Home » Episodes » Episode 69 – Paris, France & San Francisco, CA (Emma LeDoux and Balloonmania)

This week Emily and Rachel go “Horrible Lite” and tell two tragic stories. First, Emily heads to Paris to tell the story of Sophie Blanchard, the first female to fly a hot air balloon solo and the first to die in an aviation accident.

Then, Rachel tells us about murderess Emma LeDoux and the body in a trunk at a train station. Hopefully, you’re horrified!

Story 1 – Balloon Mania & Sophie Blanchard

Now, let’s talk about a strange tale from the late 1700s and early 1800s. A tale that starts with a ‘trend’ that I had personally never heard of, but that amused me quite a bit. It’s a little something called “balloon mania”. Care to take a wild guess at what balloon mania was?

You’re close/you’re so far off. Balloon mania started in 1774 when a man named Joseph Priestley discovered some science shit. He realized that when you heat oxygen it becomes lighter than the gasses in the air and would rise. Within a few years someone took this information and began experimenting with how it could be used to raise a paper bag into the air by heating the air inside it. A hot air balloon if you will.  

This experiment was done by the Montgolfier (moan-gol-fee-ay) brothers, two paper manufacturers and in 1783 they constructed a paper balloon that was 30 feet tall. They inflated it with hot air, took it out to the countryside, and sent it on an unmanned mission flying high above the ground while an enormous crowd of onlookers watched.

After that… balloon mania went k-razy. It’s just so pure, guys. I am just picturing people clapping with glee at the sight of these colorful balloons floating in the sky. Less pure are the two guys, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Vincent Lunardi, who went ahead and exploited the fact that people were loving these balloons so much. They would launch balloons to draw large crowds and then try to gain personal fame. Lunardi went so far as to say that he, himself was the “idol of the whole nation” in a letter.

Just like you can’t give yourself a nickname, you can’t proclaim yourself an idol. Only Ryan Seacrest can do that.

Anyway, apparently these guys would share that they were going to have a balloon exhibit and then crowds of hundreds or thousands of enthusiastic onlookers would turn up. Sometimes they would even riot if the launch was delayed.

Of course, some people were less than impressed. There is a report of this professor named Jacque Alexandre Cesar Charles who built a balloon to rival the balloons constructed by the Montgolfier’s balloons. He made HIS balloon with hydrogen and they launched it in front of a big crowd that included Benjamin Franklin, notably. It travelled for forty-five minutes and fifteen miles to the village of Genoesse (jen-oh-ease), where frightened peasants attacked and destroyed it when it landed.


So, the Montgolfiers’ balloons started getting larger and larger, and they started thinking… maybe we should send a person up in the balloon! At this point King Louis the 16th took an interest and was like, “how about we send a couple criminals up. Who cares if they die, right?” But, the Montgolfiers were like, yeah… maybe we start with animals… and they sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster on board for the first balloon flight to hold living creatures. They did they demonstration in front of the King and Marie Antoinette and a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles. The balloon floated 1,500 feet in the air, and then floated back down to safety – no animals were injured and the brothers had officially sent living creatures into the sky.

Everything snowballed from here. Public interest increased dramatically after living creatures were able to survive a flight. Suddenly it was part of the culture. A poet from that time, Peter Bell, even wrote a poem. It went:  

“There’s something in a flying Horse,
There’s something in a huge balloon:
But through the Clouds I’ll never float
Until I have a little Boat
Shaped like the crescent-moon.”

– Peter Bell

Even more than that, clothing started to take on balloon-ish looks. People started wearing exaggerated puffed sleeves and rounded skirts; and they would even put images of balloons on their fabric. People even coiffed their hair to look like the men who were becoming famous for their ballooning or they might even just make their hair look bouffant-ed like balloons.

People made souvenirs and collectibles, with balloons featured on them. They were on plates, cups, clocks, bracelets, tobacco pipes, hairclips, tiepins, even a porcelain bidet with a balloon design painted on the interior. They even became talked about in the newspaper’s cartoons… people would create sexually suggestive images like balloon-breasted girls lifting off their feet, monstrous aeronauts inflated by gas enemas, or ‘inflammable’ women carrying men off into the clouds.

