Orren "Putt" Mossman was the most famous stunt motorcyclist of the first half of the 20th century. Mossman and his troupe traveled America and the world putting on spectacular extravaganzas in front of crowds numbering from the hundreds to tens of thousands. During his 40-year career, Mossman performed in 45 countries on six continents. His innovative act was unequaled in his day and many of his stunts may never be duplicated.
Mossman was born on July 8, 1906 in the small farming community of Eldora, Iowa. At a young age, Mossman became popular for his horseshoe throwing skills (something taken very seriously in that part of Iowa during that era). Mossman quickly climbed the ranks of horseshoe throwing and became national and world champion. (In 1967 he became a charter member of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association Hall of Fame)
Mossman seemed to excel at everything he did. He was a champion boxer, wrestler, tumbler, baseball player (he tried out for the Boston Braves in the mid-1920s and was with the team throughout spring training) and vaudeville performer.
When he was 20, Mossman bought his first motorcycle. On the ride home from the motorcycle shop, Mossman came upon two pretty young ladies and performed his very first motorcycle stunt. He stood up on his seat as he rode by the young ladies and nodded as he passed. Even though Mossman would later say his performance was rather shaky, he still received applause.
Mossman had a longing to make a lot of money and he knew farming wasn’t the answer, nor was horseshoe pitching. Mossman thought that he might be able to make it big as a motorcycle stuntman. The first stunt he did in the area surrounding his hometown was jumping over and into rivers and he quickly made much more money than he had at any of his other jobs.
At one of these early stunts, his motorcycle wasn’t running well and would not have enough power to make the jump he was set to attempt. Hundreds of people had already paid to watch the jump. Mossman frantically went to the nearest motorcycle dealership where he met Pee Wee Cullum. The consummate fast talker, Mossman somehow managed to convince Cullum to let him use his Henderson Four to make the jump. After making the jump that night, Mossman asked Cullum to go with him to a boxing match he was scheduled to fight in the next day hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma. Cullum would later say that after that first night he felt like he would follow Mossman across the world. As it turns out, he did. It was the start of a long relationship between the two.
Besides Cullum, Mossman’s troupe grew to include a core group that included Mossman’s own sister, Dessie, and later his first wife, Helen. As the shows grew, Mossman hired temporary helpers and riders for bigger shows. He often used some of the top Southern California Speedway riders in his shows.
The Mossman troupe was constantly on the move, performing six and seven nights a week, primarily in high school football stadiums. His tricks were diverse and creative. Mossman called his show a circus and he integrated tricks he learned in vaudeville into his performances.
Mossman was an excellent self-promoter. In the days before television, Mossman would go to every little town’s newspaper in the communities surrounding a performance and get to know the editors. They all grew to love the frenetic Mossman and he would get pages of coverage.
Some of his tricks included: Having his sister ride sitting or standing on his shoulders; Cullum releasing helium-filled balloons and Mossman drawing a pistol and shooting them out of the air as he rode; riding while juggling eggs or skipping rope; riding with a sack over his head and using a broomstick to feel for the stadium wall to guide him around the track; riding through plate glass or burning wood; jumping off a ramp into a big tub of flaming water; attaching a ladder to the rear of the motorcycle climbing up and down the ladder as the motorcycle circulated the track. These are just a few of the creative stunts that Mossman used to earn a reputation for the best stuntman in America.
By the mid-1930s, Mossman's fame had spread worldwide and he began making appearances all across the world. He called his traveling show "Putt Mossman and his American Motorcycle Rodeo Circus and Speedway Aces." One performance in Yokohama, Japan drew 80,000 spectators, including the son of the emperor. Mossman visited and performed in 45 countries in all and was considered a hero in most of those countries and even a god in at least one.
While riding through Uganda in a promotional ride from the top to bottom of Africa, Mossman stopped in a small village and had to wait a few days for supplies. In return for the villagers' hospitality, Mossman promised the chief a performance before he departed. The drum calls went out across the land and thousands of Africans from villages miles away showed up to watch Mossman perform. In the finale of the show, Mossman put a burlap sack soaked in gasoline over his head and had his assistant ignite it. The flaming Mossman rode his bike over a waterfall into a river below. The villagers were in awe and honored him as some kind of mystical god.
Mossman rarely practiced his stunts and was injured numerous times and often rode injured. Once, Mossman doused his clothes in gasoline and Cullum was to set him ablaze, then Mossman would start his bike and jump into a lake. The problem was after Cullum set him on fire his Indian refused to start. Frantically Mossman kicked and kicked and finally the bike came to life and Mossman rode into the water. He was hospitalized for two weeks with burns all over his body for that mistake. The injuries weren’t confined to Mossman. Once he went off the side of a ramp and landed his Indian motorcycle on top of his wife. She recovered after a few weeks in the hospital. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mossman was divorced and married at least three times.
Many say that Mossman could have been a fine racer if he’d put his mind to it. For fun, he raced speedway in California with some success in the 1930s and during the 1940s he raced a couple of times on the old beach course at Daytona, running as high as fourth in the 1947 race before his bike had mechanical problems.
Mossman fulfilled his dream of making a lot of money. He was said to have earned and lost fortunes many times over. One thing Mossman did for his retirement was to buy land. In a 1970s interview, Mossman reportedly owned large tracts of land in five states.
During World War II, Mossman served in the Merchant Marine and later worked with the USO and performed his show for troops.
After the war, television, radio and the rising popularity of sports eroded Mossman’s drawing power. He continued to work as a stuntman in Hollywood and continued doing his shows on a smaller scale, often to schoolchildren and for various charities. He continued working into his 70s. He retired to Arizona and died on September 8, 1994. Perhaps the most daring stunt rider in motorcycling lived to 88.
If anything describes the spirit of Mossman, it is a quote he made in a 1935 Motorcyclist interview. During a trip to Japan, his ship was caught in a severe typhoon. While most other passengers lay in their cabins with seasickness, Mossman was up on the bridge watching with delight as the old ship stuck her nose into the massive waves. In describing the trip in the interview Mossman said, "The humdrum monotony of an ordinary crossing was not our lot, so we were thankful."
Inducted in 1998