15. On to Adelaide

ON MARCH 10, 1890, it was announced that the Van Tassell Troupe would soon be visiting the city of Geelong, to the southwest of Melbourne.1 However, not everyone believed the troupe was acting rationally with its death-defying stunts. The Australian Star noted that the Western Australian attorney general Charles Warton, was reviewing acts of parliament in search of precedent to “prevent the darling young foreigner [either Valerie or Gladys] from sailing over Melbourne on her balloon and tumbling gracefully on a well-controlled parachute. The Justice Department wishes to indict her on the criminal charge of attempted suicide. But the Justice Department will fail.”2 A gossip columnist from a newspaper in Melbourne wrote:

I suppose that all this sort of thing is very thrilling to many folk, but for myself if feats of daring are to be performed for my delectation, I prefer their happening where I can observe them without a telescope. Moreover I am too callous to experience the full charm of these descents. If Miss Van Tassell had been killed the circumstance would have seemed to me of no consequence at all, and interesting only as an item of news to be duly chronicled. Better women die every day in the discharge of duties for performing which they receive not a tithe of the money lavished on these adventurous females for their useless pranks.

James MacMahon visited the nearby mining town of Ballarat on March 10, 1890, to arrange for a Van Tassel performance.3 The Ballarat ascension was confirmed to the public on March 12: the launch would take place on Saturday, March 15, at the Eastern Oval between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. On March 15, roughly sixteen hundred spectators paid at the oval, but a far larger number, roughly ten thousand people, viewed for free from the nearby railway embankment and surrounding heights.4 While it was thought that Gladys Van Tassell was to leap, James Price leaped instead. The wind and gusts were noted as the reason for this change.5 However, given that this was the test flight of their new balloon, perhaps it was determined that someone with greater experience should make the flight.

The ascent was delayed until 5:30 p.m., and hot smoke was used rather than gas for inflation. With James on the trapeze, the balloon made a rapid ascension to several thousand feet, drifting to the south roughly three-quarters of a mile in a strong north wind over the center of the city. He successfully released and descended, landing in a garden near the intersection of Humffray and Grant Streets near the Redan mines.6

An ascension for Sandhurst (also called Bendigo) was in preparation,7 and Joe MacMahon (James’s brother) completed the arrangements on March 20, with an ascension and jump scheduled for Wednesday, March 26. However, on the day of the event at the Agricultural Society Show Grounds, once again the weather failed to cooperate. Gusty winds blew from the southeast. Despite the winds, at 3:15 p.m. Van Tassel (either Park or James; it is not clear which) addressed the fifteen hundred spectators to say that he would try to inflate the balloon. When it was about one-quarter full, two large rents appeared and the gas escaped. The balloon was emptied while the rents were sewn, this effort taking more than an hour. It seemed to many that they were just buying time, but Park and James knew that such issues occurring aloft would be disastrous, and likely fatal. Another inflation was attempted, but with the wind still blowing and the time now past 6:00 p.m., Van Tassel announced that there would be no performance. He promised that they would attempt the ascension again at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 27.8 However, Thursday was worse than Wednesday. Just as the balloon was being inflated, it caught fire in several places, and the holes caused by the fires were large enough to make any chance for an exhibition impossible. The restless crowd, once again tested by their patience, began expressing their displeasure. The Sandhurst attempts were considered a “fiasco” in the papers. Park Van Tassel suggested that the troupe had made eighteen descents in Australia by this time, twelve with this balloon, but this is unlikely given its history. Balloons of this nature were expected to last twenty-five flights, but it was clear that by Sandhurst, this balloon was finished.9 A new balloon was ordered from Melbourne. The Van Tassell Troupe would try again on Wednesday, April 2. However, the local populous remained eager for a refund of their shillings. To quell the uprising, MacMahon announced that another performance would be made on April 2 for free and that all proceeds received at the March 26–27 events would be donated to the Easter Fair.10

The new balloon was ready for action by April 1.11 Meanwhile it was also announced that the Van Tassell Troupe would soon visit Hobart, Tasmania, to give an exhibition.12 A newspaper on April 2 noted that the ascension at Sandhurst would be made by “Mr. Van Tassell,” with proceeds in aid of the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Asylum.13 Those who received coupons from the March 26–27 events would be admitted for free.

