17. Competition

AFTER SPLITTING FROM Thorpe, the Van Tassell Troupe headed for Batavia (at the time, the capital of the Dutch East Indies; today central Jakarta, Indonesia), arriving on August 4, 1890, to make ascensions for large crowds of spectators.1 However, the troupe now consisted of just Park Van Tassel, Gladys Freitas, and a man by the name of Lawrence. It is not clear why Valerie departed, or where she went, but she would rejoin the troupe at a later date.

On either August 18 or August 25, the Van Tassell Troupe made an ascension with a smoke balloon from the estate of a local prince at Solo (now called Surakarta), where the emperor of Java resided with his grand Vizier and court. At the height of the ascension, Gladys descended via parachute. Everything went fine except that Gladys nearly went through the roof of a house on her landing, but she managed to avoid injury.2 The Singapore Free Press eloquently described Gladys as “a Tassel that will form an interesting pendant to a parachute.”3

On September 7, the troupe arrived in Singapore, a part of the Straits Settlements, which were ruled by the United Kingdom, aboard the Giang Ann from Semarang. They were on their way to Shanghai, China.3 British balloonist Percival Spencer had already supplied the first balloon and parachute jump in Singapore’s history, on May 10, 1890, and there is no record of the Van Tassell Troupe attempting an ascension during their brief stay.4 Instead, they continued on, arriving in Shanghai on September 17 via the Peshawur, eager to make the first balloon ascension and parachute jump in Shanghai’s history.5

Gladys’s ascension at Shanghai took place from the Chinese Garden “near the point” on September 27, with a Mr. Woods and a locally well-known lion tamer named Frame helping with the arrangements. Throngs of people crowded the road to the point prior to the balloon being filled at 4:00 p.m. Another large gathering of spectators waited at the garden. A bamboo enclosure kept people and wind away from the balloon as it was being filled. The wind was strong, and there was some doubt whether the launch would take place, but after a period of thirty-five minutes, the balloon was ready. There was concern that the parachute might end up in a nearby river in the Hongkew (now Hongkou) district, so Gladys wore a life preserver on the ascension. She launched and rose to a height of about 1,700 feet while doing trapeze work along the way. Carried by a westerly breeze, the parachute made a successful landing about a half mile from the launch location near Point Road.6 Reporters noted,

When all was ready, Miss Van Tassell took hold of the trapeze bar suspended from the parachute, the balloon was let go, and the young lady kissing her hand to the spectators as she went, was swung rapidly across the lawn and upwards, fortunately striking in her sudden flight nothing more solid than a much-startled coolie,7 who was staring open-mouthed at the rising monster. As she floated slowly westward in the glory of the setting sun, Miss Van Tassell calmly went through three or four exciting evolutions on her trapeze, and when the balloon was about 1,700 feet above the earth, as it seemed, the parachute detached itself and came slowly earthwards the lady falling lightly to the ground, near the Point Road, and being taken in a carriage to the gardens, where she was enthusiastically welcomed. It was a delightful exhibition, and the gracefulness of it took away the expected sense of its danger; for danger there must be, even with the most careful preparations.8

Van Tassel’s balloon, however, continued on its own adventure, landing outside the Hongkew boundary line and then bumping along the ground for a period of time. Locals secured the balloon and took possession of it, claiming that it had destroyed a part of a roof upon landing. However, inspection of the roof showed that the damage was clearly not recent, as there was grass growing through the bricks and tiles that were strewn on the ground—indications that the roof was damaged long before the balloon fell from the sky. But the locals refused to return the balloon without payment of $12 for the damages, a sum that was finally reduced to $6 through bargaining. Despite an agreement on the amount, when Van Tassel returned to obtain the balloon on September 30, the locals wouldn’t release it even after being paid. This led Van Tassel to forcibly repossess the balloon, despite efforts by the locals to prevent his carriage from leaving the scene.9

Another ascension was planned for Chan-su-ho Garden on Bubbling Wells Road for October 4, 1890. Thousands of spectators flocked to the garden to watch the spectacle, which was captured well by the local press: “Parachuting is another of the inventions of the western barbarian which come as a shock to the Celestial notions. Of balloons the natives know something; but the spectacle of a woman flying through the air and descending for nearly a mile apparently with only the aid of an umbrella was certainly enough to excite ‘hi-yahs’10 without number.”11

