Aerial weddings may now be considered quite commonplace. Just a quick online search turns up a number of places that provide skydiving services. But in the nineteenth century, the idea of flying at all was still exciting. Balloon weddings? Those were spectacles!
Mary West Jenkins and Dr. John F. Boyton intended to be married on November 8, 1865, in Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon, high over New York City. Reverend H.W. Beecher would not perform the ceremony in the air, so the vows were said on solid ground in the Fifth Avenue Hotel. According to Harper’s Weekly, almost six thousand spectators crowded into Central Park to witness the married couple take flight. The bride did not wear pure white; her dusky pink “ashes of roses” dress was “peculiar, to suit the exigencies of the occasion.” The contract was signed in the air and after a “delightful trip,” the balloon “landed as gently as a snow-flake” in Mount Vernon, New York.
On October 19, 1874, Mary Elizabeth Walsh and Charles M. Colton said their vows in the balloon P.T. Barnum in the air over the Cincinnati, Ohio, Hippodrome—the first actual aerial wedding in America. The wedding marked the 98th ascension of aeronaut Washington Harrison (W.H.) Donaldson. Details of the wedding were recorded by M.L. Amick in the fantastically titled book History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions: Laughable Incidents, Frightful Accidents, Narrow Escapes, Thrilling Adventures, Bursted Balloons, Trapeze Performances, Mock Suns, Parasalenaes, Mirages, Paper Balloon Ascension, Passengers and Passengers’ Description of Cloud Land, etc. Renowned showman (and employer of the bride and groom) P.T. Barnum and his brand new wife attended the ceremony, along with an estimated crowd of 50,000 spectators.
The balloon initially held six people—Donaldson, bride and groom, attendants Anna Rosetta Yates and W.C. Comp, and the Rev. Howard B. Jefferies. When it was determined that the basket could hold one more, David Thomas, “the best of ‘press agents,’” who had tirelessly promoted the event, “was taken in bouttainiere [sic] and all.” The bridal party sent a parachute announcing the completion of the vows to the spectators below and the balloon continued its flight over Cincinnati, finally landing so that the couple could go to the cathedral for a second ceremony and the reception.
Though not a Barnum production, the September 27, 1888, wedding of Margaret Buckley and Edward T. Davis also drew quite a crowd, as it was held at the Rhode Island State Fair at Narrangansett Park in Providence. An article in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper estimates that 40,000 watched as Davis and Buckley entered the “specially prepared ‘bridal car’ of the mammoth balloon Commonwealth, held down by 24 men at the guy ropes.” After the ceremony, aeronauts James Allen and his son James K. directed the balloon skyward.
The Davis’s honeymoon, or “bridal trip,” did get off to a bit of a rough start. At dusk, the balloon landed in a swamp near Easton, Massachusetts, about thirty miles away from Providence. The wedding party was “obliged to cling to the ropes above the basket to keep out of the water.” Finally rescued, the balloon tied safely to a tree, the couple completed their trip by rail. Afterwards, Allen and the Davises reenacted their wedding for a photographer in a studio.
Elizabeth Borja is an archivist at the National Air and Space Museum.