12. Hawaii

ON OCTOBER 20, 1889, Van Tassel began a new phase of his life. He boarded the steamer RMS Alameda from Meiggs’ Wharf in San Francisco, bound for Honolulu, Kingdom of Hawaii.1 The Alameda was an iron-hulled steamship built in 1883 in Philadelphia for the Oceanic Steamship Company, in service between San Francisco, Hawaii, and Sydney. Park traveled with a purpose—to bring ballooning and parachuting to Australia and Asia as part of an eighteen-month touring show, in a manner similar to Thomas Baldwin’s exhibition. Hawaii was the first stop.2 Accompanying him on the Alameda were Frank Frost (the business manager who had so courageously handled the angry mob at the San Jose ascension) and Joseph Lawrence, performing as Joseph Van Tassell.3 Together they departed San Francisco with two balloons, two parachutes, and Park Van Tassel’s “patent gas generator.” Their planned itinerary was to visit Honolulu and then Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin, New Zealand, and from there Hobart, Tasmania, Melbourne, Victoria, and other points in Australia before going to Java, China, Japan, and India. Following India, the plan was to go to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Mauritius, Madagascar, South Africa, and then Europe via Egypt and the Suez Canal and Turkey.4 Considerable thought went into such a plan, indicating that the route may have been chosen while Van Tassel was in Utah. It is also notable that Clara was not a part of this lengthy trip, as their marriage was now likely strained. Park was quoted as saying, “I expect to be in New York about a year and a half from now. Whether I will give exhibitions in the East, or come back directly to San Francisco, I have not yet determined, but I expect by that time I will be so homesick that as soon as I am again on American soil I will make a bee line for California.”5

They arrived in Honolulu on October 28, 1889.6 Park was now absolutely finished with making parachute jumps. He would manage the troupe and prepare the balloon while Joe would do all the jumping. In Hawaii, all gate receipts were under the care of L. J. Levey.7

The Van Tassell Troupe, as it was now known, did not waste any time. At Kapiolani Park on Saturday, November 2, about five hundred people gathered to watch the balloon launch, but thousands more watched from other vantage points, such as the top of Diamond Head. A Hawaiian band played during the afternoon, and the lack of trade winds was perfect for ballooning. At 3:30 p.m. the balloon inflation began and remarkably was completed in just thirty minutes, indicating that this was likely a smoke balloon, although reports suggested they used a combination of hot air and gas. At 4:00 p.m. the balloon rose into the air with Joe aboard, sitting on a trapeze rope. The balloon rose about 1 mile, but on the ascent, several guide ropes entangled and Joe attempted to unwind them from his seat. While he made these adjustments, the balloon began to descend and Joe decided to jump. He managed to partially inflate the parachute and jump, which made the typical initial fall less abrupt. He landed roughly 200 yards from the point of takeoff, between a set of trees. The newspapers reported that while he was aloft, Joe could hear the band playing and said, “Diamond Head looked like a small saucer.” The balloon drifted to the south and landed about the same time as Joe, but about 100 yards outside the park near Diamond Head. David La‘amea Kamananakapu Mahinulani Naloiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua, the king of Hawaii, was present for the exhibition and completely enjoyed the show. Lawrence’s flight is considered the first fully successful balloon ascent and parachute descent in the history of Hawaii.8 Emil Melville, the same aeronaut who had shared the skies over San Diego with Van Tassel in April 1888 had made three attempted balloon launches at Kapiolani Park in March and April 1889. His third attempt, on April 7, had him aloft over Palace Square, but strong trade winds blew him out to sea, where he was able to jump from the balloon near the surface and be rescued. The balloon was also recovered and towed back to port. Melville had intended to jump by parachute but never had the chance to do so, and his attempts were not considered a success.9 Van Tassel described his balloon and parachute to a reporter for the Hawaiian Gazette:

