Putt Mossman, stuntman extraordinaire
Born in Iowa in 1906, Orren “Putt” Mossman is widely regarded as the most famous stunt motorcyclist of the first half of the 20th century. Referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Skills”, Mossman was also an accomplished motorcycle racer as well as a professional baseball player, wrestler, champion boxer, stuntman, Hollywood stunt double, and horseshoe throwing national and world champion. However, it was his motorcycling stunts that brought him international fame.
A keen self-publicist and flamboyant showman, Mossman was famous for his innovative and at times reckless stunts. His most well-known included having his sister ride sitting or standing on his shoulders; riding while juggling eggs or skipping rope; riding with a sack over his head and using a broomstick to feel for the stadium wall to guide him around the track; riding through plate glass or burning wood; jumping off a ramp into a tub of flaming water; attaching a ladder to the rear of the motorcycle climbing up and down the ladder as the motorcycle circulated the track.
Over 40 years, Mossman and his troupe toured America and the world, performing outrageous feats of daring and bravado (and demonstrating horseshoe throwing) in at least 45 countries across six contents. His troupe spent a large part of the late 1930s in Australia and New Zealand, performing shows and stunts in not only major cities but across many regional areas. In August of 1937 the troupe was in North Queensland putting on numerous shows at places such as Mossman, Cairns, Atherton, Gordonvale, Mirriwinni and Fishery Falls.
Seemingly never keen to shy away from additional challenges, while in the north Putt Mossman decided to make an attempt at the Port Douglas beach speed record. Beach racing had been taking place around Port Douglas since as early as 1931 and prior to Mossman’s attempt the Port Douglas speed record was also the national record for a 500cc bike – 88.8 miles an hour. On the day, Mossman, on his British J.A.P. motorcycle, reached 96.8 miles per hour - a new record. Not to be outdone, a member of his troupe, ‘Grace’, set a ladies record of 64 miles per hour.
Recently a number of photographs depicting this attempt have surfaced as a part of the larger photographic collection of Gordon Gibson, a North Queensland based cinematographer. These nine images show both Mossman and ‘Grace’ racing along the Port Douglas beach as well as posing with spectators. Although few in number, the photographs give a rare glimpse at this quite obscure event as well as shedding a little bit more light on the exploits of Putt Mossman and early motorcycle racing in Queensland.
Some mystery remains regarding the exact identity of ‘Grace’. Queensland newspapers of the day widely reported her as ‘Grace Mossman’, sister of Putt. However, records show that his sister was named Dessie and although she was a central member of his stunt troupe over the years, there is nothing to verify that she was in Queensland on this particular trip. Furthermore, by the mid-1930s she was married and went by the name of Dessie Grant, performing under that name from at least 1935 through to the 1940s. It would seem unlikely that she would temporarily adopt the name Grace Mossman for the 1937 tour.
There are two other possible candidates. Another sometimes member of Mossman’s troupe was one Mary Grace Conrad, a regular stunt partner and his one-time lover. However, again nothing verifies her presence on this tour. Secondly, there is Grace Boyle, a celebrated English speedway racer and stunt woman, and sister to another troupe member Jim Boyle. She definitely did accompany Mossman in Australia in 1937/1938 and her exploits are well documented, including time spent lost with the troupe in West Australian desert country north of Kalgoorlie. Grace Boyle seems the most likely of the three, however if so, it is curious how newspapers of the day reported her identity so erroneously. Further verification would be welcome.
R. Hillier - Original Content Librarian, State Library of Queensland