Little Lillie Deane was born in the State of Iowa in 1873, her father being a poverty-stricken farmer who kept body and soul together by the renting and tilling of small farms, first in one locality and then in another. Her mother died when the girl was 5 years old, and from that time until her tenth year she was her father's household drudge. Then her father died. Lillie was left alone to make her way in the world.
The years that followed, which are usually the brightest of a girl's life, were spent by the little orphan in the hardest kind of drudgery. At 15 she was forced against her will to marry a worthless farm hand, who broke the heart and spirit of his child wife and then deserted her. She drifted from one place to another, sometimes as a waitress in cheap restaurants and sometimes as a domestic, until she came to San Francisco in 1892. Since then she had been a waitress in different downtown restaurants and was so employed when she first met Professor Frank Hagel, the famous aeronaut.
A slight, pretty woman, quiet, retiring and well liked, she asked him to allow her to make balloon ascensions. When it was suggested that the profession was a very dangerous one, she replied, "What difference does it make? The sooner we die the sooner our troubles are over." When her friends tried to dissuade her from her purpose she told them that her only object in taking the position was that it would probably furnish a speedy remedy for the misery and misfortune that had been her only lot in life.
The dashing balloonist, known as the "King of the Clouds," was impressed by her grit - as well as her weight of 108 pounds: just the right weight, he said, for a good aeronaut. He agreed to her employment and introduced her, as part of his professional facade, as his newly-wed bride Lillie Hagel. In their first week of "marriage," Frank sent her up on her first of a weekly series of ascents from the beach below the Cliff House, and she showed no more fear as she made her final preparation for the perilous feat than if she were dressing for a ride in the park. It was a failure though, because she didn't have the strength to pull the rope that loosed the parachute. The second and third ascensions were all right.
Then came the fourth.
"She didn't want to go up at all," said a young woman who witnessed the ascension. "She told Frank that the wind was blowing too hard, and that it was too cold. But he said that it was all right, and for her to get ready. It's a drawing card to have a woman make an ascension, and the railroad people paid him extra for that."
"Just fifteen minutes before the balloon went up," said another young lady whose eyes were red with crying, "Lille ran down to her husband to ask him if she must go up. He said yes, so she came back and got dressed."
A large crowd was gathered on the flat ground near the water's edge north of the Cliff House to witness the ascension. On the rocks about twenty feet above the beach was a two-story frame building occupied as a saloon and dance hall at the terminus of the steam railroad connecting with the Ferries and Cliff House cable road. Just across the railroad track from the saloon was a shanty about fifteen feet high occupied as a tintype gallery. From the spot where the balloon was being inflated to the saloon was about 200 yards in a straight line.
A fierce wind blowing landward rendered it necessary to raise a windbreak of canvas. In spite of the windbreak it required the services of twenty or thirty men and boys to hold the balloon as it filled with hot air from the furnace below. The rope-holders were not men hired and paid for their work, but were selected indiscriminately from the crowd. They knew nothing about a balloon.
As it writhed and twisted in their grasp, Lillie, clad in gaudy blue cotton tights and the usual acrobatic costume, fastened her left wrist to the hoop of the parachute. Now she stood ready to make the ascension with her right arm full of advertising circulars of a patent drink which she was to cast into the air just before cutting the parachute loose. From time to time she would glance anxiously at the swelling balloon as Hagel busied himself with the furnace, but she said nothing.
In the crowd were a few alleged funny men who took delight in yelling: "All ready, let go," just to see the men drop the ropes. Of course a few of the rope-holders would think Hagel had given the order, and would drop the ropes until informed of their mistake.
Suddenly the windbreak fell to the ground when the ropes holding it were found unable to bear the strain. A voice from behind the screen was heard to cry: "Let her go. She'll catch fire."
A half-dozen men on the windward side released their guy ropes.
"Hold her," protested Hagel. "She's not full yet."
But the first call had done its work. The balloon, caught by the wind, tore itself loose from the other holders and scattered them in all directions like so many sticks of wood. As it rose from the ground Hagel leaped for the ropes, crying: "For God's sake, men, hold it! For God's sake, don't leave go!"
He seized a rope and held to it desperately but the balloon quickly pulled the rope from his grasp.
In jerking itself loose from the furnace the balloon knocked over a few bricks and the cotton of which the balloon was made instantly caught fire. The balloon was intended to ascend 2000 feet, but being only half inflated and burning as well it only arose about forty feet. For a few yards it dragged the girl along the ground and then it ran into the air, she hanging by the wrist, fastened to the parachute. She did not scream. Only the ghastly whiteness of her face told the crowd that she recognized the gravity of her situation.
As the burning balloon rose into the air, the gaping crowd at first seemed amused at the woman's endeavors to free herself. Their amusement speedily changed to anxiety, then to horror as they saw the balloon rise and be carried on the wind toward the large building at the terminus of the railroad.
