Monday, 19 November 2012

Spiritualist search for balloonist

In my random wanderings through newspaper archives, I recently saw a report about a missing balloonist whose body had recently been discovered, and it mentioned that spiritualists had also contributed to the search.

The story begins in the state of Michigan on the 16th of September 1858 when, during a Sunday School celebration, a hot-air balloon was being packed away after a successful flight, when it broke free and ascended into the air taking one of the pilots, Mr Thurston, with it.

“In this perfectly hapless condition, the ill-fated man sped straight into the sky in full sight of companions more helpless than himself. So far as is known, there was no possible means for him to secure his descent, whether safe or otherwise. The part of the balloon filled with gas was full twelve feet above him, so that there was no chance for him to cut its sides and allow the gas to escape. He could only cling to his precarious hold and go withsoever the currents of air should take him.”
New York Times, Thursday 23rd September 1858

Eyewitness accounts said it began by going south-east, but it was later seen over the town of Blissfield to the north-west, and later still in Catham much further north.

Riga (B), the point of ascent and Chatham (A), the last sighting of the balloon
Nothing more is seen of either the balloon or the balloonist, but in January 1859 a band of local Spiritualists set out from Riga under the guidance of the spirit of Mr Thurston. Their attempts at digging into marsh land was thwarted by the ice, but they drove a pole into the ground and recovered what was apparently human hair.

Their choice of swamp land is interesting because in November 1858 a news report explains that previous searches of swamps recovered two bodies, neither of which were Mr Thurston.

In the end, the body was discovered in March 1859, in a disused lot about a mile north of Sylvania. The state of the body was such that it was the clothing that gave away his identity, and he must've fallen quite soon after the balloon took off, and he ended up in quite the opposite direction that the Spiritualists predicted.

In the above map Riga is marked with a B (Blissfield is visible to its north-west) and A marks the approximate location where the Spritualists said that Thurston's body lay. The red cross marks the approximate location where the body of Mr Thurston was found.

“Terrible Adventure of an Aeronaut”, New York Times, Thursday September 23, 1858
“The Lost Aeronaut of Canada”, Liverpool Mercury, Saturday, November 13, 1858
“Spiritualist search for a lost Balloonist”, Cheshire Observer and General Advertiser, Saturday, January 15, 1859
“Lost balloonist discovered”, Manchester Times, Saturday, April 2, 1859

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