DARKE COUNTY — The Aug. 31, 1905, edition of the Democratic Advocate, the weekly precursor to the Daily Advocate, urged readers to “GET READY AND GO TO THE BIG FAIR.”
“At 4:30 this afternoon Prof. John E. Baldwin, the baloonist [sic.], will make one of his hair-raising ascensions and parachute leaps. He is an artist in the work and will certainly give a splendid exhibition. He made an ascension and parachute leap yesterday afternoon, which was one of the best ever witnessed in this locality,” read the paper’s snippet.
The fairgoers who saw Professor Baldwin’s “splendid exhibition” would be witnesses to what is likely the most tragic event to ever occur at the Darke County Fairgrounds.
According to contemporary accounts, Baldwin’s balloon was inflated and reached a height of approximately 2,000 feet. Hanging from a trapeze suspended beneath the balloon, the professor was preparing to light and toss sticks of dynamite into the air, intending to reenact aerial warfare practiced during his time as a balloon signalman during the Spanish-American War. It was a show the Indiana native had successfully orchestrated many times at venues across the Midwest, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Then, something went wrong. First, spectators saw a puff of smoke, then heard an explosive report. In an instant, Baldwin was, in the words of the newspaper reports, “blown to atoms.” The now-pilotless balloon eventually landed itself on the grounds as spectators rushed to the scene.
Accounts vary as to how many were watching the tragedy unfold, ranging from 20,000 up to 35,000 people. Regardless, the shocking, fiery incident undoubtedly remained branded in the memory of everyone at the scene for the remainder of their lives.
No more so than for his wife Cora, his three young daughters — twins Gaynelle and Maselle, and Wava — and his assistant, Thomas Daugherty, all watching the show from the grounds.
A week later, the Sept. 7, 1905, edition of the Democratic Advocate, reported the moment of the incident in graphic detail.
“The wife of the aeronaut was watching the trip through field glasses and when the explosion occurred her screams rent the air and the strong man Daugherty turned pale. They knew too well what had happened, and as they gazed with upturned faces a second later they saw what the others were then witnessing – flying particles coming through the air towards the ground. In the south end of the grounds there was a rain of flesh and blood, while portions of the hapless victim’s body fell promiscuously in all parts of the ground.”
Very few intact body parts were recovered and those that were salvaged were purportedly spread over an area covering 40 acres. The scant remnants of the unfortunate Professor Baldwin were interred in rural Dalton Township, north of Hagerstown, Indiana.
Soon thereafter, spurious speculation about the tragedy emerged. Among these was a claim that Baldwin, supposedly despondent over the death of his brother, had blown himself up purposely.
The Democratic Advocate sought to debunk this suicide rumor, reporting that the “brother” in question was in fact the kin of a different balloon-flyer who happened to use the moniker “Professor Baldwin.”
Sadly, Baldwin’s wife, in her grief, was indeed reported to have attempted suicide sometime shortly after the incident.
In the July/September 2006 issue of the Ohio Historical Society’s magazine TIMELINE, Gretchen L. Price recounts that Cora was “institutionalized for a time.”
“The family was left destitute,” she wrote. “The children were taken to the Knightstown Soldiers and Sailors Home in Indiana to live. It was five years before Cora came for Wava. The twins stayed until their seventeenth birthday. Their mother remarried and moved to Pennsylvania.”
The terrible event did not temper the public’s fascination with flight, however. Darke County fairgoers enthusiastically turned out to see Professor Roy Knabenshue’s dirigible airship at the 1907 fair.
Thankfully, for both the reputation of aviation and the emotional well being of the people of Darke County, Knabenshue’s flight was a success.
Special thanks to Carolyn Fisher at the Greenville Public Library and Nancy Stump at the Garst Museum for their assistance.