The Last Ride of Frank Lenz In 1892,
by Geof Koss
one of America’s early cyclists set out for the trip of a lifetime, seeking fame and adventure. He found both — and paid with his life. In the fall of 1894, Alexander W. Terrell, a grizzled Civil War veteran serving as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, received a curious letter. Writing from the faraway Pittsburg suburb of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the sender was desperately seeking word of a young American traveler named Frank Lenz. “If possible kindly advise me if Mr. Lenz has arrived in your city,” wrote T. P. Langhans, whose letter identified him as the treasurer for a lumber company. “I am anxious to know something about my friend, as I have not received any word from him since he left Bunder Abbas, Persia.” Terrell was about to be drawn into a mystery that would captivate the American public for more than a year and echo through the halls of Congress and the White House for even longer. But only an unusual postscript in Langhan’s note foreshadowed events to come: “P.S.: Mr. Lenz is attempting to make a complete circuit of the Globe, on a bicycle.” In the early 1890s, Americans and Europeans went wild over the introduction of the modern “safety” bicycle, so-called because
its equally-sized wheels provided more stability than the high-wheel models that had dominated the previous decade, and newly-invented inflatable tires added a more cushioned ride than earlier designs. Although the quality of the era’s roads left much to be desired, the early cyclists began to push the limits via long-distance races and pleasure rides organized by “wheelman” clubs that sprang up from coast to coast. Among the legion of early bicycle fanatics was Frank Lenz, a clerk and amateur photographer from Pittsburgh. The son of German immigrants, Lenz took up cycling at the age of 17 and spent much of his free time exploring the mountains of southwest Pennsylvania with other members of his home club, the Allegheny Cyclers. Driven by a powerful case of wanderlust, Lenz’s cycling journeys soon led him farther and farther from home. In 1889 he made a solo trip to New York City and the next year visited St. Louis with a friend. In 1891 the pair journeyed through the Deep South to New Orleans on their high-wheelers, and Lenz also traveled as far west as Chicago. Notably, he recorded these early tours with a heavy camera carried in a special backpack he designed himself. In surviving photos from this era, Lenz is seen in a cap and a tight black outfit as he and his friends posed with their high-wheelers. “I had become so familiar with my ‘bike,’ that to ride it, laden like a packhorse, had become second nature,” he wrote. “Still, I yearned, like Alexander, for new fields to conquer.”
MAP: CASEY GREENE
The longing for adventure soon manifested itself in a bold new plan: an aroundthe-world bicycle tour. Although at least one person — an English-born American named Thomas Stevens — had already circled the globe by bicycle, Lenz’s trip was to be unique for two reasons: he would be the first to attempt the journey from east to west, and he would bring his camera. Lenz pitched his plan to a popular recreation magazine called Outing, which, to his surprise, agreed to pay him to serialize his adventures from the road. The Overman Wheel Company of Massachusetts threw in a Victor safety bicycle and supplies, and Lenz’s series of articles for Outing, “Around the World With Wheel And Camera,” was born. He hit the road that spring on a Sunday morning after a goodbye bash thrown by his wheelman pals. “Mr. Lenz will have a long but pleasant trip, and will doubtless have some interesting stories to tell the boys upon his return home,” wrote the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The date was May 15, 1892, Lenz was 25 years old, and expected to be gone for two years. The first stop was Washington, DC, where Lenz gathered a passport and a letter of introduction from Secretary of State James G. Blaine before heading to Outing’s New York City offices for a proper sendoff.
“People crowded around me in such numbers that I found it impossible to mount my wheel, much less make the start,” he wrote of the 100 cyclists who accompanied him from City Hall on June 4. The early Outing articles detail the three months Lenz spent crossing the North America continent; which included such joys and travails as variable road and weather conditions, the quest for meals and lodging, and descriptions of the many
characters he encountered. Word of Lenz’s journey often preceded him by telegraph and newspapers, and he was greeted by local wheelmen as a long-lost cousin, feted with club dinners and accommodations. He soon found himself a minor celebrity, and notwithstanding the occasional downpour or mechanical troubles, appeared to be having a blast on his “world tour awheel.” Twelve days out from New York, Lenz crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls for a
India. Lenz was deeply moved by the Taj Mahal near Agra, India.
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short detour of the first foreign country of his trip. Upon reentering the United States at Detroit, he pressed on to Chicago where he observed the busy preparations for the World’s Fair of 1893. Lenz’s first brush with serious danger occurred while he was en route to Minneapolis. A train suddenly emerged from around a bend as he was crossing a steep ravine on a railroad bridge. Lenz narrowly escaped death by dangling his legs and heavy bicycle over the bridge’s edge. “The train fairly flew by within two feet of me causing the bridge to tremble and groan as if it were ready to go down,” he wrote. “My feelings at this moment can be better imagined than described.” The spectacular scenery of the American West awed Lenz, who spent five days exploring Yellowstone National Park by wheel. He later tumbled 30 feet down a Montana pass after being distracted by gorgeous mountain views, but he escaped with only a few cuts and bruises. Upon crossing the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest, Lenz rested a few days in Portland, which was bike-crazy even in 1892, before he pushed on to his final American destination of San Francisco. There he immediately drew a crowd after arriving October 20: “My wheel, loaded
with baggage, canteen, revolver, the Indian bow and arrows, and an old buffalo horn from the plains, was a curiosity to the mass of business men, clerks and workmen, and soon the crowd swarmed about me, trying to hear me answering a newspaper
fully loaded. But tougher days lay ahead, and it was with some trepidation that he sailed for Japan in late October. However, Lenz sounded a confident tone in a letter home, in which he urged his uncle to calm his
Grand Trunk Road. Lenz pauses along the famous route in northern India.
reporter who was on hand to do the usual interviewing.” By Lenz’s estimates, he had pedaled 4,587 miles in 107 days, a respectable 45-mile-a-day pace considering that his single-speed bicycle weighed 110 pounds
worried mother: “Always try to drive the fear from her, as I will no doubt get through everywhere without trouble.” Following a brief stop in Hawaii, Lenz’s steamship pulled into Yokohama harbor in mid-November. He was anxious to see
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Japan, a country he had studied extensively before leaving home. The threeweek journey across the island did not disappoint. In Outing he proclaimed Japan’s exotic culture and good roads to be “something akin to an Earthly Eden and an ideal land for travel.” He praised its people as clever and industrious. However, Lenz admitted he found Japanese cuisine underwhelming. “The fish and meats were cooked in a fearful kind of liquid sauce, which I could not relish, no matter how hungry I was.” He also eschewed chopsticks in favor of his own knife and fork. In China Lenz first encountered serious difficulties. Chinese roads were completely unsuitable for cycling, and he soon found himself walking for weeks on end while hired opium addicts carried his bicycle over endless mountain ranges. Wintry weather also stalled his progress, stranding him for days in small villages where he struggled with boredom and a never-ending stream of nosy visitors. The three months in which Lenz had expected to cross China stretched to six. Adding to the strain, he became increasingly unnerved by the unruly mobs that greeted him as he penetrated the interior. Although bicycles had already infiltrated Japan, Lenz was among the first to cycle in China, and his presence caused great — and often hostile — excitement among the superstitious natives. Many peasants simply fled at his appearance; others threw stones and threatened him with clubs. On several occasions, Lenz fired his pistol into the air to disperse menacing crowds, and he began traveling at night after losing part of his ear in one attack. But the kindness of Christian missionaries helped boost his sagging spirits, and telegraph workers advised him on passing safely through the most dangerous regions. Despite the hardships, Lenz remained optimistic about humanity, telling a British journalist who interviewed him in China in 1893 that his journey was intended to promote “a more sympathetic appreciation of fellow men among all nations.” Still, Lenz was overjoyed when he reached Burma, part of the vast British Empire. He was filthy, exhausted, and
Out West. Lenz at Sentinel Butte, North Dakota, which then marked the border between the Dakotas and the Montana Territory.
