Shadows and light in the skies of Québec: A preliminary look at the life and times of Québec female fairground balloonist and parachutist Florida Lanthier

An ascent made by fairground balloonist and parachutist Florida Lanthier. Maurice Desjardins, “Dans une modeste maison de Montréal-Nord -- Florida Lanthier, reine des parachutistes, vit de couture... et de souvenirs.” Photo-Journal, 8 November 1951, 3.

It is not every day that a topic of our blog / bulletin / thingee takes the front page of a newspaper, whether that be a daily or weekly. Nay. Yet, that is the case today. The 8 November 1951 edition of the Montréal, Québec, weekly Photo-Journal carried the following headlines, in translation: “Florida Lanthier, without her parachute – Read on page 3.” Yours truly must admit to being intrigued.

It turns out that Lanthier was / is one of the rare francophone female fairground aeronauts in Québec, the only one perhaps. I must admit that I know very little about her youth. She was seemingly born around 1891, for example, and that is about all I could find.

According to official documents, Lanthier married Adalbert C. Gadoury in June 1912. However, she told the Photo-Journal journalist who visited her in November 1951 that she had married Gadoury around 1905, when she was 14 years old and he about 16. I do not know what to think. The ceremony of June 1912 may have formalised a cohabitation which has lasted for about 7 years.

As outrageous as that marriage was / is, the fact is that it was perfectly legal in Québec at the time, as long as Lanthier’s pater familias gave his consent. Indeed, the Code civil du Bas-Canada, which came into force in 1866, stipulated that the age thresholds for entering into marriage were 14 years for boys and 12 years for girls. The mind boggles.

By the way, the Commission des droits civils de la Femme created by the government of Québec in 1930-31 recommended that these age thresholds be increased to 16 and 14 years. Said government seemed to have accepted these recommendations.

To get married in Québec in 2021, one must be at least 18 years old. However, a person aged 16 or 17 can get married if she or he gets permission from a court, but back to our story.

It was apparently in the 1900s, possibly around 1906, that Gadoury discovered a passion for ballooning. Specifically, he hoped to earn a lot of moolah – a very legitimate aspiration of course. His master of flying was the fairground aeronaut and parachutist Alphonse Stewart, “the king of the air” of Montréal. Gadoury may have been working part time then. It is also questionable whether he was participating in Stewart’s activities as a ground assistant or aeronaut / parachutist. I tend to favor hypothesis no 1, if only at the beginning.

Contrary to what yours truly thought, Stewart appeared to be a French-speaking balloonist – a rara avis at the time.

I am afraid I do not have any information on the first seconds, minutes and hours of Stewart’s aerostatic career. The first ascents I found were actually held in June and September 1903, respectively in Montréal, at Royal Park, and in Toronto, Ontario, as part of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, today’s Canadian National Exhibition. In the first case, Stewart took to the air to distribute tickets for some event. No parachute jump was made that day.

Would you believe that Stewart was in Australia in January 1908? Yes, yes, in Australia. He made his first flight in the southern hemisphere that same month, from a now defunct amusement park in Sydney. Stewart’s tour ended in Melbourne in February when he broke a leg after falling from the roof of a house he had just landed on as a flower, but back to Gadoury.

Around 1903, at age 14 or so, Gadoury joined the staff of the Canadian Railway News Company, a Montréal firm which sold newspapers, magazines and sandwiches at train stations. In 1917, for example, his non-flying duties were transporting newspapers between Montréal and Ottawa, Ontario.

Around that time, when she had both feet on the ground, Lanthier was an usher in a Montréal cinema.

It should be noted that, at an undetermined date, most likely during the 1910s, Lanthier apparently was part of the troupe of the famous Québec strongman Hector Décarie. She later claimed to be a formidable boxer who did not hesitate to challenge any young woman her size to meet her in a ring. In fact, would you believe that in the early 1950s or late 1940s she gave a shiner to a young thug who had tried to attack her?

Gadoury or Albert Farley, as he called himself, in order to be more serious perhaps, the aeronauts of the time being above all English-speaking and especially American, first appeared in newspapers, in Québec and Ontario, in June 1911.

It goes without saying that yours truly did not unearth all the articles which chronicled his adventures, nor those of Lanthier or Stewart. I apologise in advance, but back to Farley’s first known appearance.

Daily newspapers in Montréal, including La Presse, La Patrie and Le Devoir, published an advertisement by Daoust Realty Limited of Montréal inviting the population of the metropolis of Canada to participate in a garden party at the Bernard Terrace area of ​​the district of the east of the island of Montréal known as Longue-Pointe.

