Yesterday’s post set us to hunting: as blizzards and ice give way to spring lightning and wind, how many other weird weather phenomena lie hidden in the news? Obviously, we’ve never believed that history is boring, so we wondered: how often did our ancestors get killed by lightning or blown away by a stiff breeze?
Here’s a few fascinating stories from the annals of meteorology in the Midwest and beyond.
The image above, thought to be the oldest photograph of lightning, was captured in St. Louis, Missouri, by T. M. Easterly in June 1847, eight years after Jacques-Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype in Paris. At a time when cameras often required exposure times of thirty seconds or more, it’s amazing this was taken at 9:00 P.M.
At the height of the new art form’s popularity, daguerreotypes entered the realm of lightning lore. As part of a growing fascination with photography (Greek for “writing with light”), those tales (including a few of the “tall” variety, surely) were soon making the rounds of American newspapers. Yet there was actually a good scientific explanation behind so-called “lightning daguerreotypes” — and they weren’t the kind Easterly was making in St. Louis.
(The Berkshire County Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, May 28, 1858.)
What most witnesses of lightning strikes didn’t know in the 1850’s is that these patterns on the skin weren’t “daguerreotypes,” but Lichtenberg figures. Also called keraunographs and lightning flowers, they can look exactly like tree branches, plants and sometimes round coins. (Where the cow shape or the number 44 came from is a bigger mystery.) Named for the 18th-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a student of electrical discharges, the figures often occur after any high-voltage jolt through insulated material like the human body. Not unlike photographs, they can be produced and preserved in glass, resin and wood as 3-D “electrical trees.” They also remain behind as scars.
(Lichtenberg figure on a man who survived a lightning strike.)
Stories about “lightning daguerreotypes” and freak weather accidents spilled into ghost lore, which flourished during the heyday of American spiritualism in the mid- to late-1800s. A branch of Christianity that involved communicating with the dead through mediums, spiritualism was surprisingly mainstream. Some of its older American forerunners were the Shakers, part of a unique utopian movement with roots mostly in New England. (There was also a short-lived Shaker community on the Wabash River north of Vincennes around the time of the War of 1812. Much of its membership was African American.)
The Shakers incorporated all kinds of unusual spiritual phenomena into their unique faith and believed that their founder, an English textile worker and single mother named Ann Lee, was the second coming of Christ. They certainly believed in spirits and spirit possession, so the following story (either from New Hampshire or Connecticut) probably wasn’t too out of the ordinary.
Even as metal daguerreotypes and tintypes gave way to the age of Kodak and the paper photograph, stories about human, animal and other images etched by lightning onto some kind of light-sensitive backdrop didn’t immediately go away. Like Shaker Sam’s lightning-blasted spirit, this story — originating in the Charlottesville (Virginia) Chronicle— also appeared in 1880. It borders on the supernatural.
(The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, April 13, 1880.)
As we showed in yesterday’s post, wind can be as fearsome and downright bizarre as any lightning bolt. “Freaks of the storm” — from flying cows to airborne newborns — would fill a small book, some of it tragic, but a lot of it funny. Here’s a few more tales of the wind.
When a tornado blasted Drake, Oklahoma, in 1917, it wiped out a whole family — almost…
Mattoon, Illinois, was also hit hard that week, probably as part of the same “patriotic” storm-front — which, as it barreled east from the Plains, wasn’t done pulling tricks.
(Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1917.)
Tornadoes had a knack for randomly sparing some delicate, highly-breakable objects — from babies and chicken eggs to caged birds and loose photographs — while demolishing large buildings and whole towns. This twister struck Louisville, Kentucky in 1890:
Tornadoes could be symbolically choosy — and a little morbid — about what they carried away or spared. Take the cyclone that plowed through part of Omaha in March 1902… and the one that cut up a small Iowa town in 1895.
(Sandusky Star-Journal, March 11, 1902.)
