James William Price: Balloonist

The genealogical research behind the characters in my novel has been addictive, frustrating, and fascinating. I managed to solve the elusive narrative (blurred by exaggeration, lies, and unexplained gaps) which the two sisters invented to conceal their true origins, but James Price was a bit more slippery.

In passport applications made from 1915 – 1920, J. W. Price consistently gave his birth as 15 May 1871 in Gentry County, Missouri and listed his mother’s address in Springfield, Illinois and his father’s name as Harrison Price. In earlier newspaper articles, however, his birthdate ranged from 1862 – 1865 and he claimed to have spent his childhood in Illinois. I couldn’t find a birth or census records to match and I’ve gone cross-eyed trying to decipher his mother’s name in this passport application where the pages have stuck together.

J. W. Price Passport 1915
J. W. Price’s passport application from 1915

In February 1896, an interview with the Honolulu Evening bulletin stated: Prof. Price was born at Clay, City, Mo., in 1863, and commenced his career as a balloonist under the tuition of Prof. Q. N. Fisk, making his first ascent at Clinton, Mo., on July 4th, 1883. He then went to England, professionally, making a tour of the British Isles. He went home again in ’85 and toured the States successfully until 1887, when aeronaut Baldwin introducing parachute drops as a part of balloon exhibitions, Prof. Price immediately took it up and has since made hundreds of ascensions and parachute descents without accident. He has made two complete tours of the world, performing before such notables as the King of Siam, Sultan of Johor, Mikado of Japan, the Queen of Madagascar and other monarchs.

Price in Missouri 1883
The Sedalia weekly bazoo, July 24 1883, Pg 8.

There is some truth in this, as Professor Fisk’s July 4th ascension at Clinton was promised at the end of an article described the drowning of E.L. Stewart while making a balloon ascent under Fisk’s auspices at Fayette in June. It may well have been Price, as his “Grand Balloon Ascension” three weeks later at Osceola was “Pronounced A Stupendous Failure.”

On 17 Jun 1889, James Price (aged 24) married Georgie Angell (aged 14) in Salt Lake City, Utah. The marriage was short-lived, as six weeks later the Salt Lake Herald headlined:

The Sad Predicament in Which Georgia Angell Finds Herself

That fellow Price the balloonist who obtained such an unenviable reputation in this city has been heard from again. Just what everyone who knew the brute expected would occur has come to pass. The Butte Inter Mountain tells the story as follows: “The aerial artist known as J W Price, who has been in Butte for several weeks past and made ascensions from the Zoological Gardens and Central Park, broke into the county jail last evening. It seems that he has not been living a very immaculate life, and this fact has caused his wife a great deal of grief. Mrs Price is a sixteen year old girl and is very good looking, and the professor’s neglect and infidelity were hard for her to bear. Yesterday afternoon she swore out a complaint charging her husband with adultery, and Officer Carroll arrested the aeronaut while he was on his way to the 4 o’clock train intending to leave the city. Price spent the night in jail, his examination having been set for 10 o’clock this morning. At that hour he appeared before Judge Newkirk and the case was dismissed, as Mrs Prices courage failed her and she refused to prosecute. Had other evidence been obtained the case would have been carried on. Mrs Price stated also that Price had tried to induce her to lead a life of shame that he might profit by it. Some interested parties have promised the balloonist a coat of tar and feathers if such propositions are repeated.”

Not surprisingly, Price soon left America and arrived in Australia with Van Tassel in Dec 1889 — no spoilers here about what he got up to in Australia though!

After a few years in South Africa, he arrived in Hawaii in 1896 where he made several ascents then teamed up with another aeronaut, Wilfred Burns, to form the Price-Burns Hawaiian Circus. They also poached Kachiel (a bareback rider) and Taki (a Japanese contortionist) from Wirth’s Circus. In Sept 1896, Price and Burns were convicted of assault and battery on L.E. Frost but the reason behind this dispute was not explained by the court reporter.

The New York Clipper noted on 9 May 1903 that James W. Price had just returned from India, where he engaged the Nizam of Hyderabad’s troupe of Hindoo and Mahommedan jugglers, magicians, snake charmers, acrobats, rope walkers, swordsmen, etc. Price was the manager of amusements at Glen Island, New Rochelle, New York until 1905. Around this time he appears to have remarried and by 1906 he was in Burma and Singapore making balloon ascents.

J.W. Price Registration of an American citizen 1915
U.S. Consular Registration Certificate for J.W. Price 1915.

On Christmas Day 1908, his dirigible balloon “Messenger” crash-landed in Shanghai after the engine failed. While Price was away making arrangements to transport the airship back to his headquarters ten miles away, curious local spectators made off with the damaged framework and slit the balloon fabric with knives. The errant airship was eventually returned on the shoulders of fourteen coolies at three in the morning.

Price went back to San Jose, California in October 1909 trying (unsuccessfully) to raise money to build an aeroplane, airship and balloon factory, a school for aeronautics and ballooning, and aero club. Two months later when passing through Honolulu, Price had graduated from Professor to Captain: a member of the Aero Club of America, the inventor of the airship Messenger and of the balloon cannon act. He is also a designer and builder of airships, aeroplanes, balloons and parachutes, and he gives instructions in aeronautics and furnishes exhibitions at any time and place.

James William Price in 1916
James William Price (passport photo 1916)

His wife Myrtle (age 40), daughter Constance (age 3), and son Harrison (age 1) returned from Japan to San Francisco in 1912, but Price remained in Asia making aeronaut exhibitions in Burma, India, East Indies, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines.

James Price died in Saigon on 21 Sept 1921. The cause of death was recorded as a haemorrhage and his daughter (Miss Constance Price, C/- Mrs Albert H. Dulton, 192 Yosemite Avenue, San Jose, California) was notified of his death by the American Consular Service. The report also included this letter:

I have the honour to enclose the report of the death of James William Price. The relatives in America have been notified and the property, consisting of two trunks of valueless personal letters and old clothes, have been taken over by me until receipt of instructions from the relations. The remains were buried by the woman with whom he had been living for the past nine years. Shortly before his death, he gave her $5,000 Saigon for the upkeep of the three children he had by her with instructions that $1,000 gold should be sent to his legal daughter by his former divorced wife in America. I made her sign a letter to this effect.

I’ve had no luck in tracking down any records for his wife Myrtle, daughter Constance, or son Harrison but an article in the Newark Argus, 17 October 1977, described the equally dramatic life of his daughter, Michelle D’Antonio (1914- 2000), nee Mildred Lourdes Price born in Singapore.

But wait! The latest update to this blogpost here: The Notorious Jimmy Price

3 thoughts on “James William Price: Balloonist

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: