The downtown area of Phoenix, Arizona was the original settlement of the city where eerie and mysterious happenings seem consistent. As a paranormal investigator and a historian, this writer is always running into mind boggling stories when reading the old newspapers. This is one of those stories about historic downtown Phoenix. It will make the reader wonder if the specter is one that Phoenicians see standing outside their windows or wandering in a daze through their property.
Do you think one has more of a chance of becoming a ghost if Karma or the stars are lined up predicting a disaster? Take the case of W. H. ‘Red’ Nelson who on August 1, 1895 became a victim of an accident nobody would ever thought of predicting…or could they?
Nelson was born in York, PA, was unmarried and traveling with his business partner, Otto Burke, a hot air balloonist or aeronaut as they were called in the day. He was about 35 years old. They started from San Francisco early in June on their performance circuit and expected to work through TX before returning to the coast. Otto Burke and “Professor” Nelson were great entertainers and professional balloonists.
Their act showcased a colorful hot air balloon that tugged at the ropes tethering it to a solid surface. One of them would grip the dangling rope tied to the trapeze bar suspended from lines attached to the balloon’s netting. Hand over hand they climbed the rope and mounted the bar. At their signal the tethers were cut, and the balloon began its steady ascent. They performed a trapeze act as the gas-filled orb rose to perilous height. At more than 1,000 feet above the ground, the aeronaut jumped from the bar and hurled earthward at dizzying speed. Then his parachute opened, and he slowly and gracefully dropped to earth.
On the afternoon of August 1, 1895 a crowd gathered at the once vacant lot on South Center Street (now Central Avenue) to watch the balloon ascension. By the middle of the afternoon hundreds were crowded around the merry-go-round and gospel tent. The big balloon—fifty feet high and thirty feet in diameter was inflated—took off around 5:30pm. Otto Burke was operating the balloon for the first launch. The end of the balloon pulled out leaving a hole about eight feet in diameter. The balloon collapsed as the gas escaped and landed on the sheds of a nearby lumber company. Burke fell about 30 feet. He was considerably bruised but not seriously injured.
There seemed to be a feeling of disappointment as most of the crowd had come from the country to witness the ascension, yet nobody could be blamed for the deflated balloon and the accident. The balloon had seen much active service and had grown unsafe.
The balloon was inflated a second time and at 7:15 “Red” Nelson went to the trapeze bar and perhaps gave his last perilous and foolhardy exhibition. As the balloon shot up, a strong SE breeze was blowing; the near full moon was partly hidden by a cloud. Nelson applied the knife to the cutaway rope. It was also observed that the parachute opened up and everyone on the ground thought the ascent was a success. The parachute descended over the house of Joseph Thalheimer. Mr. Thalheimer stated that he and his family were at dinner at the time when he suddenly heard a crash on the roof, and then something rolled off the roof in his back yard where he found the body of Nelson with his right hand still clinging to the trapeze bar of the parachute. The parachute had fallen on another building half a block away. If it was lifted by the light breeze that far after Nelson cut loose the bar, he must have separated from it at a dizzy height. He must have been tired for he had worked all day about the balloon and only undertook the perilous ascent after his partner was injured. He wanted to prove to the unreasonable and heartless persons in the crowd that the show was not a fake.
Not a bone was broken, but there were bruises over half his body. There was an ugly cut on his jaw and another near the left eye. The tissues were so thoroughly crushed that the undertaker was hardly able to find a vein to inject the embalming fluid.
Now here is where the superstition theories fall into the story. The most plausible theory of the time was that the lot where the performance took place was on consecrated ground, having for more than a year been the scene of a nightly meeting of the Salvation Army. True, the merry-go round has disputed rights in the premises, and on August 1st, it was gathering in many nickels that might otherwise have dropped in the collection box. At any rate, Satan was the blame for the outcome of this occasion. As unfortunate as it was that no trapeze performance in mid-air was witnessed by the assembled throng, there were those present that felt the disaster was only just retributive justice meted out to the trespassers on sacred ground.
Burke and Nelson came to Arizona in June of 1895 and then to Phoenix sometime in July. They were persistently pursued by bad luck, and it may interest you superstitious folks to learn that Nelson’s last and fatal ascent was his thirteenth!
The funeral expenses were paid by the merry-go-round proprietor whose place the ascent was made. The carousal ran 24/7 to collect money and pay the expenses of the dead aeronaut. Burke, the surviving partner said he was not frightened by Nelson’s fate. He said “I expect that the same thing that happened to “Red” will someday happen to me.” He may have just made a date with “Karma.”