the trip quotes the inventor as having said, when he read the instrument recording the height to which the machine had gone as having been 32,000 feet above Salt Lake.

Coincident with the story of Van Valkenburg’s achievement and hurried call to the national capital comes through the news, wired from Washington, through Pittsburg, that the Westinghouse Air Brake company is planning a monster coup by preparing to manufacture a wonderful invention that will revolutionize the modern war methods.

The Westinghouse people are seeking 1000 employes whom they ask to agree to sign up to enter a new plant which they are planning for the manufacture of war materials. The employes are to remain imprisoned for a term of ten months, all communication with the outside world to be shut off. This is to preserve absolute secrecy.


Men who have been approached were told that the plant will manufacture a powerful implement of war and the secret must be guarded until the government sees fit to make the details public. Recreation and entertainment of every possible sort will be furnished the employes thus isolated.

Men who know of the Van Valkenburg discovery believe that the government intends to enter wholesale into his invention, which they have evidently tried and approved.

The new machine, it is said, can be made to carry a company of soldiers, but so far only a few passengers have ascended with the inventor, and these few positively refuse to talk. However, those who have seen it say that the mysterious flier does all “that is claimed for it.”  Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 13 July 1917: p. 13, 20



Machine Created Here Said to Have Overcome Law of Gravity; Three Men Interested in Proposition.

John Van Valkenberg’s invention to overcome gravitation, credited with greater speed and with more wonderful properties generally than any other aircraft in the world, is now in the hands of United States government officials, according to a statement made today to The Telegram by the Salt Lake inventor himself, who, however, refused to deny or confirm statements of his friends that he had recently flown with it to Washington, exhibited it to President Wilson, later dined with the nation’s chief executive, and, at his request, turned it over to Ft. Douglas authorities upon his return in it to this city.

His invention now, Van Valkenberg declares, is a certain success, and many persons who in the months of work to perfect the craft doubted the truth of rumors, have suddenly changed front, switching from an attitude of ridicule to one of belief in the strange invention.

Friends of the inventor said today that Mr. Van Valkenberg had admitted to them having gone to Washington with government engineers, having staged a demonstration there before President Wilson and officials of the war department, and having later dined with the president.


Personally, Mr. Van Valkenberg would not commit himself on this matter.

When questioned he replied:

“I cannot say what I did or contemplate doing. The matter is now out of my hands. I have nothing to do with the invention now.”

“In whose hands is it?” he was asked.

“The hands of the government,” he replied. “You will appreciate my situation. I am tied down and not permitted to express any views on the proposition. And, too, there are persons in this town who would very much desire to learn some of the details of the machine, and particularly its whereabouts. I refer to foreign agents. That is another reason why I deem it advisable to ‘lay low.’


Mr. Van Valkenberg, who lives at 129 South Second West street, gave out the information that he has had two associates in the preliminary stages of the machine’s perfecting.

Just who these associates are remains another of the mysteries, but it is said they are two of the most prominent mining men of the West.

Mystery continues to veil the location of the machine. It is believed by his friends that the inventor, accompanied by his associates, flew to Washington to stage the exhibition before government officials.

The Van Valkenberg family, apparently on orders from the head of the household to preserve secrecy, has isolated itself socially. Daily visits to close friends have ceased, according to the neighbors, and but little has been seen of the members of the family for the last ten days.

With the statement today by Mr. Van Valkenburg that the machine, which is said to be the strangest and most powerful of aircrafts, is in the hands of the government, his friends are rallying to the belief that his claims as to the distance between Salt Lake and the Pacific coast being traveled in four or five hours will be fully verified.

A definite announcement concerning the aero machine will probably be made within a few weeks by government officials. Officers at Ft. Douglas refused to make any official comment upon the report that Van Valkenberg’s machine is now at the post. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 30 July 1917: p. 7, 9 

The sky seemed the limit for this marvelous invention. But then…

 Van Valkenburg was suddenly arrested for impersonating a government official and for dissuading a young man named Ivan Trew from registering for the draft with grandiose stories of his exploits in capturing enemy aliens (Germans, not ETs) and promising him a job piloting his wonderplane and in the Secret Service.  


