Tuesday, August 18, 2020

'Frightful': A deadly munitions factory blast rocks Philadelphia

A cropped enlargement of an 1862 lithograph shows the grim aftermath of the munitions factory explosion
 in Philadelphia. (Artist John L. Magee | Library Company of Philadelphia)
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The low rumble, like the sound of distant thunder, was heard in south Philadelphia about 8:45 a.m. on March 29, 1862. Moments later came the roar of an explosion, followed by an even louder blast, as gunpowder and cartridges ignited in Professor Samuel Jackson's fireworks-turned-munitions factory.

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

Many of the 78 factory workers, mostly women and girls, never had a chance to escape the conflagration. Eighteen employees died -- including Jackson's own son, 23-year-old Edwin. Dozens of survivors suffered from burns or other injuries in the catastrophe -- the Civil War's first munitions factory accident that involved a major loss of life.

Like a scene from an Edgar Allan Poe horror story, dazed, burned and blackened survivors stumbled from the flaming and smoking ruins of the one-story building on Tenth Street. Others writhed in agony. Several female victims, "their clothes all aflame," ran about "shrieking most pitifully."

Hundreds of curiosity-seekers rushed to the site, followed by firemen, who extinguished the blaze. Alerted by telegraph, the mayor soon arrived with the police chief. The city had not seen such an "intense state of excitement," the Philadelphia Press reported, since a huge fire at the Race Street wharf in 1850.

"Frightful calamity," the New York Herald called the disaster.

Frantic parents and friends of factory workers searched for loved ones among the crowd or in the ruins -- "looking shudderingly," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, "among the fragments of clothing which still clung to the almost quivering remains of the mutilated dead." Several milk and farm wagons that happened by were commandeered for use as ambulances. To keep gawkers at bay, police eventually roped off the scene.

An artist's impression in Frank Leslie's Illustrated of ruins of a Philadelphia munitions factory
 after explosions on March 29, 1862.  (House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College)

Some injured received care in nearby tenements, but most were sent to the city's Pennsylvania Hospital. Several even had bullet wounds from exploding cartridges. One young survivor was so badly burned and covered with soot that he was taken to the segregated hospital's area for black patients. "... it was some time," the Inquirer reported, "before the mistake was discovered and rectified." He died the next day.

At least five of the victims were teenagers; one was 12. When the blast rocked the building, 14-year-old John Yeager was carrying a box of bullet cartridges that also exploded, knocking out his eyes. His sister, Sarah, also was injured. They helped support a widowed mother.

Twenty-two-year-old Richard Hutson spent the last hours of his life at the house of Margaret Smith, who lived on Wharton Street, near the factory. His face was as "black as a man's hat" because of severe burns. "He seemed to be troubled with the idea that he had caused the mischief," recalled Smith, "but we tried to comfort him."

The Philadelphia Inquirer provided extensive
coverage of the disaster.
A pair of widows -- Margaret Brown and her sister, Mary Jane Curtin -- were especially hard hit. Five of Brown's children who worked in the factory were badly injured. Blown across the street into a wall of Moyamensing Prison by the blast, Mrs. Curtin -- the superintendent of children at the factory -- somehow escaped physical injury. But Mary Jane lost the $60 in gold she was carrying.  Her three children, also munitions workers, were badly burned.

Edwin Jackson's body, unrecognizable at first, was discovered "shockingly burned and multilated" among the charred factory ruins. He was heard the previous evening saying he was unafraid of any explosion there. Also employed in the factory, Samuel Jackson's daughters, 20-year-old Josephine and 18-year-old Selina, were badly burned.

Thankfully, heroes emerged to aid the sufferers: A woman reportedly cut her shawl in two, wrapping the pieces around two "half-naked" young girls. A court officer put his coat around a burning girl, putting out the flames and perhaps saving her life. And a Union cavalry officer, who happened to be riding past the factory, picked up a horribly burned victim and dropped him off at a drug store for medical aid. (When the soldier returned to his camp, he found a detached hand in his carriage.)

Do you know more about this Philadelphia disaster? Email me at jbankstx@comcast.net

But the catastrophe also brought out the worst in humankind: In the chaos, scoundrels snatched clothes from Mrs. Conrad's explosion-battered tenement on Austin Street, a block or so from the blast. A ragpicker offered fragments of clothes from the explosions for 25 cents. And when two victims sought aid at a residence in the neighborhood, the lady of the house indignantly slammed the door in the women's faces, telling them "she did not keep a house for working girls to enter." The local newspaper heaped scorn on the door-slammer: "Was the woman insane, or a fiend, or was it merely an instance of what utter vulgarity is capable of?"

Heard a great distance away, the explosions shattered windows, damaged shutters and sashes, blew doors off hinges, wrecked plaster and toppled furniture in nearby homes. A man who was cleaning a lamp in front of a tavern was blown headfirst through the building's doorway. He survived, but the lamp was "broken to atoms." Even inmates in gloomy Moyamensing Prison -- the castle-like structure nearby where Poe once slept off a bender -- were rattled.

Grisly discoveries put an exclamation point on this Saturday horror show.

A 1901 photo of Moyamensing Prison. Mary Jane Curtin, superintendent of children at Jackson's factory, 
was sent sailing into the prison wall by the blast. (Philadelphia Prison Society)
An illustration of the disaster in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 31, 1862.
Walls of houses in the vicinity were streaked with victims' blood. A cheek stuck to a building on Tenth Street. A portion of a thigh plopped in a yard, near where it left a bloody mark on the rear brick wall of a tavern. A stomach was discovered atop a tenement building, A severed arm hit a woman in the head, knocking her down, and a scorched and fractured skull with gray hair landed in the street. It probably was once attached to the body of Yarnall Bailey, a 60ish factory worker from West Chester.