Remember the name Jean-Pierre Blanchard? He started getting more and more famous after he crossed the English channel in a balloon flying from Dover Castle to Guînes (geins) for the first time. Of course, Blanchard had a bit of an ego and he started making wild claims about his success. He pulled a real Al Gore move and said that he was the person who invented both the balloon and the parachute (he didn’t). What he did do was use a parachute a couple times. Once he had a mid-air malfunction and used the balloon like a parachute to escape. Another time he let his dog float down to earth from a balloon – yes the dog lived. But, using something doesn’t mean that you invented it.

Blanchard was a real peach. Not only did he abandon his first wife and their FOUR children to pursue his ballooning dreams, but he wanted all the glory – originally – for himself. Apparently, his chief financier John Jeffries said that Blanchard tried to keep him from boarding the balloon by wearing weighted girdles and claiming the balloon could only carry one person.

Some of these failures and weird things made Blanchard more of a pariah than an idol, so he thought up a new scheme. He decided that to maintain the spotlight he would need to share it. And he thought maybe people will want to see something bizarre. Something completely novel. Something shocking… a WOMAN in the air! GASP. So, he turned to his new, young wife Sophie.

A little backstory on Sophie. There is a little bit of lore around how Jean-Pierre and Sophie met. The story goes that Jean-Pierre was passing through the village of Trois-Cantons near Rochelle and saw a pregnant woman working in the fields. He told her that if her child proved to be a girl, he would marry the girl when she turned 16. On March 25, 1778, Marie Madeleine Sophie Armand was born. Jean-Pierre kept his marriage promise, but exactly when Jean-Pierre and Sophie married is unclear.

Here’s something strange about Sophie, by the way. She was tiny and described by one writer as having “sharp bird-like features.” She also, was apparently, very nervous and scared really easily. Like, some reports even say that Sophie Blanchard was terrified of riding in horse-drawn carriages. And yet. Once she set foot in a balloon, she felt alive. She thought it was an incomparable sensation and she loved getting to take flights with her husband in his balloons.

She even took her first solo ascent in 1805, which made her the first woman to pilot her own balloon.  This got her some recognition, just as Jean Pierre hoped. In fact, Napoleon appointed he the ‘Aeronaut of the Official Festivals’. Yes, this was a job back then. P.S. the reason he named Sophie to this appointment was because he had to fire his previous Aeronaut, Andre Jacques Garnerin. Apparently Andre sent a balloon up to mark Napoleon’s coronation in Paris but he lost control of the aircraft and it drifted all the way to Rome, which super embarrassed the emperor. How DARE you embarrass this already embarrassingly short man!

Anywho, in this position, Sophie was responsible for organizing balloon displays at festivals and other events. Apparently, she was even in charge of drawing up plans of an aerial invasion of Great Britain.  She also made an ascent to celebrate his wedding to Marie Louise.

Unfortunately, the Blanchards had to stop flying as a team in February 1808 because of an accident. Jean Pierre was standing there beside Sophie in the basket, they were floating over the Hague in the Netherlands, when he had a heart attack and fell more than 50 feet. He never recovered from the fall and died on March 7, 1809 – a whole year later.

Crippled by her husband’s debts, Sophie continued to fly, slowly paying off creditors. She even started amplifying her shows by shooting off fireworks from her basket. Now that she was the boss, Sophie was going to show her stuff!

She made flight after flight – actually making over sixty flights in her lifetime! Of course, she had a few mishaps herself – doing such a dangerous job. One close call occurred in 1811 when she lost consciousness after ascending too high. She was apparently trapped in a hailstorm near and had to stay in the air for 14 1/2 hours (allegedly).

Another instance of a rough moment was when she crossed the Alps heading to Turin on April 25, 1812. Apparently the temperatures dropped so low she suffered a nose bleed and icicles formed on her hands and face.

A few years later, in September of 1817, she was attempting to land in what she thought was a safe spot but it was actually a marsh. As she landed, the canopy of her balloon caught in some trees, her basket tipped, and she became entangled in the rigging and landed in the water. She almost drowned but people rushed to save her.

