SHE WILL SWIM NIAGARA: Millie Viola

Millie Viola was the stage name used by various female balloonists who appeared with Professor James Price. Their first billing was at the Minnesota State Fair in 1888.

Millie made several appearances around Salt Lake City in 1889, until Price (forced to leave town in a hurry) resurfaced in Australia the following year — with a new Millie Viola. The opening paragraph of a long article in the Bunyip, 8 August 1890, captures the flavour of their barnstorming tour of southeast Australian towns:

The announcement that Gawler was to be favoured with a visit from a fair balloonist, who in addition to making an ascent — which by the way had never been successfully performed in Gawler before — was billed to wind up with the sensational parachute descent, naturally created some excitement in our usually quiet and uneventful town. It was no wonder then that 700 or 800 people assembled on the Recreation Ground on Saturday, July 26, to witness the event, in addition to the large crowd which to the undisguised disgust of the management — took up every point of vantage outside the ground to enjoy the proceedings “on the cheap”.

Millie was based in Perth in 1891, but parted company with Professor Price after a few months. A year later, she embarked on a tour of Southland, New Zealand with another balloonist, Leon Sagehomme, as her manager. The Southland winter, however, was not conducive to ballooning — of her eight attempts at inflation, the balloon was incinerated twice, and only once did Millie become successfully airborne.

Millie Viola Poster
This poster (courtesy of Anne Mullen) was used during Millie’s association with Sagehomme.

After a two-year hiatus, Millie Viola teamed up with her sister, Essie, for a tour of Queensland in 1895, but her younger sister stole the limelight after her balloon caught fire mid-flight during an ascent at Gympie. Essie survived this near-disaster without sustaining the slightest injury.

The Viola Sisters

The photo above (with an incorrect caption — I think it is Millie Viola on left and Leila Adair on right) is from the Sydney Mail, 2 April 1895. On the back of this publicity, Millie and Essie left Australia for San Francisco. To break into the competitive American market, Millie proposed an alarming new stunt:

Miss Millie Viola, a pretty and vivacious young American, who was formerly an actress, but who has now turned aeronaut, is in the City en-route for the East. She arrived on the last Australian steamer, and being a globe-trotting young woman in search of a new experience, she is on her way to attempt in a barrel the dangerous passage of the falls and whirlpool of Niagara. And in order to add to her sensations she has made arrangements to be dropped, barrel and all, into the river from a balloon. As the attempt on the great cataract cannot, however, be made till the ice melts in the spring. Miss Viola is now resting after her long sea voyage and will finish her journey to Niagara by easy stages.
“I have been just crazy to go over the falls,” said Miss Viola, last night, “ever since I heard four years ago that that man Graham had done it. He was knocked senseless, you know, and otherwise injured, and I almost hoped he would die, so that I might be the first to do it successfully. But I’ll be the first woman to do it, anyway, and I’m going to bet every cent I’ve got that I don’t get hurt a bit. You don’t think betting is wrong, do you? Yes, four years is a long time to wait for the chance, but until now something always prevented [it]. We had engagements ahead for balloon ascensions, and then, too, I wanted to see everything, since I have had enough of the colonies and want to stay in America for the rest of my life.”
“Peculiar!”
“Yes, indeed, the colonies are peculiar. Take New Zealand, for instance. There the women all wear bloomers and your hotel closes at 10 o’clock: and if you are out after that hour you must stay out all night. Their laws are such, too, that if one does anything that attracts a crowd one is arrested and tried. We, my sister and I, made several ascensions there. One time she came down among the Maoris. They thought her the angel from heaven which, they say will come to help them drive the British from their land and they hurried her away into the interior. We had to get the mounted police and call out the volunteers before we could get her back.”
“On the way to this country we stopped at the Solomon Islands, where the cannibals are. There we had to wear thick veils, because the natives are very anxious to possess a pakeha wahena (beautiful white woman), and will go to any lengths to secure one. I made one ascent there, coming down on the roof of a house, which gave way and let me through.”
“Shall I make any ascents here? I rather think not, though I may if things get too dull. I hear there is to be a balloon race here soon, and, if so, I may challenge the winner.”
Major Clemens, who is arranging for the Niagara event, states that Miss Viola will be suspended by gutta-percha bands in the center of a huge cask and this will be weighted at one end that she may make the journey in an upright position. Robert Earlston, the aeronaut, who safely landed the captive balloon which broke loose from the World’s Fair grounds at Chicago, is with Miss Viola and will have charge of the balloon from which she will be dropped into the Niagara River.
The San Francisco Call, 10 December 1895.

The considerable stretching of the truth in this article suggests that Millie’s Niagara announcement was sheer fantasy to drum up publicity. Instead, she tried her luck at The Chutes, an amusement park on Haight Street, but on her first ascent Millie fell fifteen feet to the ground when her parachute detached from the balloon, for her second attempt the rain came down in torrents, and the balloon caught fire during the third.

There has been considerable jealousy among those who go up in the air, and it was reported on the grounds yesterday that there had been some jobbery to prevent Miss Viola from making the ascent and that the burning of the balloon was not an accident pure and simple.

The San Francisco Call, 3 Feb 1896.

In 1897, Millie married the theatrical agent for The Chutes, Phil Hastings, and relinquished her aeronautical career. She died in San Francisco in 1935.

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