(August 4, 1865 – February 6, 1924)
College professor, inventor, and scam artist.
Elza James Christie was born in Vinton, Iowa to parents Captain Jacob R. Christie (1835-1911) and Sarah J. Duncan. His mother Sarah was also a native of Vinton. His father Jacob originated from Coshoctan, Ohio, where he was one of eleven children (including, as of February 26, 1911, Eliza McCaskey of Coshoctan, Ohio; Thomas Christie of Lincoln, Nebraska; Maryanne Cutshall of Wymore, Nebraska; and Catherine Brewer of Sweetwater, Nebraska) all born to Henry and Catharine Christie. Jacob moved away from Ohio in 1852, at age 16, and spent his days in Iowa first as a clerk to the school fund commissioner of Benton County, then as the elected Jackson Township member of the board of county supervisors, then in military service as a member of Company K 40th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, and finally as a private farmer. Jacob Christie and Sarah Duncan were married on November 10, 1960 and had four children: John T. Christie, Inez J. Christie, Elza James (E.J.) Christie, all of Marion, Iowa as of 1911, and Dr. O. B. Christie of Cambridge, Iowa, as of 1911. The family were Presbyterian, democrat, and generally well-respected.
Few specifics are known about the early life of Elza James Christie, or, indeed, about his life at all. While his father's obituary provides all of the details above and more, Christie's 1924 obituary consisted of a three-sentence blurb buried deep in the Marion Sentinel, to which a slightly longer amendment and correction was added about a week later. Neither offered any detailed account of his life and gave only his date of death. His later notoriety suggests that he may have had a hand in orchestrating this personal obscurity, but even that is speculation.
We know for a fact that Christie graduate from Iowa State College (ISC, now Iowa State University) with his BS degree in 1887. However, it is unclear what he studied. He is also listed in at least two reliable sources as having worked for some of his professional life as a college professor in Marion, but it is unclear what he taught.
In 1900, the Marion Sentinel states that a real estate transfer took place under the name of E.J. Christie, and in 1902, a list in the Marion Pilot includes an E.J. Christie among local businessmen who chose to advertise their services in a book at the public library. These obscure and sparse references seem to imply that he was once considered a respectable businessman, if not one of any great interest or importance. And this is significant to note, if only because it serves to underscore the scandal that first brought him into the public eye less than two years later, and which stained his reputation, at least in Marion, for the rest of his bizarre career and beyond.
The incident in question involved an accusation that Christie had "obtained money under false pretenses" by way of selling mine shares to a gentleman in Waterloo for $70 (a handsome sum at the time). A curator at the Marion Heritage Society speculates, in concurrence with the Grundy Center Democrat, that the mines themselves (the Bell-Domingo Mine at West Cliffe, Colorado and the Neptune Mining Company) were fictitious, but there is no real evidence one way or the other. Christie himself raised suspicions, however, by deftly vanishing out from under the nose of his arresters the night before he was scheduled for transport to his preliminary hearing. This occurred in May of 1903, and he was not caught again until September of 1904. By this time, three more of Christie's former mine share investors had come forward with charges, which raised his bond to a grand total of $10,000.
All of this press attention had, naturally, transformed Christie into something of a legendary trickster or antihero, and writers for local newspapers began leaping over themselves for a chance to flex their literary skills in describing his person, often with amusing results. A columnist from the Waterloo Daily Reporter thoroughly romanticizes him in one piece entitled, "Christie Enters Jail with Smile," (Thursday, November 17, 1904 page 1), wherein he writes that "prisoner" as a "term when applied to Christie seems somewhat out of place, and his scholarly bearing at once denotes a man of high intellectual attainments, there being no criminal characteristics observable," and furthermore that "[h]e is a man of princely bearing, and from his polished boots to neatly trimmed hair looks every inch the successful business man." By contrast, the Waterloo Courier (Friday, September 23, 1904, page 9), quoting the Grundy Center Democrat, reports that "[f]rom his outward appearance and from what he has told those who have gone to call on him, one may take it that Christie's Grundy county prosperity did not follow him when he left here. His clothes were formerly better and his pocketbook is badly fallen in at the sides. His total transferable assets when arrested were 51 cents."
