Scantily clad lady balloonists turn heads in Brisbane
Above: The image is of a similar act performed in France by Miss Stena during that era (source unknown).
This is the story of the first flight of any type to take place in Brisbane’s skies.
By Susan Prior
What do Lucas’ Papaw Ointment, two Victorian-era trapeze artists and Fort Lytton have in common?
As is often the case when researching our history, you chance upon one fascinating fact to have it lead you down a rabbit hole of discovery. This is what happened to me recently when researching Fort Lytton for a story. Before I knew it, I was reading all about the first flight ever taken in Brisbane’s skies.
Let me explain.
The circus comes to town
Try and imagine, if you can, Brisbane in 1890. By today’s standards, it was a small country town. And although Queensland was self-governing by this time it would have played second fiddle to its southern neighbours of Sydney and Melbourne, and maybe, because of this, there was a slight feeling of inferiority among its citizens. In around 1890, the population of greater Brisbane was about 102,000. Horse-drawn trams still serviced the inner and middle suburban area, although the railway was gradually spreading its tentacles out from the city centre. Many of the suburbs would have been outlying settlements connected by bone-jarring dirt roads.
There was no radio, or television. Communities would have communicated by notices in the newspapers, and by gossip.
Today, we take air travel for granted. But back then the Wright Brothers were still 13 years away from making their first powered flight. In fact, any form of aeronautical voyage was something only a few well-travelled sophisticates had heard about. Anyone who talked about flying machines was thought to be a hoaxer and charlatan, or at the very least romantic and deluded.
You can begin to imagine the excitement, then, when on Friday 16 May a call was placed in The Telegraph that read:
SISTERS VAN TASSEL BALLOON ASCENT
Wanted for Saturday Afternoon a few reliable men as GATEKEEPERS
Apply at once.
ERNEST A. SMITH, Secretary, 156 Elizabeth street.
A flurry of advertisements followed, appearing in three places on page 4 of The Telegraph on one day alone, on Saturday 17 May, 1890:
Do not fail to see Miss Van Tassel take her place on a frail trapeze bar as she makes her sensational start from Mother Earth to Cloud Land, and, returning within the grounds.
Miss Van Tassel makes her Parachute Jump, Exhibition Grounds, to-day.
Miss Van Tassel, who has gained a great reputation in the south by parachute descents from a balloon at great altitude, will appear to-day at the Exhibition grounds.
Miss Van Tassel made page 4 of the Brisbane Courier that same day, too. These notices were repeated throughout the newspapers; very few people would have missed the news.
Brisbane town would have buzzed in eager anticipation.
This was to be the first flight of any type to take place in Brisbane’s skies. The aeronautical display entailed Valerie Van Tassel or her sister Gladys ascending in a balloon below which hung a trapeze. As the balloon soared aloft to some rather dizzying heights, the performer would execute a number of moves and tricks while dangling from the trapeze, including by just her toes. Once the balloon had risen sufficiently high, and we are talking disappearing-into-the-clouds kind of high, she would tug herself free of the balloon and parachute back down to earth.
Who were the Van Tassel sisters?
Above: Valerie Van Tassel (L) and Gloria Van Tassel
There is a great deal of confusion in the historical records, but there are some things we do know about these incredibly daring sisters. They were part of a travelling troupe from the United States led by flamboyant front-man Parker Atkinson Van Tassel (also spelled Tassell), a PT Barnum-style performer ‘of Dutch extraction’ from Indiana. He had made something of a name for himself in his home country, including by attempting to go aloft in a balloon made of cattle intestines, named ‘The City of Albuquerque’.
In 1889, after a few close shaves, the flamboyant impresario Park Van Tassel took his troupe on a world tour, with controversy following him at every port. As you can imagine, truth and honesty are not necessarily the ingredients for drawing in the crowds. Hyperbole, showmanship and a good pair of pins are. So when the good-looking and ‘well-developed’ Freitas sisters joined his band, they were known variously as his daughters and his sisters, when in all likelihood they were neither. There was another player in Van Tassel’s group – Jeanette (Jenny) Van Tassel, who seems to have been billed as his wife and as his daughter, too. Was Jeanette perhaps one and the same as Miss Clara Coykendall, daughter of the wealthy San Jose pork packer? And the mother of the Freitas girls? We just don’t know. But more on her later. Either way, Jeanette didn’t go on tour with the troupe on this occasion.
