“In my imagination I walk through our Dayton home, looking for [Orville] and all the dear family things that made my home. But I never find [Orville], and I have lost my old home forever, I fear.”
912: Katharine Wright Haskell
Most Known for Being the Sister of Orville and Wilbur Wright
Born: 19 August 1874, Dayton, Ohio, United States of America
Died: 3 March 1929, Kansas City, Missouri, United States of America
Katharine was also a high school teacher.
Katharine was the youngest Wright sibling, the only girl to survive infancy, and was born on her brother Orville’s third birthday.
When their mother died so did seemingly all of Katharine’s prospects of marriage. Mrs. Wright died just shy of Katharine’s fifteenth birthday, and the loss affected her deeply. Katharine’s father was a traveling minister, who had relied on his wife to run the household and entertain guests while he was away. With Katharine’s mother dead, the young teenager had to take over her mother’s social responsibilities in their entirety. This meant she hardly had time to think, let alone try to find a husband.
Some biographers have speculated further on Katharine’s lack of a marriage in her younger years. Katharine, Orville, and Wilbur were the three youngest Wright siblings, and were especially close. It has been posited that the three siblings vowed to never marry, and instead focus on each other. Whether or not this is true is unknown, but it is true that Orville and Wilbur never did marry.
Katharine had an outgoing personality and was very pretty. She had lots of male admirers but wouldn’t actually get hitched until after her fiftieth birthday. Instead of a secret pact she made with her brothers, a more obvious explanation for this could have been Katharine’s sense of duty to her family and caring for her father as he aged.
In 1893, Katharine’s father insisted she attend Oberlin College to obtain a teaching degree. Katharine became the only Wright sibling to earn a college degree and was able to become a teacher. While in school, Katharine also met the man she would eventually marry; Harry Haskell. However, Katharine and Harry didn’t immediately become involved. Instead, they were both engaged to other people! Katharine’s engagement ended without her ever walking down the aisle.
It took Katharine five years to earn her degree—partly because she had missed a portion of her junior year to help nurse her brother Orville back to health after falling ill with typhoid fever. At first, Katharine failed to find a teaching position, starting her career as a substitute in 1899.
Katharine also resumed her post as head of the Wright household after graduation. She hired a maid to help with the cooking and cleaning but had inherited some of her father’s authoritarian attitude. According to wright-brothers.org; at the beginning of one school year Orville asked his sister for a list of the week’s “victims” and that he was glad her students were receiving some of her ire for a change as opposed to just her family.
By 1901, Katharine had received a full-time teaching position. She taught beginner’s Latin, an exciting prospect seeing as she’d excelled at Latin and Greek in college. Around the same time, Orville and Wilbur’s work on their now-famous flying machine really ramped up. Katharine was equal parts excited and annoyed by her brother’s experiments, complaining that she had nowhere to go in the house for a moment of peace but also knowing she would miss them as soon as they left to test the machine out in North Carolina in 1902. Their first flight (and the first time man ever flew in an airplane) occurred in late 1903.
In 1906, after Wilbur and Orville secured a patent for their flying machine, they decided to begin selling it to interested buyers. Katharine joined the venture and worked as their executive secretary. She answered queries, wrote to newspapers to correct their inaccurate reports, and screened some of the business offers the brothers received. She even got the go ahead from her brothers to allow the Webster Dictionary to publish a photo of the Wright Glider; and she did all of this while still working as a Latin teacher.
Katharine had previously worked for and with her brothers as well. When the brothers left to test out their flying machines in North Carolina, Katharine stayed behind to run their bicycle store: paying bills and everything else needed to keep the shop afloat.
By 1908, both Wilbur and Orville were traveling out of Ohio to demonstrate the glider and secure further business ventures. Katharine was left behind to keep things running at home. She also was left nursing her nephew (from another brother) through typhoid fever. Katharine’s stress increased even more when her school district decided to cut the salaries of female teachers. Katharine’s nephew recovered, but soon after she received word Orville had been in an accident and broke several bones. Katharine was on the train to Washington DC within two hours of receiving the news, leaving her students to a substitute teacher.
When Katharine arrived in the capital, she learned the accident had been worse than previously reported. Besides having a broken leg and several shattered ribs, Orville had also suffered a concussed spine and several scalp lacerations. The passenger on Orville’s flight, a lieutenant in the US Army, had died. Lt. Thomas Selfridge was the first person to ever die in an airplane accident.
For the next six weeks, Katharine worked to nurse her brother, keep the business venture afloat, and even helped investigate what caused the crash. A few months later, Katharine and Orville set sail for France to meet up with Wilbur. Upon arrival, Katharine’s position within the Wright company expanded even more, and she now worked as her brothers’ social secretary as well. She spent two hours each day learning French and spent the rest of the day meeting with potential investors and customers. Wilbur and Orville were lousy at meeting and selling their gliders, but Katharine shown when given the opportunity. She even won over the King of Spain with her dazzling smile.
While in France, Katharine became the third woman to ever fly in an airplane. One of her flights happened before the King of England, in an attempt to prove that even young and impressionable women could survive the adventure. Katharine’s efforts with the airplane and the Wright company didn’t go unnoticed by the French press, and by the time the three siblings left the government had awarded all three of them the Legion of Honor. Katharine remains one of the few American women who can claim that honor.
Upon their return to America, Katharine was heralded by her hometown of Dayton as well as receiving several honors alongside her brothers in Washington DC. While there, Katharine ran into an old friend from Oberlin—Harry Haskell, who was working as a journalist in the capital. Later that same year, Orville was able to pick up where he’d left off the US Army the year before, and after the newest Wright flyer debuted, the Army purchased their first airplane.
