The world knows Orville and Wilbur Wright as the team that designed, built and flew the first successful powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine (and put Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the map). Not bad for a couple of brothers who’d operated a printing business and later opened a bicycle repair shop in Dayton, Ohio. However, few know that Wilbur and his older brother, Lorin, once came to the aid of their father, Bishop Milton Wright, an itinerant “circuit” preacher, to expose suspected financial abuse in the United Brethren Church.
Wilbur was a natural when it came to numbers. His diaries are full of trigonometry calculations for glider-wing curvatures; exact measurements of distances and times flown; screw (propeller) pitch, length and curvature; wind resistance and thrust; conversions of foot-pounds of force to horsepower; and so much more. He and Orville were meticulous record-keepers.
Lorin (his parents named him after a community on a map) worked in Kansas as a bookkeeper before returning to Dayton. His bookkeeping job and four children kept him fully engaged, but eventually he and his sister, Katherine, managed to look after Orville and Wilbur’s bicycle business while they were away pursuing their “loftier” enterprises. Lorin was also available occasionally to help with research and field tests.
Bishop Wright constantly extolled the virtues of a quality education. He instilled in his children (four sons and a daughter; a set of twins, Otis and Ida, died shortly after birth) a fervent desire for knowledge — particularly the sciences, ethics, history, literature, mathematics and theology — while also nurturing their moral fiber and cultivating their faith. When any of the children missed a school day, Bishop Wright never worried because he knew their noses would be buried deeply in the books that filled the Wright home.
Trouble brewing in the Brethren Church
From 1888 to 1896, the United Brethren Church underwent a schism with two factions vying for control. Bishop Wright led the conservative faction, referred to as “the Radicals,” who held that Freemasonry was in direct conflict with the church constitution and its teachings. The opposing group, called “the Liberals,” argued for accepting Freemasons and their secretive ways — they claimed that Freemasonry represented the changing times and the church should accommodate them. If the effort was successful, church membership and coffers would’ve increased immensely. Also, the Liberals proposed changes to the church constitution that would bypass the rules for amending the document.
Wilbur supported his father’s position by writing articles and editorials to counter the Liberals’ arguments. In the end, however, Bishop Wright’s efforts failed, and his role in the church diminished to almost nothing. Most of the congregations that supported Bishop Wright were mandated to surrender their real property (main offices, colleges and publishing houses) to the Liberals, who the courts recognized as the legal and rightful owners of all church property. Bishop Wright eventually founded a new religious organization that became known as the Old Constitution Church.
An exposé of ‘defalcations’
Bishop Wright wasn’t going to settle for defeat. He and others suspected financial irregularities in the United Brethren Publishing House’s books as early as 1895. Six years later, Bishop Wright initiated an investigation of Rev. Millard Fillmore Keiter, who’d assumed Bishop Wright’s duties as the church publishing agent in 1893 and was in charge of the publishing house.
It appeared that Keiter had used nearly $7,000 of church money for personal expenses. Interestingly, no official audit of the publishing house records was conducted until after Keiter was relieved of his position shortly after the accusations against him surfaced. According to an account in the May 21, 1901, Indianapolis News, “The Rev. Mr. Keiter’s accounts were approved by the [church] conference, thus vindicating his management.”
In February of 1902, Bishop Wright recruited Wilbur and Lorin to review the church accounting records. Wilbur reported “there is something rotten somewhere” and discovered that Keiter had applied church monies toward personal insurance premiums, personal clothing and part of the construction cost of a new home.
When the board of trustees of the church convened later that month to review the accusations against Keiter, they ruled — in spite of the evidence — in favor of Keiter’s defense that he could attribute the disparities to simple carelessness and not intentional fraud.
The clear implication of the trustees’ decision was that they preferred to have the entire matter closed as quietly as possible, especially with the rupture that divided the church just a few years earlier still reverberating through the denomination. Calling attention to fraudulent transactions involving church finances likely would’ve led to diminished returns from the church’s collection plates.
Wilbur wrote to his father on Feb. 15, 1902, that they must pursue the case against Keiter:
The question of whether officials shall rob the church and trustees deceive the church for fear of injuring collections, must be settled now for all time. In the long run, nothing can be gained financially by deceit. To cheat the people by lying reports is more dishonest than Keiter’s stealing, and so far as church interests are concerned, the penalty will be greater.
Several months later, after Lorin and Wilbur’s more in-depth investigation of the publishing house accounting records, Wilbur concluded in a letter to his father that Keiter’s ledgers indeed appeared to be “very crooked.”
Wilbur believed that some members took the position that because the Freemasons couldn’t belong to the church — and church members couldn’t become Freemasons — they would remake the church into a parallel institution because it concerned “defending a brother right or wrong.” Bishop Wright also surmised an ulterior motive for the silence of the board of trustees: keeping the offering plates full.
The Liberals weren’t finished with Bishop Wright. The spring and summer of 1902 would be a challenging time for the Wright family.
The battle heats up
Bishop Wright was growing impatient with the church’s failure to address the Keiter situation. When he was removed from all of his duties at the church newspaper, Bishop Wright flooded congregations with petitions and pamphlets and accused Keiter of criminal activity. Keiter was eventually arrested for forgery relating to the misappropriation of church funds for personal expenses. Again, Keiter was exonerated of the fraud when the charges were dismissed despite the mounting evidence against him. However, the church considered Bishop Wright’s “going to law” against a fellow Christian a violation of the Brethren discipline. And Keiter filed church disciplinary charges against Bishop Wright for “agitating controversy.”
Many in the church believed Bishop Wright had pushed his cause too far. Keiter supporters leaked news of the controversy to the secular press, which further compounded Bishop Wright’s woes. Wilbur found the Keiter situation to be “inconceivable, incomprehensible, and incredible.” Capitalizing on this wave of sentiment, Keiter accused Bishop Wright of libel and filed charges even while Wilbur and Lorin continued to examine the publishing house books and discovered more evidence of financial misappropriation “every few days.”
Orville and Wilbur’s return to Kitty Hawk was a needed relief for Wilbur, who, according to his sister, “was completely unnerved” from the entire situation with the church and Keiter. However, Orville and Wilbur were still confident that the truth would prevail, and the entire situation would be resolved in their father’s favor. And they were right.
Truth wins out
Two years later, a church conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, voted by a two-thirds majority to exonerate Bishop Wright. According to letters from Bishop Wright, Keiter’s former friends finally recognized his shady character. He’d since “gone to Tennessee as a timberland speculator,” and then later moved to Kentucky, where he was convicted of land fraud.
In the end, the entire family had worked to restore Bishop Wright’s reputation. Orville helped by typing and printing the necessary documents, Katherine provided her father with encouraging support and Lorin scoured the publishing house ledgers with Wilbur’s help.
Wilbur stepped up to serve as his father’s lead counselor by outlining a strategy that incorporated political tactics, legal maneuvers, application of church law and a strong defense against disciplinary charges devoid of any substance or truth. As he stated in one of his letters, Wilbur knew that “the real purpose was to harass the accused.”
Bishop Wright, who was instrumental in the founding of Huntington University in Indiana, laid the cornerstone of the school’s first building in August of 1896. A plaque holding a swatch of the original fabric covering the first Wright Flyer hangs in the lobby of Wright Hall, a residence hall on the campus. Another piece of wing fabric was carried aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998 by former astronaut and senator, John Glenn.
Wilbur, his brothers and sister were the embodiment of Bishop Wright’s philosophy that a strong education, moral character and a cultivated faith will equip any individual for life’s challenges and opportunities. And it helped them become fraud examiners — at least for a short time.