Gladys was launched at sunset from the gardens and performed several “blood-curdling feats” of trapeze work in her five-minute ascension to 4,000 feet. At that point she jumped, coming steadily down to a landing in a cotton field near a well-known English pub named Oliver’s Bungalow. The balloon fell about 3 miles away and was rescued, faster this time, but not before locals “wantonly cut off nearly the whole of the top sections.”12 Given the many issues, the Van Tassell Troupe left Shanghai for Manila, capital of the Philippines.

On November 20, 1890, Gladys made a successful ascension and parachute descent over Manila. However, the crowds were unusually small.13 According to Park Van Tassel years later, in 1901, the portion of his journey through Manila was his greatest financial debacle:

I had to have all of my programmes stamped by the Government and was charged well for it. Besides the license there was a tax on everything. The first day it rained, and I had to go post haste to the Governor to get a permit to postpone my exhibition. After I had stood on the porch in the wet half an hour, he rebuked me for not coming sooner. I was forced to hire a band, and then was taxed for every tune that it played. This money, they said, was to go to the man who invented the tune. When they played “Auld Lang Syne” I thought “Well, this composer’s dead, and I’ve got a rebate coming,” but they charged me for it just the same. They took 15 percent of the gate money and charged me so much a head for every policeman on the grounds and at the gate. They rung in thirty-five policemen on me, some of them the toughest you ever saw, dressed in overall stuff and looking like monkeys . . . . Well, I gave three exhibitions in Manila and took in $3000. The Government taxed me out of all of that and some more that I brought to town, and I had to pawn a ring worth $1000 for $500 to get away.14

The Van Tassell Troupe very happily escaped the Philippines to the Straits Settlements to provide an exhibition in the vicinity of George Town, on the north portion of Penang Island (in modern-day Malaysia). Gladys made a balloon ascension in December 1890 or early January 1891. As with flights in Australia, she did trapeze work during the ascension. After reaching an altitude of 4,000 feet, she made a safe parachute descent.15 According to Park, two ascensions were made in Penang,16 but a detailed description of only one can be found in the reports of the time. From Penang, the troupe traveled to Rangoon, Burma (modern-day Yangon, Myanmar), making three ascensions in front of “immense, gaping crowds”17 as they watched human flight for the first time. Children in Burma, taken by Gladys’s leaps, made mud dolls, attached them to paper parachutes, sent them up on paper kites, and pulled release strings to mimic her descent.18 Meanwhile, by the end of January 1891, back in Oakland, California, Clara Van Tassel was finally granted a divorce on the basis of desertion. Clara, the first woman in the western United States to make a parachute jump, resumed her maiden name, Clara Coykendall.19

As the Van Tassell Troupe continued its journey, other aeronauts were also traveling Asia and providing balloon and parachute exhibitions. For instance, Fitzherbert Kight made a balloon ascension in December 1853,20 and on December 29, 1877, at Calcutta, J. Symmons Lynn made a successful balloon ascension.21 India’s first parachute jump came when Percival Spencer traveled from London to Bombay (now Mumbai) and leaped in front of an estimated one hundred thousand spectators on January 26, 1889.22 He ascended to a height of 1,760 feet in the Empress of India and made a successful return by parachute, earning Rs 25,000 for the flight (a value of about £1666 in 1890 or about $240,000 in 2020 dollars).23 In early 1889, Spencer provided parachute exhibitions at various locations, including Calcutta. There he had a perilous launch that voided any opportunity of using his parachute; instead he came down with the Empress of India a considerable distance from town. It took several days for him to return, uninjured, from the jungle.24 On April 10 of that year, for a price of Rs 500, Spencer introduced Indian acrobat and trapeze artist Ram Chandra Chatterjie to ballooning in the Viceroy. They launched at Narkeldanga with a landing near Barasat, with Chatterjie becoming the first Indian aeronaut in history.25 Chatterjie eventually purchased the Viceroy from Spencer and renamed it the City of Calcutta. With this balloon, in May 1889 Chatterjie made the first solo balloon ascensions by an Indian. He made the first balloon ascension and parachute descent by an Indian on March 22, 1890, in the Empress of India with Spencer in attendance. Unfortunately, Chatterjie died on August 9, 1892, as the result of a ballooning accident.26