Soon after, the Germans became interested as well. With business booming and no end to her work with her brothers in sight, Katharine resigned from her teaching position to work with her brothers’ full time. However, soon after, American investors took over the Wright company, and Katharine no longer had a position within it. She did have enough money she didn’t have to worry about going back to work though.
Katharine pivoted her focus to volunteer work instead. She was an active campaigner for women’s suffrage, the director of the Women’s League of Dayton, and she was able to oversee the construction of the new Wright family home. Called Hawthorn Hill, the Wright home was built just outside of Dayton in Oakwood.
In May of 1912, Wilbur came down with typhoid fever, and he died. Both Katharine and Orville were stunned, but also blamed Wilbur’s death on overwork. He’d spent the past few years in and out of court, fighting to protect the patent for the Wright flyers.
Orville took over as president of the company, while Katharine became the secretary. If anyone purchased stock in the Wright company during that period of time, they would receive a stock signed by both Katharine and Orville. However, Orville wasn’t happy in his role as executive of the company and missed Wilbur terribly.
In 1915, Orville sold the Wright company completely, and built a small research laboratory instead. He and Katharine had said good riddance to the business once and for all as they fought for something much more important: preserving Orville and Wilbur’s work, and their hard-earned place in history. The year before, a man had purchased a flying machine that had been built before the Wrights' but had never managed to actually fly. This new guy made over thirty changes to the machine and finally managed to get it in the air. Normally this wouldn’t have even made headlines, but it just so happens that this new/old machine had originally been built by the now-deceased former director of the Smithsonian Institute. As soon as it became airborne, the Smithsonian claimed they were responsible for the first manned flight, not Orville and Wilbur.
Obviously, this wasn’t true, and Katharine and Orville were out to preserve their good name. The fight wasn’t fully resolved until the early 1940’s, when the Smithsonian finally relented and agreed the Wright flyer was the first true flying machine that worked. The original flyer from the 1903 flight wouldn’t be donated to the Smithsonian until 1948, after Orville’s death (though to be fair, Orville and Wilbur had tried to donate it years earlier, soon after they made history. The Smithsonian declined to accept at that time).
One of Katharine and Orville’s allies in their fight was the journalist, and Katharine’s old friend, Harry Haskell. Soon after, Harry and Katharine were both invited to join Oberlin College’s board of trustees. Katharine was only the second woman ever so honored.
In 1923, Harry’s wife passed away from cancer. The friendship that had been rekindled so many years before blossomed into something more as Katharine and Harry wrote often, exchanging numerous letters. Two years later, the pair realized they were in love (they hadn’t even seen each other in person in years, this was all through letters) and a few months later, after they did meet in person again, they decided to get married.
Katharine was happy to finally be happy and in love, but she was also worried. She didn’t want to leave Orville behind; the pair had grown even closer after Wilbur’s unexpected death, and since their father had died in 1917, they had done almost everything together—even adopting a puppy!
Katharine was so worried about telling Orville the news, she kept putting it off and putting it off. Finally, in May of 1926, Harry finally told Orville of his intentions to marry Katharine. Orville went into a complete depression after hearing the news. He relied on Katharine entirely for all of his social interactions. If she got married, he would have to deal with people himself; gross.
Now, I know what you might be thinking, and I want to be incredibly clear on this. Though Orville and Katharine were incredibly close; they lived together and were each other’s best friends, that was all there was to it. There was nothing incestuous about the relationship at all. Even though Orville was acting like Katharine had cheated on him, she was not! At all! He was just extremely shy and hated dealing with people and was used to his little sister dealing with them for him. Can you blame him for being upset? People are the worst.
On 20 November 1926, Katharine and Harry married in Oberlin, then moved to Kansas City. She never saw Hawthorn Hill again. Though Orville was refusing to speak with her, Katharine’s new life was otherwise extremely happy and fulfilling. She became close with her new stepson, Harry got a promotion, and in 1944 he even won a Pulitzer Prize for his journalistic efforts (though Katharine didn’t live to see this, sadly).
In 1929, Katharine and Harry were supposed to set sail for a vacation in Greece and Italy. They never got on board the boat, however. Katharine had been feeling ill and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Another of the Wright brothers arrived to check on her and immediately sent for Orville. Though Katharine and Orville hadn’t spoken since before her wedding, he got on the train.
Orville arrived in Kansas City one day before Katharine died. She was only fifty-four years old. She is buried alongside her parents and her brothers, Wilbur and Orville, whom she had given so many years of hard work and dedication too.
Upon Orville’s death, he bequeathed in his will $300,000 to Oberlin College, as a final gift to his sister. The money was worth more than $1 Million today. The school used the money to build the Wright Laboratory of Physics, which is still used by the school today.
Katharine's widow, Harry, requested a fountain be built in her honor and dedicated on Oberlin's campus. A recreation of the fountain still exists today, and was restored in 2007. The iconography of the statue was designed and chosen by Harry to commemorate his and Katharine's love of all things ancient Roman and Greek.
In 2020, Katharine began to retake her rightful place in history with the news of a new graphic novel. Aimed at teaching kids fun facts about history, the first in the series is called The Wrong Wrights (Smithsonian announcement article linked below). Here's to hoping someday soon, when taught the history of aviation, school kids everywhere are taught about the Wright Siblings, as opposed to just the Wright Brothers.
Find a Grave Marked
Located In My Personal Library:
After the Fact: The Surprising Fates of American History's Heroes, Villains, and Supporting Characters by Owen Hurd
Graphic Novel Announcement: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/new-graphic-novel-writes-the-wright-brothers-sister-back-into-history-180958103/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=socialmedia