"Heads, legs and arms were hurled through the air, and in some instances were picked up hundreds of feet from the scene." the Inquirer reported. "Portions of flesh, brains, limbs, entrails, etc. were found in the yards of houses, on roofs and in the adjacent streets." A policeman filled a barrel with human remains.

On April 7, 1862, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of the death
of another munitions factory worker.
"I picked up a bit of skull, with the hair adhering to it, more than a block (an eighth of a mile) from the place," a  Herald correspondent wrote, "and a whole human head, afterwards recognized as that of John Mehaffey, was found in an open lot against the prison wall."

In perhaps the most ghastly news from this awful day, a man told an Inquirer reporter that he saw a boy going home with a human head in his basket. The lad said it was his father's.

Two days after the disaster, more than 2,000 people sought admission to Pennsylvania Hospital to check on the injured. "Such a rush to this institution," the Press wrote, "was never before known."

This illustration of the disaster appeared in a German publication in Philadelphia.  
(Free Library of Philadelphia,  Print and Picture Collection |  "Castner Scrapbook v.19, Disasters,
 Criminal Prisons 1, page 10")
        GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Present-day view of  long-gone munitions factory site.
        Moyamensing Prison site at left; it's now site of a supermarket and a parking lot.

Authorities worked quickly to determine the cause of the explosions. The fire marshal convened a coroner's jury, whose gruesome tasks included examining remains of victims at the First Ward police station, some "blown literally to atoms." In the vest pocket of one of the victims, it found a note: "J.H. Mooney, No. 440 Walnut St. Brotherly Love Section."

The day after the explosions, the six-person jury also stopped at the home of Professor Jackson, who was not in his factory when it was destroyed. The 45-year-old pyrotechnic wizard had to be strong this day: The jury examined his son's battered body in Jackson's Federal Street house before Edwin was buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery.

On April 3, 1862, the Philadelphia Inquirer told readers about
funerals for victims of the explosions. 
After the war broke out, Jackson's fireworks factory was contracted by the U.S. government to make  millions of "Dr. Bartholow's solid water-proof patent cartridges," a "peculiarly made" ammunition for cavalry pistols.

"Innocent labors upon visions of beauty and delight have thus been diverted towards preparing necessary means for the destruction of demon-impelled men who have involved the country in war, from which it can only be rescued by their death or disperson," the Inquirer wrote.

The three weeks previous to the accident, Professor Jackson reportedly was under great pressure to produce 1.5 million cartridges for the Army of the Potomac.

The factory, which made about 75,000 cartridges a day, consisted of frame structures and a brick structure about 10 x 12 feet. A powder magazine, "merely a large hole dug in the ground," the Press reported, was covered with boards.

About 50,000 cartridges were stored in the factory moulding room, where eight men and four boys worked, and a finishing room, where women and girls placed the bullets into cartridges. Fifty pounds of loose black powder and several kegs of the highly combustible material were elsewhere in the tight quarters.

Samuel Jackson's factory produced Bartholow's
cartridges for cavalry pistols.
The day after the disaster, the fire marshal concluded the first explosion occurred in the moulding room, where the strike of a mallet may have caused the spark that set off a 30-second chain reaction of death and destruction. But he didn't know for sure -- all the witnesses in that area were dead or too badly injured to greatly aid the investigation. Ultimately, the jury determined the castastrophe was started by the detonation of a scale of dry powder.

"... many obviously essential precautions to prevent [the] accident," it concluded, "seemed to have been entirely neglected." But no one was charged with a crime.

Wrote the Herald about the tragedy: "It is a solemn and terrible warning to those working in similar establishment, and we trust that its effect will be to make [munitions workers] more careful of their own safety by the strict observance of those cautions, the neglect of which may consign hundreds to untimely graves and carry suffering and desolations into many homes."

Well into June 1862, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, victims
from the munitions factory explosions remained hospitalized.

Two weeks after the disaster, a concert was held in Philadelphia to aid explosion victims. Admission was 25 cents, and the event raised nearly $400.

Professor Jackson's factory eventually re-opened in nearby Chester, Pa., along the Delaware River. Black powder for the operation was stored on a boat offshore, a safe distance from the factory. Despite the deadly accident, the professor had no trouble filling his ranks with female workers, who were paid the princely sum of 40 cents per thousand cartridges made.

 "... they would rather earn a living salary, at risk of their lives," the Inquirer wrote in a sad commentary of the era, "than endure the indignities and hardships to many forms of female occupation."

Post-Civil War view of the Allegheny Arsenal in
the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh.
(University of Pittsburgh Historic Photographs)
POSTSCRIPT: Were any other lessons learned from the Philadelphia disaster? Perhaps not. On Sept. 17, 1862, 78 workers, mostly women, were killed in an explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh. Within the next five months, dozens were killed in arsenal explosions in Jackson, Miss., and Richmond. And on June 17, 1864 -- a brutally hot day in the U.S. capital -- 21 women died in an explosion at the Washington Arsenal. Most of the victims were young, Irish immigrants. President Lincoln attended their mass funeral.

-- Have something to add, correct? E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net


-- Baltimore Sun, March 31, 1862.
-- New York Herald, March 31, April 1, 1862
-- Philadelphia Inqurier, March 31, April 1, April 5, April 7, April 12, May 2, 1862.
-- Philadelphia Press, March 31, 1862.