Today is opening day of the annual Warren County, NJ Balloon Festival — an appropriate occasion on which to contemplate the interesting and sadly truncated life of Washington Harrison Donaldson (1840-1875). A jack of all trades in the 19th century variety world, he was initially a magician, ventriloquist, acrobat and wire walker, launching his career in 1857.
He first acts of daredevilry involved river crossings on a tight rope in imitation of Blondin. In 1871 he chanced to acquire some ballooning equipment and the die was cast — he was bitten by the bug. This said, he possessed no especial knowledge of aeronautics: his primary technique was to launch himself into the sky and trust that something fortunate would happen. As often as not he (and his unfortunate passengers) would come down violently in some random spot, hopefully a tree or a body of water where the fall would be cushioned somewhat. Even so, his stunts were in demand, and he made countless public ascensions in his short career, some of them presented and promoted by P.T. Barnum.
Until his last. It all came crashing to a halt in 1875 in a launch from Chicago that took him and a reporter far out over Lake Michigan. During the evening there was a violent thunderstorm. The body of the reporter was found a few weeks later. Donaldson and his balloon were never found again.
At any rate, if you yourself would like to try a stunt like that (no doubt under safer and more knowledgeable conditions go to http://balloonfestnj.com/
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc