Among the visionary pioneer animation producers of the early Twentieth Century, men such as Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Winsor McCay, John R. Bray, Paul Terry, Raoul Barré, Amedee J. Van Beuren, Pat Sullivan, William C. Nolan, Walter Lantz, Patrick A. Powers and Earl Hurd, stands a forgotten creator of animated cartoons shorts, Vincent Whitman. His vision was to establish a cartoon empire on the east coast of the United States that would rival the studios of Bray, Barré, and McCay. The studio he, his father and brother founded was dubbed “Animated Studio of America, Inc.” and the animation production techniques they were developing were going to revolutionize the cartoon industry.
However, unlike his competition who built their studios on hard work, discipline, frugality and the Puritan work ethic, Whitman and his family resorted to guile, conspiracy, fraud and deceit to fund their animation enterprise. The Whitman cartoon factory was making significant progress in developing cutting edge animation production methods, or so Whitman and his family claimed, until the long arm of the law caught up to the threesome. The exploits and daring of these three men dominated headlines in newspapers in New York City and Philadelphia in the last half of 1922, ending in a trial that captured the attention of the American public and ended the dreams of Whitman and his two partners in crime.
Vincent Whitman, animator, director, writer, producer, inventor, and patent agent, was born Vincent Irvin Whitman on March 10, 1892 in Lyons, New York. Lyons, a small town located on the Erie Canal and the county seat of Wayne County, had a population in 1900 of about 4,300. Whitman was born to Irvin Ambrose Whitman and Mary Ellen Flavahan. The Whitmans were long-time residents of Lyons. His father was born in Lyons on July 20, 1865. Irvin’s father, William F., also of Lyons, with H. S. Moor, established a pharmaceutical business in 1863, and was one of the prominent business men of his town. Irvin Whitman was educated in the Lyons Union School. Taking up the study of stenography and typewriting, he served under Hon. George W. Cowles when surrogate, and afterwards entered the law office of Camp & Dunwell, and was private secretary to Hon. J. H. Camp for four years. While there he made the study of pension and war claims a specialty, and the first claim prosecuted was granted by the Bureau of Pensions, and which commenced payment July 20, 1865, the day, month and year of his birth.
Irvin was a very well-respected member of the Lyons community. He practiced in the bureau of pensions, the patent department and the treasury department. He was also a notary public for many years. In 1884 he invented an automatic freight car coupling device, which was patented on July 21, 1885, and was submitted to a severe test by the Master Car Builders Association in September, 1885, at Buffalo, which was successful in meeting all requirements. In June, 1886, it was tested before the railroad commissioners at Albany and was again successful.
At the age of twenty-three Irvin married Mary Ellen, daughter of Garrett Flavahan, of Lyons. Irvin and Mary Ellen would have three sons: Vincent, and his two siblings, one older brother, Stewart C. (b. April 23, 1890, Lyons; d. August 16, 1941, New York City) and one younger brother, Bernard Columbus (b. May 21, 1893, Lyons, NY; d. April 16, 1953, New York City). His mother was born in May 1871 in New York. She died in 1907 and is buried at Lyons Rural Cemetery, Lyons, New York.
Vincent Whitman was raised in Lyons, New York at 3 High Street. He was a member of the first Communion class, St. Michael’s Church, 1904. Vincent left public school at the age of 15 about the time of his mother’s death. About 1910, with his father employed as an attorney in patents, pensions and claims, Vincent began his career as an artist and had moved into animation by 1912. For two and a half years from August 1912 to March 1915 he was a cartoonist and scenario writer for animated cartoons produced by Lyman H. Howe (Lyman H. Howe’s Travel Festival Co.) of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.For one and a half years (1914-1915) Vincent Whitman wrote, directed and animated a series of black-and-white silent cartoons for producer Sigmund Lubin. These cartoons, titled Vincent Whitman Cartoons, were well-received by critics and the public. Whitman’s career in animation never looked more promising. The Whitman animated cartoon A Barnyard Mixup, released July 20, 1915, received favorable reviews from a number of trade publications. The Moving Picture World review for the cartoon notes: “A shotgun, a farmer, a chicken thief and a goat do most amazing stunts.” For the short An African Hunt, the Moving Picture World reviewer writes: “Vincent Whitman has drawn another half-reel cartoon comedy which will win many a laugh.” The short A One Reel Feature “is an amusing satire on the moving picture play.” During the 1910s, with the rise of motion picture production, Whitman’s father moved into working as a motion picture promoter.
After having written, animated and directed animated shorts for over two years, Vincent Whitman was eager to establish his own cartoon studio. In July 1915, he, his father, two brothers, and his father’s younger brother, Eugene Whitman, formed a motion picture studio in Lyons, New York to produce animated motion pictures. On October 12, 1915, the first reel of the animated comedy film was shown at the Memorial Theatre in Lyons to favorable reviews. For nearly two years he and his family’s studio was an independent producer furnishing animated films for release by Universal, Centaur, Kalem, Lubin, and Liberty corporations.
