The Mystery of Mrs. Van Tassel, the First Woman to Parachute Over L.A.
Van Tassel's balloon over Los Angeles
Courtesy Los Angeles Public LIbrary
On the morning of July 5, 1888, Los Angeles woke up to a passionate debate. At the debate’s center was a woman called Mrs. Van Tassel, described as “big, young, handsome and blonde.” Bucking conventions of the time, Mrs. Van Tassel, “no soft, yielding, timid shrinking wife” to popular aeronaut Parker Atkinson (P.A.) Van Tassel, had been scheduled to parachute out of her husband’s balloon. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times:
The whole city was trying to satisfy itself last night as to whether or not Mrs. Van Tassel made the jump out of that balloon. A little boy who lives out near reservoir No. 4 says she did, and he saw her when she “lit,” but little boys are not very good authority, and they sometimes see things in their dreams. There are a number of people who say they saw something “drop” out of the balloon, but they couldn’t say positively that the something was Mrs. Van Tassel. The lady herself says she did, Mr. Van Tassel says so, too, and the Fredricksburg Brewery people, under whose auspices the ascent was made, are very emphatic in saying she did, but there are any number of people who are willing to say that the delicate form which dangled at the end of the parachute bar was an artificially stuffed dummy.
By July 6, both the L.A. Times and the Los Angeles Herald had enough eyewitness accounts to confirm that Mrs. Van Tassel had successfully completed her jump, making her the first woman parachutist in Los Angeles and, almost certainly, America.
The Van Tassels had come to Los Angeles from their home base in San Francisco at the behest of the Fredricksburg Brewing Company, a San Jose–based brewer with a bottling plant in Los Angeles. In the days leading up to the much-promoted inaugural jump, the Van Tassels had test run their balloon with mixed results. At one point the balloon crashed into former L.A. mayor Cameron E. Thom’s home, destroying his chimney in the process. These mishaps did not deter the Van Tassels, who were well aware of the dangers of ballooning. They also did not stop hundreds of people from buying tickets to see Mrs. Van Tassel’s death-defying leap, scheduled for 1 p.m. on the July Fourth holiday.
Throughout the morning, a steady stream of Angelenos began to gather around the corner of Los Angeles and Aliso streets, where the large balloon was being filled with gas. Everything was going according to plan until a concerned citizen convinced chief of police Thomas J. Cuddy to champion "the good people of this town who are determined no woman shall be allowed to commit suicide on a national holiday." The Herald reported: "Somebody, considering death in store for Mrs. Van Tassel should she leap from the balloon attached to a parachute, addressed a message to Chief of Police Cuddy asking that he prohibit Mrs. Van Tassel from doing so. The Chief took the writer's view of the matter and ordered Detective Tom McCarthy to be on hand at the time appointed for the ascension and, unless Mrs. Van Tassel gave her word of honor not to make the leap, to prohibit her from going up in the balloon. The hardy aeronaut and his wife heard of what the Chief was going to do, and they decided to get heavenward with all possible speed."
After being told by McCarthy that “no females were allowed in balloons, and that that kind of amusement was for men only,” the Van Tassels decided to throw caution to the wind. Knowing the chief of police was on his way, the Van Tassels climbed into the balloon and commanded the men assisting them to release the ropes holding the balloon down. D.E. Barclay, the deputy county recorder for L.A. County, and an amateur balloonist, had barely gotten his leg over the balloon’s basket when it floated into the sky at 10:47 a.m., far out of the reach of the swarming police. As they ascended, trading cards printed by the Fredricksburg Brewing Company, advertising Mrs. Van Tassel’s upcoming jump, reportedly were thrown from the balloon.