months behind schedule, but confident that the worst was behind him. “After a bath and a change of clothes, I felt the happiest man on earth,” he wrote. The jungles of Burma offered new troubles. Heavy rains made the roads impassable, and once again Lenz turned to natives to carry the bicycle. Ominously, one hired peasant drowned while ferrying Lenz’s belongings across a stream. Shortly after, malaria waylaid Lenz for several weeks, but upon recovering he continued on to the capital of Rangoon, where he was delighted to encounter six members of the Burma Cycling Club waiting for him along the road. The monsoon rains continued to plague his travels, and Lenz ended up departing for India by boat rather than bicycle. The rains forced another two-week delay at Calcutta, but it gave Lenz a chance to rest and build up a “new mount” from a spare frame and trunk of bicycle parts he had shipped ahead. He also enjoyed the company of the many British wheelmen of the city, who threw a large banquet in his honor before his departure. In early October, Lenz found himself again pedaling alone in a strange land, although this time he traveled along the smooth surface and clear weather of the Grand Trunk Road, an ancient trade route traversing the subcontinent. Monkeys and camels were among the exotic fauna Lenz saw daily, and photos from this era show
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him wearing an enormous pith helmet to cope with the oppressive heat. He explained his touring philosophy in Outing: “I have found it better not to ride more than 50 to 65 miles a day, if stopping places can be procured at those distances. Riding from 70 to 100 miles day after day is fatiguing and would soon wear out the strongest of riders.” It took Lenz one month to ride the 1,303 miles from Calcutta to Lahore, including ten days of rest. At Lahore, Lenz faced a dilemma. Should he continue on the more direct route through Afghanistan and face its fierce inhabitants and winter weather, or should he head south 800 miles through rugged desert to Karachi, where he could meet a steamer to carry him to Persia? He chose the later, although he lamented the boring terrain and lack of clean water and good food. Upon his arrival, Lenz calculated he had ridden the 2,175 miles from Calcutta in 53 days. After a 600-mile steamer ride during which he claimed to see only a single tree on shore, Lenz arrived at Bushire in Persia, where he departed for the capital of Teheran on February 13, 1894. He enjoyed the desert scenery and ubiquitous ruins along the 800-mile ride, but he was dismayed by more poor roads, deep sand, and swarming insects. In Outing, Lenz described being moved by the unusual sight of a young woman
lowering her veil to view him better as he passed: “A row of rosy-tipped fingers clutched the white gauze veil and, for one instant, revealed a picture I shall never forget. The complexion was exquisitely fair. No wanton ray of old Sol had ever kissed that bloodless cheek, which seemed as if it had never known the crimson of a blush.” Lenz found Teheran so pleasant that it was hard to leave, but he was anxious to cross Turkey before the heat of summer, so he reluctantly departed on April 1 for the Persian city of Tabreez, 375 miles away. Later that month from Tabreez, Lenz confessed to being profoundly homesick. “I long for the day which will see me again on my native hearthstone and my wanderings at an end,” he wrote to Outing, just shy of the two-year anniversary of his departure from Pittsburgh. He identified his next destination as Erzeroum in eastern Turkey, a distance of almost 300 miles. It was the last that Outing or anyone would hear from Lenz. As the summer passed, Lenz’s family and friends became increasingly alarmed
at his uncharacteristic silence and began to contact U.S. diplomats and missionaries in Persia and Turkey for word of his fate. Newspapers from Hawaii to Canada ran stories about the mystery, spawning numerous theories. One popular belief was that Lenz had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. The mystery was exacerbated by Outing, which erroneously reported in July that Lenz had arrived at Constantinople, and later that fall by the receipt of a longdelayed letter from Lenz to a friend, which led to newspaper stories that he was alive and well. However, it was soon determined that the letter was sent before Lenz’s final correspondence with Outing. Lenz’s friends and family scrambled to organize a search party, but the efforts stalled as would-be rescuers dropped out and funds failed to materialize. American and British diplomats began to fear the worst, speculating that Lenz may have fallen victim to the lawlessness of eastern Turkey, also known as Kurdistan. This region had long had a dangerous
reputation, but in early 1894 it had become even more treacherous as long-simmering tension between the Islamic Turks of the Ottoman Empire and their Christian Armenian subjects began to boil over. Tens of thousands of Armenians are estimated to have died at the hands of Turkish soldiers and their nomadic Kurdish allies in 1894–95, as Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid sought to crush a growing Armenian resistance movement. It was into this environment that Lenz wandered in early May of 1894 and he vanished days later. Alexander Terrell, the U.S. minister to Turkey, was sure of Lenz’s fate. “I have not doubt that he was killed by the wild Kurds,” he wrote to Secretary of State Walter Gresham in November 1894. But the sultan had sealed the region’s borders to Westerners, and the Ottoman government claimed to have no knowledge of Lenz when it was pressed by the Americans. Stung by growing public sentiment that it had sent Lenz on a death mission, Outing turned to another famous American cyclist to investigate. William Sachtleben of Alton,
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Share the road. Lenz, seen holding his enourmous pith helmet, often encountered camels along the Grand Trunk Road.