(The Register, Rock Valley, Iowa, May 10, 1895.)
A big windstorm tore through downtown Indianapolis one Sunday evening in June 1929. A girl just born to Mary Hubbell at 30 North Lansing Street that afternoon nearly got killed three hours later when a telephone pole crashed into the small house. It came careening through the roof “just above the bed in which the mother and child lay.” Both escaped with small bruises. The Indianapolis News reported that “In all the excitement, members of the Hubbell family have been unable to decide on a name for the new arrival. ‘We are so glad that my wife and baby are not badly hurt, we haven’t had time to think of a name,’ the father explained.'”
(Plymouth Congregational Church, Omaha, Nebraska, March 24, 1913.)
It’s a paradox — and probably a testimony to the human spirit — that some of history’s worst natural disasters have given rise to humor and even fascinating meteorological folklore. Take Voltaire’s great Candide, a scathing satire on philosophical and religious optimism. Candide, which later inspired one of Leonard Bernstein’s musicals, was penned in response to the worst European earthquake of the 18th century, the 1755 All Saints’ Day quake in Lisbon, Portugal, when over 10,000 people in Europe’s most devout city were crushed in church, burned or drowned by a massive tidal wave on one of the holiest days in the Christian year. More than just a major seismological event, the Lisbon quake turned out to be a milestone in the history of philosophy.
Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, was another such day, though not nearly as significant. That evening, as Christians were still celebrating the Resurrection, an F4 tornado struck Omaha, Nebraska, killing over a hundred people. As the storm clouds moved east, hitting other towns, a huge twister struck Terre Haute, Indiana, just before midnight. The 1913 Easter Sunday tornado killed seventeen people on the south side of town, including a 75 year old man, an eight year old boy, a mother and her baby, and an infant just one day old.
The skies were especially cruel that March. Most of Indiana and the Midwest were already suffering from extreme floods. The raging, icy Wabash had inundated part of Terre Haute before the twister struck. Upstream in Peru, Indiana, the roaring river wreaked havoc on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which had its winter quarters along the Wabash. Exotic animals like elephants and tigers, drowned in the freezing water, washed up downstream. It was a terrible month for Hoosiers and everybody else in the region.
(Omaha Daily Bee, March 25, 1913.)
(The March 1913 twister destroyed part of Terre Haute’s Root Glass Factory, manufacturer of Coca-Cola bottles. Fires caused by lightning, oil lamps and downed electric wires hindered the work of rescuers and firemen.)
(The storm crossed into Parke and Clay counties and obliterated the tiny mining town of Perth north of Brazil. Yet with its coal exhausted, Perth had mostly scattered to the winds by the time William Travis wrote his county history in 1909. Indianapolis News, March 25, 1913.)
Despite the real tragedy of these events, Midwestern tornado lore is full of comic scenes and bizarre escapes — stories of people spared by the “queer antics” and “strange vagaries” of providence, luck and the wind. As we officially head into storm season, here’s a few tales from the breezy side of life.
Writer William Least Heat-Moon wrote the most famous essay on freaks of the storm. “Under Old Nell’s Skirt” came out as a chapter in his PrairyErth(1991), a long meditation on the history of one county in Kansas’ Flint Hills. He talked to old-timers there. They told him all about the topic:
They tell of ponds being vacuumed dry, eyes of geese sucked out, chickens clean-plucked from beak to bum, water pulled straight up out of toilet bowls, a woman’s clothes torn off her, a wife killed after being jerked through a car window, a child carried two miles and being set down with only scratches, a Cottonwood Falls mother (fearful of wind) cured of chronic headaches when a twister passed harmlessly within a few feet of her house, and, just south of Chase, a woman blown out of her living room window and dropped unhurt sixty feet away and falling unbroken beside her a phonograph record of “Stormy Weather.”
Columnist Dorothy J. Clark revisited some of these “strange happenings” on the forty-fifth anniversary of the tornado that struck the Wabash Valley. Her fascinating column (most of it plagiarized verbatim from an older book) came out in the Terre Haute Tribune on March 23, 1958.