The three began to sail about a mile above the expanding city, whose population hovered around 50,000. According to Barclay, the next few minutes were tense, as P.A. Van Tassel tried to ascertain a good place for his wife to make her leap: "Van Tassel all along was extremely wary. Every moment he would glance up at the parachute we carried, swung from the cage. … Finally he said he guessed the time had come for the leap. Mrs. Van Tassel was cool and collected. Van Tassel pulled the 'chute down into the cage. ... All was ready. Van Tassel bade his wife good-bye, and so did I. She was cool as an iceberg as Van Tassel cleared the parachute from its moorings. She stepped on the edge of the cage, looked down once and then stepped off into space. We shot heavenward at once, a distance of about 500 feet. Van was so nervous he crouched in a corner of the cage. I peeped down and saw the parachute dashing toward the earth like a rocket. My heart was in my mouth for a moment, but when I saw the old 'chute' fill out and sail downward at an easy gait I knew that the first parachute descent in the world by a woman was a complete success."
As Barclay watched from the balloon, Mrs. Van Tassel experienced a sensation few, if any, women in the world had then experienced. “When we were over a clear place, they opened the valve to hold the balloon stationary and give the 'chute a start to open a little, and then I said good-bye and jumped,” she told a reporter. “I had been warned that my arms would be jerked from their sockets and expected a tug, but though I dropped 30 feet like a shot before the parachute was well open, there was no shock, and I felt no great strain on my arms.
“I often dreamed of falling immense distances, and I wanted to see how it really was,” she continued. “I ain't exactly a bird nor an angel, but it's just about what I imagine the sensation of flying is. It was beautiful! Though I went through that 6,000 feet in 5¼ minutes, I didn't seem to be going fast, and never lost my breath. I swung hundreds of feet one side and the other for the first 4,000 feet, but after that I just floated down an incline to the ground, and alighted with no more shock than would be caused by jumping off a chair.”
Mrs. Van Tassel claimed that she had not been frightened at any point in her journey. “I only thought about my landing, whether I would drop on a big tree that was just under me, or on a house that I saw,” she recalled. “I luckily missed both.” She landed in a sandy heap “about a mile the other side of the wagon road bridge over the Arroyo Seco.” When P.A. and Barclay found Mrs. Van Tassel, she was surrounded by about 50 people congratulating her. Barclay summed up the momentous event by stating, “I think it but just to Mrs. Van Tassel to say that she was the coolest and bravest of the party of three.”
A photo of Mrs. Van Tassel — allegedly
Once it was confirmed, Mrs. Van Tassel’s jump was celebrated in papers across California. At the end of July, she gave a remarkable interview to the San Francisco Examiner at her home on Turk Street. "I was anxious to get a reputation, and I did, and I expect to make a fortune by jumping from balloons. Don't I, Van?" she asked her husband, who was sitting “meekly” nearby. After this amazing interview, Mrs. Van Tassel’s voice falls silent. Part of the reason for this disappearance can be found in the reporter’s tone, which repeatedly describes her husband as “meek” and submissive in the face of a wife who was unlikely to “get up in the morning and build a fire to please any husband.” After doing the impossible, Mrs. Van Tassel, like so many other women, was expected to quietly go back into private life. And perhaps she did just that, although the sketchy facts point to something else entirely.
So, who was Mrs. Van Tassel, this brave woman without a recorded first name? Popular histories have always claimed she was Jeanette Van Tassel, a daredevil aerialist who died from injuries incurred when her balloon crashed in a tree in the Bangladeshi city of Dhaka in 1892, and who was then buried in the city’s Narinda Christian Graveyard. But this author could find no concrete evidence that Jeanette and Mrs. Van Tassel of Los Angeles fame were one and the same. In fact, several historical documents point to her being someone else entirely — perhaps one Clara Coykendall, from the city of San Jose.
For clues as to Mrs. Van Tassel’s identity, it is important to look at the life of her anything-but-meek husband, P.A. Van Tassel, who was born in Indiana in 1853. He first became enamored with flying as a “barefoot” farm boy in Indiana, when he saw balloon exhibitions at the local fair. According to state records, he married Elizabeth Spencer in Indiana in 1872. But by the late 1870s, it seems he had abandoned his wife and headed west, settling in New Mexico. He worked at a local bar called the Elite, which he may have also owned. Here, the tall, blond bartender became famous for his big personality. In 1882, he achieved statewide fame when he launched “The City of Albuquerque,” the first manned balloon to fly over New Mexico.