In 1916, Whitman founded the Fanta Film Corporation in association with Carl Louis Gregory of New York, a noted expert in the chemistry and mechanics of photography. Mr. Whitman’s other assistant was Cornelius N. Van Raust, formerly of Syracuse University and Mr. Gregory’s assistant. Van Raust was a mechanical expert and designer for cameras and mechanical devices for motion picture photography. Mr. Whitman’s hope was that Geneva would become the home of the finest animated cartoons ever produced. The studio in Geneva occupied the north half of the top (third) floor of the Fairfax Block on Castle Street and was equipped with the best apparatus known to the art. The capital stock was $200,000. The incorporators were Vincent Whitman, Carl L. Gregory, Frank Dwyer, Alfred G. Lewis, Nathan D. Lapham, Thomas H. Chew, and G.M.B. Hawley. The first films produced by the studio were completed in March 1916 after eight months of work on equipment and experiments.
The Fanta operation did not last for long. By June 1917, Whitman was employed for Universal Film Corporation in Coytesville (Fort Lee), New Jersey. Then during World War One Whitman served in the United States Army. He was inducted into the military on September 17, 1918 and was honorably discharged on March 4, 1919. He was married to Ethel Reed (b. Pennsylvania) on February 24, 1914 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the time, Whitman was creating his cartoons for the Lubin Manufacturing Company. Their son Irving Whitman Jr. died young (b. November 15, 1915; d. April; 12, 1920, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). By 1920, the couple had separated. His spouse remained in Philadelphia with their son while Vincent was employed as an animator for New York City animation studios. They were divorced in May 1923 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
About 1921, Vincent, his father, and his brother Bernard (a motion picture photographer), incorporated a concern with an imposing name: the Animation Studio of America, Inc. To raise capital, the three men went about New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania promoting the company, selling stock in the corporation, and representing to the public that they possessed motion picture technology that would change the way films were being produced. The Whitmans claimed that their inventions would establish the company as a leader in the animation and moving picture business. They promised large profits for those who invested. The elder Whitman, with his success as an inventor in the railroad industry, provided instant credibility to their claims.
From the investment capital, the men opened a studio in Philadelphia at Fifty-second and Market streets and in New York City at 1734 Broadway. How much technology development the Whitmans were undertaking at their studios is unknown. What can be determined is that some of the investment capital was not being directed into technological innovation and corporate operations. To secure investments, the modus operandi of the Whitmans was to frequent cabarets, nightclubs and bars where they promised hefty profits for those who invested. These late night swindles in some of the fanciest nightclubs in New York City and Philadelphia earned the three conmen the flamboyant title “The Cabaret Trio.” Another unusual moniker that the men were tagged with was “The Taxicab Hounds.”
In an effort to gain credibility with their prey, the Whitmans touted that they were related to Charles S. Whitman, former Governor of New York. Scores of women were victims of the Whitman scheme. Wealth and standing mattered little to the Whitmans as both the wealthy and those of modest means fell victim to the con. Many of the investors were taken to the Animation Studio of America, Inc. studio in Philadelphia and were shown how the Whitmans intended to revolutionize the industry by filming scenery in all parts of the world and then having the actors act in the retake thus saving the expenses of transporting the actors to the location. One investor, represented by Francis J. Walsh, lost $1,500 after giving the money to the elder Whitman to “perfect his invention.”
Another of the alleged victims of the promoters was George W. Carver, railroad magnate, who invested $15,000 to further the development of the inventions of the Whitmans. For many months the Whitmans were living the good life spending their evenings in expensive restaurants and nightclubs rubbing shoulders with New York’s wealthy while their days were spent at their studios tinkering away at the inventions they claimed would change the way motion pictures would be produced.
The trouble for the Whitmans began when one of their investors, Lincoln Lear Eyre (1857-1925), a lawyer practicing at 405 Pennsylvania Avenue in Philadelphia, filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Police Department charging the Whitmans with defrauding him of $500. Eyre was familiar with the Whitmans having once represented Vincent Whitman in obtaining a patent on his “movie scheme.” Eyre eventually became wise to the scheme and claimed that the Whitmans had no such technology to substantiate their claims of production equipment capable of generating large corporate profits. Eyre believed that most of the investors were from New York City and Philadelphia and were widows and persons of small means.
Based on Eyre’s testimony, warrants were issued for their arrests on July 31, 1922. That same day, Vincent, his brother Bernard and father Irvin, of 3737 Locust Avenue, were arrested on charges of grand larceny at their studio workplace located at 1734 Broadway, New York by Detective George Gibson. The trio appeared in New York court on August 2, 1922 contesting the extradition to Philadelphia. Vincent Whitman is quoted as saying: “I’m through with Philadelphia. Philadelphians are too slow to recognize a great opportunity. Our corporation has patents that will revolutionize the motion picture business. We are going to fight extradition.” That same day they were released on bail of $1,000 each in New York City. The bail was furnished by Joseph M. Schenck of 1540 Broadway, the husband of movie actress Norma Talmadge. Based on the testimony of Walsh, another warrant was sworn out for their arrest.
