"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 18, 2019

Strange Company Book Club:: "The Lost Cyclist," By David Herlihy

Frank Lenz, 1892

In the late 19th century, a new craze swept across America: bicycling. These machines gave riders a delightfully unprecedented sense of speed, mobility, and freedom, and they were available to all but the most modest budgets. Bicycling clubs and competitions soon sprang up everywhere, and, like all fads, spawned celebrities. The fastest and most daring riders won widespread public attention and acclaim.

Unsurprisingly, the most ambitious cyclists sought to build on their prestige. Several decades before Charles Lindbergh won permanent worldwide fame by flying solo across the Atlantic, bicyclists aimed at similar renown by making bold excursions around the world. These "globe girdlers" made long and extremely dangerous rides, often in areas little visited by travelers. The first true "globe girdler" was an Englishman named Thomas Stevens, who successfully circumnavigated the globe in 1887.

Among the many youths inspired by such exploits was a Pittsburgh bookkeeper named Frank Lenz. When he was 17, he took up cycling, and soon became obsessed with the sport. For Lenz, cycling was not merely recreation; it was escape from a gray existence. When he wasn't at his dull, dead-end job at a brass-fittings factory, he was dealing with an unhappy home. Lenz's father, Adam Reinhart, died when he was a small child. A couple of years later, his mother Maria Anna married William Lenz, who, unfortunately, turned out to be a drunken brute. Frank was forced to watch helplessly while his gentle mother was unmercifully bullied. Unsurprisingly, Anna sought consolation by clinging to her beloved only child, a mother-love that Frank likely found increasingly stifling as he grew older. The only time he felt truly happy was on his bicycle.

Frank was strong, confident, and utterly lacking in fear. At cycling competitions, he soon became famous as a reckless rider with remarkable stamina. His dreams grew. Stevens' great exploit filled him with envy. Why, Lenz thought, couldn't he make a similar trek? When Lenz learned that two other prominent young cyclists, William Sachtleben and Thomas Allen, were planning their own round-the-world tour, Lenz vowed that he would not be left out of the escapades. Lenz had an advantage over these other riders: he was a skilled amateur photographer. He planned to make a solo journey of the world, photographing his trip every step of the way. On his return, he would not only have written documentation of his exploits, but visual ones as well. Surely, he thought, book deals and lecture tours would set him permanently on an exciting and profitable path in life. Besides, it sounded like a hell of a lot of fun. In Herlihy's words, "Lenz simply could not fathom how any pursuit could be more exciting or satisfying than touring the world on a bicycle."

Lenz signed a contract with "Outing" magazine (the same publication that had backed Stevens) to send the magazine periodic reports and photos of his trip. On May 15, 1892, the 25-year-old bicycled out of Pittsburgh, with about 800 well-wishers to see him off. He told a reporter, "I have nothing but the most pleasurable anticipation of my trip abroad. Besides, I have never encountered anything yet that I have not overcome."

The only person unhappy to see Lenz go was his apprehensive mother, who had begged Frank not to make the trip.  Mrs. Lenz was tortured with a dreadful fear that she would never see her son again.

Lenz's planned route

Lenz first cycled to Washington D.C. and New York. Then, he made his way westward across the country, making a few side trips into Canada. He reached San Francisco on October 20. From there, Lenz sailed to Japan, a country that pleasantly impressed him. (Although he thought little of the food.)

Any illusions Lenz may have had that his epic journey would be disaster-free were dashed when he began traveling through China. He encountered nightmarishly bad roads, harsh weather, and often hostile locals. (He also just missed crossing paths with Sachtleben and Allen, who were on the way home from their own globe-girdling.) Despite all of his bravery and ambition, Lenz had occasional moments when he wondered if maybe, just maybe, he had bit off a bit more than he could chew.

Lenz in China

Still, he felt there was no turning back now, and he ignored all suggestions that he abandon his increasingly hazardous expedition. Slowly but surely, Lenz made it through China, and then cycled his way through Burma, India, and Persia. Ahead lay Turkey, which he knew would be the worst part of his travels. Westerners he met in Tehran begged him to bypass Turkey altogether and head for Europe via Russia instead. Lenz dismissed their concerns. Turkey was by far the shorter route, and he was anxious to see the "outside world" again.