And so the troupe arrived in Queensland
Valerie, the sister who made the first trip aloft in Brisbane, is thought to have been born in Boston, US, although, like everything with this story the details are confused. In a death notice supposedly for one of the Freitas girls – which one was not specified – their parents were said to reside at Milson’s Point, Sydney. Valerie, like Gladys, was a gymnast, trapeze performer and tight-rope walker, but she had apparently never attempted a jump with a parachute before she went on tour with Van Tassel in Australia. Yet again, in other records, she had been performing this particular trick for about 12 months. This death notice, though, should probably have been for Jeanette, but was reported incorrectly here in Australia.
In Brisbane Valerie, scantily dressed by the standards of the day, made her first ascent from the Exhibition Grounds on 22 May 1890. Her balloon was some 6.5 metres in diameter and stitched from lengths of calico. She descended using a parachute, 5 metres across made from ‘stout linen’, to a spot near the old Brisbane Children’s Hospital.
The Chronicle gives us this fabulous description of her sister Gladys’s ascent in Maryborough, a couple of weeks later:
Shortly after 5 o’clock on Saturday all was ready; the northernmost pole was brought down, and the ropes taken away so as to give the balloon a clear escape, a number of assistants holding the balloon down by the ring around the aperture. The parachute and the trapeze were then attached to a bar across the hoop, and all the fittings were closely examined and secured by Mr. Van Tassell. Miss Gladys Van Tassell, wrapped in an ulster, and accompanied by her sister Miss Valerie Van Tassell, then appeared on the scene and received a hearty round of applause …
Miss Gladys picked up the trapeze and caught hold of the ropes, her sister standing by her with her arm around her waist. The moment had come and excitement was high, but suppressed. The sister drew off her sister’s ulster, and she stood revealed in her charming athletic costume. Then Mr. Van Tassel in a loud voice sang out ‘Let go the balloon’. Amid a chorus of ‘Oh’s’ and ‘Ah’s’ and feminine shrieks the great globe rose with a quick but steady motion. Miss Gladys springing from her sister’s arms gave three or four strides over the ground and was then whisked into the air and in a moment, amidst a cry almost of horror, was hanging from the bar by her toes over the heads of the startled spectators. She performed a number of graceful feats until she had reached a great height and became quite diminutive and her features indistinct.
As the balloon rose it took a northerly course, and many outside set out in that direction, but the great majority with their necks craned were rooted to the spot and gazed upwards in wonderment. Presently, when Miss Gladys had become reduced to a speck, the dark object above her was seen to fade away, and the cry was raised, ‘The balloon is going through the cloud!’ This was the case, and presently it had completely vanished. Some 20 or 30 seconds of suspense followed, then ‘There she is’ was cried and all eyes were turned to the same cloud, through which the intrepid young lady sitting on the bar of the trapeze with the expanded parachute above her, was gently and gracefully descending …
Miss Gladys was greeted with great cheering and taken into the Exhibition hall a large crowd following, and there she received an enthusiastic ovation …
The sisters would supervise the manufacture of their balloons closely. Valerie, who is described as being ‘of medium height, good figure and face, a wealth of auburn hair, and a genial style about her that is very taking,’ is quoted as saying, ‘You know, you can’t be too careful about an apparatus on which your life depends and you will feel ever so much easier in your mind when you have had it constructed under your own supervision’.
Valerie went on to say, ‘The sensation experienced in ascending is very queer when performing on the bar on account of the rush through the atmosphere. About 6,000 feet is the highest elevation to which I have ascended. My brother always fires a gun when he considers I have gone sufficiently high, and I then cut away the parachute and descend.’
These dramatic performances by the good-looking and ‘well-developed’ Van Tassels had gone down well in the southern states, but on the Queensland leg of its world tour the troupe encountered problems and plenty of controversy, not least because of the young ladies’ risqué attire.