But she got more and more ballsy – and started taking risks. And she liked to go flying at night and often would stay out until dawn, sometimes sleeping in her balloon. And, as I mentioned before, she loved setting off pyrotechnics beneath her hydrogen balloon. This was extremely dangerous. Hydrogen is insanely flammable (remember the Lindberg disaster?).

On the 6th of July in 1819, Sophie was set to perform at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. This was nothing special, she made regular performances there and had a big crowd that always gathered. She didn’t want her display to get stale – to seem like it was the same-old, same-old – so she decided to lean into the fireworks aspect of her show.

In an elaborate white dress and matching hat accessorized with an ostrich plume, Blanchard, carrying a torch, began her ascent. As the balloon floated high above the ground she began her “Bengal Fire” demonstration. This was a slow-burning pyrotechnics display.

Winds immediately carried her away from the gardens. From above, she lit fireworks and dropped them by parachute. The lights hung from beneath her balloon. Suddenly there was a flash and popping from the skies; flames shot up from the top of the balloon.

People thought it was part of the display and were shouting, “Beautiful! Beautiful! Vive Madame Blanchard!!” Then the balloon began to descend because it was on fire. One onlooker said that it “lit up Paris like some immense moving beacon.”

The balloon started to descend rapidly, but luckily the gas in it was enough to keep it from straight up plunging to earth. Sophie struggled and did everything she could to slow it down – all the while, the balloon was in flames. Can you imagine a huge hot air balloon floating through the sky above the rooftops, fully ablaze?

At some point the balloon ran out of gas and struck the roof of a house. Sophie got caught in the netting of her balloon, fell on the side of the roof and then tumbled into the street below. When the crowds arrived at the scene Sophie was already dead. She was the first woman to fly solo in a balloon – and she was the first woman to die in an aviation accident – only 41.

She was buried in Pere Lachaise (pear lah-chez) Cemetery in Paris, beneath a tombstone representing her balloon in flames, with the epitaph “Victime de son Art et de son Intrepidite” translated to “A victim of her art and intrepidity.

Pretty much all of Europe mourned the death of Sophie Blanchard. There were a handful that predictably were like “well that’s just proof that a balloon was no place for a woman. Oh my!”

“A tale of disaster like that of Madame Blanchard,” wrote the unfortunately named Congressman Grenville Mellen in 1825, “is dire proof that a woman in a balloon is either out of her element, or too high in it.” Apparently, Mellen hadn’t read up on the astonishingly high number of fatalities among early male ballooners, which far eclipse that of women aeronauts.

Luckily, not everyone of that time was a brainless oaf like Congressman Mellen and Sophie’s story inspired many and is primarily remembered for the breathtaking heights she reached and the ultimate price she paid for them. Her story inspired writers like Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky (fiodor doe-stow-ev-ski), and proved that women can and should join men in exploring new frontiers and developing new technologies. As the spectators at her shows often joyfully exclaimed: “Vive Madame Blanchard!”

Story 2 – Emma LeDoux

It’s March 24, 1906. It’s not uncommon for luggage to be delivered to the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Stockton, CA. And one such trunk was headed to San Francisco on the 4 o’clock train. But this trunk was different. It was large, and untagged. Employees dragged it to the baggage room to investigate.

By 8pm, they noticed a weird smell emanating from the heavy trunk. I can only speculate here, but I’m guessing this trunk smelled like… Sex Panther. A used diaper filled with Indian food. Bigfoot’s Dick.

As one does when they smell something awful, the employees immediately called the police. An officer showed up prepared, with a chisel. He was able to pry the lock off the trunk and pop it open, exposing…. Feet.

Spoilers: It was a dead body. It was a man, folded carefully into the trunk, dressed completely, except that he had bare feet. Police were all, “that’s not supposed to be in there.” So, they started investigating. They called the delivery boy who brought the dead man in the suitcase to the train station. This poor kid was all, “I didn’t know there was a body in there!” He said that he was hired by a woman staying at the California Hotel to bring her trunk to the station. 

The hotel’s landlady was called over to identify the body. She recognized his face and confirmed his name: Albert McVicker. A few days before Mr. McVicker was found in the trunk, he had checked into Room 97 of the California Hotel with his wife. His wife had since checked out of room 97, but she forgot some crucial evidence. There was a suitcase still sitting in the room with a photograph inside.