We go up in a balloon which holds 75,000 cubic feet of gas and lifts 2,800 pounds. Only one goes up for a reason you will understand later on. The parachute is fastened to the side of the balloon with a rope. It has no ribs, like an umbrella, but is perfectly flexible all over. It is made of pongee silk with 36 ropes sewed in it like ribs of an umbrella, and then all brought together at the bottom. Underneath the parachute is an ordinary trapeze. When we get ready to jump, we swing out of the balloon throwing one leg out of the trapeze under the parachute. Then we cut it loose at the same instant pulling a cord that collapses the balloon. We fall the first two hundred feet with terrible rapidity and then comes the most dangerous part of the jump, next to landing, for in falling the two hundred feet the parachute opens and it brings up with a jerk that almost hurls you off the bar. It did hurl that poor fellow off in Texas the other day. Well, again, after the first jerk you fall again quite rapidly and then comes another jerk, after which it is very pleasant until you get close to the ground. Now, if your parachute was to touch the roof of a four-story building say, it would instantly turn sideways, collapse and you would fall the rest of the way like a rock. So far I have been very fortunate, but I have had some narrow escapes.10


An advertisement in the Honolulu Daily Bulletin on October 31, 1889, for the first successful balloon flight and parachute drop in Hawaii’s history. Library of Congress.

Given that King Kalākaua’s fifty-third birthday fell on November 16, Frost announced that the “Van Tassell Bros.” would perform a parachute jump over the city in honor of the king from the foot of the Punchbowl,11 with a landing near the Government House.12 Near the end of the grand celebration for King Kalākaua, the twenty-six-year-old Joe climbed aboard the balloon and was launched at 2:19 p.m.13 On the way up, Joe shouted to Park that he estimated he would land not more than a mile from the park.14 However, while the surface winds at the launch location weren’t all that strong, the trade winds aloft were much stronger. Once at altitude, the balloon was blown rapidly to the southwest, toward the Pacific Ocean. In a short time, the balloon passed over Iolani Palace, where Joe was supposed to cut loose and begin his descent. But as rapidly as he made his preparations, the balloon continued making haste, over the city’s opera house and toward the ocean. Just three minutes after launch, he separated from the balloon. The thousands watching from the streets below began to cheer. But as soon as the parachute opened, it began drifting out to sea along with the balloon. Together, the balloon and parachute continued past the lighthouse, past the outer buoy, and into the open ocean. Joseph made his ocean landing roughly ten minutes and eighteen seconds after launch, having drifted about 5 miles from the Punchbowl. Five minutes after, the balloon also landed in the ocean.

Two sailboats, the Kahihilani and a cutter belonging to the HBMS Espeigle, happened to be in the entrance to Pearl Harbor and noticed the parachutist drifting seaward. Meanwhile, the yacht Hawaii was off the coastline of Waikiki with Lorrin Andrews Thurston, minister of the interior of the Kingdom of Hawaii, on board. All three vessels set off immediately for the spot where Joseph had landed. Park Van Tassel, Frank Frost, and Wray Taylor (a reporter for the Daily Bulletin) frantically made their way to the harbor and boarded the tug Eleu, operated by a Captain Rice. However, twenty-five long minutes elapsed before the steam-powered tug could get under way. Two rescue boats were also immediately launched from the RMS Zealandia, which was about a mile away from port, having journeyed from Sydney to Honolulu by way of Auckland. The rescue boats conducted a search from 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. without any success in locating Lawrence. A boat from the Myrtle Club came to help. No trace of Lawrence or his parachute could be found. Floating on the surface of the ocean, the balloon was fished out of the water and brought onboard the Eleu, which returned to Honolulu Harbor. Rumors that sharks had devoured Lawrence circulated quickly, as some in the rescue party spotted a group of large sharks nearby. It is also equally probable that the weight of the parachute and its iron ring below simply pulled Joe under to his death. His body was never recovered.15

News of “Van Tassell’s” tragic death made national and international papers.16 Frost later attempted to clear the air with a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Examiner, detailing that before the launch, Joe had been offered a life preserver but had declined, as he believed himself to be a good swimmer and did not believe he would be landing in the ocean.17 Nearly two years after the incident, Clarence W. Ashford, attorney general of the Kingdom of Hawaii, recalled to the press in Chicago that as Joe was nearing the water, several local Hawaiians had spotted sharks near the area where Joe would land. He went on to note, “Just before Van Tassel struck the water two of the mammoth maneaters rolled over on their backs and opened their huge jaws. One of the sharks grabbed Van Tassel almost before he touched the water and in a couple of gulps the man was swallowed.” As with many tragic deaths, the rumors and secondhand accounts of Joseph Lawrence’s death grew more horrific with time.18