Fiancée Weeps as Defender of Father is Jailed

Hearing of Charge Against Supposed Inventor of Wonder Craft Reaches Climax with New Arrest.

The hearing yesterday afternoon before United States Commissioner H.V. Van Pelt of John Van Valkenburg, alleged inventor and erstwhile master of the air and elements, culminating in a startling and sensational climax when E. Roland Lesser, 22-year-old fiancé of Van Valkenburg’s daughter, was arrested in the courtroom on a charge of intimidating a government witness…. 

            Young Lesser admitted in the attorney’s office that he had “lost his head” and did not realize how serious his statement was. He said he made the statement “out of respect for the family” and that he believed in Van Valkenburg to a “certain extent.”

“Of course, I don’t believe his invention is everything he claims it to be, but I do know that he has an invention,” Lesser told Whitson.

Another sensational feature of the hearing developed when a letter given to Van Valkenburg by Leon Bone, special investigator of the department of justice, was offered as an exhibit. The existence of the letter had never been made public before, although it was introduced at the hearing by Attorney Ray.


Following is the letter written by Mr. Bone on official government stationery and bearing the signature of the federal officer:

“To Whom It May Concern:

“The bearer, John Van Valkenburg is hereby authorized to perform special services for the government of the United States and should be permitted to do his work without molestation or hindrance whatsoever.”

            This letter, similar to the credential carried by other special government agents, was found on Van Valkenburg’s person at the time of his arrest. Van Valkenburg declares that it was on the strength of this letter that he represented himself to be a government officer. Mr. Bone admits having issued the credentials to Van Valkenburg. [Which, of course, begs the question, Why? If Van Valkenburg wasn’t working for the government, why issue a letter about “special services”?]

Van Valkenburg denied on the witness stand that he had represented himself to be a government agent except on rare occasions, and then when engaged in legitimate work for the United States government. 

It was all very mysterious. What kind of “legitimate work” was he engaged in?  The next portion of Van Valkenburg’s testimony suggested that he was a fantasist; that he had exaggerated his government service. Or perhaps that he liked telling tall tales to a gullible young man. 


The first witness called at the hearing was John Trew, father of Ivan Trew. He testified that Van Valkenburg had told him he was a government agent and that he would obtain Ivan a job in the secret service. He said Van Valkenburg told him that last August.

            Ivan Trew testified that he failed to register because of the alleged promise made to him by Van Valkenburg to obtain him a position in the secret service. He stated that when he discovered Van Valkenburg was not an officer, he took the proper course and registered for the selective draft.

Young Trew also testified that Van Valkenburg on one occasion told him that he had captured a large number of dangerous German enemies and taken them to Ft. Douglas for internment. The witness also testified that Van Valkenburg promised him a job as pilot of one of his “airboats” as soon as they were completed.

Van Valkenburg testified in his own defense. He stated that he was 50 years old and was born and raised in Salt Lake City. He said that for the last three and a half years he had been engaged in perfecting his aerial craft and had not worked at anything else.


Under cross examination by Attorney Ray, Van Valkenburg admitted having told young Trew that there was no immediate hurry for him to get into the service, as he would need him for his air service when the Van Valkenburg airboats were turned over to the United States governmen.t

He denied that he ever promised young Trew a position in the government secret service. He also denied having made the statement that he had captured any alien enemies for internment at Ft. Douglas. The prisoner stated that he received his credentials to work as a special government officer from Leon Bone, but emphatically denied that he had used the letter for any other than legitimate purposes.

The witness was questioned only briefly concerning his alleged aerial boat, as the matter of the aircraft did not enter into the charge against him.