While preparing for a second ascent in Brisbane, from the Breakfast Creek Sports Grounds on 26 May, and with the excited crowds pressing in close to get the best view as the balloon was being filled, a supporting pole toppled killing a 12-year-old spectator, Thomas Reid. Although it was highly likely that Park Van Tassel was negligent, he engaged the services of Harold Lilley, son of Queensland’s Chief Justice Sir Charles Lilley, and managed to ensure no charges were laid.
A threat to the Queensland Defence Force’s manhood!
A month later, on Sunday 22 June, this time in Townsville, Gladys was due to take her own flight before an adoring crowd. Reverend James Stewart, angered by the death of Thomas in Brisbane, travelled to Townsville, saying that he was there to visit his brother. This was probably stretching the truth, because Stewart, from the Brisbane city mission, seems to have been something of an evangelical firebrand. Dr Bill Metcalf, in ‘Lady Parachutists and the end of Civilisation in Queensland’, believes there is evidence to show Stewart had travelled there explicitly with the intention of preventing Park Van Tassel’s ‘sinful’ show from going ahead and desecrating the Sabbath.
Despite his remonstrations, Gladys’s performance was witnessed by about half of Townsville’s population, and by more than 600 members of the Queensland Defence Force. (Another newspaper article from the time claims there were 5000 troops in attendance.) Stewart denounced the spectacle as a disgrace and a desecration of the holy day. The episode quickly escalated into a full-blown scandal with public outrage being vented in the newspapers and in Queensland’s parliament. Critics claimed that the soldiers ‘were mesmerised by the scantily clad skydivers’, and there were fears that the corps ‘would be beset with an outbreak of masturbation that would ruin their collective manhood’.
Here, my mind is boggling, I won’t lie!
Suffice to say, the troupe’s tour was cut short and they were last seen heading to Batavia by ship. Hopefully, there they were able to perform for a less pious and more appreciative audience!
Remember Jeanette, Van Tassel’s 'wife'?
A couple of years later, in 1892, Jeanette was herself performing this same aerial feat at the invitation of the Nawab of Dhaka, Khwaja Ahsanullah in East Bengal. She took off from the south riverbank of the Buriganga River. Her flight plans went awry and she veered off course, landing in a casuarina tree. Police tried to rescue her using a number of bamboo poles lashed together. As she descended they snapped and Jeanette plummeted nearly 4 metres to the ground. She damaged her spine and died the following day from her injuries.
Interestingly, when announcing news of the death, the Australian newspapers failed to give a first name for the lady parachutist, but they seem to have been assumed that the lady was one of the Freitas sisters. I suspect that this may be an error associated with the difficulties of communication at the time.
As for Park Van Tassel, this appeared in the New York Times October 26, 1930, the day after he passed away:
CAPTAIN PARKS VAN TASSEL.
Parachute Jumper of ’70s Dies of Heart Disease at 78.
Captain Parks Van Tassel, who was a daredevil parachute jumper in the early ’70s, survived the hazards of his calling to die here yesterday of heart disease at the age of 78.
The pioneer balloonist and jumper made his first leap at Kansas City in a parachute he constructed from a diagram he found in a dictionary.
On a US-based blog, apparently, at the time of his death he was still operating a manufacturing company called ‘Captain P.A. Van Tassel Toy Balloon Mfg. Co.’ making miniature toy balloons.
So how does that have anything to do with Lucas’ Papaw Ointment, let alone Fort Lytton?
The Van Tassels’ visit to Brisbane subsequently became the inspiration for the plot in a dystopian–utopian novel, also set in Brisbane, written by another famous Brisbane character, Dr Thomas Pennington Lucas, known for his Dr Lucas Papaw Ointment.
Lucas was a man variously described as a Queensland scientist, author, doctor, dreamer, philosopher and inventor. He made some of his income by providing Charles Darwin and other scientists with fossils and geological specimens, but he is most famously known for Lucas’ Pawpaw Ointment. It is still produced in Brisbane, in a factory in Acacia Ridge, more than 100 years after he came up with the formula, and it is used by celebrities around the globe.
But that is another story in itself. This one is about the intensely devout Dr Lucas – the erstwhile author – and the Van Tassel sisters.
In 1894, four years after the Van Tassels’ visit to Queensland, Lucas wrote a dystopian–utopian novel, The Curse and Its Cure, set in Brisbane in the year 2000. It seems only one complete copy of this title remains – if you are interested you can find it in the John Oxley Library.