Illinois, had traveled through Kurdistan with college classmate Thomas Allen during their own round-the-world bicycle trip completed in 1892. The 29-year-old Sachtleben was still hungry for adventure and sailed for Europe in March 1895. It had been nearly ten months since Lenz had disappeared. Upon arriving in Turkey, Sachtleben forged papers to gain entrance to Kurdistan. He immediately traveled to Erzeroum, Lenz’s last known destination, and with the help of a friendly missionary and an Armenian merchant, began to piece together Lenz’s last days. He learned that a notorious Kurdish chief had ordered Lenz robbed and murdered after the cyclist had inadvertently insulted him during a chance encounter in a small village. The bandits ambushed Lenz
the following morning as he crossed a river several miles outside of town. According to Sachtleben’s account, one of the Kurds slashed Lenz on the hand with a sword. Bleeding, Lenz begged for his life, even offering to convert to Islam, but he was killed and buried in the riverbank. Further, Sachtleben learned that the Turks had covered up the crime. Confronted with the evidence, the Turks brought charges against the Kurd, but to Sachtleben’s dismay, they also charged innocent Armenians who had aided his investigation. He returned to the United States bitter over his failure to recover Lenz’s body for his grieving mother. After a lengthy series of trials and appeals, the Kurdish chief and the Armenians were convicted of Lenz’s murder; however, the
Kurd had already escaped from prison and fled, never to be seen again. Two of the Armenians died in prison while they were waiting to be tried, and the others also fled after posting bail. The American public felt cheated, and Lenz’s story became a rallying cry for the League of American Wheelmen, then emerging as a powerful lobby for improved roads. The group and their congressional allies sought an indemnity for Lenz’s grieving mother, charging that the Turks had failed to protect Lenz upon his arrival in the country and had failed to investigate his disappearance in good faith. The U.S. State Department acquiesced and formally sought $40,000 from the Turks, who resisted, arguing the killers had already been convicted. The request lagged
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for years, but the U.S. government intensified its efforts after the wheelmen personally lobbied President William McKinley in January 1900. The sultan finally agreed to the U.S. demands after the Americans refused to sell him a warship until the matter was resolved. The Turks finally paid $7,500 to Lenz’s grieving mother, who had begged him not to go on the trip, nearly eight years after her only child’s disappearance. Lenz’s disappearance prompted a debate in the cycling community over the merits of round-the-world tours. A columnist for the popular cycling journal Bearings derided such trips as dangerous stunts and the riders as mere imitators of Thomas Stevens, the first to circle the globe. But other thrill seekers followed Lenz’s lead, even after the details of his brutal murder became known. Just weeks after Sachtleben sailed to Europe to search for Lenz, a Chicago man and his wife started an around-the-world attempt, following in part Lenz’s ill-fated route. And Annie Londonderry, a housewife from Boston, soon became the first woman to cycle
recalled the relief that swept over him as he departed Kurdistan for Constantinople and then headed home: “I felt as if I were riding out of the ‘valley of death,’” he wrote. “Every mile westward brought me in contact with a higher civilization, and only those who have lived among barbarians can conceive what a pleasure it was for me to recognize each new object which I had not seen for many months.”
around the globe, although she is suspected of making liberal use of trains and steamers during her journey. As late as 1904, a German cyclist reported being denied entry into Asia Minor because of the “Lenz affair.” The government “did not want to take any more risks of that kind. So we went on without the passports.” This was after Bedouins had already killed one of his traveling companions. Sachtleben, who personally witnessed several horrific slaughters during the year he spent investigating Lenz’s fate, was only too happy to leave the troubled region. He
Bicycle historian David Herlihy’s The Lost Cyclist: The Untold Story of Frank Lenz’s Ill-Fated Around-the-World Journey, will be published May 2009 by rBooks.co.uk. Geof Koss has spent many hours researching the long-forgotten story of Frank Lenz in the various libraries and federal archives of Washington, DC. He’s also partially retraced, on a mountain bike, the first leg of Lenz’s round-the-world trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, a 300-plus-mile journey that can now be made completely off-road. He writes about environmental issues in Congress.
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