‘There’s nothing the public likes more,’ Professor Park Van Tassel declared, ‘than the possibility of witnessing an accident.’ He plucked a chrysanthemum from the waiting bouquet, slotted it into the buttonhole of his double-breasted suit, and leaned towards the mirror to adjust the waxed tips of his moustache to a jaunty angle. ‘You must believe this, Gladys, otherwise how are you going to entice an audience?’
Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Only Living Lady Parachutist
Park Van Tassel could well have been the inspiration behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Part flamboyant showman and part bumbling humbug, he barnstormed his way around the southwest of the United States, Australia, South East Asia, India and Iran, drawing in the crowds to see an aeronaut jump from a balloon with a parachute.
Van Tassel was born about 1853 and his first balloon ascent of note was made at Albuquerque on 4 July 1882. Later, he claimed to have started his career with Thomas Baldwin and to have designed the parachute Baldwin first used in 1887, but that they parted after an argument.
Two months after his ascent at Albuquerque, Van Tassel achieved notoriety for another matter when he was pistol-whipped by Lou Blonger, a corrupt Wild West saloon owner. This excerpt is from BlongerBros website:
Early this morning a party of three men, Lou Blonger and Park Van Tassel being two of them, went on a sightseeing expedition and in the course of their rambles reached that unsavory portion of Fourth street, north of Railroad Avenue, occupied for the most part by houses which sell virtue by retail. One of them, kept by Blonger’s woman, the trio entered and began to amuse themselves, Van Tassel and the woman commencing a jocular conversation. Some remark used by Van Tassel angered Blonger, who without warning brought down his heavy stick on the aeronaut’s head, following this blow by another and a heavier one with a long 45 revolver, which he drew immediately, in the same place. Springing back he then cocked the gun and threw it down on Van Tassel, with the exclamation: “You s— of a b—, you can’t talk to my woman in that way.”
Van Tassel was soon too heavy for the primitive balloon and parachute, contracting other daredevils to make the jump instead. His ‘wife’ was one of the first women to use a parachute, making her leap at Los Angeles on July 4, 1888. The women involved in Van Tassel’s balloon ascents took his name and were often described as his wife, daughter, or sisters but they were not usually related to him.
Nevertheless, Park Van Tassel appears to have been married five times-:
- Elizabeth Spencer, 19 Oct 1872, Franklin, Indiana. A son, Guy, born to this marriage.
- Ella Block, 10 Jun 1879, San Joaquin, California. A son, Harry, born to this marriage.
- Clara Coy Kendall, 02 Apr 1885, Santa Clara, California.
- Edith Ann Nowlan, 28 Nov 1892, Dinapore, Bengal, India. A daughter (Jeanette) died of smallpox, aged 4 months, 4 Mar 1899.
- A.F. Barr, 7 Jan 1912, Oakland, California.
Van Tassel’s son from his first marriage, Guy, achieved infamy for a life of crime in Illinois and Indiana. Imprisoned as part of a gang involved in robbery, burglary and safe-blowing, an associate fingered him for shooting Thurza Hinshaw after her husband, a Methodist minister, had been convicted of the 1895 murder. There was insufficient evidence to reopen the case but a few months after his release from prison in 1906, Guy Van Tassel cold-bloodedly killed a policeman in Chicago. He was arrested in San Francisco after six months on the run, narrowly escaped the death penalty and spent the next 45 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary, Joliet. He died at the age of 83 in 1957.
In Hawaii, Van Tassel’s professional brother, Joe Lawrence, drowned when his balloon was carried out to sea. Van Tassel used this tragedy for publicity during his 1890 tour of Australia, elaborating in gruesome detail how the unfortunate man was supposedly eaten by sharks.
In 1892, Jeanette Van Tassel (Jeanette Rumary) died from injuries she received after a parachute descent at Dacca (now Dhaka, Bangladesh). Entangled in a tree, she attempted to climb down the bamboo poles used to pass a knife up to her, but the bamboo broke and she fell twenty feet to the ground.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports on 21 July 1901: After twelve years spent in making ascensions before populace, princes and potentates in far countries, P. A. Van Tassel, aeronaut, has come back to San Francisco.
Van Tassel was still ballooning in 1910, participating in a San Francisco balloon race and during another flight barely escaped a dunking in the Bay.
Park Van Tassel lived to a ripe old age, dying of heart disease in Oakland in 1930, his tattered scrapbooks the last remnants of his controversial career.