The Van Tassel Sisters: Lady Parachutists

The Reverend flinched as if someone had struck him. ‘I’ll continue to disturb the peace of wrong-doers,’ he shrilled. ‘You’re breaking the law, and it gives me such pain to see a representative of the law doing the same. In the name of my Master, in the name of all that’s good and pure, I’ll protest against such a desecration of the day of rest.’ He licked his lips to clear the spittle that had formed at the corner of his mouth. ‘You’re bringing disgrace on Townsville, on Queensland, and on the British Empire. You should be heartily ashamed of yourselves.’

Excerpt from Chapter 12, The Aerial Queen

Outrage and a political scandal followed Gladys Van Tassel’s balloon ascent and parachute jump at Townsville on a Sunday. The implications are explained in this entertaining journal article Lady Parachutists and the End of Civilisation in Queensland by Bill Metcalf and the saga consumed a large amount of ink in newspapers and letters to various officials.

The Van Tassel Sisters at Townsville
The Van Tassel Sisters. The Boomerang, 5 July 1890, p. 9. State Library Victoria

The Van Tassel sisters, Gladys and Valerie, had teamed up with Park Van Tassel and his assistant (James Price) and in February 1890, Valerie became the first woman in Australia to make a balloon ascent. Before this, the sisters performed a trapeze act at the Haymarket Music Hall in George Street, Sydney using another stage name, the Freitas Sisters. The earliest newspaper report of the girls is in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 1885: The charming young American Lady-trapeze Artists, the sisters Gladys and Valerie Fraties, will make their first appearance in these colonies.

In March 1890, Gladys created a sensation in Melbourne when an estimated crowd of 10,000 people turned out to watch her parachute jump. The Melbourne Punch published these sketches of the event which shows the process of inflating the balloon.

The Van Tassel Sisters in The Melbourne Punch
The Van Tassel Sisters in Melbourne Punch 13 March 1890 p 4. National Library of Australia.

The Van Tassels spent six months touring Australia. The poster below advertises an ascent in Adelaide (note the extra zero added to the size of the crowd in Melbourne).

Val Van Tassell in Adelaide 1890
Val Van Tassell in Adelaide 1890, National Library of Australia
Gladys Van Tassel
Gladys Van Tassel, The Australian Town and Country Journal (14 May 1892, page 30). National Library of Australia

In May 1892, The Australian Town and Country Journal featured the photograph (above right) of Gladys Van Tassel. The article claimed Gladys Van Tassel had died from injuries received in a parachute descent in India, but this was a case of mistaken identity.

Below are photographs of some of the men involved in the scandalous Townsville ascent, which features in Chapter 12 of The Aerial Queen.

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