Maxime Daoust, a well-known Montréal real estate agent and founding president of Daoust Realty, wanted to boost the sale of land he owned in that corner of the world. He wanted to attract potential customers with the help of patriotic songs and a concert performed by a local ensemble. This being said (typed?), Daoust was counting much more on the appeal of a balloon race featuring, on the one hand, Stewart and his spouse, and, on the other hand, a new pilot who was, you guessed it, none other than Farley.

While the headlines in the ad were about a race, the fine print mentioned instead that Stewart and Farley’s fairground hot air balloons would take off at the same time and move about in the air for a while. Stewart, his spouse and Farley would later make parachute jumps. And yes, you should always read the fine print carefully, my reading friend.

As the Montréal press did not publish a single word about the June flights, yours truly wonders if they took place.

Between June 1911 and September 1914, some Montréal dailies published several Daoust Realty advertisements concerning garden parties and land for sale whose parachute jumps were not mentioned later on. Yours truly therefore wonders if Stewart and Farley made the slightest flight there.

A list of these 1- or 2-day events follows:

- in June 1911, at the Bernard Terrace;

- in September 1911, at the Coteau Rouge Park, in Longueuil, Québec, near Montréal;

- in June-July 1912, at the Coteau Rouge Park; and

- in September 1914, at the Coteau Rouge Park.

A snippet published in October 1914 mentioned that parachute descents involving Stewart as well as Farley and his spouse were to take place in Laprairie, Québec, near Montréal. This was the first mention of Lanthier as a fairground balloonist that I have found as of today. And no, the Montréal press did not mention that event later.

Yours truly doubts that all these flights of Stewart and Farley were cancelled. I am willing to admit that bad luck and hoodoos existed / exists, but not for 3 years.

The first information concerning flights and parachute jumps actually carried out by Farley and Stewart concerned those which took place on 1 August 1915, in the afternoon, at Longue-Pointe, at Dominion Park, one of the most impressive amusement parks in Canada. at the time. The dynamic duo left the ground aboard the same fairground hot air balloon. Stewart had the luxury of jumping with 2 parachutes. He opened the second after getting rid of the first. Farley took to the air a second time in the evening. A searchlight followed his descent almost to the ground. Lanthier having broken a leg a few weeks before, under undetermined circumstances, she preferred to remain wisely on the ground.

Farley and Lanthier took to the air at Dominion Park on the afternoon of 8 August. Farley performed a second flight in the evening. The text of the newspaper article containing information about these flights did not mention the use of parachutes. It thus suggested that the fairground hot air balloon which carried Farley and Lanthier landed in trees, which considerably complicated their return to solid ground.

Farley’s flight at Dominion Park on the evening of 14 August was even more eventful. His jump ended in the St. Lawrence River. Worse still, Farley’s parachute landed on him and he barely escaped drowning.

Stewart also had serious difficulties earlier in the day. A gust having almost knocked the balloon over, the aeronaut had to struggle to stabilise it. His jump also ended in the St. Lawrence River.

And no, fairground parachuting was not a particularly safe occupation.

Stewart and Farley’s fairground hot air balloon having disappeared as a result of the latter’s flight, the 15 August flights had to be canceled. Indeed, yours truly does not know if there were flights on 21 and 22 August.

This being said (typed?), Stewart and Lanthier took to the air on the afternoon of 28 August, at Dominion Park of course, aboard a fairground hot air balloon. Their parachute jumps went off without a hitch. Farley flew alone in the evening. His jump also turned out to be uneventful. The 3 aeronauts may, I repeat may, have taken to the air on 4 and 5 September.

Farley and Lanthier took to the air in Sherbrooke, Québec, the homecity of yours truly, on the afternoon of 7 September 1916, for the Great Eastern Exhibition. The flight which was to take place in the evening had to be canceled because of the wind.

Stewart, Farley and Lanthier also participated in the 1916 edition of the Central Canada Exhibition in Ottawa in September. The first two took off aboard a fairground hot air balloon. Stewart had the luxury of jumping with 2 parachutes. He opened the second after getting rid of the first. Farley, on the other hand, saw the envelope of said balloon tear open shortly before takeoff. The aeronauts may, I repeat may, have taken to the air a day or two later.

Stewart, Farley and Lanthier returned to Ottawa in September 1917. The latter appeared to fly with Stewart or her spouse. Farley was alone when he took to the air, in the evening, however, in front of the crowds visiting the Central Canada Exhibition. A searchlight followed his ascent and descent, practically to the ground.

