New York in the 19th century had its headline-grabbing nuptials—from the “fairy wedding” of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in 1863 to the doomed union between Consuelo Vanderbilt (daughter of society wannabe Ava) and the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.
But for excitement and novelty, it’s hard to top the ceremony pulled off by one couple months after the end of the Civil War.
“For some days now the curiosity-loving portion of the New-York public have been all agog with the latest sensation—a projected marriage in a balloon,” wrote the New York Times on November 9, 1865.
There was something “peculiarly novel, not to say ridiculous, in the idea of a wedding taking place amid the clouds, with all mundane witnesses shut out by fleecy vapors, and the epithalamium sung by the rattling cordage of the aerial ship,” the reporter wrote.
But the newspaper covered the wedding anyway, which took place in a hot-air balloon with a wicker car that seated six. It was built by scientist and inventor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who had been in charge of the Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War and dreamed of making a transatlantic flight via balloon.
The whole thing was the idea of the groom, a geologist named John Boynton (above left), according to the Times. Lowe made all the arrangements for lift-off, which took place at Sixth Avenue and 59th Street. (Top photo)
The weather was fair and calm, and lift-off scheduled for 2 p.m. Other New York papers wrote it up as well with the same sour tone. “The bridegroom was a fat old widower of 50, his bride [Mary Jenkins] a lady of 25,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“The marriage ceremony was not performed up in air, the officiating clergyman objected to venture in the flesh so near heaven. The marriage was done on terra firma [at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, performed by future Brooklyn-based preacher T.D. Talmage], only the marriage contract was to be signed mid-air.”
After the bride and groom and their wedding party arrived and took their seats in the wicker basket, “the balloon ascended from Central Park, in the presence of a group of gaping idlers, who amused themselves with making vulgar remarks at the expense of the bride and groom.”
The Times described it this way. “The balloon rose, glided upward beautifully, and as the sea-breeze caught its silken sides the aerial craft bounded up almost instantly to a height of some thousand feet, when it again drifted, sailing slowly over the Central Park toward High Bridge.”
An hour and a half later, the balloon touched down safely in Westchester.
Apparently Lowe built an amphitheater at the lift-off site in Central Park and offered balloon rides to the public—until this particular balloon, named the United States, was destroyed by a tornado in 1866.
The Gilded Age was an era of excessive money—and crazy-sensational fads. Find out more in New York in the Gilded Age, 1870-1910.
[Top: NYPL; second: Harper’s Weekly; third: Getty images/Harper’s Weekly; fourth: New York Times; fifth: Getty Images/Harper’s Weekly; sixth: New York Times]