Madeline Squires, ascending and descending
Balloon ascensions were popular entertainments at Kansas City parks in 1893. In July there was a wedding in a balloon at Washington Park. The couple, promised the Times, “will be married while standing in the basket, and just as soon as the ceremony is concluded the ropes will be loosened, the balloon will ascend, the band will play and the newly-wedded pair will start on their bridal trip through the air.”
That evening, noted the paper, “Miss Madeleine Squires will make an ascension with an illuminated balloon.” Night-time ascensions were a new attraction. In Kansas City they were pioneered by “Professor” F.A. Squires of Houstonia, Missouri. He spurned daytime ascensions as “too common” and hit upon the idea of a nighttime ascension in an illuminated balloon. A week before Madeleine’s ascension, the professor added to his performance a mile high parachute jump from his balloon “Kansas City,” said to be the largest in the West, “his descent being marked by a display of fireworks.”
Balloon ascensions were only one of the entertainments Washington Park offered visitors. In late April, when the Park opened for the season, crowds came to see the spring flowers. In addition to a bowling alley, restaurant, and Shetland ponies for the children, there was a new boat house where boats could be rented for a cruise on Swan Lake, a new shooting park, and dancing floor for dancing to the park’s band. On Thursday evenings the band gave concerts from a barge in the lake.
The park periodically brought in special acts to draw crowds. The “famous Mexican national band” played two concerts in August before going on to Chicago to play in the Mexican building at the world’s fair. A boxing kangaroo, “said to be the highest price novelty in the way of an individual attraction now in this country,” also made an appearance in August.
The real excitement of the season, however, was high diving. A local diver, E.S. Ridgeway, was challenging the high diving record of Joseph Leuvenmark, a Swede designated by the Los Angeles Herald “the champion high diver of the world and former teacher of the royal house of Sweden.” Ridgeway claimed to have broken Leuvenmark’s record in a dive at Pertle Springs, near Warrensburg.
Leuvenmark toured the country giving high dive exhibitions, but it was in Kansas City in July, 1891, that Leuvenmark had dived from a height of 83 feet 3 3/4 inches into the Washington Park lake, beating the previous record by almost eight feet.
Kansas City found itself in the national limelight and the lure of publicity led Miss Squires to give up the aeronaut business for high diving: “Miss Madeline Squires,” announced the Times on Saturday, August 26 – there was lack of agreement on how to spell her name – “will dive from a tower fifty feet high into the lake at Washington Park Sunday afternoon. This is her first attempt at such a height, although she is a fine swimmer and diver. E.S. Ridgeway will also dive today and tomorrow from a tower eighty feet high.”
The Journal described Madeline as “one of the most fearless aeronauts in this country,” who is “ambitious to achieve the same distinction in another dangerous sport, high diving.” She has, said the paper, been practicing diving and is confident of being able to dive from a high tower “without breaking her neck.”
In fact, she announced her intention to challenge the diving records of Leuvenmark and Ridgeway. She is, said the Journal, “absolutely without fear but does not lack prudence. She recognizes the danger of such an undertaking and that a mistake may prove fatal, but she has decided to make a record for herself and will not hesitate when the time comes.”
Ten thousand people came out to watch Madeline and Ridgeway’s dives. “Professor Ridgeway made the prettiest dive from the eighty foot mark ever seen at the park,” reported the Journal:
He is much more graceful than Leuvenmark or any of the professional divers who have given exhibitions here, and he says that he can dive from the 100 foot mark as easily as from fifty feet….. He is a Kansas City boy, and says that he learned to dive from an old sycamore tree into the Big Blue not far from Washington Park.
Madeline Squires' inaugural dive did not go so well: she struck the water flat and face down and was knocked unconscious. E.S. Ridgeway swam out to pull her from the water. She was unfazed, vowing to go into training under Ridgeway and dive the following Sunday from sixty feet. The Times added the news that her foot slipped as she jumped, and described the crowd’s reaction:
For an instant there were blanched faces and a fearing silence in the huddled crowd that blackened the banks of the lake. Many feared that the brave diver had been killed by the fall, and all expected a ghastly sight upon the reappearance of her body. But there was a spontaneous, heartfelt cheer, from 10,000 throats when she arose yet alive….Despite the injuries and the severe pain she suffered, the intrepid woman announced her determination to make a more accurate leap, and was only dissuaded by force of her friends.
An unidentified citizen wrote to the city's Humane Officer asking him to prevent Madeline from another attempt, but she was described as “much chagrined at what she considers a failure to fulfill her contract with the park managers” and determined to repeat the performance on the following Sunday, September 3. “She will not be scared off by the attempts of the humane societies to prevent her diving,” reported the Journal. The park took out an ad in the Journal for Madeline’s dive, describing her as “the only lady high diver of the world.”
On the same day, Ridgeway was also scheduled to dive from the ninety foot mark, almost seven feet above Leuvenmark’s record. Leuvenmark had reportedly been belittling Ridgeway’s performances so for this jump the height of the tower would be measured by a committee of prominent citizens. “The tower has been raised to the required height and seems to touch the skies…,” reported the Times. “If Ridgeway is successful, he will challenge the world,” in addition to receiving a certificate and medal, “appropriately engraved,” from the citizens’ committee.
A large crowd came out to watch the two divers. The committee found the tower to be several feet short so a box was nailed to the top of the platform, adding a few inches though still only about three inches higher than Leuvenmark’s record. Nevertheless, it was, as the Journal put it, “a record breaker,” and Ridgeway’s dive “a pretty thing of the kind….”
Madeline Squires’ dive was from about forty feet rather than sixty. Reported the Journal:
She showed a wonderful amount of nerve to throw herself at the water, and the great crowd about the shores held its breath as her body went through the air. She seemed to slip, and lost all control of herself. Luckily she landed in such a way that she was not hurt, and several strong swimmers who were in waiting soon had her upon the shore.
This appears to have ended Madeline Squires’ career as a high diver, for 1893 at least.
Washington Park was located on the site of the present day Mount Washington Cemetery, off Highway 24 in Independence (http://oldfairmountpark.com/1887.html). It was the largest park in Missouri at the time. The park closed in 1900.