(Terre Haute Tribune, March 23, 1958.)
The Indianapolis News carried a few more of these odd news items — including the report of an old theory that the bluffs of the Wabash River (to which the town owed its French name, “high land”) deflected twisters by means of “mineral deposits attracting the electricity.” (A similar belief or prophecy about Omaha’s immunity to twisters was also thrown on the rubbish heap of bogus theories that night.)
There’s one other bit of strange coincidence from the time of the twister. A moralizing pastor, Dr. J. Aspinwall McCuaig, had just visited Terre Haute. The reverend may have still been in town on the day of the Easter Sunday disaster. A Canadian originally from Scotland, McCuaig was one of the heads of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, an organization established in New York City in 1886. He came to Indiana to deliver a series of lectures and check in on the effects of the state’s infamous forced sterilization law, which as a eugenicist, McCuaig supported. (Like Indianapolis’ Oscar McCulloch, head of the liberal Plymouth Congregational Church downtown, McCuaig was one of the surprisingly large number of “progressive” Christian ministers to speak out in favor of eugenics, which sought to reduce crime and social evils by preventing many of the poor and “feeble-minded” from reproducing.)
McCuaig, who lectured on prostitution, alcohol, and nude pictures in bars, hated Terre Haute — a rough railroad town back in the golden days of organized labor, a place famous for its saloons, brothels and easily-bribed Democratic government. On the day of the Easter twister, McCuaig apparently was still in town, lambasting the city, calling it worse than Chicago. It wouldn’t be surprising if he moralized — rather obnoxiously — on the hand of God reaching out of the skies.
The Lusitania disaster seems impossibly remote to some, but the great maritime tragedy occurred just a hundred years ago — within the living memory of our oldest citizens.
Photography was unable to capture the sinking itself. Torpedoed by a German submarine eleven miles off the south coast of Ireland on a beautiful May afternoon in 1915, the ship went to the bottom in just fifteen minutes, with the loss of 1,200 lives. Many still believe the ship’s unusually fast demise was caused by contraband explosives it carried in its hold, en route from the U.S. to Britain. If true, the Germans would still be guilty of a war crime, having fired the torpedo that ignited the illegal cargo, though the behavior of the British government, smuggling weapons on a passenger liner, would be hard to excuse.
While the meticulous, body-by-body photographic record of the drowned victims is stashed away in the Cunard Line Archives in Liverpool, hundreds of the dead were never recovered at all. Others remained unidentified. A series of stark photos documented their burial in a mass grave in the town of Cobh (formerly called Queenstown) on Ireland’s south coast. Remarkably few American newspapers ever reprinted these somber photographs, which show a pile of old-fashioned “pincher coffins,” the kind that was beginning to go out of style in favor of modern, less “haunted-looking” caskets.
An exception was the Lake County Times in Hammond, Indiana, which published one of the gloomy images on May 25, 1915, almost three weeks after the sinking.
(Old Church Cemetery, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, where 169 bodies from the Lusitania were buried.)
One of the anonymous victims who might lie in the Irish earth — but who probably went to the bottom of the sea — was a Hoosier man sailing aboard the doomed vessel.
Elbridge Blish Thompson was a promising 32-year-old sales manager from Seymour, Indiana, traveling to Holland with his wife Maude. Though Maude survived and went on to have a remarkable, unusual life, Thompson drowned and his body was never officially recovered.
Born in southern Indiana in 1882, Thompson came from a family of prominent millers who ran the Blish Milling Company, one of the main businesses in Seymour. Educated in Illinois and at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Thompson went on to study at Yale, then metallurgy at the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven. Popular at Yale, he defended his home state by saying “A man from Indiana can do no wrong.” In 1904, he married Maude Robinson of Long Branch, New Jersey. Thompson’s work as a metallurgist took the couple out to Breckenridge, Colorado, but after a few years, they came back to Seymour, where he took charge of the Blish Milling Company and the Seymour Water Company. It was the flour milling business that eventually led him to embark on a fateful trip to Holland in May 1915.
