Thursday, August 27, 2020

Death, heroes and ghouls at a Springfield cartridge factory

Pinfire cartridges manufactured by C.D. Leet & Co. of Springfield, Mass. 
(Aaron Newcomer via Wikimedia Commons)
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As soon as he heard the explosion, Charles M. Atwood knew one of his greatest fears was realized.

“There goes Leet's cartridge factory,” the young man said to himself. Then he sprinted from his boarding house toward his former place of employment blocks away, in the heart of Springfield, Mass.

'Human gore': More on deadly Civil War explosions on my blog


At 2:30 p.m. on March 16, 1864, a series of major explosions at the C.D. Leet & Co. cartridge factory on Market Street reverberated in town, not far from the national armory that supplied the U.S. Army with thousands of Springfield muskets and other weaponry. Twenty-three women and girls and 24 men were employed by Leet's, which made metallic cartridges for Joslyn and Spencer carbines and other weapons.

Headlines in the Springfield Union on March 16, 1864.
Small explosions and accidents were common at the three-story factory leased by 40-year-old Charles Dwight Leet. A week or two earlier, Atwood -- as others also had recently -- quit his job there because he dreaded the potential for something much worse. Perhaps he was pushed over the edge by an accident at Leet’s factory the previous month, when roughly a half-pound of gunpowder blew up, frightening more than a dozen female employees, burning five of them, and filling a room with smoke.

But that accident paled when compared with this disaster, which underscored dangers faced by ammunition workers on the home front. The final death toll was nine -- four in the explosions and subsequent fire that dreadful day, five afterward. Nearly a dozen suffered injuries.

A coroner's jury of inquest was convened the next day to begin investigating what caused the catastrophe -- the second such disaster at a Civil War munition factory in a little more than a year. On March 13, 1863, more than 40 female workers were killed in an explosion at a Confederate arsenal on Brown’s Island in Richmond. More than 130 workers, mostly female, were killed in explosions the year before at the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, an arsenal in Jackson, Miss, and a fireworks-turned-cartridge factory in Philadelphia.

A label for metallic Spencer carbine cartridges made at the C.D. Leet factory in Springfield, Mass.
(Wood Museum of Springfield History)
The Springfield tragedy revealed the best – and worst – of humanity.

Atwood and 10th Massachusetts Lieutenant Lemuel Oscar Eaton and Private John Nye -- soldiers who just happened to be in the neighborhood -- dashed into the burning factory to aid victims. Atwood knew where gunpowder was stored, and to avoid an even greater disaster, he rushed to help remove it. As Eaton tossed powder cases out of harm's way, another explosion rocked the building, briefly knocking the 32-year-old officer senseless. He was due to return to his regiment the next day.

Lieutenant Lemuel Oscar Eaton of the
10th Massachusetts dashed into
the burning factory.
(The 10th Regiment Massachusetts
 VolunteerInfantry, 1861-1864
After removing four cases, Atwood and Eaton were in the process of moving another when it exploded, burning Atwood on the face and hands. Miraculously, both escaped without serious injuries. (Two months later, Eaton was seriously wounded in the leg at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.) Nye suffered burns but also recovered to return to his regiment.

Upon their arrival shortly after the first blast, Springfield firemen discovered a grim scene: flames leaping from shattered windows, huge columns of smoke, wailing victims, scores of gawkers, and friends and family searching for loved ones employed at the factory.

Fourteen screaming girls leaped from the third floor of the factory onto the roof of the shop next door. They "were removed by ladders," the Springfield Republican reported, "after the most frantic threats” were made to keep them from jumping to the ground.

"The conduct of the firemen and all those who volunteered to enter the burning building was heroic in no light sense of the word," the newspaper wrote. "Among the most active and efficient of all the attendants were eight or ten of our city physicians, who were unceasing in their efforts to relieve the sufferings of the unfortunate men and women."

Rescuers wrapped a burning victim in a blanket and took her to a nearby house after she leaped -- or was blown out of -- an upper-story window. In one of the most heart-rending sights, a severely burned female victim, crying and groaning in agony, begged to be given arsenic or any other deadly mix.

    GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Approximate location of long-gone C.D. Leet & Co. factory.

"The appearance of those who were worst injured was shocking beyond description," the Republican reported. "Every garment of their clothing was blown or burnt off, and some of them were literally a blistered and blackened mass from head to foot. So badly were they burnt that it is surprising that they were not instantly killed."

Calista Evans, a widow from New York, was burned over her entire body and died the next day at her sister’s house in Springfield. She was on her second day on the job. Laura Bishop, who only recently had returned to work after an accident at the factory, also died. The 22-year-old's injuries, the newspaper wrote, were of the same “shocking character” as the other horridly burned women.

