200 Years of Illinois: Darnell’s Folly

Summer is definitely the season for aerial tragedy in the Midwest. On July 26, 1911, Professor Harry Darnell took his place in that sad lore. Darnell stands tall in the history of Plainfield, so tall a local craft brewery named its summer berry ales after him.

Darnell, a veteran of 200 balloon flights, put on his show in and over Plainfield on that faithful July day. It was an era of live spectacle. No radio. No TV. In fact, Plainfield’s Electric Park hosted a lot of hot air ascensions that drew crowds and rotten proto-Little Rascals with slingshots. Of course, for sophisticated entertainment you could go see an elocutionist read poetry over beautiful music. Many did. But the usual mob of thrill-seekers flocked to wide fields to watch stunt fiends like Darnell do their thing.

Darnell’s thing was a trapeze act from a hot air balloon.

With a reported 3,000 picnickers watching, the Professor lifted skyward in his oval-shaped balloon. At some point Darnell went into his show-stopping Great Swing. Alas, Darnell zigged when he should have zagged, or something, and fell straight into the DuPage River. His next ascension was a purely spiritual one. The death of the so-called aeronaut earned a write-up in the New York Times and headlines nationwide.┬áIn Plainfield, locals raised funds to save him from a pauper’s grave. A stone with a carving of a hot air balloon still stands in Plainfield Township Cemetery.