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MacCreagh, Gordon 1886-1953

MacCREAGH, Gordon 1886-1953

PERSONAL: Born August 8, 1886, in Perth, IN; died of abdominal cancer August 30, 1953, in St. Petersburg, FL; son of a naturalist and historian; married Helen Komlosy, 1923. Education: Attended University of Heidelberg.

CAREER: Adventurer, explorer, and author. Military service: Served in U.S. Air Force during World War I.

WRITINGS:

Big Game in the Shan States, 1905.

White Waters and Black, Century Co. (New York, NY), 1926, reprinted, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2001.

The Last of Free Africa, Century Co. (New York, NY), 1928.

Also author of The Lost End of Nowhere (book-length story) and other fiction and articles to Adventure.

SIDELIGHTS: Gordon MacCreagh was born in Perth, Indiana in 1886, to Scottish parents. His father, a naturalist and historian, had come to the United States to study the culture and history of Native Americans, and MacCreagh inherited this interest in other peoples and cultures. After attending public schools in Perth, he was sent to Scotland, where he was educated by his grandfather, a church deacon. Because his grandfather traveled widely, MacCreagh attended schools in Adelham and Glenalmond, Scotland, and then enrolled at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

At the turn of the twentieth century dueling was a popular fad in Heidelberg, and MacCreagh was provoked into a sword duel with another student. He won the duel, but worried that he had killed his opponent. Because he was American, he believed he would not have a fair trial in a German court, so he packed up his belongings and left Heidelberg in the middle of the night. He later learned that the student had not died, but recovered from the wound.

Nevertheless, MacCreagh kept traveling, and reached India after several months on the road. Nineteen years old and broke, he found work as the captain of a barge on the Nile River. One day he awoke to find that seven men out of the crew of ten had died from bubonic plague, and the rest had jumped ship and swum ashore. MacCreagh, after assessing the situation, did the same. Later he contacted the shipping firm, which told him he should go back to the vessel and wait for it to be fumigated. MacCreagh knew that if he did this he would undoubtedly become sick with the plague before any fumigation could take place, so he hit the road again.

He worked his way to Darjeeling in India, where he worked as overseer of a tea plantation. This proved to be boring, so he left and went to Kenya, where he got a contract to provide wild animals for the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus, which was traveling through Germany. MacCreagh accumulated more animals than the circus could use, and spent all his funds taking care of the surplus, so he returned to India, where he spent five years working for British Post Office Intelligence.

After five years he was thoroughly bored, so he decided to become a writer. As with his previous jobs, he was not deterred by the fact that he had no experience whatsoever in the field. He wrote a two-act play that was performed by a Hindu princess and other Hindu actors, and it was so successful that a New York producer brought the play to New York; however, it contained too much nudity for the tastes of the time, and it was quickly shut down.

MacCreagh, now living in New York City, continued to write, selling adventure stories set in India to Adventure magazine; his first story appeared in October of 1913. He continued to write throughout his life, but only when he needed money. During World War I he served in the U.S. Air Force, spending a year in Europe.

In 1926 MacCreagh published White Waters and Black, the journal of a two-year expedition to the Amazon jungle which MacCreagh undertook in 1922-23. As quoted by Peter Ruber on the Adventure Fiction Web site, a Washington Post reviewer called the book "the highly unofficial account of an Amazon Expedition that might have been staffed by the Marx Brothers," and Explorers Journal dubbed it "a classic in explorational literature."

For the expedition, MacCreagh served as an assistant to six scientists from Harvard University; one other assistant also came along. The group ventured into remote regions of the Amazon to collect specimens of plants and insects, moving from the Chilean coast over the Andes Mountains to Bolivia and the Amazon basin. Unfortunately, the members of the team were chosen because of their scientific knowledge, not their ability to work in the jungle; of the six, five had never traveled before except by car or train. They were similarly not selected for their ability to get along with each other. In his foreword to the book, George B. Schaller wrote that the scientists "were united by distrust, insensitivity, and overblown egos." They sometimes went for weeks without speaking, and were only united by their hatred for the expedition's director, who had packed supplies in 104 unlabeled boxes but neglected to include essential items such as cooking pots, lanterns, and gasoline for the group's boat motor. MacCreagh, who had once explored Asia with less than 100 pounds of supplies, was sent ahead to expedite the expedition, and went to Bolivia to amass permits, supplies, guns, ammunition, and guides. He was amazed to learn that the scientists had brought four tons of supplies to add to the two tons he had already rounded up. When the scientists finally arrived, they and their mass of gear set out on a train of 117 mules.

After the expedition, MacCreagh returned to New York, where he met and married Helen Komlosy. She was as adventurous as he was, and joined him on trips to Borneo and to Ethiopia.

Between June of 1927 and May of 1928 MacCreagh published a series of seven articles in Adventure magazine describing his experiences as a member of an archeological expedition to look for the biblical Ark of the Covenant. MacCreagh had spent 1926 and 1927 in Abyssinia in search of the Ark, and returned there with a second expedition in 1928. In 1928, he published The Last of Free Africa, based on these articles. The book, subtitled "The Account of an Expedition into Abyssinia with Some Pungent Remarks on the Anomalous Political Situation That, at Present, Obtains between This Ancient Kingdom and the Rest of the World," was so popular that it went through several editions.

MacCreagh's activities during the 1930s are not known; he wrote some stories, but not enough to support himself and his wife. At the outbreak of World War II he took a job with Douglas Aircraft Corporation, which supplied fighter planes for the war. The company sent him to Africa on mysterious missions; although he was officially on the Douglas payroll, he worked for the British government and then the American government. In 1943 or 1944, enemy forces shot at his plane and wounded him. The pilot landed safely, and MacCreagh eventually recovered from his wounds.

After World War II MacCreagh and Helen moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, but left after a year to explore the then-unfinished Pan-American Highway. They drove in a hearse that was so old it had become a jalopy; the hearse was destroyed when a decaying adobe wall collapsed on it. After this adventure they returned to St. Petersburg, where MacCreagh worked as a lecturer and writer.

On August 30, 1953, MacCreagh died from abdominal cancer at the age of sixty-eight. Ruben noted that his contemporaries described him as "altogether a happy man, an excellent bagpiper and guitarist, [with] a soft, haunting singing voice." Although he wrote five books, only four are extant, and nothing is known of his first book, Big Game in the Shan States except the title. Ruben commented, "One has only to read a cross-section of MacCreagh's tales to realize that he deserves high marks for storytelling. His tales have a ring of authenticity unmatched by most of his contemporaries."

Although MacCreagh was never formally trained as an anthropologist or ethnologist, he was well regarded in these fields because of his lifelong work. In a discussion of MacCreagh's life on the Adventure Fiction Web site, Ruber commented, "One is left with the feeling that had he written a book about himself, it would have topped the bestseller lists. [His life was] one continuing adventure after another, often filled with mishaps and danger, some of which he documented for posterity with irreverent good humor."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Times Literary Supplement, January 18, 2002, Maren Meinhardt, review of White Waters and Black, p. 43.

Washington Post Book World, November 3, 1985, review of White Waters and Black, p. 12.

OBITUARIES:

ONLINE

Adventure Fiction Web site,http://adventurefiction.com/ (July 24, 2002).*

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