Accomplishments and Records

The Courageous Inventor Who Fought Fire and Prejudice

The man was clearly a fraud. He claimed to be the inventor of a revolutionary device that would save countless lives, but it was all a lie. His closest associate was a willing participant in the deception and knew better than anyone that they were telling lies to the public.

They formed a partnership of convenience to convince the public to embrace this new-fangled contraption. The device, they claimed, would allow a person to safely breathe in a smoke-filled room. If true, that would revolutionize the work environments of firefighters, emergency responders, and mineworkers. If the claim was false, who knows how many lives would be thrown away?

As with anything that seems too good to be true, you are likely to find a con man peddling the product. The man who stood before curious crowds certainly met that description. He was an actor, pretending to be the inventor of the “safety hood.” He and his co-conspirator stood before countless audiences, tauting the virtues of this amazing invention.

It wasn’t an overly-complex device. It basically amounted to an enclosed hood that was placed over the wearer’s head. A series of tubes ran from the hood to the floor, under the theory that the safest air to breathe during a fire is that which is closest to the ground. A moist sponge would serve as a filter, removing any contaminants, before the air made its way inside the hood.

It’s one thing to claim that such a contraption would work. It is quite another to expect someone to trust those words. That’s where the co-conspirator came into the act. He was a con man, as well. He pretended to be “Big Chief Mason,” a native of the Walpole Island Indian Reserve in Canada. That was a lie, of course. There wasn’t a drop of Indian blood in his body. That was simply part of the act.

“Big Chief Mason”

After his associate educated the audience about the features of the safety hood, “Big Chief Mason” stepped forward to demonstrate how it worked. Inside an enclosed tent, the men started a fire fueled with sulfur, formaldehyde, tar, and manure. Wearing the safety hood, Mason stepped inside. When he stepped out, 20 minutes later, the anxious crowd erupted in applause. What a miraculous device!

The two con men made successful demonstrations throughout northeast Ohio. Their efforts produced results, but they thought they should be doing better. Something more was needed if they were going to take their product to the next level. Quite simply, their two-man performances were not generating enough publicity.

Fate intervened on July 24, 1916. Workers on a tunneling project under Lake Erie became trapped when an explosion cut off access to the outside. Emergency workers tried to reach the men, but many of them became victims of the deadly fumes that filled the tunnel.

It was the middle of the night when “Big Chief” was roused from his sleep. Someone remembered the extraordinary staged demonstrations and remembered that Morgan lived nearby. Did he have any safety hoods available for immediate use? It took no persuasion at all for him to offer all of the devices at his disposal.

Even with the safety hoods, no one was eager to venture into the tunnel. There had been too many casualties already, and this hardly seemed the time for a field test of a contraption with such far-fetched promises.

“I had but a little schooling, but I am a graduate from the school of hard knocks and cruel treatment. I have personally saved nine lives.”

That’s when a member of the community stepped forward. Still dressed in his pajamas, he grabbed a safety hood, strapped it on, and plunged into the toxic tunnel. When he emerged several minutes later, carrying one of the miners on his back, the emergency responders were convinced. Grabbing the other safety hoods, they joined in. The courageous pajama-clad volunteer made four trips into the tunnel, each time returning with a rescued survivor.

When, exhausted, he sat down to rest, the face that everyone saw was that of “Big Chief,” himself. He was so convinced of the value of the safety hood that he was willing to do more than step inside a tent on a stage. He put his life on the line to rescue nine men who otherwise would have perished in the disaster.

A Cleveland newspaper heralds the rescue of the first survivor

It was this event that brought national attention to the safety hood. It wasn’t long before the devices were being purchased throughout the United States. Hospitals, chemical factories, and mining companies joined with fire departments in embracing the safety hood to make the workplace safer.

With all of that publicity, you would think that the true inventor of the safety hood would have been outraged to find out someone else was claiming to be the inventor. He wasn’t. He was, in fact, the one who came up with the idea for the deception.

The actual inventor who was the real genius behind the safety hood was the co-conspirator who falsely told everyone he was an Indian named “Big Chief.” His real name was Garrett Morgan. He wasn’t a Native American. He was African American.

The reason he asked an actor friend to pretend to be the inventor was because his friend was white. In that era, racial prejudice blinded many to the true potential of Morgan’s invention. Just to let the world know about the safety hood’s potential, its creator had to make himself all but invisible and let someone else take the credit.

His diary entry after the Lake Erie incident was a sobering reflection of the road he had travelled. He wrote, “I had but a little schooling, but I am a graduate from the school of hard knocks and cruel treatment. I have personally saved nine lives.”


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