A self-appointed goodwill ambassador lost more than his innocence when he tried to circle the globe in the 1890s on his spiffy two-wheeler.
Americans in the 1890s were so crazy for bicycles that the New York Tribune declared, “The discovery and progressive improvement of the bicycle is of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars…thrown in.” Hyperbole aside, when the majestic high-wheelers that had been the rage for two decades among young men of privilege gave way to the modern-style safety bike with two wheels of equal size and pneumatic rubber tires, people could suddenly envision a world in which horses would no longer be the preferred means of personal transportation. By the mid-1890s, more than 1 million bicycles rolled off assembly lines annually. Meanwhile, cyclists clamored for better city thoroughfares and formed a powerful lobby with farmers to improve woeful rural roads, literally paving the way for the advent of the automobile after the turn of the century.
Men and women alike reveled in the newfound freedom of movement bicycles gave them, and leading newspapers and magazines followed the exploits of adventuresome riders on cross-country and foreign jaunts. Frank Lenz, a clerk and amateur photographer from Pittsburgh, took a cycling trip to New Orleans in 1891 that drew headlines in The New York Times and inspired him to attempt a globe-girdling expedition a year later, at age 25. The recreation enthusiast magazine Outing agreed to pay Lenz $2,000 plus expenses to write a monthly column titled “Around the World With Wheel and Camera.” Lenz cheerily anticipated the trip would “prove there is a fraternal feeling among the human race.”
Tragically, that prediction turned out to be dead wrong.
Lenz set off on his adventure in the spring of 1892, traveling from Pittsburgh to Outing’s New York City offices via Washington, D.C., where he picked up a passport and other diplomatic papers. From New York he followed a meandering route to the West Coast, riding about 45 miles a day. Cycling clubs across the country greeted him enthusiastically, and he attributed their zeal “not so much to any reason personal as to the fact that my venture is, in a certain sense, typical of my country’s energy.” As he set sail from San Francisco, Lenz mused, “Come weal or woe the world-girdling must be completed.”
After a short stop in Hawaii, Lenz continued to Japan, a country that enchanted him during his three-week stay, though he was caught off guard by the commingling of sexes in public baths. “Recovering my breath, I thought it best not to seem surprised, so I disrobed myself and bathed as unconcernedly with the six Japanese ladies and gentlemen as if I had been in Japan for years,” he wrote. By the time he reached China, however, the travel bug began to lose its luster. Torrential rains turned narrow dirt paths into impassable muddy bogs, and a population highly suspicious of all things foreign made Lenz’s life miserable. Deep in the Chinese interior, Lenz wrote, “over a hundred Chinese were gathered with their hoes and rakes to head me off….The wheel was thrown on the ground. One ferocious old man made a murderous blow for my head….I lost a part of my ear, but my skull was whole.” Trekking through the mountains along the Upper Yangtze River where riding was impossible, Lenz walked for hundreds of miles while the Chinese he’d hired to assist him carried the bicycle.
Despite contracting malaria in the rain-soaked jungles of Burma, Lenz pressed on through the subtropical humidity of British-governed India and the scorching deserts of modern-day Pakistan. In an April 1894 dispatch to Outing sent from Persia, he admitted the journey was wearing on him. “I am tired, very tired of being a ‘stranger,’” he wrote.
Lenz’ silence in the weeks that followed did not trigger much alarm at first. Any number of things could have prevented him from filing reports as expected, such as a mechanical breakdown or an unexpected change of course that left him far from postal or telegraph service. But when months passed without a word, it was obvious that something had gone wrong.
Lenz’s editors figured he must have been waylaid somewhere in the historically volatile region of Kurdistan— which includes parts of modern-day Turkey, Armenia, Iraq and Iran— where Christian Armenians coexisted uneasily with Muslim Turks and the nomadic Kurds, and racially charged violence was on the rise. Rumors of mass killings of Armenians seeped out of the region. In response, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid had ordered the borders sealed, fearing outside pressure over his policies toward the Armenians, who had become a cause célèbre for Christians in the United States and Great Britain.
American William Sachtleben, 28, had passed through the region with his cycling partner Thomas Allen four years earlier during an expedition they chronicled in the bestselling book Across Asia on a Bicycle. Along the way, the duo had made friends with local Kurds who guided them on a spontaneous detour to the summit of the famed Mount Ararat, the 16,800-foot peak believed to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Sachtleben viewed Lenz as a kindred spirit and, when Outing sought his assistance, readily agreed to return to Kurdistan to look for him.
