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Grooms, Balloons, and Aerial Honeymoons

By Jim Ignasher

There’s an old joke about a woman who told her suitor that no man on earth was good enough for her to marry. Undaunted, the hopeful groom suggested that instead of getting married “on earth”, they get married in a balloon.

Various renditions of this quip have appeared in old newspapers, and at the dawn of the 20th century it was considered not only humorous, but timely as well, for balloon weddings were on the rise – so to speak.

For as long as people have been getting married there have been those wanting to take their vows in non-traditional settings, and by the latter half of the 1800s balloon technology had risen to the point where something new in the way of unique circumstances could be offered – aerial weddings. The following stories have been culled from various newspaper articles.

Famous showman and circus owner P. T. Barnum is generally credited with orchestrating the first aerial wedding in history which occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Oct. 19, 1874, when Charles Colton and Mary Walsh were married in a balloon one mile above the earth. The event created quite a sensation at the time.

However, there’s evidence to indicate that this marriage in the clouds may not have been the first.

Seven years earlier Mr. J. W. Smithson, of Philadelphia, and Miss Maggie E. Fornshell, of Wooster, Ohio, were reportedly married in a balloon over Pittsburgh, Penn. on July 6, 1867. The Evansville Journal characterized the nuptials as being, “Emphatically a wedding in the upper circles.”

John Kinney, the owner of the balloon, saw the potential business opportunities in aerial nuptials, and announced shortly afterwards his plans for constructing a new balloon specifically for weddings which was to be christened the Maggie Fornshell.

Another early balloon wedding may have taken place in San Francisco, in Nov. 1873. It was announced in the Pioche Daily Record that Professor A. A. Lay had obtained a marriage license for himself and one Miss Mary Smith so they could be married in a balloon 900 feet above San Francisco’s city gardens by Justice of the Peace C. F. Townsend. It was reported that once the vows had been exchanged the balloon would be brought down for the reception.

What may have been the first wedding involving a balloon took place in New York City, on November 8, 1865. The event was advertised by promoters as the “Balloon Nuptial Ceremonies”, and thousands bought tickets to see the “show”. John N. Boynton, of Syracuse, N. Y., was to be married in a balloon while it sailed aloft to Miss Mary West Jenkins of St. Louis, Missouri, but instead the vows were exchanged before they climbed into the gondola. Had they only stood inside the basket and risen even three feet from the ground they could have made wedding history, and scooped P.T. Barnum by nine years.

Barnum was an advertising genius, so it’s no surprise that after his sponsored airborne wedding of 1874 balloon marriages took off as more happy couples carried their love to new heights – sometimes with mixed results.

The 19th century was a time when people flocked to events involving balloon ascensions much to the delight of those who rang cash registers at country fairs and other locations where balloons were exhibited. Advertised balloon marriages drew even larger crowds due to the increased novelty. But getting married in a swaying balloon in an era when manned flight was still relatively new was not for the faint of heart, or those who suffered from a fear of heights. An interesting case of cold feet occurred in Allegheny City, Penn. in 1884 when the bride and groom failed to arrive for their appointed wedding, leaving promoters with the prospect of refunding thousands of dollars to the waiting crowds.

Yet, as they say, “the show must go on,” so the balloon’s owner and his lovely assistant posed as the happy couple and were married under assumed names. Four years later the owner found himself in court, for evidently the fake marriage had legally binding implications. The judge dissolved the “marriage”.

Then there were the couple from Providence who in 1902 were married in a balloon to win a bet. Thomas L. Bennett was already engaged to Edith Ring when a friend bet him $25 that he wouldn’t get married in a balloon. The couple accepted the challenge and was married one mile above the Tioga, Penn., fair grounds.

In 1888, Edward T. Davis and Margaret A. Buckley were married in a balloon before 30,000 people at Narragansett Park, in Providence. After the vows were exchanged the balloon sailed off toward Massachusetts where it encountered a storm and went down in a swamp. Fortunately all aboard were rescued safely.

A Chattanooga, Tenn. couple got married in a balloon on June 28, 1897. Shortly after the vows were exchanged, they found themselves drifting over the Tennessee River, where the bride became frightened and jumped from a height of one-hundred feet into the water. The Groom waited until the balloon had risen to 1,000 feet before jumping with a parachute. Neither was injured.

About a week later on July 6, 1897, The Rock Island Argus had this to say about the incident: “A Chattanooga girl who was married in a balloon jumped out of the balloon into the river at the conclusion of the ceremony, and when she was fished out reproached the bridegroom for leaving her.”

One problem with aerial weddings was the fact that the exchange of vows could only be heard by those aboard the balloon, leaving guests on the ground more or less unfulfilled as spectators. In the summer of 1909 one couple solved this difficulty by incorporating modern wireless technology. The event took place high above Seattle, where the young couple said their vows via wireless radio The ceremony was conducted by a minister who stood on the ground next to the radio operator surrounded by the wedding party. Once they were pronounced man and wife, the groom landed the balloon amidst cheers and congratulations.

In 1913, a balloon ascension was advertised for the county fair in Rutland, Vt. and promoters offered $25 for a couple willing to be married in the balloon while it was in flight. The offer led a local religious leader to preach against “mercenary marriages”.

In September of 1914 a new comedic play titled, ”An Aerial Honeymoon” opened in Providence to rave reviews. One review, which appeared in the Norwich Bulletin said in part, “The comely girls who formed the chorus are well selected for their musical ability as well as their appearance, and the music is catchy.”

The invention of the “aeroplane” offered another way to get married aloft. What is reportedly the “first marriage in an airplane on record in the State of Vermont” took place on August 26, 1927, over the Milton Airdrome. As their airplane circled 2,800 feet overhead, Kenneth Dickerman and Sadie Branch were married by the Reverend S. Rowe who broadcast to the couple from the ground via radio. As the couple exchanged their vows, the pilot cut the engine and allowed the plane to glide downward so wedding guests and spectators could clearly hear the broadcast words.

Five years earlier a New York couple were married in the same way over Mineola, Long Island. Afterwards they honeymooned in New England.

Then there was the New Hampshire couple who met by accident – literally – when the groom, a pilot, was injured in a plane crash at Concord Airport. At the hospital he met and fell in love with his nurse. They were married August 28, 1936, and took off in an airplane to begin their “aerial honeymoon”.

Getting back to P.T. Barnum’s sponsored wedding of 1874; some may have suspected it was nothing more than a publicity stunt. After all, Barnum was known for stunts and hoaxes, and the newlyweds were employees of the circus. In fact, in July of 1875 some newspapers were reporting that the marriage lasted but three weeks however, such is not the case. A 1901 newspaper account from the Lewiston Evening Journal proves the marriage was not only legitimate, but a success.

In that article, Charles Colton, then known as Sergeant Colton of the New York City Police Department, recalled how the wedding might not have occurred had it not been for his wife Mary’s initiative. Both had hoped to marry, but financial circumstances were forcing them to wait. Then Mary suggested they be married in a balloon. They approached Mr. Barnum who liked the idea, and gave them a substantial dowry with which to begin married life together.

People are still being married in balloons and airplanes today, and pay big money to do so, although the novelty is hardly newsworthy any more. Yet the world is still waiting for the first wedding in outer space.