Gravesite at Saxton's River Cemetery
 in Vermont for Laura Bishop, who was killed
 in the Springfield cartridge
factory disaster. (Find A Grave)
One family was particularly hard hit. John Herbert Simpson, a 27th Massachusetts veteran,  was standing near the loading room when the first explosion rocked the building. “Shockingly burnt,” the 19-year-old  died the next morning. His 15-year-old sister, Anna, also was injured. “The suddenness of the affliction has prostrated Mrs. Simpson,” the Republican wrote about the siblings’ mother, “and the best of medical care can only restore her to health.”

Leet business partners Willard Hall and Horace Richardson also died the day after the explosions. Hall, who supervised 20 men and women, was severely burned on his head and chest; Richardson, who was in charge of gunpowder and supervised three young women, fell through a set of stairs and into the cellar after the final explosion. He was attempting to save girls on the second floor.

Jane E. Goss also was severely burned in the explosion -- her first day at work at the factory. She died nearly three weeks later. At the depot, Joshua Bellows -- who later enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery -- identified the remains of his adopted daughter, 17-year-old Frances.

The injured, meanwhile, suffered greatly.
“Nearly all of those who were burned have complained of being cold,” the local newspaper wrote, “and have fainted upon breathing cold air.” A young female factory worker from West Springfield, according to a report, "was rendered insane."

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Underscoring the horror, depraved onlookers picked up ghastly souvenirs: pieces of burnt flesh and fingers of victims. The following day, a crowd gathered to examine the disaster area. Some of the ghouls among them snatched “any piece of a partially burned dress, or other scrap the Republican reported, “as a memento of the terrible scene.”

Unsurprisingly, intense heat and fire caused the discharge of bullets from completed cartridges. Two went through the hat of contractor Jesse Button, who aided victims inside the factory and escaped with minor injuries. Another narrowly missed the head of a woman who was sewing at her workplace on Main Street. Yet another zipped into a nearby dental office but caused no injuries.

At the coroner's jury of inquest, employees and Leet were vigorously questioned by a six-person panel about safety procedures, potential causes of the explosions and more.

A close-up of the weather-worn memorial in
Springfield (Mass.) Cemetery for
John Herbert Simpson, a victim of the
disaster at the C.D. Leet & Co. cartridge
factory. (Find A Grave)
The first floor of the factory included the engine room and a spice manufacturer. Leet’s office and the cartridge loading and packing room were on the second floor. Twenty-five-pound cases of gunpowder were stacked at the bottom of the main stairwell leading from the first to second floor.

Cartridge production started on the third floor – the highly combustible fulminating powder there was kept wet in a paste form to prevent accidental explosion. After the fulminate dried, it was married to the cartridges, which then were charged with powder from flasks by female employees in the second-floor loading room. The cartridges were eventually prepared there for shipment in cardboard boxes.

Minnie Russell worked in the loading room, where bullets were inserted into cartridges. She testified that on the morning of the explosions, Leet urged female employees to sweep up excess gunpowder, even “if it took half their time.” Charles Smith called his employers “very careful men, none more so. [I] have heard them talk very hard to the hands.”

But Leet himself testified about a questionable practice at his factory: Although he did not allow cigar smoking, he was OK with friends lighting up as they left, passing cases of gunpowder in the process. Paradoxically, Leet -- who had been involved in cartridge manufacturing since 1857-- emphasized that every means were employed to prevent explosions.

Ultimately, the investigation determined the chain-reaction catastrophe began in the second-floor loading room. A cartridge apparently exploded, its sheet of flame touching off another blast fueled by fulminate and gunpowder. Frighteningly, a massive blast momentarily lifted the third floor. In the chaos, some panic-stricken employees descended the stairs, their burning clothes igniting cases of gunpowder. Lucy S. Howland, who worked in the loading room, testified she was sent tumbling into the cellar -- “all afire and burned awfully" -- when the stairs collapsed. She somehow crawled from the burning building.

Leet, who was not in the factory when distaster struck, was reprimanded for woeful safety procedures. “Hazardous,” “highly censurable,” “highly reprehensible,” the coroner’s investigation called his operation. In a subsequent investigation by the U.S. government, an inspector called Leet’s copper cartridges and the compounds used inside them “exceedingly dangerous for magazines and transportation.”

But Leet, who wasn’t charged with a crime, re-opened his factory weeks later.

The war – and cartridge making – dragged on.

-- Have something to add, correct? E-mail me at


-- Fall River (Mass.) Daily Evening News, April 13, 1864.
-- Hartford Daily Courant, March 28, 1864.
-- Springfield Republican, Feb. 20, March 17, 19, 22, 1864.
-- "The Market Street Explosion," The Gun Report magazine, Alan Hassell, 1989. (U.S. government investigator quoted by Hassell from National Archives records group 156, no. 21.)
-- 1860 U.S. census.

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