a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mock jury cites military in deadly 1862 Allegheny Arsenal explosion

Michael G. Kraus, curator of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh, left, testifies at a mock coroner's inquest into the 1862 Allegheny Arsenal explosion, before Cyril Wecht, a noted pathologist in the city. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – A jury at a mock coroner's inquest headlined today by noted pathologist Cyril Wecht found the U.S. military negligent during the Civil War in the handling of gunpowder leading up to the Allegheny Arsenal explosion that killed 78 workers, mostly women and children.

After hearing nearly two hours of testimony at Sen. John Heinz History Center the jury also concluded a spark from a horseshoe or the wheel of a cart the animal was pulling ignited gunpowder wrongly swept by boys from an arsenal porch onto the cobblestone street, set off three back-to-back explosions.

"Yes, Army officers were concerned about powder accumulating in the street," said Andy Masich, the center's president and chief executive officer who served as chief investigator at the event timed for the 150th anniversary of the disaster.

The ruling contradicted conclusions reached by a military inquest that followed the Sept. 17, 1862, explosion in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville section, an investigation that relieved Union Army officers from being responsible for the deaths and didn't nail down the cause of the blasts. Meanwhile, a local coroner's inquest at the time reached decisions similar to those rendered after the evidence was re-examined through a modern-day lens at the history center.

"Lots of blame goes around to lots of people, people taking shortcuts when the supply demand was up," said Jim Wudarczyk, a Lawrenceville Historical Society historian who testified at the mock inquest.

Following the explosions and subsequent fire that leveled the arsenal's laboratory, the wagon driver, J.R. Frick, reported hearing a "fizzing sound" about 2 p.m. and then seeing flames shooting up from its right, front wheel, said Tom Powers, another Lawrenceville historian.

Frick was then blown out of his wagon and he landed on a fence before becoming covered, uninjured, by two feet of debris consisting of pieces of the laboratory roof. His horse was badly burned, Powers said. A woman nearby the wagon, Rachel Dunlap, reaffirmed Frick's statements, yet she was never called to testify before the military inquest, he added.

The roof also collapsed on the female workers, causing most of the casualties. Nearly half of the bodies were so badly burned they could not be positively identified.

The initial investigation attempted to place the blame on the victims over claims the steel hoops they wore under their skirts or friction from their woolen, silk and cotton clothing created the spark that set off the explosions in gunpowder dust.

"It could not be ruled out," said Jimmie Oxley, a Homeland Security explosives detection expert, while discussing the possibility a static charge from the women's clothing caused the catastrophe. Oxley disagreed with the mock inquest's finding of negligences.

"They did very well for its time," Oxley said, referring to the practices at 19th Century U.S. arsenals.
Col. John Symington

Pittsburgh, though, was shocked before the tragedy after the arsenal's commander, Col. John Symington, fired the 200 boys who worked there for playing with matches and replaced them with females, mostly Irish immigrants. The girls were favored because they had small, nimble fingers that could quickly fill paper-lined cartridges with gunpowder and work for less money than boys, said Mary Callard, an author of Civil War history.

"It was a shock to Pittsburgh sensibilities to bring women into this factory," Callard testified. "But, there was a war."

Some people in 1862 suspected a conspiracy, that Symington had sympathized with Confederate saboteurs to wipe out the arsenal.

"The sentiment in Pittsburgh was against those military officers," Masich said.

Others blamed the Dupont family for insisting the barrels they used to ship the gunpowder be recycled, something that caused their lids to eventually jiggle and leak. There even were suggestions the deadly spark was caused by heavy shoes with nails in their soles worn by men in the plant

"You see we've got a lot of different possibilities here," Wecht said.

However, "sabotage was the most absurd theory," Wudarczyk said, adding that Symington had a stellar military career.

In the end the situation that day seemed to have been a perfect story, with too much gunpowder in use or stored in buildings that were too close together, allowing the flames to easily jump from one to the next.

"This (was) a very, very volitile situation," said Michael G. Kraus, curator of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh's Oakland section. "They knew they shouldn't be doing things that caused sparks."

Kate Lukaszewicz portrays an Allegheny Arsenal employee during a mock coroner's inquest at Sen. John Heinz History Center into explosions at the Civil War-era factory 150 years. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Secret CIA operative, Webster, Pa., native dies at 76

William E. “Bill” Kline, a native of Webster, Pa., who held a long and secretive career with the CIA, died Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, after a brief battle with a bacterial infection at age 76.

He was the remaining son of three Kline brothers who went on to successful careers, despite the sudden death of their father in 1941 to a brain aneurism.

