W. H. “Red” Nelson, 1860-1895
Traveling hot-air balloonist
Buried in City Loosley Cemetery,
exact location unknown
(Image generated using Bing AI)
W. H. Nelson was said to have been born in York, Pennsylvania, around 1860. At some point, he became a parachutist whose act involved jumping from a hot-air balloon. How he came to his risky occupation is not known, but he and his partner, Otto Burke, a.k.a. Lochbaum, had been touring the West Coast with a carnival show.
Red and Burke billed themselves as “aeronauts.” Their act depended upon a balloon which, when inflated, was fifty feet high and about thirty feet in diameter. On August 1, 1895, they were booked to perform in Phoenix at a vacant lot on Jackson and Center Streets, where a merry-go-round had also been set up. Coincidentally, this was the same lot where evangelists from the Salvation Army had been preaching in a tent nightly for about a year.
Many bought tickets to see the ascent that afternoon. The huge balloon was inflated and, when the ground ropes were untied, it rose about thirty feet in the air. Unfortunately, the balloon sprang a leak and collapsed; Burke received minor injuries in the fall.
The balloon was mended and inflated a second time at 7:15 PM. This time, “Red” Nelson was to make the ascent, as his partner was on crutches. It seems likely that Nelson was tired from having worked on the balloon in the hot August afternoon but felt he had to perform, as the crowd had become restive and were muttering about the act being a fraud.
When the balloon had ascended several hundred feet into the air, Nelson jumped. His parachute opened properly but, in the gathering dusk, Nelson may have miscalculated his distance from the ground and detached the trapeze bar from the parachute too soon.
The Thalheimer family was having supper when they heard a terrific crash on the roof, then something rolled off the roof into the back yard. Nelson was found unconscious, his right hand still clutching the trapeze bar. No one could say just how far Nelson had fallen, but it must have been from a considerable height.
Although the attending physician ascertained that only Nelson’s shoulder was broken, he was badly bruised over half of his body and had sustained several deep cuts to his face. He lingered for almost two days, never regaining consciousness but being heard to murmur in his delirium, "Give me a clear fall and I'll make it all right" and "No, I can't hold on; I'm too tired." When Nelson vomited blood, it became clear that he had suffered irreparable internal injuries. He expired on August 3rd and was buried on August 6th in City/Loosley Cemetery. He had no known relatives, and the exact location of his grave has been lost.
The tragic demise of the aeronaut had a sobering effect on the citizenry. Pious folk murmured that the accident was divine retribution for using the Salvation Army’s meeting place for entertainment purposes…and poor “Red” Nelson had paid the price.
© 2023 by Donna L. Carr. Last revised 27 December 2023.
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