Van Valkenburg stated, however, that he has an air vessel that would do everything he had claimed of it and that it would make its appearance shortly in Salt Lake. He testified that he and his associates had discovered an instrument to extract electricity and other elements from the air. He said this energy was the secret of his flying vessel and intimated it was also the factor by which he had overcome gravity. He said the same instrument could be used in automobiles as power and for other commercial purposes….


Young Henderson, son of Charles Henderson, partner of Van Valkenburg in his “conquest of the air” efforts who was adjudged insane in the district court last week and committed to the state mental hospital at Provo, was present at the hearing.

Henderson demanded of the district attorney that he order his father’s release form the hospital immediately, declaring that his father was perfectly rational and sane and that the Van Valkenburg aircraft was a reality.

Young Henderson stated that one or more of the air vessels would appear in Salt Lake before conference (April 6, and that after that the public no longer would scoff at the existence of the craft nor question the sanity of the inventors. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 24 March 1918: p. 13, 10

 The next set of headlines were equally sensational


Van Valkenburg May Escape Trial on Criminal Charge.

Although charged with impersonating a federal officer and obstructing the operation of the draft, John Van Valkenburg, self-styled inventor and the man who last summer startled the West with the claim that he had invented an airplane that could fly to Los Angeles and back between sunset and sunrise, may not be compelled to answer the criminal charge. Upon the opening of his trial in the United States District Court this morning it was decided to hear him on an insanity charge….Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 3 May 1918: p. 13  



Van Valkenburg on Trial for Sanity After Weird Imaginings of Gravity-Defying Fail of Proof

John Van Valkenberg, holder of theories extraordinary on the subject of aeronautics, is to be examined for his sanity this afternoon in the Third district court.

W.H. Davenport, secret service representative of the government here, swore to the complaint upon which Von Valkenberg will be arraigned before Judge Harold M Stephens at 1:30 o’clock this afternoon for examination.

An associate of Van Valkenberg’s, Charles Henderson, was recently committed to the state mental hospital at Provo. The two men gained columns of newspaper notice with their wild stories about a mysterious flying machine that set at naught the force of gravity and in which both claimed to have made flights that left ordinary human imagination lagging along the highway of heaven with eyes blinded by the stardust thrown from the spinning wheels of the machine ahead.


The wonder contraption was the invention for the most part of a graybeard whom they styled the “Old Man” or the “Old One.” Again they spoke of him as Olsen, a man who was known hereabouts some twenty years ago. According to the partners in wild flights of fancy, this modern Rip Van Winkle had applied the last score of years to dreaming a dream and had made the dream come true. According to Von Valkenberg and Henderson, the “Old Man” has graduated from inventor to caretaker of the flying machines stabled in the seventh atmosphere, 32,000 feet above the earth.

They told that, whenever either of them wished to take a trip to 25,000 miles beyond the north pole or some other nearby place, the “Old Man” was signaled and came to earth west of the Jordan river with one of the seven machines kept ever ready for service.


Henderson testified to this story in the Third district court before a sanity commission and was committed to the state mental hospital as insane. Von Valkenberg was charged by agents of the department of justice with impersonating an officer, but was acquitted when tried in the United States district court and adjudged insane. The purpose of taking him into the Third district court for hearing is to secure his commitment to the state mental hospital.

In the meantime, the “Old One,” has baffled all efforts of the sleuths of the department of justice to lay him by the heels. He is a very silent partner in the firm that lays claims to conquest of not only the air but whatever is beyond the extent of the earth’s atmosphere. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 14 May 1918: p. 1 


Salt Lake, May 15 John Van Valkenberg recently adjudged insane when tried in the United States district court on a charge of impersonating a federal officer, was again found to be unsound of mind when examined by a commission in the Third district court yesterday and ordered by Judge Harold M. Stephens to be committed to the state mental hospital at Provo.

Examination under the jurisdiction of the state court was necessary to effect the man’s commitment to the state institution. The affidavit against Van Valkenberg’s sanity, by which the hearing of yesterday was obtained, was made by W.H. Davenport, secret service agent of the United States in Salt Lake.

