This story begins in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1882 and ends half a world away, in the East Bengalese capital of Dhaka, now the capital of Bagladesh, in 1892. In those 10 years, Jeanette Van Tassel's family of balloon-flying adventurers created major stirs across the western United States, Hawaii, Australia and, eventually, Southeast Asia.
At the heart of the story is Park Van Tassel, a P.T. Barnum-type huckster. As you might expect in a story centered on such a flamboyant character who was long on hyperbole and short on honest facts, Park Van Tassel was either Jeanette's husband or father.
Regardless of their relationship, Park Van Tassel was a 30-year-old Indiana native when he first made a name for himself in Albuquerque in 1882.
Van Tassel - the tall, blond owner of the Elite Saloon who often tended bar in his own establishment - bought a balloon made from cattle intestines for $850 in California and planned to make the first manned balloon flight in New Mexico history as part of Albuquerque's Fourth of July festivities.
Christened "The City of Albuquerque," the balloon would require 30,000 cubic feet of coal gas for his ascent. As was fitting of the mastermind behind such an event, Van Tassel soon started calling himself Professor and the name stuck - until years later when he promoted himself to Captain.
On the morning of the Fourth, Albuquerque was flooded by people arriving in wagons, on horseback or burro and on foot. Some of them headed to Second Street, between Railroad and Gold aveunes, to watch Van Tassel's enormous balloon being inflated before the scheduled 10 a.m. launch. Even though residents gave up their home access to gas a day earlier so it could be diverted to the balloon efforts, the balloon was filling slowly.
Most people left the scene for other activities, skeptical that an ascent would even take place. But in late afternoon Van Tassel decided to go ahead with his partially filled balloon and a 6:15 p.m. launch was planned. Van Tassel stepped into his wicker gondola with passenger John Moore, a local reporter who was to chronicle the historical event.
But, when the balloon still wouldn't rise, a disappointed Moore stepped out. When the balloon still wouldn't rise, Van Tassel tossed a sandbag of ballast over the side, striking a spectator who later sued. The balloon then began its slow ascent with a beaming Van Tassel waving an American flag to the crowd that soon resembled "one black mass of humanity."
When he reached 11,000 feet, Van Tassel jettisoned more ballast, allowing the balloon to climb to 14,207 feet, according to his onboard instruments. But with the air thinning and becoming colder, Van Tassel struggled to open a valve, triggering a rapid descent. Fearful of a crash, he tossed his coat, lunch and water bottle over the side to slow his fall. An anchor tossed overboard at the last moment brought the flight to a merciful halt in a cornfield near the Albuquerque fairgrounds.
Within a week after the flight and subsequent rowdy celebration, Van Tassel was invited back for a fall event. He crashed within 15 minutes on that flight, and started looking immediately for another balloon.
The next year, Van Tassel made his longest flight in a balloon - some 300 miles in a 6-hour 45-minute flight that carried him from Salt Lake City over the Wasatch mountain range.
But ballooning wasn't Van Tassel's only aviation interest. He was also interested in parachuting, a dangerous undertaking that caused so many fatalities in Europe that parachutes were known as man-killers. Indeed, many chutists had taken to dropping other items from their balloons instead, including pigs.
"I figured, if a live animal, why not a live man?" Van Tassel later told The New York Times.
Constructing his own parachute from a diagram he found in a dictionary in a library, Van Tassel made his first jump in Kansas City.
Sometime after beginning his ballooning career, Van Tassel married a women who shared his adventurous spirit, generally referred to as Jenny Rumary Van Tassel. Jenny soon became a prime attraction in the Van Tassel touring troupe.
On July 4, 1888, Jenny Van Tassel was scheduled to attempt the first parachute jump by a woman, in Los Angeles. But after practice runs of the Van Tassel balloon went awry - including landing on the roof of a former mayor and demolishing a chimney - the police decided to prevent the ill-advised adventure. But Jenny managed to escape the detective assigned to keep her from the much-ballyhooed stunt and climbed into the gondola piloted by her husband. After rising 6,000 feet Jenny Van Tassel made her historic leap.
In a later interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jenny was described as "big [she weighed 165 pounds], young, handsome and blonde." For her part, Jenny responded by describing her jump: "I ain't exactly a bird nor an angel, but it's just about what I imagine the sensation of flying is. It was beautiful!"
In 1889, while jumping from a balloon over the ocean just west of San Francisco, Park Van Tassel became tangled in the lines of his chute and barely escaped drowning when his chute blossomed at the last minute. Undeterred, Van Tassel took his troupe on a world tour where they managed to generate controversy at just about every stop.
Van Tassel landed in a mulbery tree in Siam on one jump. Protestors in India threatened him, fearful that his balloon would "get them in bad" with the devils of the upper air. In Australia, sisters Gladys and Valerie Freitas created a major ruckus because of their clothing.
The Freitas girls performed in skin-tight outfits as they began their ascent while dangling from trapezes below the gondola. They performed a few tricks during the ascent before dropping to earth beneath homemade muslin parachutes.
But, after an Australian performance was witnessed by nearly the entire Queensland Defence Force, critics claimed the soldiers were mesmeraized by the scantily clad skydivers and feared the corps "would be beset with an outbreak of masturbation that would ruin their collective manhood."
Another bit of scandal erupted in Hawaii when it was reported that Park Van Tassel had suffered a horrible death when his chute failed over shark-infested waters. Subsequent investigation revealed that the chutist who had succumbed to the sharks wasn't Van Tassel at all but was instead a man named Joe Lawrence from Albuquerque, N.M. Lawrence was travelling with the Van Tassel troupe and apparently was doing all the jumps credited to Park Van Tassel, who reportedly hadn't jumped since his near-death experience in San Francisco.
In 1892, Jeanette Van Tassel was invited to participate in a grand celebration by the Nawab of Dhaka, Khwaja Ahsanullah. The ruling Nawabs were well-known for their special events and the balloon ascent would be the first in East Bengal.
Jeanette has variously been described as the wife of Park Van Tassel, the daughter of Jenny Rumary Van Tassel, a recent bride and in her late 20s. Regardless of her relationship to Park Van Tassel, she carried the family name and was said to have performed in many countries with the Van Tassel troupe.
The plan was to have Jeanette Van Tassel launch from a south riverbank of the Buriganga River, float north of the river and land on the roof of the main building of the Nawab compound at Ahsan Manzi. A fire of wood and kerosene produced the hot air that filled the balloon, which began its flight without incident at 6:20 p.m. on March 16, 1892.
But the winds didn't cooperate. Instead of landing on the palace roof, Van Tassel's balloon came to rest in a tree at Ramna Garden, nearly three miles away. Police soon arrived and attempted a rescue by extending a bamboo pole to the gondola.
As Jeanette Van Tassel descended, the pole snapped and she crashed to the ground, severely injured. She died a few days later.
There is little evidence that Park Van Tassel continued his barnstorming career after the Dhaka incident. He died in Oakland, Calif., on October 24, 1930, at the age of 78. At the time of his death, he was operating the "Captain P. A. Van Tassel Toy Balloon Mfg. Co.," a maker of miniature balloon ascension toys. Jeanette Van Tassel is buried in the Narinda Christian Cemetery at Dhaka.
Jeanette Van Tassel
Died: March 1892