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Daredevil aeronaut Washington H. Donaldson’s act was full of hot air—until sensational gimmick finally killed him

Long before newspapers hailed him as the “Prince of American Aeronauts,” Washington Harrison Donaldson was a teenage ham, a one-man variety show entertaining audiences with magic tricks and acrobatics on the trapeze. For a while, the act featured Donaldson throwing knives at his brother, Augustine, slamming blades into board inches from Augustine’s head—until their horrified mother found out.

Born in Philadelphia in 1840 and named after the first and ninth presidents, Donaldson, a handsome lad, craved the spotlight. As an adolescent, he perfected a macabre bit of legerdemain he figured would make him rich—beheading then reheading a man so his noggin appeared attached to the recently vacant neck. But Donaldson made the trick so gorily realistic that his performance had audiences recoiling in horror. He gave up Grand Guignol for tightrope walking, then tightrope dancing, then traversing the tightrope on a velocipede, a forerunner of the bicycle.

In 1862, after a stint in the Union Army, he thrilled a Philadelphia crowd by stretching a line 100 feet above the Schuylkill River, dancing on the rope, then diving into the water. He told reporters that if someone paid the freight he’d spend a week on the rope, eating, sleeping, and cooking meals aloft. Nobody bit, but his brass created buzz.

He had a gift for the gimmick. Declaring before one high-wire show that he was too sick to go on, he said wife Mary would fill in. A crowd looked on eagerly as a fashionably clad and hugely

Washington Harrison Donaldson (The Berks History Center, Reading, Pa.)

hatted feminine figure appeared overhead. Halfway across the tightrope, the damsel began removing garments and tossing them down. The striptease ended when the dress came off, revealing Donaldson in tights, bowing as the crowd cheered, delighted at being bamboozled. “People demand sensational spectacles,” he said. “Their taste must be gratified.”

After a decade on the tightrope, Donaldson got bored, and in 1871, he reinvented himself as a daredevil balloonist. Manned ballooning wasn’t new—two French brothers went aloft in 1783—and by the 1850s balloons were familiar attractions in America. Donaldson decided to pump up the excitement by merging aeronautics with acrobatics.

Aeronauts rode in woven baskets that hung beneath their balloons and in the early days contained a source of hot air to keep the gasbag aloft. But at mid-century, balloons got their inflation from the same coal gas piped to homes in most American cities and burned in furnaces. Donaldson replaced his basket with a trapeze bar. As the balloon rose, he hung by his knees, waving an American flag, then did a flip, catching himself with his feet. High above the crowd, he’d perform his acrobatic tricks. Then, as he deliberately deflated the balloon to descend, a man-size form would fall earthward, to gasps from the ground until audience members saw that the figure was a dummy rigged to release a blizzard of handbills—America’s first aerial advertising.

He took his airshow on the road: New York, New England, the Midwest. Daredevilry proved very popular—and very dangerous. Donaldson’s balloons burst, smashed into trees and smokestacks, plopped into ponds, lakes, and the Atlantic.  Frequently, they’d hit the ground, bounce, catch a breeze, and drag Donaldson through field and forest.

“I was crashed through the treetops for several miles,” he wrote in his diary after a mishap. “On I went, knocking a fence down, breaking a top board with my back, striking the ground, bouncing 60 or 70 feet high and striking again. It was fearful.” 

He survived multiple crashes with only minor injuries. Newspapers feasted on his misadventures—one dubbed him the “crazy balloonatic”—producing copy that swelled his audiences. Carried higher and higher by bigger and bigger balloons, he made a spectacle of himself in flesh-colored tights, purple shirt, and blue boots.

Then he reinvented himself again.

“I dislike the business of frightening people,” Donaldson announced in 1872. “I shall hereafter pay more attention to scientific ballooning.” His experience aloft convinced him that high-altitude air currents moved west to east. “I shall ascend to that current,” he promised, “and with it travel the 2,600 miles to Europe in about two days and a half.”

The New York Daily Graphic agreed to sponsor Donaldson’s flight if he’d bring along a reporter and an artist.

Amid voluminous hype, 12 seamstresses sewed an enormous muslin balloon designed to carry three men, their provisions, and—just in case—a 22-foot lifeboat. 

After several stutters, Donaldson and accomplices took off from Brooklyn on October 6, 1873, as thousands cheered. An hour later, 6,200 feet over Connecticut, the balloonists encountered a storm. Their conveyance bounced violently from a mile high to three feet off the ground and back up. Four hours after lift-off, the balloon crashed onto a Connecticut farm. Nobody was injured but the flight was an embarrassing failure; not until 1978 did a balloonist succeed in traversing the Atlantic.

Impressed with Donaldson’s hype, America’s reigning ballyhoo artist, P.T. Barnum, summoned the aeronaut. “I have the biggest circus on earth,” Barnum bragged. “That may be true,” Donaldson replied, “but my show is far above yours—at least a mile.” Or so Barnum’s publicists reported. The impresario hired Donaldson as an airborne advertisement. At the start of each performance in Barnum’s Hippodrome on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, Donaldson would ascend in a balloon christened P.T. Barnum and fly off, scattering leaflets touting Barnum’s circus.

When the circus went out on the road, Donaldson came along, taking local reporters on long balloon flights and reaping a bountiful harvest of publicity.

Barnum’s hoopla machine outdid itself in Cincinnati in October 1874, when Donaldson lifted off with a circus equestrienne, her fiancé, and a minister. The parson married the happy couple while a band played Mendelssohn’s wedding march and thousands of paying customers craned their necks to witness the world’s first aerial wedding. 

The commercial marriage of Donaldson and Barnum lasted two lucrative years, until July 15, 1875. That afternoon, the circus was in Chicago. Donaldson fired up his balloon for one of his publicity-stunt flights, accompanied this time by Newton Grimwood of the Chicago Evening Journal, and bound for the Michigan town of Grand Haven, 120 miles east across Lake Michigan.

Several hours later, occupants of a boat spotted the balloon passing low over the lake, its basket skipping on the waves. That night, a strong wind blew in. Lightning flashed, thunder crashed. Barnum’s publicist telegraphed the Coast Guard, begging for help. By dawn, the storm had abated and boats set out, searching sky and water. They found nothing. Days went by, then weeks. Cynics called the disappearance of Donaldson and Grimwood another Barnum hoax.

On August 15, Grimwood washed ashore in Michigan, his corpse clad in a life preserver. Of Washington Donaldson and the balloon, no trace was ever found.

Maybe they’re still up there, riding a zephyr through wispy clouds.