The hearing was brief. Van Valkenberg repeated his oft recounted claims of partnership with Charles Henderson and a mysterious person designated as the “Old Man” in a flying machine venture of wildest imagination. He told of extravagant flights in the machines which he claimed were able to soar, through being impervious to the force of gravity. He said that he had not seen the “Old Man” since he had been arrested and held in jail. Van Valkenberg will be taken to Provo today by deputy sheriffs to be placed in the mental hospital. Charles Henderson is already there, having been committed several weeks since, after telling a story practically identical to that of Van Valkenberg. The Ogden [UT] Standard 15 May 1918: p. 3  

The “Old Man” or the “Old One” was also called “Old Man Malachi” in one newspaper report. I thought, of course, of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Old Ones,” but they did not make their debut until “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926. One wonders why a Secret Service Agent would be involved with a sanity hearing of an obviously delusional man. 

Yet Van Valkenburg must have been an extraordinarily plausible and charismatic figure. Many people believed in him and his aircraft. In the following article, which is primarily concerned with a marital separation case, a Mr. P.B. McKeon was utterly convinced of the reality of Van Valkenburg’s claims for his airship. 


Prominent Resident of Beaver County Connected With Operations of Noted Aviator

The following story of the domestic troubles and suspected pro-German sentiments of a well-known Beaver county man, P.B. McKeon, appeared recently in a Salt Lake paper:

“P.O. McKeon, who is to appear as a witness in the case of the federal government against John Van Valkenberg, was made the defendant yesterday in a suit for separate maintenance filed in the district court. Cruelty is charged by Mrs. Augusta McKeon, the wife. “McKeon’s residence in Beaver County was searched some weeks ago in connection with the investigation of Van Valkenberg’s activities. He is said to have kept a light burning in his window as a beacon for Van Valkenberg’s aeroplanes….

 “McKeon is reported to be one of the adherents of John Van Valkenburg, alleged ‘inventor’ of a mysterious flying machine and professor of power to defy the force of gravity while navigating in the clouds. At his home near Milford, known as the Roosevelt health resort, McKeon maintained a light in one of his windows night after night for several months, explaining that the light was used that Van Valkenberg, during his nightly flights, could stop and pick him up.

“As Van Valkenburg’s airship had no existence, it never stopped at the McKeon home. So confident, however, was McKeon that Von Valkenburg had built an airship of marvelous power that he not only waited in vain night after night for its arrival, but he had laid plans for the building of a hangar, somewhere in the clouds, and was only waiting for the arrival of Van Valkenburg’s aerial craft to fix the exact location and determine the size of the hanger.”Iron County Record [Cedar City, UT] 19 April, 1918: p. 1

 This was sounding more and more like the elusive aircraft of Wallace Tillinghast.

Just a year before the headlines had trumpeted Van Valkenburg’s triumphant trip to the White House. What a difference a year makes…. 


Discharged From insane Asylum, Inventor Is Arrested.

John Van Valkenburg, self-styled inventor of “wonderplane” fame, who claimed to be the inventor of a plane which defied gravity and which could travel from Salt Lake to Los Angeles between sunrise and sunset must face trial in the United States district court on the charge of violation of the espionage act by persuading Ivan Trew, a young man of registration age, from registering, and by impersonating a federal officer.

This is the announcement made today by W.W. Ray, United States district attorney, following the release of Van Valkenburg from the state mental institution at Provo, where he had been confined. Van Valkenburg was pronounced cured at the institution and was released. He was arrested in Salt Lake yesterday by local police and placed in the county jail. He now, according to Mr. Ray, is again under the jurisdiction of the court and must answer the charges preferred against him.