In June 1918, a certain George Farly was in Québec, Québec, but it looks as if Lanthier was there as well. Let me explain. During a flight in that city, on an undetermined date, Lanthier learned the hard way that it was not a good idea to pack a parachute when it was wet. Indeed, the latter only opened very close to the ground (15 metres / 50 feet?). Lanthier was so scared that she fainted. She indicated that one of the individuals who revived her was the well-known Montréal strongman and police constable Wilfrid Cabana.

It so happened that, you guessed it, Cabana was in Québec in June 1918 to perform at the Parc de l’Exposition, the very location where Farly / Farley was performing.

It should be noted that Lanthier folded her parachute herself before each of the flights. She may well have performed many dozen jumps during her career.

In August 1918, Farley and Lanthier were back in Québec. They apparently performed several flights and jumps from the park surrounding one of the city’s oldest buildings, the Duke of Kent’s House. The following month, Stewart and Farley were once again back in Ottawa, as part of the Central Canada Exhibition.

The Duke of Kent, by the way, was Prince Edward of house Hanover, the father of Alexandrina Victoria, in other words Queen Victoria – a monarch mentioned in November 2018 and March 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. He lived in Québec between 1791 and 1794, with the love of his life (1790-1818), the Frenchwoman Julie de Saint-Laurent or, more exactly, Alphonsine Thérèse Bernardine Julie de Montgenêt de Saint-Laurent, born Thérèse Bernardine Montgenêt.

The good duke married the princess of Leiningen, born Marie Louise Victoire of the house Saxe-Cobourg-Saalfeld, in May 1818, however, in order to produce an heir or heiress for the British throne. His two brothers also got married in 1818, for the same reason. If I may be permitted some impudence, Alexandrina Victoria having been born in May 1819, it was the Duke of Kent and his spouse who won the game of throne, but I digress.

Farley took to the sky in Ottawa in September 1919, again as part of the Central Canada Exhibition. His fairground hot air balloon disappeared after an otherwise uneventful parachute jump. It was found 13 or so kilometres (8 miles) from the site of the exhibition.

Some of the last parachute jumps of Farley mentioned in daily newspapers consulted by yours truly took place in Ottawa, in September 1920, 1921 and 1922, and in Québec, in September 1922. These jumps usually went very well. In Ottawa, in 1920, however, he made a jump with not 2 but 3 parachutes which he opened one after the other. Farley landed on the roof of a house and fell to the ground. He was a bit stunned. In 1921, Farley used a new and relatively small fairground hot air balloon. Incompletely filled with hot air, it did not climb very high. Farley chose to make the jump anyway. His third parachute barely had the time to open. Farley landed among trees.

In Québec, he jumped from an aeroplane but, on one occasion, only managed to open his parachute close to the ground.

Farley’s last parachute jumps may, I repeat may, have taken place in Ottawa in September 1923. He used a brand-new fairground hot balloon, made by a well-known Ottawa firm specialising in textile products, Grant-Holden-Graham Limited, to do this. During one of these flights, the balloon skedaddled. It was found 13 or so kilometres (8 miles) from the site of the Central Canada Exhibition. This being said (typed?), Farley may have jumped at the 1925 edition of that exhibition.

Farley or, as he was often called, Professor Farley, a descriptor commonly used to describe aeronauts of the 19th and 20th centuries, seemingly made quite an impression on the good people of the notional capital. Sorry. To quote an August 1954 article found in one of the main daily newspapers of that city, The Ottawa Citizen,

The Professor had a penchant for chewing tobacco and using strong language, and his explosive exclamations to the gang of spectators who used to hold down the balloon while it filled with oil smoke from a big kerosene-fed fire, were regarded as classics in the art of profanity.

Amen. Sorry. Again.

Over the years, with or without Lanthier, Farley took to the air in many municipalities of Québec (Granby, Laprairie, Longue-Pointe, Longueuil, Montréal, Québec, Sainte-Rose, Sainte-Thérèse, Sherbrooke, etc.) and Ontario (Brockville, Kingston, Ottawa, Renfrew, etc.).

Lanthier’s aeronautical career, on the other hand, came to an end after the end of the First World War. Indeed, several / many Canadian aviators trained during the conflict carried out flight demonstrations which sometimes included parachute jumps. One only needs to think of the Québec parachutist Louis Boily, apparently active between 1922 and 1930.

In matters of coolness, in French the word is coolitude, I kid you not, fairground hot air balloons were no match for modern machines like the Curtiss JN-4 Canuck, a training airplane present in the astonishing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa.

Please note that the following may well disturb many readers. I must admit that I was quite disturbed myself. I did not expect at all the dramatic turns of event which follow.