Sachtleben arrived at the coastal Turkish town of Trezibond in May 1895, bluffed his way past police with phony travel papers and headed on horseback to Lenz’s last known destination: Erzeroum, a town in the snow-covered Caucasus Mountains. Upon his arrival, Sachtleben happily accepted an invitation to board with William Chambers, a Canadian missionary and long-time resident of the region.
In response to inquiries from Lenz’s family, Chambers and British Consul R.W. Graves had already determined that Lenz had crossed the Turkish border from Persia on May 7, 1894, and was last seen leaving a small village 50 miles from Erzeroum on the morning of May 10. But their request for an official investigation had fallen on deaf ears, with the local governor suggesting that Lenz had returned to Persia, detoured to see Russia or perhaps cycled off a cliff while drunk.
Sachtleben launched his own investigation by hiring an Armenian named Khazar who agreed to pose as a traveling scrap metal merchant and ask people he met along the way if they’d seen a foreigner riding a “strange cart.” Khazar knew many Kurds in the region, and his inquiries were unlikely to prompt suspicion. He returned two weeks later with much to tell.
In the small village of Tchelkani, Khazar was offered an odd piece of metal that was later determined to be part of a bicycle bell. The village priest told him an ailing Lenz had arrived on May 9 of the previous year, and was last seen leaving the village the next morning. Pieces of his camera and other belongings were later found near a stream outside town.
He also learned that a notorious Kurdish chief who lived in the village named Moosteh Niseh was said to possess some of Lenz’s belongings. Khazar tried without luck to purchase a saddle he saw on the Kurd’s horse that contained long pieces of rubber obviously derived from bicycle tires.
Moosteh Niseh was much feared by the Armenian villagers. “This Kurd was distinguished among a nation of cutthroats for his numerous murders, robberies and general barbarity and cruelty,” Sachtleben wrote. “He treated the helpless Armenians with great cruelty and oppression. They were all mortally afraid of their lives and they must obey his slightest wish.”
Further complicating matters, the Kurd had ties to an informal cavalry linked to the Turkish government with a reputation for acting with impunity. “These men are legalized as soldiers by the sultan and are never punished for any of their atrocities,” Sachtleben observed.
Sachtleben and Chambers believed Khazar’s story, which corresponded to accounts from other Armenians and Kurds. They also learned that Lenz was known to be carrying a large amount of money, a detail unlikely to escape the notice of the many thieves and murderers in the region.
Sachtleben confronted the local governor with his findings, and was rebuffed when he had the audacity to demand that a squadron of Turkish soldiers be placed at his disposal to continue his search for Lenz. Weeks later, responding to diplomatic pressure from Alexander Terrell, the U.S. ambassador in Istanbul, the Turks finally agreed to have a high-ranking government official named Shakir Pasha make inquiries about Lenz’s disappearance while he toured Kurdistan to oversee reforms for the Armenians that the Turks had promised England, France and Russia.
But Sachtleben’s hopes for a full investigation were soon dashed, as he learned that Turkish officials and Kurds had threatened Armenians throughout the region to keep quiet about Lenz. His spy Khazar refused further involvement, telling Sachtleben that “the Kurds would think no more of killing him than of killing a chicken.”
Pasha arrived in late September, and departed Erzeroum with an entourage that included Sachtleben and Chambers as the early snows of winter began to fall. They first traveled to Tchelkani, where they searched the home of Moosteh Niseh.
To no one’s surprise, they found no trace of Lenz’s belongings. “Neither Mr. Chambers nor myself had expected after these four months of delay, any better result, and although we searched the houses carefully we did it more as a matter of form,” Sachtleben wrote. The commission traveled the region for several weeks conducting interviews. At first the Armenians professed to know nothing of Lenz. But they eventually overcame their fears, and the details about what had happened to the cyclist slowly began to emerge.
A farmer named Avak Parsagh testified that on May 9, 1894, a young man traveling on a bicycle had arrived in Tchelkani in the rain and sought lodging at the home of Parsagh, who was off in his fields. The village priest soon came to greet this strange visitor. Lenz was ill and had difficulty communicating, but he shared raisins from his pocket and gave the priest money for a chicken before falling asleep. A crowd of curious visitors that included Niseh soon awakened him.
Lenz grew annoyed as the visitors rummaged through his belongings, and he tried unsuccessfully to grab his revolver from Moosteh Niseh’s hands. The Kurd in turn became irritated at Lenz’s refusal to show him how to load the gun. “Moosteh became angry, cursed Lenz in Kurdish, and threatened to kill him, which of course Lenz didn’t understand, and the Armenians could not explain it to him,” Sachtleben later wrote to Ambassador Terrell. “Lenz ordered them out of the room, but they wouldn’t go so he curled himself up and slept.”
