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)

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