In 1914, a strange instance of what the Indianapolis News called “kismet” (fate) led Thompson to disguise one of his cars in a strange costume — as a German U-boat. The automobile was a blue National roadster built at the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis, a company headed by Arthur C. Newby, one of the founders of the Indianapolis 500. Three days after the Lusitania was torpedoed by a real U-boat, the News carried an almost eerie story about the “mimic submarine” that Thompson once drove through a parade in Seymour:
Mr. Thompson is of an adventurous disposition and prolific with original ideas. He was impressed with the work of submarines in the European war, and decided to imitate one in decorating this auto for the parade. His submarine attracted much attention, and he was complimented for his originality. When he started for Europe with his wife on the Lusitania May 1, his friends warned him he might learn what a real submarine could accomplish, but he ridiculed the idea of danger. Now that he has felt the effects of a submarine’s torpedo, his friends are saying it was a “case of fate.”
The News incorrectly reported that Blish Thompson had been saved. On the morning of May 15, he and Maude rose at 4:30 to watch the sunrise. That afternoon, they were in the first class dining room when the torpedo struck, signaled by a thud, then followed by a huge explosion that was either a coal bunker or a cache of illegal ammunition going off, the alleged contraband being smuggled to the Western Front which had led the Germans to target the ship to begin with. On deck, Blish gave his lifebelt to a woman. Unable to get into lifeboats as the ship lurched almost perpendicular, the Thompsons were swept down the deck and sucked into the water. Then the couple’s grasp was torn apart by the suction of the plunging vessel.
While a memorial service was held for Thompson in Seymour on June 18, his body never turned up. The stone monument in Seymour’s Riverview Cemetery was erected over an empty grave.
A more interesting fate than “Blish” Thompson’s is that of his wife. By the end of World War I, Maude Thompson had remarried, becoming one of that fascinating bunch of Americans who joined the European aristocracy. For years, Seymour — a humble Hoosier farm town — had a direct connection to France’s old nobility.
Widowed by the Lusitania disaster, Maude Thompson went back to Europe to volunteer with the Red Cross in France. On the boat with her this time, she brought not her husband, but Blish Thompson’s two automobiles — the National roadster he had disguised as a “mimic submarine” for the parade through Seymour and a National touring car. Maude donated these Indianapolis-built vehicles to the French cause. The re-outfitted roadster served as a scout car on the Western Front. The touring car was given to the Red Cross. During World War I, Maude met and fell in love with an ace French fighter pilot, Count Jean de Gennes (pronounced “Zhen.”) Although she was twelve years his senior, the two were married in Paris in November 1917.
(Count Jean de Gennes, second husband of Maude Thompson, served in the French air force and transatlantic air mail service. His son was born in Seymour, Indiana.)
After the Allied victory over the Germans, the new Countess de Gennes moved to her husband’s spectacular Loire Valley estate, the historic Château de Longue Plaine, located 30 miles south of Tours in western France. It was a fairy-tale twist to a marriage due in part to the deadly sinking of the Lusitania. Their son, named after his father, was born in 1919 while his mother was on a visit back home to Seymour, where she served on the board of the Blish Milling Company. The young Indiana-born count would later serve during World War II as a pilot in the French Resistance, also flying in night-time bombing raids over Germany with the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command.
Maude’s husband was often away from home. During the 1920s, Count de Gennes was one of the great pioneer airmail pilots, navigating the dangerous South American and North African routes between France, Casablanca, and Buenos Aires. One of his colleagues at the Compagnie Aéropostale was the great French pilot and novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince and several great early non-fiction classics of flight. Like Saint-Exupéry, who vanished into the Mediterranean during World War II, Count Jean de Gennes — member of the French Legion d’Honneur — died in a plane crash off the coast of Morocco in 1929.