This further infuriated Niseh. “Is he a king that he cannot sit up and talk with us?” the Kurd asked. Witnesses later said he muttered curses and threats under his breath as he left the room. The next morning, the villagers watched Lenz push his bicycle out of town in the rain, the roads too muddy for riding.
Behind a knoll a short distance outside town, Niseh and his associates were waiting. As Lenz prepared to cross a stream, they attacked. “One of them…suddenly drew his sword and cut Lenz severely across the right hand,” Sachtleben wrote. “Lenz begged them not to kill him, saying ‘I will be a [Muslim].’”
The Kurds dragged Lenz and his baggage to a nearby river. “Here they robbed him of everything, and at [Niseh’s] order put him to death so that he would not reveal their names,” Sachtleben reported. The killers said they buried Lenz and his bicycle by the stream, but the grave was never located.
Niseh and his son were later seen wearing Lenz’s clothes, and his revolver was said to be in their possession as well.
Sachtleben heard the same story from multiple sources, and was certain the facts were correct. “I have always watched all testimony carefully, without prejudice, and I am firmly convinced that Moosteh and his gang killed Lenz,” he wrote to Terrell.
The Turks arrested Niseh and charged him with killing Lenz. Six Armenians were also accused, on the grounds they possessed personal items of Lenz’s. Sachtleben argued that the Armenians had merely preserved screws and mirrors from Lenz’s camera as evidence and had nothing to do with the murder. The prosecutor ignored his objections and scheduled a trial for the following spring.
Meanwhile, Sachtleben witnessed the slaughter of hundreds of Armenians by Turkish troops in Erzeroum on Oct. 30, 1895. In a first-person account published anonymously in the London Times, Sachtleben described the scene his party witnessed in the aftermath: “In one house, they saw two young brides brutally murdered lying on carpets bespattered with blood, disfigured, and almost naked. In another house were two men butchered in a barbarous way, splinters of broken boxes and doors, windows shattered to pieces, the plastering torn and broken, every thing in ruin.”
Even though his own investigation had reached its sad end, Sachtleben was forced to remain in Erzeroum for the winter, as heavy snow and increasing violence made travel impossible. Meanwhile, his letters continued to make news. “Sachtleben Virtually a Prisoner” headlined The New York Times in December 1895, citing a letter to Sachtleben’s father: “He says the country is in such disorder and the roads so infested with brigands that it would be certain death for a Christian to attempt the journey.”
When Sachtleben finally returned to the United States in April 1896, his first stop was Pittsburgh, where he gave Lenz’s grieving mother a trunk of bicycle parts and other belongings that Lenz had shipped to himself in Istanbul.
In March 1897, Moosteh Niseh and the Armenians were acquitted of the killing, with a panel of judges ruling that the possession of Lenz’s belongings was insufficient to prove his murder. The decision was subsequently reversed on an appeal sought by the U.S. government, and Moosteh Niseh and sev eral of the other defendants were convicted and sentenced to 15 years. By then, however, Moosteh Niseh had long since escaped from jail, and the accused Armenians were either dead or had fled to Russia after being released on bail.
While Sachtleben remained bitter over his failure to see justice served in Lenz’s death or recover his remains, his efforts ultimately bore results. The U.S. government cited the results of his investigation in pressing Turkey for an indemnity for Lenz’s mother. After years of diplomatic wrangling that involved members of Congress and President William McKinley, in 1902 Lenz’s mother finally received $7,500 from the Turks.
Sachtleben eventually published a lengthy account of his search for Lenz in a cycling magazine, and lectured on his experiences. Still hungry for adventure, he later traveled to Alaska to prospect for gold. However, in 1901 Sachtleben dropped out of an expedition to the North Pole at the insistence of his fiancée, and settled down to a more tranquil life as a theater manager in Texas. He died in Florida in 1953.
Before his return to the United States in April 1896, Sachtleben paid a final visit to the site where Lenz was believed to have died. “Here my investigation came to a close,” he later wrote. “As I stood by the river looking at the sparkling stream wending its silent way eastward, a most somber sadness affected me, and I pictured to myself the awful, cold-blooded scene that had probably been enacted there.
“It seemed the very irony of fate to snatch from Frank G. Lenz, at an unexpected moment, the fruits of an arduous and dangerous undertaking, the accomplishment of which on his return would have brought him much honor and fame.”
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.