On the history of (scarily frequent) powder mill explosions in Southwestern Ohio

Explosion 2

This post was originally published on ysnews.com and discusses a powder mill that sits a few miles south of Yellow Springs, Ohio, along the bike path on which I frequently travel. I came across these particulars while doing research for another project and was stunned by just how often these factories exploded.

March 1 marked a sad day in the history of the area, as it was the 131st anniversary of an enormous explosion just south of town in Goes Station. On March 1, 1886, the buildings that used to belong to the Miami Powder Company exploded and killed three people, just a fact of life in an industry “marked by explosions.” While perhaps a self-evident risk when working at a place that produces “villainous saltpeter,” knowing the danger doesn’t dampen tragedy when it happens. The explosion occurred with such force, heat and clamor that everyone nearby probably thought the very gates of Hell opened up in their backyard.

Previously a scythe factory, the Miami Powder Company was refitted as a powder company in the early 1840s by some “Eastern capitalists” in the 1840s. The mill was built alongside the railroad leading from Springfield to Xenia and near the Little Miami because of the abundance of willow trees. When burned, the willow tree, “lining the banks of the stream for miles,” produced a high-grade charcoal perfect for the manufacture of explosives. This charcoal was stored on the property in one of a number of structures housing the different compounds combined to create industrial explosives. Machinery mixed and ground the compounds together, producing a caustic admixture that was kept in a building at the end of the line. In other words, the building was basically a giant bomb.

On that terrible March day, 50,000 pounds of explosive in the dry house ignited for due to a faulty steam boiler. The building was completely wiped off the face of the earth, leaving a crater 10 feet deep. The resulting explosion was heard 100 miles away, felt in Columbus and Cincinnati, smashed buildings and windows from Yellow Springs to Xenia, and “completely demolished” a house three miles away. A covered bridge was knocked down and a “number of people in the vicinity were so prostrated by the shock that they were confined to their beds for several days after.” A 60 pound piece of rock from the foundation was found almost a mile away.

Employees of the mill “felt the earth give beneath their feet and then, seemingly, to rise as though in the throes of a violent earthquake. Some were thrown against nearby obstacles; others were swept from their feet and hurled to the ground.” And these were the lucky ones. Of the three men killed in the explosion, the “largest part found was a piece of backbone,” while other parts were gathered in baskets and bags. An arm was found two miles away. Families wept with joy when their loved ones emerged from the wreckage unscathed, but as Henry Lowe poignantly notes in his 1904 Historical Collections of Ohio, “to three women and their children, the fathers and husbands came not.” The three men – Christy McCann, 50, Henry Franklin, 40, and Michael Haney – left eight children behind.

Remarkably, the March 1886 explosion wasn’t the first or second huge explosion to occur at the powder mill, nor was it necessarily going to be the only explosion that year. One newspaper cheerily reported that only one of the “two or three” annual explosions were deadly. The frames of a few nearby houses, tottering at perilous angles, were all that was left of a nearby neighborhood after being exposed to repeated blasts. (But some “old settlers” that lived just far enough away “didn’t dread [the explosions] as much as other people.”)

Explosion 1The same powder works exploded at 10 a.m. on February 5, 1872. This explosion eclipsed even the wholesale destruction and violence that would come with the 1886 blast. Attributed to an errant spark caused by the machinery that mixed compounds, one building exploded and was followed by four others. At least five workers were instantly and totally vaporized – the only recognizably human remain was a “portion of [a] head and trunk” – while many more later died from injuries sustained in the blast.

As explosions were wont to do, the blast destroyed nearby buildings, blew off chimneys, caused someone to fall down a flight of stairs and blew out all the glass at Antioch College. A train narrowly missed being destruction because it was running a few minutes behind. (Can you imagine being passengers on the train and slowly rolling through that nightmarish accident site?)

A few years later, the trains themselves were the site of a blast. On July 15, 1890, brakes failed as one string of train cars was being attached to another, ramming cars loaded with gunpowder. An explosion occurred that “burst the eardrums of everyone in the immediate vicinity” and burning down 13 buildings. Yet “fate was kind” and the flames did not reach a warehouse containing 25,000 kegs of powder. Nevertheless, 12 people died in the accident.