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He soon moved on to San Francisco. Now styling himself “Professor” (he later switched to “Captain”), he became one of the city’s premier aerialists, and was soon traveling around the country to demonstrate his death-defying acts, which included his pioneering balloon jumps. He was known as a “happy-go-lucky sort of man,” who “drank Champagne with a keen taste for that beverage when he did not have a cent, and spent with joy the dollar that he never saw.” In April 1885, The Daily Alta California reported on his marriage to Clara Coykendall, the 24-year-old daughter of a wealthy San Jose pork packer: "Van Tassel, the aeronaut, was married tonight to Miss Clara Coykendall. The match creates much comment, as the bride has been quite prominent in social circles and her parents are wealthy and leading people. They were violently opposed to the marriage, and did not sanction it by their presence."
In 1889, a year after “Mrs. Van Tassel’s” jump, P.A. embarked on a multiyear world tour, without his wife. According to the San Francisco Chronicle: "For some time, the couple had not lived together, and the aeronaut made his trips from place to place unaccompanied by his lawful wife. Some time ago, when he was in the southern part of the state, his wife made an unexpected call on him and caused him much mental anguish and bodily pain by her language and actions. There was considerable talk about the affair among the people in Van Tassel’s line of business and he was heartily laughed at on all sides."
In Hawaii, it was reported that P.A. had died after falling into the sea from his balloon during an exhibition for the king. However, with Clara’s help, it was soon uncovered that the man who died was actually his assistant, Joe Lawrence. Lawrence had been performing under the name Van Tassel because P.A., who now weighed more than 200 pounds, was too large to safely navigate the balloon. P.A. made his way to Australia, where it seems he hooked up with two aerialist sisters, Gladys and Valerie Freitas, who took the professional name of Van Tassel.
In 1891, Van Tassel himself was finally heard from. On his way from London to Bombay, he described his travels in a letter to a friend in San Francisco. He bragged about the ascensions he had made in New Zealand, China, Japan and India. He mentioned Clara, stating that he knew she had begun divorce proceedings against him and requesting that recent photos of her be forwarded to him in Bombay. He also told of two women aerialists (perhaps the Freitas sisters) who had joined his troupe in Asia. According to the San Francisco Chronicle: "Traveling with him at this time were two female parachute jumpers, both of whom laid some claims to beauty. Their charms ensnared two Hindustani of high degree, and both women accepted offers of marriage which were made to them. Van Tassel was thereby deserted."
Since many of the performers in his troupe used the Van Tassel name, it is hard to ascertain their true identities. So, was “Mrs. Van Tassel” the tragic, mysterious Jeanette, who died in Dhaka, her mother/sister Jenny Rumary Van Tassel a supposed witness? Or was she Clara Coykendall, P.A.’s legal wife at the time of the Los Angeles jump? Perhaps she was some other woman with whom P.A. had taken up, causing Clara to come down to the “southern part of the state” and make a scene.
We may never know. P.A. lived to a ripe old age, dying of heart disease in Oakland in 1930, his battered scrapbooks the only remnants of a momentous career. In his last interview, he bragged about his wife’s daring jump way back in 1888, but once again did not give her a first name. Nevertheless, Mrs. Van Tassel was a groundbreaker who inspired countless women. In the decades that followed, Los Angeles would become ground zero for daring female pilots and aerialists such as Georgia “Tiny” Broderick of Glendale, who began jumping out of airplanes in 1908.
Whomever Mrs. Van Tassel really was, her words still resonate more than 100 years after her fateful descent. "I made up my mind that I could jump from a balloon,” she defiantly told the Chronicle. “And when I make up my mind to do a thing, I do it.”
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