On this date in 1916, “sky dragon” Joe Boquel ascended into the skies above San Diego for the final scheduled flight of his exhibition engagement for the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. It also became the last flight of his life.
Boquel had bid farewell to Seal Beach a mere nineteen days earlier after a triumphant second engagement from September 17th through October 15th. By all accounts, his San Diego exhibitions had been as thrilling and successful as his time in Seal Beach. One newspaper breathlessly described a new phrase that had supposedly emerged into the local lexicon since the aviator’s arrival, “Boquelling along” without actually defining it.
The meaning must have been self-evident to San Diegans caught up in the fervor over Boquel’s first flights on Saturday, October 28th. The afternoon flight demonstrated his usual flair for air stunts, but his night ascent into a dark fog-filled San Diego sky surpassed expectations, with the fog probably enhancing the spectacle of the fireworks on his wings as he twisted and turned and dived through the air above the crowds. The consensus reported by the local papers was that Boquel’s aerial acrobatics far exceeded the performances of any other airmen who had flown during the exposition.
Boquel even took time a few days later to give silent film star Mabel Normand flying lessons, and Keystone Film cameras filmed them together. The footage would be shown a month later in movie theaters as a posthumous tribute.
But behind the scenes, there were portents of trouble. On October 29, Boquel’s flight was delayed seven minutes when his engine didn’t fire on all cylinders. Boquel decides to take a chance and safely ascended to the applause of the crowd. Then an unknown spotlight sought out Boquel’s aeroplane at a thousand feet, forcing him to turn out the lights on his plane to evade the spotlight and prevent his flying blind in the night sky. After landing, Boquel took apart his motor for repairs, and San Diego police spent the next day warning operators of every known spotlight from endangering his future flights.
Even more troubling for Boquel was the news that his friend, fellow aviator, and the manwho taught him to fly in 1912, Silas Christofferson (who had also flown in Seal Beach back in June) had crashed while testing a new biplane in Redwood City and died a few hours later of internal injuries on Halloween. One account published in December said that Boquel was haunted by Christofferson’s death and spoke often of his friend over the next few days.
But Joe Boquel was a showman and continuing performing his stunts above San Diego without further mishaps until shortly before 4 p.m. on November 4th. Acknowledging the end of the San Diego engagement, he had finished skywriting “Farewell” in smoke and then dived into his signature corkscrew stunt from a height of a thousand feet.
Upon landing he was to receive a gold medal from exposition officials in honor of his daredevil aviation, but instead Boquel’s controls seemed to stick and his plane lurched and swayed before smashing into the ground just north of the Cabrillo bridge. Spectators rushed to the crash site to find his mangled body in the twisted wreckage of his aeroplane. He must have died immediately.
There were many theories about what when wrong. His engine had been giving him trouble before the flight. One aviator felt that Boquel had become dizzy and disoriented. Others thought that the small canyon above which he was doing his stunt created unpredictable air currents that influenced the trajectory of his flight.
There was no way to know for certain, and it didn’t really matter. Boquel was dead, leaving his wife Mary a widow and his thirteen year old adopted daughter Ellie fatherless in San Francisco.
San Diego mourned. On November 6th, all of the men of the Second Battalion, Twenty-First Regiment assigned to the San Diego fair escorted Boquel’s casket through the streets of San Diego with Blue Jackets from the cruiser San Diego acting as pallbearers since Boquel had served in the Navy. The casket was flag-draped and rode on a caisson provided by the army aviation school in San Diego. The coffin was loaded on to a train for the trip up the Bay area for burial.
It is tempting to leave Joseph Boquel’s story here, but what of his widow and daughter? On November 10th, Boquel’s will was filed in the California Superior Court in San Francisco. Mary was made executor and the entire estate, including the San Francisco house that he had built her in 1904, was left to her.
The will also cleared up a constant point of confusion about Boquel’s last name. Sometimes reporters and advertising would spell it as “Boquel,” and less often it was spelled “Bocquel.” The will confirms that Boquel’s full legal name was Joseph Gustave Bocquel.
Mary remarried twice and died in 1949 as Mary Butler. Her daughter, Ella also married and passed away as Ella McFarlane in 1962. Both are buried with Joe Bocquel at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, CA, along with Mary’s last husband, George.
He may be buried in Colma, but in Seal Beach history and in our memories, I hope, Joe Bocquel’s spirit still soars.
– Michael Dobkins
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