The Van Tassell Troupe took extra care to make sure the ascension of April 2 went smoothly. To ease public concerns, members of the Easter Fair Committee were put in charge of the gates. MacMahon also announced that if the ascension did not take place as promised, all receipts, including those from March 26–27, would be returned on presentation of coupons at the Evans music warehouse in town. This act restored a good deal of public confidence.14 The public was specifically prevented from being near the balloon and the tools for its inflation. An estimated five thousand people were in attendance.15 Shortly before 4:00 p.m., inflation began despite a gusty wind from the south. A set of volunteers helped control the balloon, and in about twenty minutes it was ready to be airborne. James Price took his place on the trapeze, but the volunteers released before he was ready, causing the balloon to jump several feet and to lose some hot air before it could be stabilized again. The balloon was refilled slightly and at 5:00 p.m. everything was back to being ready. At the signal, the release was made and James rode into the air, carried in a northerly direction. At an altitude of about 5,000 to 6,000 feet, the balloon settled on its own, causing the parachute to open out. James saw his chance and jumped without having to endure the usual fall. The descent was as advertised, but Price had to dodge a tall iron-spiked fence near the point of landing, choosing instead to fall through a eucalyptus tree roughly 200 yards from Sydenham Gardens. Onlookers applauded him and helped him return to the show grounds, where he was met with further rounds of applause. He and Frost thanked the public for their patience. The balloon was recovered near Whipstick, roughly 7 miles from Sandhurst.16

On April 7 it was announced that the Van Tassell Troupe would make another ascension at Sandhurst as part of the Easter Fair festivities on April 10, with half the proceeds going to charity.17 Once again, James Price served as the aeronaut. The weather that day was beautiful, the balloon was filled in record time, and the event was made with a certain degree of perfection. James ascended in a south breeze to a height of about 5,000 feet before jumping, descending quickly, and landing perfectly near a camp of Chinese workers at Ironbark. The large assembly of people who had followed him on horseback and in vehicles brought him back to the show grounds, cheering and with great enthusiasm. Price addressed the crowd to say that “he hoped that they were satisfied that the failures on the first two occasions . . . were not due to any fault of his.”18 Price took considerable personal pride in his work and noted for the newspapers that he would return to repeat his performance at Sandhurst in the near future “before leaving for India.”19 The gate receipts amounted to £82, which was split evenly.

Arrangements were made for the Van Tassell Troupe to visit Adelaide and make a parachute jump in the new balloon on Saturday, April 26, 1890, at the Adelaide Oval.20 They arrived in Adelaide on Wednesday, April 23. A reporter from Adelaide’s Evening Journal interviewed the now-famous Park, “father” of the amazing Van Tassell Sisters:

First of all I asked Mr. Van Tassell for some particulars concerning the parachute, to which he answered—“I am the inventor. For a long time I saw what resisting power an ordinary umbrella had and it occurred to me that if I could only construct a large umbrella, which the parachute really is, without any ribs, and so made as to open freely with the pressure of the atmosphere, it would be possible for such a thing to bear a man’s weight.” “And you were the first to make use of your invention?” “No, I tossed up with Tom Baldwin to decide whether I or he should go up and come down under the wings of the parachute. He cried ‘Head!’ and had to do the trick. Of course you have heard of his wonderful performance in California and England? Why, he was paid $20,000 for four performances at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The first parachute leap was performed by him on January 30, 1887, and I guess it made a big sensation.” “It is needless to ask if you are an American?” “Oh, yes, I am proud of being that. I belong to San Francisco, and for the last fourteen years have been engaged in building balloons and making ascensions in them.” “What is the greatest height you have attained?” “Well, I have often been up pretty high, but the furthest point that I ever reached was at a distance of 15,600 feet from mother earth.” “How many parachute descents have I made? Well, let me see, the last one was about six months ago, when I descended in a parachute for the sixty-second time. I started experiments directly after Baldwin, and all my performances were crowned with success.” “For next Saturday’s performance I am building a new balloon, having just cut it out, and I am anxious to have a successful afternoon’s work on Saturday.” The report went on with details about the parachutes, that they were made of linen and measured 51 feet from the lower end of the ropes to the top of the parachute.21

A reporter interviewed both Valerie and Gladys, describing Valerie as “of medium height, good figure and face, a wealth of auburn hair, and genial style about her that is very taking.”22 The sisters were in the process of making (or perhaps mending) Gladys’s parachute at their Adelaide hotel during the interview. The reporter asked Gladys, “What is the sensation like when you cut yourself adrift from the balloon?” She replied, “Well, in the first place you dive through the air at such a speed that you can hardly think. It is like falling from a steeple, and as the balloon soars away you experience a feeling of lone-liness—like having an old friend taken away from you. You fall, as a rule, from 50 to 100 feet before the parachute expands, and then as you gradually descend the feeling is a very pleasant one.”23

J. Colton & Company in Adelaide began work on the troupe’s latest balloon on Monday, April 20, and completed it by Friday, April 25. A reporter for the Adelaide Evening Journal noted, “Twelve hundred and fifty square yards of calico has been used and the balloon is composed of 365 pieces . . . fifty-two of which are 75 feet long. The circumference of the balloon is 140 ft.,24 and its capacity is about 77,000 ft., which is a guarantee that it will ascend comfortably with two persons.”25