In April 1924, in Montréal, 9 masked men intercepted a truck carrying funds of the Banque d’Hochelaga of Montréal. The driver and one of the masked men perished as a result of that otherwise carefully prepared attack. The 8 surviving criminals fled with the colossal sum of around $ 140 000, or roughly $ 2 100 000 in 2021 currency.

Many people were arrested over the following days, including a former member of the police force of the metropolis of Canada, the Sûreté de Montréal, Louis Morel, the mastermind of that dark affair. During his trial, the latter claimed that active members of the Sûreté de Montréal were mired in that sh*tstorm.

Amédée Geoffrion, the recorder of the city of Montréal and a former member of the Assemblée législative de la province de Québec, admitted to having under his benevolent wing the hot district of Montréal, the infamous “Red Light,” where he imposed only small fines on the bawdy house keepers, and their employees.

Morel and 3 of his accomplices, members of organised crime in Montréal, including the “King of the Red Light,” Tony Frank, born Arcangelo di Vincenzo, were executed by hanging in October.

Outraged by what they read in the newspapers, many Montrealers demanded a judicial inquiry. The Cour supérieure de la province de Québec placed one of its men, the junior judge François Louis Alfred Coderre, at the head of said inquiry. The latter began to sit in October 1924.

The efforts of the Comité des seize, a Montréal group founded in 1917, fiercely opposed to prostitution, which tore at the corruption within the Sûreté de Montréal and the Comité exécutif of that same city, ensured that Coderre’s work dealt in large part with prostitution.

One of those more or less forced to testify was a garage owner, sergeant Frank Bond of the Sûreté de Montréal. The latter admitted having paid the lease of a residence where Lanthier lived. Bond claimed to have made that payment to help her out, however, and nothing more.

Actually, a woman could not sign a lease in Québec at that time. Indeed, it was not until 1964 that married Québec women gained access to the legal rights and property rights that men had held since the days of Noah and the ark. The mind boggles, but I digress. And yes, married women living elsewhere in Canada had gained access to these same rights many years, if not a few decades, before. One might be tempted to make a comment about the distinctiveness of certain societies at this point, but that might not be well received.

During her testimony before Coderre in December 1924, Lanthier stated she was a forewoman in a clothing factory in Montréal, in all likelihood Samuel Hart & Company Limited. About 35 young women were under her command. Lanthier said she had worked since 1919 or so. She added that she was separated from Gadoury / Farley because that he was not working hard enough to support her.

Curiously, Lanthier told the Photo-Journal reporter who visited her in 1951 that Gadoury / Farley had died in 1919, during the influenza pandemic of 1918-21.

Bond’s intervention in her lease and at least one testimony led a lawyer of the judicial inquiry to ask Lanthier if she was not, in fact, a bawdy house keeper, before she changed addresses. If so, Bond, whom Lanthier said she has known since 1916, was simply ensuring the protection of her illicit trade. Lanthier strongly denied that accusation, as did Bond and Lanthier’s brother, who had lived with her for a while. Indeed, she did not allow herself to be pushed around by the lawyer.

One is entitled to wonder if Lanthier and other witnesses realised more or less consciously that the judicial inquiry led by Coderre was an elephantid which was going to give birth to a murid.

And yes, murids are a family of small mammals belonging to the rodent order which have been frolicking on Earth for 17 to 22 million years. I applaud your knowledge of palaeontology, my reading friend, but back to our mouse – or vole. (Hello, EP!) Sorry. Back to our topic.

Made public in March 1925, the Rapport d’enquête sur la police de Montréal denounced the Comité exécutif de Montréal and, even more so, the Sûreté de Montréal. The latter was, according to Coderre, ineffective, poorly supervised and without competent management. The former, on the other hand, was rather too much involved in the administration of the police service. Let us not forget that it was the Comité exécutif de Montréal which had chosen Pierre Bélanger as the incompetent, even corrupt, chief / superintendent of said police service, around December 1918.

Indeed, Coderre recommended that the Montréal police union, the Federal Police Union No 62, a cancer on good discipline and a school of insubordination, his words not mine, possibly in translation, affiliated with the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, be dissolved. Whether or not it actually was is unclear, and this despite that fact that Privy Council refused, in July 1927, to overturn a Supreme Court of Canada judgment to that effect, but I digress.

Strongly embarrassed and infuriated by Coderre’s report, Montréal’s municipal authorities, namely the Conseil municipal and the Comité exécutif, quickly realised, however, that it could be shelved without serious consequences. If yours truly may be permitted to paraphrase, in translation, the French from France writer Louis Hémon in his famous miserabilist novel Maria Chapdelaine – A Tale of the Lake St. John Country, published in French in 1914 (daily serial – Paris), 1916 (book – Montréal) and 1921 (book – Paris) and then praised to the skies by the right-wing lay and church elites of Québec and France, in this land of Montréal naught shall die and naught shall suffer change.