Not all explosions were quite as catastrophic, sometimes only taking one or two people with them. According to Howard Burba’s 1933 article “Remember When the Powder Mills Exploded?”, the inaugural explosion at the Goes Station mill resulted in an employee “blown to bits for his negligence. A nail in his shoe heel, coming in contact with a nail in the floor of a powder magazine, flashed a spark that touched off the powder around which he was working.” But the curse of explosions extended further than the grounds of the powder mills. An employee of the Miami mill was said to live at the “ill-fated house” on Limestone Street that had already claimed the lives of or driven insane its previous tenants. The employee was asked to try out a new explosive, which ended up exploding in his face and killing him as soon as he set it down. It is unknown how many people died in accidents at local powder plants, but sometimes “powder mill explosion” or a similar explanation can be found in old cemetery records.

The one consolation is that being “reduced to atoms” is probably as instantaneous a way to go as you can get. (The mills reportedly paid well, which probably helped a lot of people overcome their fears of fiery death.) For everyone else, however, such explosions probably felt like the universe was being ripped apart. A cursed finger of the Gods was pressed briefly but resolutely down onto a small patch of Ohio, sowing unspeakable terror and leaving grim silence as it withdrew. “For a full half-hour the cloud held its position, gradually growing whiter and whiter and changing in shape until it became merged with the clouds of the sky,” Burba wrote.

Another explosion at the Miami Powder Company in 1920 took two lives, and the company finally closed its dangerous doors in 1925 following yet another blast.

Reflections on the final note

Wright State Universtiy psychology professor and Yellow Springs resident Cheryl Meyer sat with the collection of suicide notes that formed the backbone of a recent study of suicide. With three colleagues, she published the results of her research in a book called “Explaining Suicide.” The unusually large collection of notes provided data that allowed researchers to pursue aspects of the phenomenon that hadn’t yet been studied. (Photo by Dylan Taylor-Lehman)

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News on April 6, 2017. 

In 1774, Goethe wrote “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a novel in which the eponymous protagonist kills himself after leaving a florid suicide note to his lover. The notion of a romantic suicide was apparently appealing, and a rash of suicides committed by similarly distraught young men followed the book’s publication. According to Yellow Springs resident and Wright State University psychology professor Cheryl Meyer, “Sorrows” helped to popularize the phenomenon of a suicide note. While suicide notes by nature only exist because of the most sorrowful of circumstances, the epistles nonetheless provide significant insight into the psychology of committing the final act, and therefore what might be able to be done to prevent it.

Meyer had the chance to study their importance for herself. A few years ago, she came into contact with a collection of 200 suicide notes on file with the Montgomery County Coroner. She had never seen such a compilation and quickly realized the research opportunity it presented. Meyer and three colleagues turned their study of the notes (and 1,800 coroner’s files) into a book, “Explaining Suicide: Patterns, Motivations, and What Notes Reveal.” As the title indicates, the book explores suicide from a variety of different angles, such as the intersection of suicide and legal issues and suicide and severe mental illness, for example, bolstered by the personal accounts expressed in the suicide notes.

“We wanted the book to provide information for professionals but also for anyone who has suffered a loss,” Meyer said.

The notes are from suicides that took place in Montgomery and surrounding counties from 2000–2009. They run from a matter of words to dozens of pages in length. Some give reasons for the decision and some give thorough post-death instructions. Many are apologetic and express love for the family members left behind, and many notes express hatred toward the world and the miserable vicissitudes of life. Many letters are from terminally ill patients who chose to end their suffering. Notes left by terminally ill people tend to be exceedingly short, Meyer said, as they do not feel like they have anything to explain, while notes outlining interpersonal drama tend to be much longer.

As she read through the notes, Meyer said she was able to notice some general patterns. According to their research, suicide in Montgomery County occurs at a rate slightly higher than the national average, but generally reflects levels in other western countries. Men write the majority of the notes, and while the Montgomery County Coroner doesn’t keep statistics on the race of suicide victims, white males comprise 82 percent of U.S. suicides. (In analyzing the notes for their research, Meyer developed a tool that will help the Coroner’s office standardize its data collection practices.)

