On March 17, 1933 a Hawaiian newspaper reported that the Hermit of Nankuli had been found dead in his shack. He was known for living in almost absolute seclusion and being hostile to visitors. Those who did chance to visit were shocked to find that he wore no clothing when at home.
What readers of the Hawaiian newspaper didn't know was that this ignominious end was not William Custeads only fifteen minutes of fame. Thirty-five years earlier newspapers across Texas were celebrating his prowess as an inventor.
Back in the 1890s, Congress had set aside $100,000 to be awarded to the first person to design a practical aeronautical craft. That would be about $2.5 million in today's money.
That was just the kind of prize to inspire an ambitious young man like Custead. He had a keen mind and a good job as a a telegrapher for the Katy Railroad, but dreamed of bigger things than living in the little town of Elm Mott outside of Waco.
Custead dreamed of that prize and the fame that would come with it. He might even become more celebrated than his cousin, Buffalo Bill Cody.
Custead set to work in a large tent in a vacant lot behind the Elm Mott school. Curious kids would pop their heads in to see what he was up to, and what a wonder it was!
The site was straight out of a Jules Verne story. A canoe shaped skeleton of tubular steel covered with oiled linen to make it air tight. The skin was inflated with hydrogen. On each side were three huge paddle-shaped wings powered by a new-fangled gasoline engine and a chain drive. The operator sat in a central cockpit which was covered by a tent symmetrical to the hull, giving it the profile of a fat cigar.
In 1899 Custead went to Washington to patent his design and present his ideas tot he War Department. The Waco Times Herald reported that Custead's models were greeted with enthusiasm by War Department officials. He returned to Waco to refine his invention.
A number of people reported seeing its test flights, tethered by four ropes attached to cotton scales which measured the lifting power of Custead's 'ornithopter'.
The problem was that gasoline engine. The power to weight ratio was just too small at that time to make the craft practical. Custead traveled to New York to work with another inventor who's newer engine design looked promising. While there he filed patents for several variable speed mechanisms that his airship would need to work properly.
Then, in December 1903, newspapers reported that the Wright Brother's had flown a heavier than air craft in front of reliable witnesses at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Custead was devastated.
His wife and children never saw him again and seldom received letters. He wandered. New Orleans. San Francisco. Panama. And finally Hawaii, where he died while cooking dinner naked.