For an instant it seemed as if it would pass over the building with its human freight. Then an involuntary "Oh!" came from the horror-stricken assemblage as the girl was hurled against the side of the saloon. Her body struck a window in the second story and the glass was shattered. Then the balloon was dragged across the roof, the body of the girl tearing off the shingles as she passed over.
Reaching the other side of the roof the balloon took a downward sweep, and blowing across the road, hurled the young girl against the tintype gallery. Her thighs struck against the eaves of the roof. The burning balloon tore itself loose from the parachute and sailed away into the air. Freed from the balloon the girl slid off the roof of the tintype gallery and would have dropped to instant death on the hard ground had it not been that her left wrist became wedged between two broken shingles and kept her suspended in the air.
By this time the flames had eaten a great hole in the side of the drifting balloon. It fell to the ground and was burned to ashes. A woman, whose name could not be learned, in her eagerness to see the injured balloonist, stepped into the fire. In an instant her clothes were ablaze. She ran shrieking into a house where some thoughtful person wrapped her in a tablecloth and extinguished the flames.
Women who saw the balloon accident fainted and men who expected that she would be dashed to pieces turned away their eyes that they might not witness it. Some also were there who, fascinated by the horror of the situation, kept their eyes on the girl, and when they saw her suspended from the roof they rushed to her assistance. Among them was J.H. Whiteside, himself an aeronaut, who procured a ladder and bore the now unconscious girl to the ground. She was carried to the kitchen of a neighboring restaurant. There it was found that she was yet alive, but her lower limbs dangling helplessly revealed the fact that both were broken below the hips. Dr. K.A. Kjos was on the ground and rendered all the assistance in his power until a train started, on which the girl could be conveyed into town. A patrol wagon had been summoned by telephone, and, meeting the train upon its arrival, it took the girl and bore her to the receiving hospital.
The girl regained consciousness on the road and her screams of agony could be heard for blocks. At the hospital Dr. Kjos and Assistant Police Surgeon Kaufmann examined the girl and found that she had sustained a compound fracture of the left thigh and a simple fracture of the right thigh. A jagged piece of one of the left thigh bones protruded through the flesh. She experienced terrible agony while the surgeons were reducing the fractures. She could move her toes, which indicated that her legs were not paralyzed, but her thighs were broken in such a manner that she would probably have been crippled for life. There was a long cut in the right leg. There were several bruises on her face. Her nose was torn open, but the bone was not broken.
Dr. Kaufman said that with good treatment she might recover, as she showed remarkable vitality, and the shock of the accident did not seem to have seriously affected her. The concussion when she was dragged across the housetops and bumped into buildings bruised her so horribly that she very likely would not be able to get out of bed for some six months. And there could be some internal injuries not yet apparent, he cautioned. The effects of such a fearful shock to a delicate woman are especially feared.
The young woman fancied that everybody around her was a physician and she had but one question upon her tongue. "Do you think I will get well, doctor?" she asked of the people who came near her.
Frank Hagel, when seen late in the evening, said that the balloon was loosed too soon. "It was not nearly full," he said. "Besides, the ropes were not loosed properly, though I had told the man how to do it a dozen times. The balloon caught fire, but that would not have mattered if the balloon had only been buoyant enough to have risen high from the ground. I have often gone up with the balloon on fire and made successful leaps."
Of Lillie Deane, he said, "She was the nerviest girl I ever saw, and I've been a professional aeronaut for twenty years."
Hagel visited her the next day. She was still on a cot at the receiving hospital. She was evidently very much infatuated with the man, as she appeared to feel much better for his visit. A reporter had followed Hagel there and she declared positively to him that the Professor had not coaxed or compelled her to become an aeronaut, but that she had made up her mind that she would like that business and went into it voluntarily. "All that I am sorry for is that the ascension was not a success," she said.
On April 29, 1893, as she lay in Ward G of the City and County Hospital, Lillie, plastered and bandaged until her head was the only part of her which could move with ease, was asked, "Will you ever try to make another ascension, even if you get as well and strong as ever?"
"Certainly I shall, just as soon as I am able. I am sure I shall be in no more danger than before, perhaps not so much, for if lightning never strikes twice in the same place I am sure that no person is ever likely to have two serious accidents of the same kind. Try it again? I should think I will," and she smiled bravely, although her brow was furrowed by pain from an incautious movement which sent darts of agony through her mangled form.
Unfortunately, Lillie's condition continued to deteriorate, and by May 4 her doctors conceded that she would probably not survive her wounds.
An inquest was held on May 12 on the body of the young woman who died at the City and County Hospital the day before. The jury returned a verdict of death from accidental causes, but censured Professor Hagel and those who were holding the balloon for negligence. The bruised and broken body of Lillie Deane was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in one corner of the Cypress Hill cemetery.
This pre-publication excerpt is from
Ghosts of Wind and Cloud by Rick Masters
Volume I, The Birth of Aerial XC - 1660 to 1909, P172 - 176
Sources: San Francisco Call and San Francisco Chronicle, 1893
Ghosts of Wind and Cloud on Patreon
Website of author Rick Masters via the USHGA.AERO Gateway