Six years before the count’s death, an unnamed reporter from the Indianapolis News paid a visit to the de Gennes family at their sprawling chateau near the Loire.
As the Hoosier reporter described it, Maude — “a former Indiana woman” — had refurbished much of the old 17th-century castle, which had been revamped in the early 1800s but originally dated back to the Middle Ages. Maude installed its first electric lights, a central heating system to replace “big hungry-mouthed fireplaces,” and put in a power plant out back. She also brought over bits of the Hoosier State with her, incorporated into the house or stowed away.
It was a delightful experience to live in this charming old place in the midst of American furniture — for the complete contents of the Seymour home had been transported to France. . . While it may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, to take our furniture to a country famous a thousand years for its beautiful cabinet work, the old Indiana bureaus and tables and other pieces fitted admirably into the delightful old French setting. . .
Baby Jean lives in a suite of his own that was all paneled and cupboarded with Indiana wood. Even his furniture was built from Indiana lumber.
Much of this wood from Jackson County is probably still there today.
The reporter also found. . . Indiana newspapers:
(Château de Longue Plaine, where Maude Thompson lived into the 1940s.)
(Hoosier-born French pilot Count Jean de Gennes served as a bombardier in the “Groupe Guyenne,” a segment of the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command that flew out of Tunisia and Britain, carrying out the controversial night-time raids over German cities that killed thousands of civilians. Half of the squadron itself died in action.)
Though she could easily have found refuge in the U.S., the Countess de Gennes stayed in France during the Nazi occupation of her adopted country. In 1946, she moved to New York City with her son, who was working for Air France. Maude lived out her remaining days in Queens. She died on May 17, 1951. According to her last wishes, she was buried in France.
An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye. A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.
My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader. Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.
Smoke, sulfur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals). So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history. The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.
In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.
Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families. His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana. (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.) Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking. During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man. He died in 1917.
Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps. After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business. His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design. (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.) “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.
No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families. Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool. (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.) Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees. (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.) The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.
Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893. Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention. A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first. Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief. A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.” The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.
The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries. News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet. This, too, was a new invention. English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable. When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward. (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)
Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume. While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.” Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter. Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.
When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal, and glycerin. A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.
Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it. He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair. The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass. It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.
However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . . As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders. The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front. Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch. This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.
Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires. It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within. The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.
“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window. “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . . On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir. The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”
An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds: “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”
The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast. Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients. Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies. Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe. In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”
The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”
A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Heraldtouts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.
Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it.
When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show. The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test. As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”
In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks. Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar. When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar. The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.
Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet. The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure. The whistle was tested to see if it would sound. The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.
“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”
The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke. The door was shut tightly. Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.
Then the crowd began to wait. Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him. The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle. A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .
The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile. Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt. Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .
“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.
“Stand it! Why, I could have stayed down there all day. It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”
When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.
Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896. The Indianapolis News reported:
The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department. It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building. The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines. They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.
Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill. In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.
These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector. Early in the 20th century, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.
Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.
In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House. (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself. Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.
An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice:Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son. Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics: clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.
One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it. Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”
What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling. Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas. A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s. But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.
For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames. It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894. And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota. In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”
In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom. On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:
Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident. Its horrors will never be fully told. Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.
At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement. Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history. (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)
Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s. Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children. During the Progressive Era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.
In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America. Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier. John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too. After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment. Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner. The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.
Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway. In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor. “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine. The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.
The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions. The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.
After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln. The Indianapolis Journal wrote:
As long ago as 1885, this building. . . was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress. But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.
According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth. Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through. Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building. (A support in the basement gave way.)
Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion. “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed. “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’ A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.” Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”
One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman. A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative. He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending. (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads. He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)
As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding. On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.” The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location. (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)
Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office. The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912. From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum. Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.