Griffith University academic Dr Bill Metcalf has researched Lucas and his novel in his papers ‘The Fall and Rise of an Antipodean Utopia: Brisbane, Australia’ and ‘Lady Parachutists and the End of Civilisation in Queensland’, and I am drawing on his work here.
At the time Lucas wrote his book, Brisbane was in recession, with high unemployment and social unrest. In 1891, the shearers went on strike. Violence ensued, almost to the brink of civil war. This strike was a factor credited with the formation of the Australian Labor Party. There were also increasing concerns from some quarters about a – perceived – lack morality of some citizens.
At the time it was the talk of the town, so Lucas would have been aware of Reverend James Stewart’s attempt in 1890 to prevent the ‘risqué’ Van Tassel sisters from desecrating the Sabbath. The troupe performed on a Sunday in Townsville in front of the townsfolk and a large contingent of the Queensland Defence Force, much to Stewart’s dismay, and very vocal objections.
The whole episode escalated, with the hue and cry taken up in the local press and in the Queensland parliament. Reverend Mr Lilley called into question the morality of a father and a brother to allow the Misses Van Tassel to expose themselves in such a way, both to the potential for the loss of their life and ‘in the manner the Van Tassells did’.
Critics of the Van Tassels claimed that the soldiers ‘were mesmerised by the scantily clad skydivers’. There were even fears that the corps ‘would be beset with an outbreak of masturbation that would ruin their collective manhood’.
Bill Metcalf says:
The Lady Parachutist scandal probably arose because Miss Van Tassel flaunted her competence, beauty and sexuality in front of an almost all-male audience. Wearing scanty costumes, she attracted male attention, admiration and lewd thoughts.
And this is where Lucas gets his inspiration from the Van Tassels. In Lucas’s novel, Brisbane, a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, was invaded by troops from New South Wales and Victoria, the citizens were defeated, and the city was razed.
His 'ingenious' plot goes like this: a group of lady balloonists were recruited by the southern armies to go aloft and parachute out over Fort Lytton. It seems the lascivious young men in the Queensland Defence Force were too busy looking up the skirts of these ladies as they descended from on high by parachute that the soldiers failed to notice they were being invaded.
Meanwhile, with all the brouhaha, Brisbane’s working men occupied the town’s grog shops and self-destructed in a haze of alcohol. The rest of Brisbane’s citizens, who were all sinners, of course, were either killed or fled to the countryside.
Bill Metcalf sums it up like this:
Queensland ceased to exist as a political entity under the combined military forces of Victoria and New South Wales during violent conflict at the end of the twentieth century. Brisbane was annihilated because of the un-Christian sins of its people, and the moral corruption of its leaders. The Queensland Defence Force was incapable of defending even itself, let alone defeating the invading troops. The pivotal event in this collapse concerned the alluring performances by a group of ‘lady parachutists’ who entertained the Queensland military forces, thereby distracting them and allowing the opposing forces to easily defeat them at the Battle of Fort Lytton.
So ended the reign of ‘rottenness and corruption’ in Brisbane. According to Lucas’s work of fiction, Brisbane had to wait until 2200 to be finally redeemed and transformed into a god-fearing utopia.
Now you know how Fort Lytton, the lady balloonists and Lucas’ Papaw Ointment are all connected!
They were quite remarkable, those Van Tassel sisters! And worthy of being remembered. Not only did they make the first flight aloft, they were key to New South Wales and Victoria invading Queensland and destroying our political system!
And maybe it’s time to reprint a new edition of Dr Thomas Pennington Lucas’s dystopian–utopian work of fiction.
Only in Brisbane!
A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Brisbane Times on 9 May, 2017.
- 'The mystery of Mrs Van Tassel, the first woman to parachute over LA,' by Hadley Mears, in the LA Weekly.
- 'Lady Parachutists and the End of Civilisation in Queensland,' by Bill Metcalf.
- 'Van Tassel family ballooning legacy ends in tragedy,' by Larry Lehmer.
- 'Centenary of the Air Age in Queensland 1890-1990,' by Edward P (Ted) Wixted.