Van Valkenburg will be held in the county jail for trial unless he provides bond of $5000, imposed at his preliminary hearing and which still remains in force. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 21 June 1918: p. 20 

It seems to have taken a bit longer to get Charles Henderson released. Given a string of hardships: his daughter-in-law was killed in a hit and run accident; his son, Ernest, was drafted, his other friends and family argued that he was not dangerous. He was re-examined and released in June 1918. As for the disposition of the Van Valkenburg court case, maddeningly, either I don’t have the right set of papers in the archives or the case was quietly dropped. I can find nothing about Van Valkenburg at either the Utah State Archives or Historical Society. 

This is a story that simply cries out for the conspiracy theory treatment. It is interesting that both Henderson and Van Valkenburg were both committed to the insane asylum for their “delusions.” I know that people were frequently committed for holding unusual beliefs: spiritualism, thinking one was God, believing a woman should not be completely subservient to her husband—that sort of thing. Were both of these men truly sent to Provo for an airship fantasy? Or was it for a more sinister reason—to silence them? 

Then there is that matter of the letter given to Van Valkenburg by Leon Bone of the Department of Justice. Did it have some perfectly innocent explanation? If so, why not say so at the trial? Cue the voice-over: “The World was not yet ready for the terrible power of the Van Valkenburg airship to be unleashed. Its inventor was locked in an asylum and threatened with prosecution if he did not keep silent.” When you’ve got a mad inventor of an imaginary airship, you’ve got the perfect scenario for plausible deniability. 

Henderson was back in the news in January of 1919: 



Famous Federal Case Is Recalled as Henderson Is Again Nabbed.

Sixteen thousand eight hundred dollars’ worth of whisky (bootleg prices) which had been stolen from a D & R .G. freight car about December 27 was recovered by the police last night at 1978 Major avenue. Charles Henderson, former partner of John Van Valkenburg, who startled the city by his accounts of cross-nation flights in a mythical airship during the war, was arrested and is charged with having the liquor in his custody.

Henderson became prominent during the investigation conducted by the federal authorities of the company which Van Valkenburg was organizing to exploit his airship. He was placed under restraint for some time…. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT 4 January 1919: p. 7 

A follow-up article stated.

 Charles Henderson, friend of John Van Valkenburg, of wonderful notoriety, and John Giese, paroled from the war prison barracks at Ft. Douglas, where he was held as an enemy alien, were discharged on the motion of their attorney as the evidence against them was not sufficient to convict. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 13 January 1919: p. 7 

A Charles Henderson is reported as having seriously injured a boy who had been sledding, when he hit him with his truck. It would be in keeping with the downward arc of his life, but I am not certain that this is the same Charles Henderson. If it is, that is the last mention of him that I can see in the local paper. Salt Lake Telegram [Salt Lake City, UT] 29 December 1919: p. 11

Van Valkenburg last appears in the Utah papers in 1919 after the death of his mother, when he was sued by his half-sister for undue influence in the making of his mother’s will, which left him the entire estate.

There the trail ends. Van Valkenburg died in Los Angeles, California in 1932. I’ve been able to find a few details about his children, but not his grave or that of his wife Minnie.  There does not seem to be anything about him in the Los Angeles Historical Society records.

His daughter married her fiance and lived in Salt Lake City until she died in 1952. The family’s youngest son, Melvin, born in 1913, apparently stayed behind in Utah and died in 1949. What led the inventor and his wife and eldest son—also named John Randolph–to move to Los Angeles sometime after 1919?

And what was Van Valkenburg up to between 1919 and 1932?

 I like to think he was held in a secret underground den, sleepless and unshaven, being questioned by teams of government agents until he cracked and turned over his supersonic, anti-gravity technology. I envision how, when his usefulness was at an end, when they had gotten all they could out of him, he was tossed, mad, broken, and dying, into a gutter in 1930s Los Angeles.

It’s the romantic in me.


Does anyone have any further information about John Van Valkenburg and his wonderplane? Chriswoodyard8 AT

 As I mentioned in my previous post on mystery airships, there were several airship flaps. Here are some sources that might have inspired Van Valkenburg, who was born in 1869.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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