Gordon MacCreagh – Adventurer, Explorer, Big game hunter, Writer

[Gordon MacCreagh might have been the real life inspiration for Indiana Jones. Born in Indiana, he went on an expedition to find the lost Ark of the Covenant in Abyssinia, explored the Amazon jungles, collected big game animals for a circus and was a writer and lecturer. Read more after the break.]

Gordon MacCreagh c. 1935

Gordon MacCreagh was born on 8 August, 1886 1889 (see comments for discussion on birth date and other details) in Perth, Clay County, Indiana. He was the son of Scottish parents; his father was a naturalist and historian who had come to America to study the American Indians. Gordon did his initial schooling in Perth and was sent to his grandfather in Scotland, who was a deacon. He attended school at Aldenham and Glenalmond, and went to study at Heidelberg University. While at the university, in 1905, he got into a sabre duel with a German student, which he won. Believing the German to have died, he fled to India. (Later he learned that the German student had survived.)

He had been in correspondence with a man in Calcutta, who offered him a job at a salary of 200 rupees per month. He took the job, but was not paid and left at the end of a month. Another more romantic version of the story has it that one day he woke up to find that the barge was deserted except for seven dead crew members, who had died of the bubonic plague. He jumped over the side and got in touch with his firm, who advised him to go back to the barge and await fumigation. As this was a virtual death sentence, he left Calcutta. Either way, he landed in Darjeeling, where he got a job on a tea plantation as a coolie overseer.

He started collecting Himalayan butterflies and insects for a museum collector. This led to his collecting bigger animals as well, and he went into this business, selling animals to Jamrach’s Menagerie and Hagenbeck’s Circus. He claimed to have covered India, hunting leopards and tigers. Given the road conditions then prevailing, he drove his car from Bombay to Calcutta over the rail route, straddling the rails. He had a removable grille across the back of the front seat, and covered many miles with a tiger in the back seat. He also collected animals in the Malay islands and Borneo. His specialty was big snakes and orangutans.

He got restless and decided to go to Africa, still doing the same job. He collected more animals than the circus could buy, and spent all his money taking care of the animals. Broke again, he went back to India, this time to work for British Intelligence, then part of the Post Office. He held this job for five years. It was here that he first started writing. His first effort was a play, with Indian actors as princes and princesses. It had local success, and was seen by a New York producer, Mike Leavitt, who encouraged him to bring the show to New York. It opened on the Amsterdam theater in New York, but was shut down by the authorities on the grounds of offending public morality with excessive nudity.

MacCreagh was stranded in New York. He was a roommate of Captain A. E. Dingle, who was also trying to break into the fiction business at this time. (I’ll add more on this in a later article on Captain Dingle). At this time, he joined a music band as a bagpiper, to make some money. He was successful breaking into the fiction market, making his first sale to Adventure, the short story The Brass Idol, in 1913. By 1914, he was selling his fiction to a variety of markets from newspapers to magazines. (I have managed to get a scan of one of these stories and will share it sometime this week.)

He did serve in World War I, though I could not find out in what branch of the services. His autobiographical sketch in The Argosy mentions the Navy, but is contradicted by his entry in Who’s Who that talks about his joining the Air Force.

Two years after the war, MacCreagh, who by then had gained a reputation as an Oriental scholar, joined the Mulford Expedition on a trip to the Amazon. The expedition was led by Dr. Henry H. Rusby, dean of pharmacy at Columbia University, and was trying to find new medicines for tropical diseases and collect specimens, among other goals. The expedition was poorly planned, and within a short time most of the members were bickering among themselves.

In 1922, MacCreagh was the last member of the expedition to return. All other members had returned earlier due to sickness and other reasons. He wrote a hilarious travel book, White Waters and Black, about his experiences on this expedition. This book is a classic of Amazon exploration.

The most interesting experience on this expedition was his participation in the Caapi ritual dance. The Caapi dance is a ritual dance to frighten devils away, and as part of this, the Indians consume a certain drug, caapi, which is the juice of a boiled vine. MacCreagh had no intention of joining in the dance, but he took a drink of caapi, and then proceeded to dance for a day before the effect of the drug wore off.

Gordon MacCreagh c. 1922 in makeup before Caapi dance

Returning to New York, he met Helen Komlosy, who was herself a traveler and expert rifle shot. They married sometime in June, 1923.

In 1927, the MacCreaghs set off on a trip to Abyssinia to find the lost Ark of the Covenant. This trip was funded by Adventure magazine, in which periodic articles about the expedition appeared. Other aims of the trip included capturing specimens of the local fauna (lions included) and track down the Falashas, a legendary lost African tribe of Jewish descent.

The MacCreaghs were travelling in Abyssinia in 1927 and for the most part of 1928, encountering a herd of man-eating hippopotami on the way. They met the Emperor, Haile Selassie, and Gordon MacCreagh was created a Knight of the Golden Star of Ethiopia.

He published his experiences in his book, The Last of Free Africa, which was a bestseller and ran into multiple editions and printings. The book was highly critical of the attempts by the European powers to colonize Abyssinia, which was the last remaining free country in Africa (hence the title).

The MacCreaghs returned to New York, and went back to Abyssinia for a return trip. They followed this up with return trips in the 1930s, going deeper into Africa. Gordon must have been busy going around on the lecture circuit, because he wasn’t writing much at this time. On one of their trips, they came back via Japan, and from there to Seattle. From Seattle, they drove across the States in a used car, covering the tourist spots.

In 1933, he won a Chevrolet for his essay on why he liked his new Chevrolet. He related an anecdote of his Abyssinian trip on this occasion. A crazy Arab driver, just graduated from camels, smacked into a native and killed him. The Abyssinian law hanged him in public as a warning to other drivers. “And a damn good law it is too,” he concluded.

Gordon MacCreagh and his wife collecting the Chevrolet they won

When World War II came around, he went to work for Douglas Aircraft, and was sent to Africa as a translator and interpreter for the American and British armies there. On one of his flights, he was shot down. Luckily, he escaped with just one bullet wound.

After the war, the MacCreaghs lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they were local celebrities. He gave talks and lectures on his travels, and she hosted parties where she talked with the local women about her travels.

He died on August 30, 1953, of abdominal cancer. Helen passed away in 1962. As far as I could find out, they were childless. The only book of his still in print is Black Waters and White, which I highly recommend. His stories seem to have been based on his experiences, and are highly recommended as well.

Links to his books in print:

White Waters and Black