His oldest brother Allen Kline Jr., worked as city editor of The Valley Independent newspaper in Monessen, Pa., and later as public relations director of Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel.  Another brother, Ernie Kline, served two terms as Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor from 1971 to 1979.  Their mother, the former Elna Natali, was an Italian immigrant who raised them alone after their father’s death.

But, it was William Kline's career that quietly drew the most questions from family and friends.  After a tour in the United States Air Force, he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked until retirement.

Little is known about his work experience except that he lived in several countries and spoke several languages.  Upon retirement, he signed a non-disclosure agreement and maintained secrecy for the rest of his life.

After retirement, he used his talents to advocate for those less fortunate, including a volunteer stint as a cook in a soup kitchen for the homeless.

In early 2011, he and other activists made national news at the Wisconsin state capitol building during a lengthy protest against Gov. Scott Walker’s attempts to break up the unions in Wisconsin.

In addition to his multiple degrees from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, he credited his Webster upbringing as pivotal in his development as a social activist.

The family plans a memorial service later this year in Webster.

He is suvived by his daughter Amy Thorne, married to Steve, two granddaughters, of Idaho Falls, Idaho; son Jeff Kline, married to Lisa, two granddaughters, Brisbane, Australia; daughter Beth Shoemaker, married to George, one granddaughter, Berryville, Virginia; son Matthew Kline, two grandsons, one granddaughter, Overland Park, Kansas; and ex-wife the former Audrey Nemish, originally from Donora.

(Obit provided by his nephew, Robert Kline)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Turning a cold shoulder to the Pledge of Allegiance?

Students in Washington, D.C., recite the Pledge of Allegiance circa 1899. (Frances Benjamin Johnston photo)

By Scott Beveridge

After the morning bell rang on my first day of teaching in a rural southwestern Pennsylvania high school in 1983, I instructed my homeroom to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The students to my surprise remained seated with bewildered expressions on their faces as if I had arrived to the Bethlehem-Center School District from another planet.

One of them didn't hesitate to say, "Why are you making us do that? None of our other teachers do."

I was shocked to learned that something we had never overlooked when I  attended grades K-12 had become passé in Fredericktown, Pa., just eight years after receiving my high school diploma.

"Well, I am not like the rest of your schoolteachers, and, we will say the pledge every morning in this classroom," I responded that January morning as I began to fill in until June for an art teacher on leave.

I remember that day, though, every time a Christian patriot pops a nerve when a lawsuit is filed by an atheist in an attempt to remove the phrase 'under God" from the pledge.

And, then I think the shouters should have more important things to worry about than whether or not public school students take the time each day to express their loyalty to the U.S. flag. It makes me wonder, too, if they should be more concerned about the quality of the curriculum and whether or not the kids from poor homes are getting proper nutrition at school. Now, today in Pennsylvania, school districts are making bare-bones cuts to their budgets and facing dwindling funds to afford to pay teacher salaries, books and supplies.

Back in 1983 it struck me that the pledge wasn't making these students better citizens or boosting their patriotism, as the didn't speak its words with any degree of sincerity. And, even today at the municipal meetings I attend, no one seems to recite the pledge enthusiastically. It just seems like something everyone does quickly and quietly to get it over with before moving on to the agenda.

By 2002, just half of the states in the country were requiring public school students to recite the pledge at the start of school, The New York Times reported that year in a story about a federal judge banning the pledge from schools, citing the "under God" phrase. That ruling later was overturned, yet a similar appeal would be argued again in 2010.

All this makes me curious about how many public schoolteachers still require their students to take part in a ritual dating to 1892 and adopted by Congress in 1942 as America was heading into the Cold War.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

One great little robot movie

By Scott Beveridge

The new movie "Robot & Frank" takes us to the near future to a place where an old man receives from his son the best technology available to slow the pace of dimemtia.

Aside from an enema the gift of Robot provides retired cat burglar Frank, portrayed wonderfully to the bone by Frank Lengella, with encouragement to exercise, eat his vegetables and rob a young jerk of a neighbor of his valuable jewels.

This little movie has a great cast, one that features America's sexiest old lady - Susan Sarandon - and Peter Sarsgaard as the Robot in a role that really should earn him an Oscar nomination. Liv Tyler delivers a great performance, too, of that sibling many 50-somethings know who means well when she tries to give an aging parent exactly what he doesn't want or need.

Lengella, though, offers a Best Actor-worthy performance in an engrossing movie, which is so different from that norm that it will rob you of the urge to check your Android or iPhone in a dark theater to see if someone has mentioned you on Facebook.