After introducing parachuting to various locations across India, Spencer then traveled to Singapore, making a balloon ascension and the first parachute drop there on May 10, 1890.27 Spencer made at least two balloon ascensions in Yokohama, Japan, and another from Ueno Park in Tokyo in October 1890.28 He continued with a balloon flight and parachute jump in Kobe, Japan, on November 3, 1890. His unfortunate landing in the ocean required a boat rescue, and while he and his parachute were recovered, the balloon was lost.29 However, Spencer continued unabated with an ascent and parachute drop in November 1890 and another for Emperor Meiji in Ueno Park.30 Spencer’s exhibitions caused quite a stir in Japan, and he quickly became the subject of a Kabuki play titled Riding the Famous Hot-Air Balloon, with famed Kabuki artist Onoe Kikugoto playing the role of Spencer. Although the Japanese had experimented with lighter-than-air balloons as early as 1877, Spencer’s parachute jumps were probably the first in the nation.

Meanwhile, as Spencer was introducing ballooning and parachuting to India in 1889, Thomas Baldwin made the first balloon ascension and the first parachute jump in New Zealand’s history with a flight on January 21, 1889, at Dunedin.31 Like Spencer, Thomas Baldwin and his “brother” Ivy Baldwin toured Asia as well. On Monday, January 15, 1890, Thomas and Ivy arranged for a balloon ascension and parachute jump at Ueno Park. While Spencer had use of a beautiful silk balloon with an elaborate inflation mechanism involving pipes and gas, in true American fashion, the Baldwins used a cloth balloon, a pile of firewood, and some kerosene. A very hot fire and a short flue system had the balloon inflated in just fifteen minutes. Ivy Baldwin ascended in the balloon, completing a series of acrobatic maneuvers on the way up. At about 5,000 feet, he jumped. After a free fall of about four and a half seconds, he came to a perfect landing. The balloon collapsed and provided a trail of gray smoke over the sky of Tokyo until landing. Local writers noted, “The cream of Tokyo’s curiosity about balloons has now been skimmed, and if Spencer and the Baldwins have successors, the financial results will probably be very different.”32 These and other daredevils traveled from city to city, eager to be the first to exhibit ballooning and/or parachute jumping. It was a very real financial race; whoever was first would surely derive more income than all who followed.

Millie Viola continued with a series of parachute jumps with James Price in Western Australia in 1891. Later that year at Perth, Viola’s parachute collapsed halfway down after unexpectedly encountering strong thermal turbulence in midair. She came down at a very high rate of speed, with the parachute saving her life by becoming tangled in a dead tree. Viola escaped the situation with just a few bruises.33 James Price continued providing parachute exhibitions at Hobart, Perth, and other locations in Australia34 as well as New Zealand before moving on to South Africa. In December 1891, Price also dealt with an unfortunate set of circumstances. He ascended, and at about 2,000 feet, the balloon burst. Price jumped for his life via parachute. His safe landing was, ironically, in a cemetery. A second ascension at the same location resulted in precisely the same bursting effect, and once again he descended safely to Earth.35 But the safety issues were a very real concern. A similar event occurred at Bombay in December 1891 at the Garden of Parel, where a Lieutenant Mansfield ascended in his balloon. High winds caused the balloon to break apart at altitude, and before he could get his parachute to work properly, he plummeted to the ground, dying on impact.36 Unfazed, another aeronaut, billed as Professor Lawrence,37 began making balloon ascensions and parachute descents in India in early 1892.38 It is possible that Lawrence was now assisting the Van Tassell Troupe.

