Canadian Aviatrix #20 – Marion Swaim (1911-1985)

Born Marion Doris Tope on 21 November 1911 in Minnesota to 19-year-old Myrtle Pearl Tope, a general work maid. Even though Marion was born illegitimate, her birth certificate actually names her father – Arthur Swaim, the husband of Myrtle’s sister, Josie.

Myrtle and Josie came from a large family. In 1909, their mother died, so by the 1910 census, Josie and Arthur were looking after the two youngest Tope siblings – Dora and Wesley (aged 6 and 4). It’s unclear where the rest of the siblings are, including 18-year-old Myrtle.

Myrtle married Andrew Demas on 2 January 1913, but a couple of weeks later, she fell seriously ill and died on 2 February. Initially, it was thought that she died of typhoid-pneumonia, but her family weren’t satisfied and requested an autopsy and inquest. The coroner said she died due to blood poisoning caused by an abortion and her doctor was arrested.

By 1921, Josie and Arthur’s household includes 14-year-old “son” Wesley and 9-year-old “daughter” Marion. The simplest explanation is that Arthur fathered Marion and the family took her in after Myrtle’s death. However, there is the possibility that Josie decided to adopt her unmarried sister’s baby and Myrtle named Arthur on the birth certificate for ease.

 

 

1911 census

1921 census

 

Blackduck MN

Port Arthur ON

Arthur

28

41

Josie

25

36

Dora

6

-

Wesley

4

14

Marion

-

9

 

The family ran a general store and mink farm in Fort William, Ontario. Just before Marion’s graduation, they lost everything in a forest fire – barely escaping under wet blankets to protect themselves.

Marion graduated from the Fort William Collegiate and Technical Institute in 1930 and planned to become a commercial pilot. She enrolled on the second course run by the Fort William Aero Club. She was only 5’4” and needed “an extension to the rudder bar and several extra cushions on the seat to allow her to reach the controls”.

On 15 August 1930, Marion passed her flying test and received PPL #613, making her the twentieth female pilot in Canada. She was 18 years old.

Canadian Aviatrix #20 – Marion Swaim (1911-1985)

Photo: ‘Fly North’ newsletter of the Northwestern Ontario Aviation Heritage Centre, Oct-Dec 2016, Volume 8, Number 4

She was building up her flying hours in order to get her commercial license, but disaster struck. On 9 September, she was flying with the club’s chief instructor, James Dickie, when the plane crashed into the ground – killing James and seriously injuring Marion. She suffered two broken wrists, a damaged eye and internal injuries. The injuries were so severe, even after recovering, she was not able to pass her medical exam and couldn’t fly again. She was also warned that she was unlikely to be able to have children.

Marion received hate mail due to the newspaper reports about the crash, but the inquiry held that neither she nor James were to blame. The crash was due to a control malfunction and the club engineer was held to be at fault.

On 14 July 1931, Marion married Daniel Henry Coghlan (an insurance salesman) and they went on to have 11 children.

Daniel died in 1968 and Marion in 1985, aged 73.

Note: Marion was listed with an asterisk in No Place for a Lady – meaning the author hadn’t been able to find her. I just had her name and the date of her PPL.

The First 100 Canadian Women Pilots