Unsurprisingly, the case ended strangely, as well. In late November of 1904, the Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier reports that Christie was first discharged, then promptly re-arrested on the spot as new evidence came to light, then released again after a second trial, at which the evidence was found to be insufficient.
Apparently, though, the legal outcome was sufficient to bolster Christie's confidence, as he remained in the area and began to establish himself as an eccentric inventor – though it is noteworthy that the respectable businessman whose name began appearing in the paper linked to real estate investments was now that of Elza's brother, John T. Christie. Elza himself began instead to bank on his scholarly background from ISC, which was perhaps in engineering, and take out patents. His first patent in 1906 was for a complicated rotary engine, and his second in 1910 was for an "Air Steam" engine, on account of which he and his more reputable younger brother began building, and securing finance for, a factory in Waterloo.
The legitimacy of the Air Steam Engine, however, like that of the mine shares, is murky and has been called into question. On the one hand, the same papers which took such a thorough interest in Christie's court case faithfully reported the visits of scientists from notable journals to the Waterloo factory, and attempted to describe, via elaborate, front-page spreads, the internal mechanics of these revolutionary engines. Additionally, a "Mrs. E.J. Christie" (curious, as the male Christie's obituary states that he had never been married) began advertising in 1911, the year following, for vacant apartments in Waterloo that were supposedly heated by the Air Steam Engine. All of this implies some measure of engineering success. However, both contemporary bloggers (whose expertise might, of course, be called into question) and representatives of the Marion Heritage Center have analyzed the engine's blueprints and claim that it is not operable, even according to the laws of thermodynamics known in Christie's day. Furthermore, the factory did not survive either Christie brother's lifetime, and there is no mention, let alone current iteration, of it represented amongst Waterloo's factories (e.g. John Deere et al.) today. It simply existed and then vanished without a trace.
By far the most memorable of Christie's inventions, however, was his Monowheel (patented, according to some contradictory sources, more than a decade earlier), which was a kind of giant, spoked bicycle wheel inside which a motorist was supposed to be able to sit while balancing upright and speeding along the road at an incredible 400 miles per hour. While, in theory, Christie's wheel was simply a re-working and enlarging of an existing Italian Motoruota (a kind of single-wheeled predecessor of the motorcycle), it was bizarre enough in appearance to make the April 1923 cover of Popular Science magazine (which, by the way, incorrectly located Christie in Ohio, not Iowa) under the caption "A New Terror of the Road." Interestingly, while there is photographic evidence that Christie constructed at least one life-sized model of his "terror," Popular Science notes that the machine was still in development phases at the time of the article, and there are no subsequent accounts of its having ever been tested.
One theory posits that Christie intended the Monowheel to serve as a public diversion from his newest scam, which involved co-founding a bogus railway company in Marion with his respectable brother J.T. Christie in order to obtain funding from the state. The bogus nature of the American Motor-Car Interurban Railway is, again, pure speculation and rests upon the theory that his Air Steam Engine was also fraud. However, the business failed with suspicious rapidity and never complete its proposed railway between Marion and Muscatine.
When E.J. Christie died on February 6, 1924, the Marion Sentinel originally published only a curt, impersonal blurb on page 3, entitled "Ends His Own Life" in un-bolded print. Even when more information had come to light a week later, the paper did little more than amend its pre-emptive declaration of suicide (an informant had apparently indicated that Christie had been ill a long time preceding his death) and provide particulars about the funeral arrangements. It mentions that the final two years of his life were passed in running a little shop in Camden, where he continued tinkering with his "gyroscope unicycle." But this is only offered as a passing comment, and the remainder of Christie's life remains cloaked in mystery.
Sources include back issues of the Marion Pilot and Marion Sentinel, both of which are digitized and available online via the Marion Public Library in Marion, Iowa; Marion Today (November 2017); the Waterloo Daily Courier (1878-1973), The Waterloo Reporter (1909-1914), the Waterloo Times-Tribune (1901-1922), all of which are digitized and available for the relevant years either through Chronicling America on the Library of Congress website or through NewspaperArchive.com; Popular Science (April 1923 issue), which is digitized and available online through Google Books; The Engineering Record, Building Record and the Sanitary Record volume 56 by Henry C. Meyer (1907), also available through Google Books; and the website of the Marion Heritage Center.