Against this backdrop, the Van Tassell Troupe found themselves in a race with other performers, traveling from major city to major city on shipping lines, trying to be the first to jump to maximize crowds and rewards. Newspapers commonly compared their status, so it was quite likely that each team was keeping tabs on the others. For instance, in December 1890, the North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette noted, “The Baldwin Brothers have been giving successful balloon ascents at Tokio [sic] and Yokohama, their modus operandi being the same as Mr. Van Tassell’s as regards the inflation of their balloon.”39 The same paper failed to realize that it was precisely these three individuals who had (re)introduced parachuting to the United States at San Francisco.

During the summer of 1890, while others were exhibiting in Asia, William Ivy (performing as Ivy Baldwin) returned to California, making two balloon ascensions and parachute jumps at the San Jose Fair Grounds, both on August 15, 1890.40 The Southern Pacific Railroad hired him to provide a balloon ascension at Santa Monica on September 4. Up in the clouds, he leaped from the balloon, descending in spectacular fashion.41 With Van Tassel and Thomas Baldwin in Asia, Ivy Baldwin quickly took their place as the main showman on the parachute descent circuit in California. A few months later, Ivy returned to Asia. On January 3, 1891, Thomas and Ivy made the first balloon ascent in Hong Kong, followed by the first parachute descent in Hong Kong. The flight was made at Happy Valley Racetrack, and the exhibition was repeated in Macau.

With Spencer and the Baldwins traveling from place to place in Southeast Asia, and with the difficulties encountered in Shanghai and Manila, the Van Tassell Troupe headed for greener pastures in India. Some reports suggest that they first traveled to Japan, but it is likely that these reports confused Van Tassel with Baldwin or Spencer.42 Their busy schedule would have allowed minimal time for such a trip, and ship passenger logs do not verify the claim. Further, it is likely that if the Van Tassell Troupe did perform in Japan, they would have received considerable mention in the press, unless the performance was a private demonstration for Emperor Meiji.

In India, Valerie Freitas rejoined the troupe on tour. She made a successful balloon ascension and parachute descent at Hyderabad on February 20, 1891, for Asaf Jah VI Mir Mahboob Ali Khan Siddiqi Bayafandi, the sixth nizam of Hyderabad. While it remains unconfirmed, this was likely also the first parachute jump by a woman in India. On March 13, one of the Van Tassell Sisters made a balloon ascent and parachute descent at Poona from the grounds of the Empress Garden in front of several thousand spectators. She once again performed trapeze acts when going skyward. When the balloon reached its maximum height of about 3,500 feet, she jumped with a partially inflated parachute and landed on the east side of the Southern Mahratta Railway, about 3 miles from the garden. The villagers in the field where she landed were rather shocked to see a woman falling from the sky. The Van Tassell Troupe left that evening for Mysore (now Mysuru), scheduled to return to Poona to entertain the citizens with a balloon race on their way to Bombay (modern-day Mumbai).43

Moving on to Mysore, they provided an exhibition on March 18, 1891, for Chamarajendra Wadiyar X, the twenty-third maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore, Britain’s Sir Oliver St. John, and an estimated ten thousand spectators. The maharaja was quite interested in seeing this exhibition and rewarded Van Tassel with a considerable sum of money.44 Valerie was prepared for launch, but just as the balloon started on its ascent, it split in two at an approximate altitude of 300 feet, allowing all the hot air and smoke to rapidly escape. Valerie’s parachute opened immediately, and she leaped to safety only 150 yards from her point of launch. Her descent was rapid, and she was shaken by the landing but otherwise uninjured. The maharaja and a Dr. Benson were the first to attend to her at the scene. News of the incident spread throughout English-language papers in Southeast Asia.45

This near disaster, coupled with the accident in Queensland, was perhaps too much for the Freitas sisters to endure. Gladys fell in love with the manager of the Helvetia Estate at Delhi. They married in July 1891 at Penang in the Straits Settlements.46 Valerie also fell in love and married during this period. Reporters later noted, “Traveling with him [Park Van Tassel] at this time were two female parachute jumpers, both of whom laid some claim to beauty. Their charms ensnared two Hindostanese of high degree and both women accepted the offers of marriage which were made to them.”47 The Freitas sisters had made their mark for women’s parachuting throughout Australia, Southeast Asia, China, and India. However, with their service as a part of the troupe now lost, and uneager to jump from balloons himself, Van Tassel was once again left adrift.

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