In 1898, St. Nicholas magazine published a story by Idah Meacham Strobridge called “An Unwilling Balloonist.” I came across it while researching potential inspirations for L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written the following year and published in 1900.
The picture at the right, from Syracuse Then and Now, shows an even more likely inspiration: a balloon launch in Baum’s home town of Syracuse, New York, in 1871, when he was fifteen.
For some reason, the St. Nick story seems like appropriate material now. I’ll start quoting in the middle:
The balloon, though it tugged at the guy ropes, showed there was still too great a weight. The aeronaut got out in despair. How much weight would the balloon carry? He looked for some one lighter than himself. A slim, half grown youth took his place. That was better; but even he was not light enough. Looking around for some one still lighter, the aeronaut saw a barefooted newsboy, wearing only a thin cotton shirt, a pair of trousers reaching to the knee, and a broken straw hat.Google Books has the whole story.
“Here, Bub,” said he, “quick! Sit in this hoop a minute, will you, and let me see if the balloon will raise your weight?”
The little fellow laid down his bundle of papers, placing beside them a basket of peanuts that he carried. Then he seated himself on the slender curving ring. Steadying himself within the frail circle by holding with both hands to the two sides, he sat there with his legs dangling below him, feeling quite important in being chosen. He was sure the other boys were envying him even this approach to an ascent in a balloon.
Yes; there was sufficient gas to hold up the boy’s weight. That was something; but it would not yet bear the weight of a man. Something must be done. An ascent must be made to satisfy the grumbling crowd. Some alterations must be made so that the aeronaut himself could go up as he had advertised.
They loosened some of the ropes as he directed, and then—
No one ever seemed to know how it happened, but with a bound the balloon somehow wrested itself from its moorings, and shot upward, bearing aloft the barefooted little newsboy, sitting in the swinging hoop!
Strobridge claimed to describe an event that had actually happened in Oakland, California, more than forty years earlier. However, she offered no specific dates or names that would make it easy to confirm what she wrote. I suspected it might be a legend. But then I went back to Google Books.
TOMORROW: The real story of a runaway balloon.