Lenz had the bad fortune to enter Turkey right at the moment when it was possibly the most dangerous part of the world. The Ottoman Empire's long-simmering tensions with their Armenian subjects was reducing the region to a state of near-anarchy. Armenians were being massacred by the tens of thousands. The lonely roads were exceptionally treacherous and filled with brigands who had a well-known predilection for attacking and robbing vulnerable travelers. It was, in short, no place for a lone American with no protection but a bicycle.

Lenz knew these risks, but was determined--stubbornly, almost blindly determined--to see his journey through to the end. In early May 1894, he left Tabriz, in what is now Iran, bound for Erzurum, Turkey, a journey of about 300 miles.  Lenz wrote to friends back home, "Maybe you fellows think that I am tired of this kind of life. Well, I am not. I enjoy it hugely." He was not without a feeling of foreboding, however. As he prepared to go through Turkey, he wrote "Outing" editor James Worman, "I must confess to a feeling of homesickness. I am very, very tired of being a 'stranger.' I long for the day which will see me again on my native hearthstone and my wanderings at an end."

Tragically, Lenz's wanderings soon did come to an end, but not in the way anyone wanted. When several months passed without anyone back in America hearing from the traveler, his family and friends began to worry. Even more unsettlingly, it was learned that Lenz's trunk, which he had sent to Constantinople ahead of him, was sitting in that city unclaimed. As more and more time went on, it became impossible to deny that something catastrophic had happened to Lenz. But what? And where?

For quite some time, Worman refused to acknowledge the likelihood that Lenz had come to grief. However, facing increasing pressure to track down Lenz's whereabouts, he finally agreed to hire an envoy to search for the missing wheelman. His choice was William Sachtleben, who was eager to take the hazardous assignment. Although he and Lenz never met, the freemasonry of cycling gave him a bond to the ill-fated rider. Sachtleben was determined to find Lenz's remains for reburial in America, and to obtain punishment for whoever had been responsible for his death. It does not detract from the heroism of Sachtleben's quest to note that there was an element of self-benefit. Sachtleben presumed that the story of his mission to find the missing rider would, on his return, make him a hot property on the lecture circuit and among book publishers.

It was a logical appointment in many ways: Sachtleben was courageous, self-reliant, and had traveled through Turkey himself, albeit at a time when it was not as dangerous as when Lenz ventured into the country. However, Sachtleben did not have the right temperament for an assignment that required not just bravery, but diplomacy. However well-intentioned he may have been, Sachtleben was an outspoken sort, with an unsubtle, bull-in-a-china-shop manner that may well have worked against him. Herlihy summed him up as "a loose cannon whose judgment was not always sound."

Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben

When Sachtleben arrived in Turkey, everything he learned seemed to confirm the worst suspicions about Lenz's fate. The U.S. minister, Alexander Terrell, did not have any solid information about the cyclist, but he felt confident Lenz had been ambushed and killed by Kurdish bandits. After some amateur detective work, Sachtleben became convinced that a Kurdish chief of very bad reputation named Moostoe had been behind Lenz's murder. After a great deal of wrangling, the Turkish government finally agreed to arrest Moostoe. (For good measure, they insisted on also arresting some Armenians who had been Sachtleben's informants.)

Despite much diligent--and highly risky--searching, Sachtleben was unable to find any trace of Lenz's remains.  All he was ever able to find of the missing man was Lenz's trunk in Constantinople, which he returned to Mrs. Lenz.  His efforts to seek justice for the young cyclist's untimely death proved to be equally futile. Moostoe escaped from prison, never to be seen again. Two of the Armenians jailed with him died in prison. The others were eventually released. If Lenz was indeed murdered, no one paid for his death other than those two Armenians, who were very likely entirely guiltless.