The unusually large collection of notes provided data that allowed researchers to pursue aspects of the phenomenon that haven’t yet been studied, Meyer said, such as the correlation between DUIs and suicide and the psychology of those who choose to kill themselves in front of other people. The book also analyzes the role of “hegemonic masculinity” in violence aimed at the self, as a culture of hyper-aggression and competition can lead to a profound sense of failure, which in turn leads to suicide as a way to escape those feelings of inadequacy. Impulsivity and access to weapons can prompt acts that might otherwise not occur, she said.

“They might be miserable,” Meyer said. “But it doesn’t mean they’re ready to die.”

Meyer didn’t set out to be a suicidologist but rather found herself in the field thanks to a few twists and turns of her career. Admittedly compelled by the macabre from a young age — her mother was fascinated by Chicago gangsters and gave her a book about famous criminals when she was a kid — Meyer went on to get her law degree and began studying the different ways that the law handled post-partum depression. Her research got her in touch with another scholar studying mothers who kill their children, and the two eventually collaborated on a book, “Mothers Who Kill Their Children.” Meyer said she is “one of about three” people in the country who have studied maternal filicide extensively, but after a number of years researching and writing on the phenomenon, it was time to move on. When the opportunity came to study the cache of suicide notes and coroner’s reports, Meyer said with a dark chuckle that she appreciated the chance to study a slightly less upsetting topic than what she was working on before. Meyer said she loves medicine and considered being a doctor, but working with real blood and bodies was not something she could do.

Meyer and her colleagues looked at the social factors that cause suicide but also places that seem to be conducive to longevity and happiness, called “Blue Zones.” These blue zones tend to include positive attitudes toward exercise and healthy eating, Meyer said, but more importantly foster a sense of social connectedness and emphasis on family. In African-American communities, for example, faith and extended family networks are a more present part of life, fostering a sense of community that may account for significantly lower rates of suicide among that demographic. Were these sorts of relationships and factors present in communities on a wider scale, perhaps seemingly insurmountable problems might seem less daunting, she said, citing the suicide of an elderly man who thought that the fallout from a fender bender would culminate with him being forced into a nursing home. Had there been a greater support network, someone could have helped assure him that such an outcome wasn’t inevitable.

But in exploring the decision to commit suicide, the book has helped people come to terms with the choice of a loved one to end his or her life. Meyer said she has received calls and emails from people telling her the book that the book helped them unburden themselves of guilt, or the sense that nobody can understand what they’re going through.

Despite the ways in which her research has helped people, Meyer is debating how much more suicide research she can undertake. It’s an obviously weighty topic, and while she said she is good at compartmentalizing her work, the 8–10 hour days of locking herself in her office with such dark sentiments takes a toll on even the most curious and hardy researcher. Meyer is an avid swimmer and is sometimes able to discuss her work with her partner, Deb Zendlovitz, though sometimes there are things she’s researched that she doesn’t feel like anybody else should know.

“Stepping back is hard,” she said. “It’s a hard thing to pick up and put away.”

Zendlovitz said she recognizes the “rich trove” of information the notes constitute and appreciates the nature of her partner’s field, but agrees that there are many things she “doesn’t want to think about or know about.” Much of what she has learned already has stuck with her, she said, and many of those things she wouldn’t mind forgetting.

Part of the emotional difficulty comes from a sense of getting to know the people writing the letters, Meyer said. She feels the authors’ loneliness and gets angry when someone commits violence out of spite. The personalities of the authors shine through, she said, and it’s easy to lose a sense of the notes’ terminal nature. Reading some notes, she hopes that the person can overcome his or her difficulties, but then she remembers why she is in possession of the letter in the first place.

“That’s the thing about these notes,” she said. “You know what the outcome is.”

The Montgomery County Coroner still has a collection of notes from 2010 to the present, another trove that could conceivably inspire further research or another book.

“On the one hand, I really want to keep doing this,” Meyer said. “But I don’t know if I have it in me.”

However, Meyer acknowledges it is an incredibly compelling topic, and sadly a fact of life. For that reason, it should be studied and understood. She already has a few articles in the works that build on the research they’ve already done. In those tragic cases where someone takes himself out of this life, the insights gleaned from the book can help friends and family try to understand the decision, even if they never forget that it was made.