Indeed, Bélanger remained in office until September 1928. Err, actually, he was suspended, reinstated and exonerated. Bélanger then chose to resign.

Dare I say (type?) that Montréal’s red light district was making too much moolah, directly or indirectly, for too many people, non respectable and respectable, to be wiped off the map?

Described in the Rapport d’enquête sur la police de Montréal as being the protector of a bawdy house he ran with Lanthier, Bond left the Sûreté de Montréal in March 1925. He may have done so before being fired, like at least 3 of his colleagues. He then disappeared from the newspapers. Bond was seemingly not bothered by the justice systems of Montréal, Québec or Canada.

Lanthier, on the other hand, had disappeared from said newspapers even before the end of 1924. She was seemingly not bothered by the justice systems of Montréal, Québec or Canada.

Lanthier reappeared in 1951, when she appeared on the front page of the 8 November issue of Photo-Journal.

The article was / is very interesting, but the almost total absence of dates did / do not make it possible to make the connection between Lanthier’s account and the information published in newspapers. For example, she claimed to have made her first flight with the aforementioned Stewart. Her spouse being ill the day he had to take to the air in Longueuil, Lanthier volunteered. As a ground assistant to her spouse and Stewart for quite some time, she was very familiar with the equipment used. That first flight went off without a hitch. It may, I repeat may, have taken place around 1906. Lanthier was about 15.

She was one gutsy lady.

A week later, however, after taking to the air in the evening, from Saint Helen’s Island, near Montréal, Lanthier landed in the St. Lawrence River. A safety belt kept the young woman afloat for about an hour, until Charles Desjardins, the founding owner of the famous Charles Desjardins & Compagnie Limitée Montréal-based fur store, took her aboard his yacht.

Lanthier claimed to have taken to the air at least once in Ottawa in 1913, as part of the Central Canada Exhibition. She allegedly managed to land right in front of the lodge where sat former Prime Minister Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier, a gentleman mentioned several times since July 2019 in our blog / bulletin / thingee. A flight made a few days did not end quite as well. Lanthier then smashed the skylight of the studio of an Ottawa photographer.

A digression if I may. While yours truly found no proof that Laurier was at the 1913 edition of the Central Canada Exhibition, it looks as if he attended the 1912 edition of that exhibition. End of digression.

During a flight in the Québec region, on an undetermined date, the fairground hot-air balloon that Lanthier shared with Stewart became trapped in an air pocket above Montmorency Falls, about 150 metres (500 feet) from the ground. Maneuvering the ropes of her parachute as best she could, she managed to land on the rocks at the foot of the fall.

Despite her many perilous jumps, Lanthier claimed she was injured only twice. By a curious coincidence, these injuries were fractures to her right ankle.

Lanthier also mentioned the following jump, in translation, which was very tragic: “One day, in Côte-Saint-Paul, I fell on electrical wires. A good local man, named Nantel I believe, climbed a pole to help me, but he was imprudent and was burned to death by the current.”

A slightly derogatory comment if I may. I have the impression that Maurice Desjardins, the journalist who spoke with Lanthier, polished her words a wee bit. I doubt that Lanthier used a French verb tense like the simple past.

In any event, that sad event could not have been more real. It occurred in August 1920, in a municipality, Côte-Saint-Paul, annexed to Montréal in 1910. The victim, Adori Nantel, was electrocuted but not burned to death. Sorry. That day, Lanthier and Farley had jumped from the same fairground hot air balloon as part of a festival intended for veterans of the First World War, in Ville-Émard, another municipality annexed to Montréal in 1910. The latter landed without a hitch and suggested to bring firefighters to rescue his spouse. Nantel climbed a ladder despite warnings from the latter. Ultimately, Lanthier managed to free herself from her harness. The aeronaut then dropped into an automobile whose driver had moved underneath her.

What is curious about that tragic story is that Lanthier’s name did not appear anywhere in the articles published in Montréal dailies. The name yours truly found in these texts was Eileen Vernal – a name which did not appear to be present elsewhere in said dailies.

A poverty-stricken seamstress whose small Montréal-Nord house may not have had running water, Lanthier had been working from home for one or more Montréal workshops for several / many years when she was interviewed. She disappeared again after the publication of the Photo-Journal article and yours truly does not know when she died.

Lanthier was / is in many ways a fascinating character. The troubling aspects of her life do not diminish her contribution to the history of aviation in Québec and Canada.

This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier