As Mary Jane Victor explores Houston’s O.K. Trading Center, one of the art history student’s regular haunts, her eyes fall on something small and ragged. She picks up the small leather object and realizes that this is no ordinary scrapbook. Indeed, on opening the first page, the kaleidoscope of esoteric symbols, newspaper clippings and paintings of curious flying machines tell of a mystery that, almost half a century later, is yet to be unraveled.
The year was 1969, and though psychedelia had already permeated the popular consciousness, Victor had likely never seen anything like these colorful illustrations before. So, sensing the greatness of her discovery, she rushed straight to her employer, Dominique de Menil.
De Menil, Rice University’s art director and herself a patron of art, had a passion for surrealist works. It’s no surprise, then, that she found the contents of the book mouthwatering. So much so, in fact, that she parted with $1,500 for the scrapbook and three others like it.
Not one to waste time, de Menil soon made the scrapbooks the subject of a university exhibition called “Flight,” which served as an introduction to the work of Charles Dellschau. But almost 50 years on, Dellschau’s psychedelic art journals – which depict fantastical flying machines and far-out inventions – remain enigmatic.
This is somewhat surprising, considering how illustrative they are. With their multi-hued pastel patterns, arcane symbols and eccentric contraptions, they’re the charming products of a mind at odds with the times in which they were created. Yet, as interest in Dellschau’s work grew, one question came to the fore: could these images be diagrams for real-life, or at least potentially workable, machines?
Dellschau’s first artworks date from around 1899, when he retired from his career as a butcher. The first three journals he produced were titled Recollections, and they were supposedly based on the artist’s memories of a secret society of Californian inventors and flying enthusiasts from the 1850s.
It was known as the Sonora Aero Club, and its members’ exploits were fondly imagined by Dellschau in his idiosyncratic watercolors and collages of newspaper clippings. On some pages, for instance, Dellschau depicted people traversing the Californian skies aboard air ships – technology that would have been largely alien at the time.
Dellschau also recorded the society’s goings-on and its ultimate goals. One painting tells of club member Adolf Goetz, whose flying machine “Aero Goeit” was taken for a joyride by an irresponsible intruder, who ended up crashing and dying. Another tells of one Jacob Mischer, whose aircraft was sabotaged by rival members and resulted in his death.
This clandestine activity was, according to Dellschau, down to the creation of a near-supernatural gas called “suppe” that, apparently, could power the flying machines and defy gravity. It was supposedly made by a heroic – in Dellschau’s eyes, at least – man called Peter Mennis.
But, according to Dellschau’s workbooks, disaster struck in the 1860s with Mennis’ death and with it, the secret of suppe – something that forced the Sonora Aero Club to disband. In fact, Mennis’ passing seemingly had a big impact on Dellschau, who wrote on one page, “Peter Mennis you are not forgotten.”
While the Sonora Aero Club and its exploits seem to be documented in great detail, there’s still much in Dellschau’s notebooks that have yet to be decoded. This is because his journals, which are rendered in arcane Germanic calligraphy, are filled with a mysterious esoteric language.
Some amateur sleuths, however, have pieced together details from Dellschau’s life. William Steen, for example, traced Dellschau back to his birthplace of Brandenburg, Prussia. And according to his research, the artist emigrated from Hamburg to the U.S. aged 25.
Using Dellschau’s citizenship papers, Steen discovered that the illustrator lived in Harris County, Texas, in 1856 and, four years later, in Fort Bend County. However, Steen could find no record of Dellschau’s whereabouts between these two dates – which is precisely when he is supposed to have been involved in the Sonora Aero Club.
In fact, all we know of Dellschau’s early years in Texas is that he earned his living as a butcher. Yet as the 19th century progressed, it seems that his life became more conspicuous. In 1861, for example, records indicate that he wedded widow Antonia Hilt, who had a young daughter named Elizabeth.
Dellschau’s shared life with Antonia was, sadly, all too brief. The couple had three children together, but in 1877 Antonia died – and, tragically, their young son Edward passed away just a fortnight later. In the following decades Dellschau lived in Richmond and Houston, where he held a series of mundane jobs. But after his retirement in 1899, Dellschau commenced his life’s great creative work: the Sonora Aero Club sketchbooks.
Though much information on Dellschau comes from William Steen, he’s not the only enthusiast to have become enamored with the enigmatic Prussian. Indeed, after the 1969 “Flight” exhibition, UFO investigator and artist Pete Navarro stepped up to attempt to decode Dellschau’s cryptic works.
Navarro was particularly interested in the possible link between Dellschau’s workbooks and a series of mass “airship” sightings between 1896 and 1897 across 18 states. So with help from his brother Rudy, Navarro set about trying to decipher Dellschau’s previously impenetrable code.
And so Navarro became increasingly fascinated by Dellschau’s secretive world. One passage in particular struck Navarro with its inviting sense of mystery. It reportedly read, “Wonder Weaver, you will unriddle my writings.”
Navarro’s main concern, however, was to probe the link between an 1897 San Antonio Daily Express article – which mentioned the name of a supposed Sonora Aero Club member – and Dellschau’s fantastical claims. The member in question was Tosh Wilson, with the article having reported that, according to witnesses, Wilson had given the airship’s design to his nephew Hiram, who was, supposedly, a pilot of one of the airships.
Yet whether or not Dellschau’s beautiful creations had any basis in reality remains uncertain. To this day, no one has found any evidence relating to the Sonora Aero Club. However, Dellschau’s opus magnum, which comprises around 5,000 watercolors, continues to delight and befuddle.
Dellschau died in 1923, though his passing hasn’t stopped generations of art dealers and critics embracing his eccentric works – which, understandably, became collectors’ items. Indeed, in the late 1990s a single page from one of the artist’s notebooks sold for up to $15,000. So whether it was made by a flight innovator or a daydreaming butcher, Dellschau’s strange art deserves to be remembered.