Newspaper advertisements for the April 26 balloon ascension hailed “Gladdys” as “America’s Greatest Aeronaut, and the Only Lady who has ever made successful Parachute Jumps” and estimated the size of the March 5 crowd in Melbourne at “over 100,000 people.”26 As with previous jumps by the Freitas sisters, not everyone was pleased. In an editorial in the local paper, James Robertson, councillor for the town of North Unley, wrote that the Adelaide Council had not approved the forthcoming ascension and that if any accident were to happen, responsibility would fall to the cricketing association.27 Others expressed outrage at the risqué garments worn by the Van Tassell Sisters for their ascensions, denouncing the stunts as “immoral.”28

The exhibition scheduled for April 26 was apparently delayed to May 3, 1890, when several thousand people gathered at the Old Exhibition Grounds of Adelaide. After watching a fencing match between a Captain Jennings and W. V. Virgo, which Jennings won 15–14, preparations were made to launch the large new Van Tassel balloon, now christened the City of Adelaide.29 Within roughly thirty minutes, the balloon took shape, and the very interested crowd burst into the enclosure where the balloon was being prepared. Meanwhile, the local police were pulling members of the public who wished to see the launch for free out of trees in the botanical park. Apparently, an insufficient number of police were available to keep control of the situation near the balloon itself. At roughly 5:05 p.m., Gladys appeared in light blue tights and was received with a warm round of applause. During launch preparations, someone in the crowd yelled “Let go!” and those holding the balloon released their grips, much to Park Van Tassel’s concern and a danger to Gladys. One person holding the ropes properly refused to let go, was carried about 6 feet into the air, and finally did let go, without report of injury after the resulting fall. Up Gladys went on her flight anyway, performing trapeze work until the balloon became rather stationary over North Adelaide. According to a barometer taken with her to measure pressure and then later to back-calculate an altitude estimate, she rose to 7,640 feet. The balloon began to descend slightly, opening the parachute, and she jumped, descending to Earth. On the way down she performed more trapeze work, dangling by her calves and doing other feats. She landed at Wellington Square in North Adelaide. The balloon came to rest about a half mile away. A cab brought Gladys back to the grounds, and the large crowd let out a tremendous cheer.30 A band at the nearby Wellington Hotel played Handel’s “See the Conquering Hero Comes.”31 While seven thousand to eight thousand people had assembled on the exhibition grounds and paid their shillings, newspapers estimated that twenty thousand people had witnessed the event.32 Word quickly made it to other cities, including Perth, Brisbane, and Sydney.33


Advertising material for a parachute jump by Valerie Freitas (billed as “Miss Val. Van Tassell”) at Kensington Oval in Adelaide, South Australia, on May 10, 1890. National Library of Australia (nla.obj-39339460).

The Van Tassell Troupe made plans to leave Adelaide for Brisbane by train, with rumors that they would be leaving on Monday afternoon, May 5, 1890. However, that morning, Park Van Tassel was arrested. It seems that Madame Cora du Lamond of Melbourne had advanced Van Tassel £126 to cover costs in the city, on the stipulation that she would receive half of any gate receipts if exhibitions were held in Adelaide. Madame Cora was a well-known entertainer and magician in Australia and believed she was to help the Van Tassell Troupe arrange exhibitions in Adelaide. However, a third party, Edwin Thorne, was used instead of Madame Cora, without her knowledge or consent. She filed a grievance for £80 in damages. On payment of £60 to the court, Van Tassel was released from custody.34

Another balloon ascent was made on Saturday, May 10, this time at the Kensington Oval and by Valerie. The weather could not have been more perfect, with clear skies and only a slight breeze. The City of Adelaide was filled at 5:00 p.m., and as an equal to Gladys, Val performed perilous trapeze work even at very high altitudes. The launch was essentially vertical, until the very top, when the balloon drifted slightly. Valerie jumped toward Magill Road. There, she came to Earth “in the neatest manner possible”35 but in a field of stinkwort, not more than a mile from the Kensington Oval. Two prominent cyclists, W. Cox and W. Kuhnel, had tracked her progress and stood in the field as Valerie made her descent. Before landing she called out, “Don’t get underneath.” She was returned to the oval by cab and was presented to the crowd of eight thousand by L. M. Tier, much to the excitement of the many spectators. Newspapers reported that the ascent and descent were so perfectly achieved that the task was “robbed . . . of half of its terrors.”36 That evening the Van Tassell Troupe attended the theater to watch a performance of Ruling Passion, a play that included a balloon scene.37

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