Saturday, February 25, 2012

The tragedy of Captain Charles Lorraine, 1899

Image:  from Clarence & Richmond Examiner, NSW, 11.11.1899

In the spirit of the fin de siècle age of the late 1890s, when all seemed possible as far as progress and achievement was concerned, there stepped, briefly, into the limelight for NZ colonial audiences gathered on windswept reserves and domains a daring young man with guts, a balloon and a parachute – and, by gum, he was a New Zealander!

David Charles Mahoney was born 19 April 1874, in Parnell, Auckland. He was educated at Parnell School, then left school to work at Hoffmann’s music warehouse in Queen Street. After two years, he headed off for the horizons to seek his fortune, first down south, then across to Sydney, where he began a stage career. His persona as Captain Charles Lorraine originated while he was overseas.

He joined, first of all, Miss Emma Wangenheim's comic opera company, and subsequently accepted an engagement in Mr Dan Barry's dramatic company, playing small parts and travelling with it through the country towns of Australia. In 1892 he sailed for England, and while there he went one day to see a balloon ascent. He had only seen a balloon once before, and his curiosity was piqued. But, to his great disappointment, after all the preparations had been completed, the aeronaut did not go up. Young Lorraine saw enough, however, of the modus operandi to feel convinced the thing was easy enough. And his curiosity led him to seek out the aeronaut and offer to go up in his place the following day. The professional was impressed with the youngster's pluck and determination, saw in him an apt pupil, and, having accepted his offer, explained to him thoroughly how the thing was done, and arranged for his ascent next day.

Lorraine confesses that he did not sleep much that night. The tick-tick of an insect in the wall of his chamber put superstitious fancies into his head. He had heard the old story about the death watch and its habit of foretelling a person's doom. So, as that blessed insect kept on ticking, he arose in the dark at 4 a.m. and went out for a walk to shake off the gloom with which it had filled him.

At the appointed hour he was ready, and the ascent came off with great success. The spectators had no idea it was an amateur's first attempt. They were under the impression he had been up in the air hundreds of times before, and there was nothing about his performance to undeceive them. Once the ice was broken, Lorraine stuck to the aeronaut business. He remained with the professional until he had saved enough money to buy a balloon of his own, and then he launched out for himself, touring the United Kingdom and Ireland, and France and Germany as well. Ever since 1893, when he was 19 years old, he has been going up in balloons and coming down in parachutes. In London he made such a reputation for himself that his services were in constant demand at public gardens and fetes.

He made an ascent from the Alexandra Palace on Good Friday, 1898, and his last public appearance in London was on Sept. 15th last, when he took part in a great gala and sports in aid of the Music Hall Home, making two ascents. Five hundred music hall artists assisted at this fete, and the prices for admission ranged from 1s to 10s. He now holds the appointments of aeronaut to the Alexandra Palace, and of military aeronaut to the 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment, under Colonel Lord Eustin and Colonel Sir Geo. la Hochpied Lapant, commanding the 16th Regimental District (Bedford). On October 13th Mr Lorraine left London on a visit to his relatives in Auckland, and on March 22nd he was married by Canon Nelson, at St. Paul's Church here, to Frances Fanny, eldest daughter of Mr Antonio Juriss, of Christchurch.
Observer 13.5.1899

He was a parachutist rather than a balloonist, using a balloon to ascend to a height from which he could drop, supported by the parachute, performing gymnastics with a trapeze on the way down. When he arrived back in New Zealand in late 1898, “Captain Charles Lorraine” had been doing his act in the Northern Hemisphere for five years, so reports tell us. (EP 30.11.1898) In England, he is said to have gone as high as 1500 ft – at the Auckland Domain, the ascent was noted as being up to 7000 ft. (Press, 4.1.1899) 7000ft above sea-level is a danger level regarding the body’s saturation of oxygen in the blood.

He met his end one afternoon in Christchurch, at an exhibition held at Lancaster Park. Some images from one of his earlier displays in Christchurch are available online. On 2 November 1899, at 4pm, the balloon he used called the Empress, was “well filled with gas”, and Lorraine himself was “in the gayest mood.” As usual, Lorraine fastened the parachute to the side of the balloon by a slender tape passed through a ring so that, once he was ready to descend, probably his body weight detached the tape and he could swing free of the balloon, which was meant to float on a way before descending and being recovered. His audience would thus see him rise up in air like this:

Observer, 21 January 1899

His last reported words that November afternoon at Lancaster Park were: “"Now, then, gentlemen, let her go.”

The balloon rose up, high into the sky – and then things went awfully wrong. The tape fastening the parachute to the balloon came loose, with the parachute unfurling beneath the balloon and Lorraine, so that Lorraine’s only means of returning to earth, short of deflating the balloon, was now useless. We have one image, the last known of Lorraine still alive, from that day (from Wingspread, Leo White, 1941, facing p. 16).

Lorraine tried in vain to hold onto the parachute, but then it collapsed, and slipped from his grip. As part of his act, he did not actually attach the parachute to himself.

The parachute now a fluttering piece of cloth falling to the ground, the balloon was unimpeded and rose up into the sky with a rush. Lorraine was seen clambering up the side of the balloon, clinging to the netting around the outside. This probably ensured his doom, for one witness later told the newspapers that, through a telescope, once the balloon had been blown by the wind over the harbour and heading out to sea, he saw Lorraine’s form lashed firmly to the netting as he tried desperately to deflate the balloon without the use of a knife. When he succeeded, the plunge of around 3000 feet was so sudden that the impact with the water probably killed him outright.

Still tangled in the balloon’s webbing, Lorraine’s body sank into the water when the remains of the balloon finally submerged. Searches went on for weeks looking for his body, including trawling of the harbour.
It is stated that once when Captain Lorraine was making an ascent in England the parachute got adrift, but he succeeded in hauling it up to the balloon, and after making it fast to the rope upon which he sat, he jumped down on to the trapeze and descended safely. Search was made to-day by a launch carrying police constables and relatives, who took drags, but the sea was too rough to use them. The police also searched the share, but no traces of the balloon or the body were found. A movement has been started for the relief of Mrs. Lorraine. A meeting of citizens decided to hold a sacred concert on Sunday night, and subscription lists have also been opened.
Evening Post 4.11.1899


  1. The things people did way back then. Daring feats that ended up in tragedy. That last image was a sad one to see. Poor man died an awful death. Fascinating life he had.

  2. Hey,
    This bloke was my 3rd great uncle. Thanks for keeping the story alive!


  3. And my 2nd great uncle. have read lots of reports about him.

    1. Hi Raewyn, I'm a journalist at the NZ Herald. Keen to get in touch regarding David Mahoney.

    2. Hi Raewyn,
      I'm the son of my mother (who recently found out about Captain Lorraine) whose surname was Juriss before getting married.

      Thanks for story and information too! If you have any more information about this, I know me and my family would be really interested in finding out more.


  4. I have reacently been researching his wife's family (Frances Juriss), but when I came to add him as her spouse, I couldn't find a Find a Grave memorial page for him. So, I have created ( him and added his parents,spouse and some links to various versions of the story. It would be great if there is someone still connected to the family who would like to take over management of the memorial and create a proper biography, add photos etc. rgds Alastair McGowan