Herlihy concluded his account of the failed search by commenting, "Perhaps if Sachtelben had taken a slightly less strident approach, not only with the Turks but his own government, and a more critical look at his own behavior, he would have gotten along better with the authorities and achieved better results. One wishes, in retrospect, that he had concentrated on finding Lenz's grave rather than on meting out justice in Turkey. Obviously, the return of the wheelman's remains to Pittsburgh for burial would have given his mother and friends the sense of closure they so badly needed. Such a poignant conclusion to the Lenz affair would also have given Sachtleben the measure of success and satisfaction that his failed mission sorely lacked, regardless of how the legal and diplomatic proceedings played out going forward.

"To be fair, Sachtleben faced a colossal and unenviable task in his spirited bid to unravel the Lenz mystery so long after the cyclist's tragic passing, under difficult--if not impossible--circumstances...

"If Sachtleben did indeed get anywhere near the truth of the murky Lenz matter--and it is quite possible that he did--that was truly an extraordinary accomplishment, and one that should have enhanced, rather than doomed, his budding career as an investigator and adventurer par excellence. A brave and resourceful man full of noble intentions, he too deserved a better fate."

Despite pressure from the U.S., the Turkish government refused to accept any responsibility for Lenz's death. (They felt--as did a good many other people--that the reckless young man had been "asking for it.") Finally, in 1901, after a personal appeal from President McKinley, the Ottoman sultan paid Lenz's mother $7,500 in compensation. She badly needed the money. For several years, her husband had been an invalid, unable to work. Maria Anna was impoverished, ill, and, it was said, unable to fully accept that her son would never return. Mrs. Lenz died in 1923. She, and not Frank Lenz, seems the saddest figure in this whole story.

As for Lenz's would-be avenger, Sachtleben returned to America with a new mission: to enlighten the world about the horrors of the Armenian massacres. He hit the lecture circuit, giving his harrowing eyewitness testimony of the slaughter. However, to his increasing irritation, he found audiences were more interested in the lost American cyclist than a bunch of dead Armenians. Inevitably, even interest in Lenz faded, and the ever-restless Sachtleben turned to other interests. He ran a successful bicycle shop and still occasionally entered local competitions, but as the cycle fad faded at the beginning of the new century, he closed his business and began distancing himself from the now-passe industry. In 1900, he traveled to Cape Nome, Alaska, to report on the Klondike Gold Rush. The following year, he made serious plans to join an expedition to the North Pole, but at the last minute, he bailed from this new adventure, for the most classic of reasons: "the determined opposition of a certain young lady."

In 1903, Sachtleben married his "certain young lady," a wealthy St. Louis girl named Mae Merriman. The pair eventually settled in Houston, Texas, where Sachtleben managed the Majestic Theater until his death in 1953. The world-traveler had well and truly settled down. Two women who had known Sachtleben in his last years described him to Herilhy as "a charming man of extreme intelligence and full of wonderful tales."

After a brief period where his enigmatic end dominated the headlines, Lenz was quickly forgotten. It is anyone's guess what exactly happened to him somewhere on the long road from Tabriz to Erzurum. Herlihy notes that we are not even sure that Lenz was murdered, by Moostoe or anyone else. It is just possible that the cyclist succumbed to illness or any of the innumerable accidents that could happen to someone bicycling through unfamiliar and punishing territory. We will never know.

All we can say for certain is that Lenz suffered a lonely and quite probably terrible end, far from home and abandoned to an unknown grave. A pitiful end for such a plucky young adventurer.

However, I'd wager Lenz would still find such a fate preferable to a long, dreary life as a Pittsburgh clerk.

The last known photo of Lenz, April 1894

"The Lost Cyclist" is a well-written, involving book: part late-19th century travelogue, part detective story, part historical mystery. It is a fine memorial to a promising young man who died before he could reach his full potential.

The "Outing" graphic for Lenz's series of articles.


  1. What a sad end. As you wrote, ‘a lonely and quite probably terrible end’. He should have gone up through Russia, where the peasants were much friendlier, both to foreigners and to those from Christian countries. It would have been a more interesting journey than Turkey, too, I think. So many adventurers and explorers died in pursuit of their dreams.

  2. I sure don't understand why he didn't avoid Turkey. He was not in a race and Europe had a lot more to offer IMO.


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