Tony Jannus (left) piloted the airplane while Albert Berry (right) made history by becoming the first man to parachute from an airplane.
By Andrew H. Martin
From military endeavors to recreation, parachuting from airplanes has played a large role in American life over the past century. However, few realize the first parachute jump from an airplane was from the skies over Missouri in 1912 by the mysterious and controversial Albert Berry, who was on trial for a heinous crime just months before his historic jump.
During the early twentieth century, aviation was literally just getting off the ground. Adventurers worked feverishly to see how far they could push the boundaries of flight. Berry, whose background was primarily in parachuting from balloons, managed to get his name in the record books.
Berry’s father, John, was a hot air balloonist who included his son in his flights. The youngster made his first parachute jump from a balloon when he was just nine years old. Unfortunately, John drifted out of Albert’s life by the time he was a teenager.
As an adult, Berry followed in his father’s footsteps, making a living from ballooning and performing stunts like parachute jumps.
In the winter of 1912, at Jefferson Barracks, aircraft manufacturer Thomas Benoist assembled a team intent on completing the world’s first parachute jump from an airplane. In addition to his top pilot, Tony Jannus, he recruited the thirtythree- year-old Albert Berry to jump.
The team first had to do some testing. It was thought that a sudden weight loss from a plane might make the craft unstable. Jannus disproved that notion by throwing several anvils overboard during a solo flight to mimic the scenario.
On March 1, 1912, Berry and Jannus, determined to make history, climbed into a Benoist Pusher biplane at Kinloch Field, where Lambert Field now stands.
It was so cold that Berry wore a rubber coat, driving goggles, boots, and a stocking cap.
As the duo flew to the determined jump site, they supposedly passed over an insane asylum, which prompted Berry to tell Jannus, “That’s where we both belong.”
Most people, including the soldiers on the ground, had no idea what was happening. The New York Times wrote, “The first indication that the soldiers had that anything unusual was to take place was when they heard the buzzing of the propeller and saw the airship flying high and swiftly.”
Berry sat behind Jannus, and when they reached an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet and were traveling at 55 miles per hour, he climbed down to a specially designed trapeze hanging beneath the parachute canister. His parachute was made out of material from an old balloon and was attached with large rubber bands to the inside of a metallic canister that was fastened to the underside of the plane. After attaching himself to the parachute, he pulled a knife from his coat, cut the cord, and fell from his perch.
Berry estimated he fell for five hundred feet before his parachute opened. He landed without incident at Jefferson Barracks. He exclaimed to reporters: “I believe I turned five somersaults on my way down. I was not prepared for the violent sensation that I felt when I broke away from the aeroplane.”
The press loved Berry’s stoicism. He boasted: “I didn’t feel a bit nervous. I have made many parachute leaps from balloons, and I felt certain this experiment would succeed. I think I was more concerned for Jannus in the aeroplane.”
Few knew that Berry was just a few months removed from his fight for freedom in a Pennsylvania courtroom where he was accused of participating in one of the most infamous lynchings in US history.
In the summer of 1911, Berry arrived in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, to perform balloon jumps at a local festival. The steel town was experiencing rising racial tensions because of an influx of African Americans and immigrants, who were all competing for the same jobs.
Black worker Zachariah Walker was walking home on August 12 after a night of drinking at a tavern. When he ran into several Polish immigrants, an argument ensued.
Edgar Rice, a white security guard, approached the scene and attempted to subdue Walker. When he resisted, the pair struggled, and Walker shot Rice to death and then fled into the nearby woods.
The following day, a large posse, including Berry, searched the woods and found Walker hiding in a tree. The frightened fugitive shot himself in the face in an act of desperation but suffered only a minor wound.
Walker was arrested and taken to the hospital but would never see his day in court. Before the day was over, a mob seized him from his bed and burned him alive in a nearby field with a crowd estimated as large as two to three thousand people looking on.
The story became a national sensation. Former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a scathing anti-lynching editorial for the popular magazine The Outlook. The NAACP investigated and demanded action.
Under political pressure, fifteen men and teenage boys were indicted
and prosecuted in a succession of trials for their alleged roles in the murder. One of them was Berry.
The prosecution claimed Berry egged on the angry crowd and visited Walker in the hospital to get the security information needed to kidnap the doomed man. He was never implicated in the actual killing.
Berry admitted visiting Walker but denied acting as a spy. Instead, he claimed he prevented the posse from killing Walker when he was first captured. He also said he warned the town’s police chief, Charles Umstead, of the impending violence. He insisted the chief, who was also indicted for the murder, refused to listen and warned him, “No one asked you to butt in.”
During the trial, 204 witness subpoenas were issued. The prosecutor, sure of his evidence, told the press that if he couldn’t get a conviction, “God alone could secure it.” However, the unpopular trials contributed to a blanket of silence among the white community, stonewalling the prosecution.
Berry and the other defendants were acquitted of all charges. Presiding judge William Butler chided the Coatesville community for their complicity in allowing Walker’s death to go unpunished. It was the last lynching in Pennsylvania.
Berry’s trial reconnected him with his father, who hurried to Pennsylvania after seeing his son’s name in a newspaper account. He sent his son, who needed a job, to Benoist, who was just starting to plan the parachute jump.
The primary players in the historic parachute jump all met sudden or murky endings.
Jannus died in a plane crash over Russia in 1916.
Benoist passed away a year later in a streetcar accident.
Nothing is known about Albert Berry after 1916. He made at least one other parachute jump from a plane, ten days after his original feat. He nearly died that day when his chute became entangled and barely opened in time. He said it would be his final jump, and as far as is known, it was.