The picture of this bitch was hotttttt. It’s like that episode of South Park when a teacher sexually assaults a student, which everyone is up in arms about until they realize it’s a female teacher and a male student, and then they were all “Nice.” She had ivory skin, dark hair, and perfectly arched eyebrows.

Obviously, police wanted to talk with her, so every town in the Bay Area was given a description of this woman. Two days later, she was found in Antioch, which is about a 50-minute drive from San Francisco. They called her Mrs. McVicar, asking her to come with them to the station, but this mystery woman said, “My name is Mrs. LeDoux.”

Let’s talk about Emma LeDoux’s life journey to killing Albert McVicker and putting his body in a trunk, most likely traumatizing a delivery boy in the process.

Emma LeDoux was born Emma Theresa Cole on September 10, 1875 in Pine Grove, California. She moved to Oregon with her parents when she was 3, then the family moved back to California in 1888, when Emma was 13. At 16-years-old, Emma got married for the first time to a 22-year-old named Charles A. Barrett. They got divorced in 1898 and shortly thereafter married her second husband. He was a miner with my new favorite name: William Williams. 

The happy couple moved to Arizona, but horribly, in 1902, William Williams died of “gastroenteritis” which is a bougie way of saying “stomach flu” and left her a $10,000 life-insurance payout. This amount of money would be about $324,000 today. Emma told William William’s family of Williams that he died, but because he left her so much money, and he died of something so strange, William’s death was starting to stink more than the trunk with the body in it (too soon?).

And speaking of soon…

Two months after William’s death, Emma married Albert McVicar in Bisbee Arizona. From what I read, Albert McVicar was head over heels for Emma, but she was not so into him, so she stayed married to him in name, but moved back in with her mom in California. 

For funsies, instead of finding a job or sorting out what she wanted to do about being married to someone she wasn’t super into, Emma decided to get engaged to 2 men: Jean LeDoux and Joseph Healey. She married Jean LeDoux in 1905, but she was still married to Albert McVicker, and Jean didn’t know he was accidentally a brother-husband, which I’m assuming is the opposite of sister-wife.

Emma was married to both men for six months, and she was really troubled by this. Obviously, it was super inconvenient for her. So she came up with a plan.

First, she would ask Albert to come to California, probably under the guise of working on their marriage. Albert was all for it, and he arrived in early March of 1906, ready to do whatever it took to be with Emma. They took a couple of trips to San Francisco, playing tourists, and even went furniture shopping together. They were looking to create a home together near Yosemite State Park, about 3.5 hours inland from San Francisco by car, and asked the salesmen to ship the furniture to their new address.

Poor Albert. This guy is thinking his wife is ready to make things work with him. Of course I googled a picture of him, and he has kind eyes, so as much as I’m here for women supporting women, this one is a killer and I’m team Albert.

Anywho, after a lovely day in San Francisco, Albert and Emma went back to their hotel room, Room 97 at the California Hotel. There, Emma dosed Albert with morphine… a lot of it. 5x more morphine than she would have needed to kill a man Albert’s size. Then, and this is horrible, she left his body in the hotel room and decided to run some errands.

Emma went back to the furniture store and asked to change the shipment – it needed to be sent to Jean LeDoux. She also bought a large trunk… big enough for a dead husband. Then, returned to the hotel room, stuffed Albert’s body into the trunk, and paid a delivery boy to take it to the train station.

That’s one version – I also read an extra horrible one in another source that said Albert was not completely dead after being dosed with morphine, he was just dazed. And she already had the trunk, so she led him into it, had him lie down, closed the top, and then Albert McVicker died from lack of oxygen.

This woman was probably a psychopath, but definitely not a criminal mastermind. She used her real name for all of these endeavors. 

Confident that her dead husband was on his way to San Francisco and beyond, Emma bought a new hat so she could look cute when she got back to her living husband. When she was arrested on March 26, the press had already dubbed her “The Trunk Murderess.”

When Emma was questioned by police, she stayed calm, but, and this one really might be too soon, she was the Casey Anthony of Liars. She just started making some shit up and then doubled down, even though her story was made up and about someone who didn’t exist.

Emma told police that she witnessed Albert’s murder. But of course she didn’t do it – some guy named Joe Miller did. He poisoned Albert so that he could steal the rest of Emma’s fortune from William Williams. Emma was horrified by Albert’s death of course, so she told Joe she would help him cover up the murder.

Spoiler Alert: Joe Miller didn’t exist.

Of course, the case went to trial, and Emma’s defense lawyers had their work cut out for them. They painted Albert McVicker as some sort of pimp, who had forced Emma into a life of sex work and drug abuse. Albert’s death was clearly an accidental overdose, and Emma was an innocent little lamb.

I giggled writing this because I was thinking of how they would be like, “he overdosed and then took his shoes off and laid in the trunk and then shipped himself to San Francisco.”

Unfortunately for Emma and her lawyers, the prosecution used logic instead. They argued that Emma needed to get rid of Albert because his death would legitimize her marriage to Jean LeDoux. And they had love letters from Emma to Jean to submit as evidence. 

Like I said, she’s not a criminal mastermind. And it is so funny to me that she wrote him letters, because, get this: Jean LeDoux was illiterate. He had his 19-year-old brother read the letters to him. I hope there was at least some innuendo in there, but I think it might have just been mushy-gushy stuff.

Emma’s lawyers were not deterred. They said, “She didn’t love LeDoux. She could not love that pop-eyed woodchopper, who could neither read nor write, and was as deaf as a post. Women don’t love men like that. Women love men who are clear-eyed and hold their heads high like the lion.”


The jury found Emma LeDoux guilty of first-degree murder after 6 hours of deliberation. She was sentenced to hang on October 19, 1906, and she was the first woman in the history of California to be given the death sentence. 

The media was almost as brutal on Emma as her lawyers were on Jean LeDoux. This is a direct quote:

“Except for a slightly crimsoned face and throbbing bosom she displayed no emotion, and the curious spectators who had gathered to see her break down at the critical moment went away declaring, ‘Mrs. LeDoux is a game little woman.’”

While imprisoned, Emma apparently found religion. Oh, and she was detoxing from morphine, which apparently, she was addicted to as well. Emma appealed her death sentence and actually was granted a retrial in 1910, during which she pled guilty to reduce her penalty to a life sentence. She spent 10 years in San Quentin and then was granted parole in 1920.

Man, the legal system is nice if you are white and hot, even if you’re a black widow.

She was paroled into her sister’s custody, who was living in LA. But apparently, her sister and brother-in-law threw her under the bus, essentially saying that she had been slutting it up in Hollywood, coming home drunk multiple times… which I don’t care about… but also apparently she was having an inappropriate relationship with their 19-year-old son. So she went back to San Quentin for another 3 years, but was paroled again.

And, time to whip out that orange sock theory, because wouldn’t you know it, Emma got married AGAIN in 1925 to Frederick A. Crackbon, another excellent name and a printer from San Francisco. I don’t know if Frederick knew the extent of Emma’s crimes, but she did meet regularly with her parole officer, so I’m guessing he know she wasn’t pure as the driven snow.

Frederick died in 1929 – seemingly of natural causes – a stroke – but Emma wasn’t down and out for too long. She sent up a marriage agency. Essentially, she advertised that lonely men could write in and be set up with eligible bachelorettes. But Emma was the only bachelorette. Her parole officer was tipped off, and he started staking out her office.

That’s right, she even had a legitimate office.

Her parole officer intercepted a man who was showing up at the office, who said he had come with $3,000 in his pocket to give to his betrothed. For the record, that today would be about $48,000!

Emma was sent back to prison in 1931 for being a con artist, essentially, but the media was nicer to her this time, in my opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle said, “she was a woman of almost 58 who had all the lure and fascination of a girl of 18,” and honestly, that’s how I would like to be described in my 50s.

Emma died in 1941 in prison and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Oh, and PS, the trunk that stored Albert’s body is on display at the Haggin Museum in Stockton.

And that is the crazy story of the murder of Albert McVicker by Black Widow Emma LeDoux!


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