Despite Vincent’s protests, the Whitmans were extradited from New York several days later. Creditors of the corporation alleged they invested upwards to $400,000 in the corporation, although the figure was likely closer to $100,000. Through the assistance of attorney John Hemphill, the creditors, who realized they were not going to recoup their investments, put together a “revenge fund” in an effort to prosecute the three men. George Carver was represented by attorney J.D. Knox, son of United States senator Philander C. Knox.
On December 14, 1922, the trio were placed on trial before Judge Davis under charges of embezzlement, false pretense, conspiracy to cheat and defraud, and fraudulent conversion. They were charged with obtaining about $50,000 by fraud in selling stock in the company, the Animation Studio of America, Inc. On December 15, 1922, after hearing testimony and reviewing the evidence Whitman and his brother and father were convicted of Conspiracy to Cheat & Defraud (Amount $500). Each of the Whitmans received a sentence with a term from two years, six months to five years. The trio served their sentences at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Vincent Whitman’s Fingerprint Identification Card.
After serving their time in prison, Vincent Whitman never returned to the animation business. Rather the three ex-convicts established a business as inventors. By 1930, he, his father, and his brother were all residing in New York City at West 72nd Street near West End Avenue employed as patent developers. By 1940, his father had retired and passed away on May 16, 1937 in New York City and so Vincent, along with his brother Bernard, worked together as inventors and patent developers. At the time Vincent Whitman was residing at 22 West 83rd Street.
Vincent Whitman’s involvement with the animation industry did not end entirely with his imprisonment. Over a fourteen year period, Whitman filed no less than three patent infringement lawsuits against the Walt Disney studio. In October 1939, Whitman filed a five million dollar patent infringement suit against Walt Disney Productions, RKO and Technicolor. In May 1940, he filed a patent infringement suit against Walt Disney Productions, Inc., Walter E. Disney and Roy O. Disney.
In both actions, he claimed he was the inventor of and patented in March 1937 a 3D animated cartoon effect that was used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940). In 1953, Vincent Whitman brought a 10 million dollar suit against Walt Disney Productions again alleging patent infringement. He once again contended that in 1937 he patented a composite system of photography involving foreground action superimposed on still backgrounds. Whitman claimed Disney used the process in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950) and Peter Pan (1953). There is no evidence that these lawsuits were successful. Vincent Whitman was Roman Catholic by religious faith. He enjoyed fishing as a hobby. Vincent Whitman died on March 31, 1973 in New York City. He is buried at Hart Island, Bronx County, New York.
The Animated Studio of America, Inc. and the Cabaret Trio: The Rise and Fall of Animation Pioneer Vincent Irvin Whitman
References: “Central New York News.” Syracuse Standard. September 18, 1885, p. 6; “Personal and Society.” The Lyons Republican. April 1, 1910, p. 5;”Personal and Society.” The Lyons Republican. August 23, 1912, p. 5; “Personal and Society.” The Lyons Republican. February 27, 1914, p. 7; “Buffalo News Letter.” The Moving Picture World. July 31, 1915, p. 858; “Comments on the Films.” The Moving Picture World. August 7, 1915, p. 996; “Comments on the Films.” The Moving Picture World. August 14, 1915, p. 1160; “Comments on the Films.” The Moving Picture World. August 21, 1915, p. 1316; “First ‘Lyons-Made’ Movie Reel Shown Tuesday Night.” The Lyons Republican. October 15, 1915, p. 1; “Film Company is Incorporated.” Geneva Daily Times. March 2, 1916, p. 7; “New Industry Started Here. The Making of Animated Cartoons Has Begun. Fanta Film Corporation is Name of Newly Incorporated Concern.” Geneva Daily Times. March 6, 1916, p. 4; “Father and Two Sons Held in Alleged Fraud.” New York Tribune. August 1, 1922, p. 6; “Held In Movie Scheme Swindle.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. August 2, 1922, p. 6b; “Whitmans to Fight Extradition Suits.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. August 3, 1922, p. 8b; “$50,000 Fraud Charged to Film Studio Trio.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. December 15, 1922, p. 24; “Walter Winchell on Broadway.” The Binghamton Press. October 2, 1939, p. 17; “Walt Disney is Sued by Patent Claimant.” The New York Sun. May 9, 1940, p. 17; “$10 Million Patent Suit Filed on Disney.” Corpus Christi Times. July 31, 1953, p. 13; Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Prisoner Fingerprint Identification Cards; Series: 15.139