Lawrence’s background was also embellished in the papers. Some reported that he had studied medicine, that he had made a balloon ascension for Queen Victoria in England, that he had been with a circus, and that he was a man without morals. But those who knew him realized the amazing degree of fiction that can be generated for a better story.19 Even Queen Lili’uokalani later included Joe Lawrence’s tragic flight in her famous book Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen:

As we were all gayly going to lunch . . . attention was attracted to a balloon which was at the moment ascending from the foot of Punch-Bowl Hill. Scarcely had the light globular object reached the upper currents of the atmosphere, when it was whirld [sic] away with fearful speed, for it was a very windy day. On watching the car under the balloon, we noticed that the man had cut himself adrift, and was descending from mid-air in a parachute. He was coming down bravely; but what was the horror of all of the spectators to observe that instead of landing on the wharf, or even in the port, he was being carried far out to sea, beyond the breakers, where the waters were alive with sharks. Steamers and boats . . . immediately got under way to effect his rescue, but he was never seen again. The balloon from which he had made his fatal leap also disappeared, and no trace of either was discovered. The poor man probably met his fate from the jaws of the monsters of the deep the moment he touched the water.20


The tragic fate of Joseph Lawrence (performing as Joseph Van Tassell) on February 16, 1890, grabbed worldwide attention, including a cover story in Journal des Voyages in France. Personal collection, Gary Fogel.

Reporters failed to realize that there were two “Van Tassells” (Park and Joseph) and immediately assumed that the more experienced balloonist and parachute jumper, Park, was the one who had perished. This confusion continued for some time until Clara noted in an interview with the California press that Park was quite likely alive. She said that while Park was a strong swimmer, Joe Lawrence of Albuquerque was not, and if Park had perished, Joe certainly would have sent immediate word to Clara, but none had been received. She also mentioned that Park “had not taken a leap since the one at the Cliff House.”21 Following this news, some papers corrected their previous stories; in other cases, the correction came years later, if at all.22 It took until April 1893 for people to propose balloon exhibitions in Hawaii again, with the next successful balloon launch and parachute descent made in February 1896 by the same James Price that Van Tassel had encountered in Salt Lake City earlier in 1889.23

Lawrence left a mother, two brothers, and three sisters.24 His mother resided in Kansas.25 Following his death, some questioned why he didn’t agree to use a life preserver, as it was clear that there were strong trade winds aloft and a high likelihood he could end up in the Pacific. Perhaps the decision was one of pride when going aloft in front of the king. Others wondered why ships weren’t stationed in the harbor in the unfortunate likelihood that a landing at sea would be made. However, most were resigned to believe that the simple lesson from such tragedy was that Honolulu was not the proper place for balloon ascensions. A $50 reward was offered for anyone who recovered Joseph’s body from the sea, but no one ever collected.

Later it was determined that Lawrence had been engaged to marry Janet Grant of San Francisco and that he had written to her on the morning of his ill-fated flight: “We are supposed to make an ascension this afternoon but things are not ready, and Van is at home in bed, drunk, and if there is anything to be done he will have to do it, as I will not take any chances on my life with a drunken man. If I can get a position here of any kind, I will remain, in preference to going along with the party, all of whom have been on a continuous toot since leaving Frisco.”26

It is easy to infer that had Lawrence survived, he would have ended his parachuting relationship with Van Tassel and returned to San Francisco. However, Frost was sure to state to reporters from the San Francisco Examiner, “As regards to P. A. Van Tassell being drunk, I must say that it is a complete falsehood. He was never more sober in his life on that fatal day.”27 Lawrence’s unfortunate death shocked the entire Van Tassell Troupe, which had to decide whether to continue on with the tour or not, now that Park’s parachute jumper was gone.

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