While researching my Bonnett family line, I came across an interesting news article about a daredevil performer who jumped from great heights from a hot air balloon. His name was Professor C.C. Bonnette. While the last name was spelled a little differently, that in itself was not unusual for my French-Canadian family lines. Since he was not found in my Bonnett family tree, I made copies of the articles I found and put them aside for a future lookup. This past month or so, I have been researching Professor Bonnette, and I am pleased that I have discovered him. Not only is he my second cousin three times removed, but I also found that he lived an unusual and exciting life well worth knowing.
Clarence Clement Bonnett (Professor Bonnette) was born November 25, 1871, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. His parents were David Clement and Luella Ayer Bonnett. It had to be a mixture of joy and sorrow when he was born. His older brother, the first Clarence born in 1857, died most likely within a year before the second Clarence was born. While doing my research on Clarence, I corresponded with Mary Patterson, who is Clarence’s grandniece. Mary supplied me with many items for use in this blog post and much information. In one email, Mary gave me the following information.
When he was young, he attended a circus and became fascinated with some of the acrobats who performed! He went back to the farm and used an umbrella to jump from the barn hayloft to the ground. Needless to say, he got injured as the umbrella turned inside out and did not break his fall, but the wheels of fortune and adventure had captured his young mind, and his daredevil actions knew no limits nor bounds! He also used his mother’s clothesline as a tightrope, which broke many times… Clarence became famous in New England, attended the World Fair in Paris, and was in England at the Crystal Palace. He was quite clever and capitalized on his ancestors’ birth, claiming to be French and changing the spelling of his last name to Bonnette, and elevating his status to Professor. He made his own parachutes and hot air balloons and did many ascensions in a multitude of places in this country!
In the mid-1890s, I found Clarence working with a woman named Minnie Wilson. Minnie would do many of the dangerous stunts right along with Clarence. Minnie would have been in her early to mid-twenties when she started performing with Clarence. To say the very least, she was brave, and I would guess an unusual woman for her times. In 1897 the hazards of their trade would take a dreadful toll. In a mishap described in the news article below, Minnie was severely injured.
Minnie was never to recover from this accident. She was to spend the rest of her life mostly confined to a wheelchair. I have wondered how difficult it must have been for her. She was as much the daredevil as Clarence and led an exciting life now to be so inactive without the thrill of performing before large crowds. While being confined in a wheelchair is never easy, it had to be much more difficult over a hundred years ago.
Less than two years after the accident, Clarence and Minnie were married. While traveling the country before the accident, they were billed as Professor and Mrs. Bonnette. They cemented that relationship in a marriage ceremony in Boston, Massachusetts, in January 1899. Clarence was always hopeful that Minnie would recover or at least walk. These are the words Clarence wrote to family in letters that Mary Patterson sent me copies of. In a letter written in 1900, Clarence wrote in part Minnie will stay with Aggie this winter. She is not walking yet. But I think she will by spring as she is improving slowly all the time… In a letter dated 1901, he wrote Minnie is got so she can get around on crutches with help. It makes it much better for her. She does a lot of practicing every day. I do hope she will walk again some time. If I have a good season, I shall buy us a home up this way…
Season after season, Clarence worked his dangerous trade. He was to makeover 4700 balloon ascensions during his career. His act included everything from being blown out of a cannon while high in the air from a balloon. He would do a trapeze act while dangling from the bottom of the balloon, and of course, without the use of a safety net or parachute. He would dangle from the balloon by holding on with just his teeth, and many other acts of daring-do that he could dream up. It was challenging work, and accidents were a constant companion. I found many newspaper accounts of his accidents and unbelievable escapes from death. Below is just one of the many I found.
In an interview with Clarence, I read that he stated that he worked so hard because he needed the money to take care of Minnie. He said that in one week, he could make $500. However, in 1921 Minnie died. Clarence was to say over twenty years later that he still can’t get over the loss. Clarence never remarried.
From what I could find, there was no slowdown in his work schedule after Minnie’s death. Clearly, this was a man who enjoyed his work and the high risk that came with it. Clarence was to spend his last few years in what could be called forced retirement as he struggled against the march of time. He wanted to make the 5000 mark in balloon ascensions, and each year he told himself that he would be physically able to perform again. On March 28, 1948, his old adversary death, who he had evaded with each of his thousands of performances, finally caught up with him, when he had both feet firmly on the ground.
I found Professor Bonnette a fascinating man and certainly one of the more colorful people in my family tree. As I said earlier, I am indebted to Mary Patterson for furnishing me with so much rich material about his life. I have only scratched the surface of his life story in this little blog posting. I found out that he made and flew the first plane in Vermont and made his own balloons and parachutes. I could not even get into the story about the sabotage of his balloon in an attempt to murder him and the arrest of a family member for this crime. Mary told me she was thinking about writing a small book about her great uncle but has not gotten around to it yet. I hope she does as I would be one of the first to purchase a copy from her.