20.  Tales of Destruction...Blown to Atoms

This headline and article appeared in The Titusville Morning Herald on August 27, 1872:

Blown to Atoms

"Another terrible nitroglycerine explosion took place near Rouseville yesterday morning at six minutes after eleven o'clock, by which Mr. Wm. H. Payne, torpedo agent at that place, was instantly killed and blown into diminutive fragments.

"Mr. Payne was a partner of Mr. James Sanders, the agent for Roberts' torpedoes, and the firm kept a magazine on the Tolls farm, about one mile distant from Rouseville, where is constantly kept on hand a large amount of the explosive and dangerous material in cans.

"Yesterday morning Mr. Payne went to the magazine with a buck board and double team, for the purpose of procuring some nitroglycerine and a torpedo to be used in Mr. N.J. Denning's well, on the John Buchanan farm, about half a mile to the west.

"He had gone about two thirds of the distance and had reached a point on the road about thirty rods east of the Strong well, when the can exploded.  Mr. Payne's body was simultaneously scattered over an area of about twelve acres, the buck board was literally torn into splinters, but strange to say, the horses were not killed, but ran away badly singed and wounded in the haunches.  The explosion was distinctly heard four miles off.

"The hill trembled to its very centre and every building in Rouseville was shaken to its foundations.  A man named William McCandless was working on the road a few feet from where the explosion took place, and had gone off a few minutes previously to get a drink of water.  He was on his way back when he heard the explosion, and saw the horses rushing down the hill.  Upon approaching to the spot, he fully realized the terrible situation and the miraculous escape he had made.  A large crowd of persons from the surrounding wells and adjacent houses soon made their appearance, and the bushes were searched far and near for the remains of the unfortunate man.  What was found would not fill half a bushel measure.

"The following is a list of what was found after a diligent and most thorough search:  A portion of the face, including nose, mouth, beard, and one eye, to which was held by a shred a portion of the shoulder blade; the right hand badly mutilated; a portion of the bowels; a few broken ribs; a small piece of the spinal column; his feet without the toes; and the boot with some of the toes in.  This is all of the body which could be discovered.  His watch was picked up near the right hand, badly damaged; his pocket-book was found entire, with its contents, but his account book was torn to shreds.  One inch of his metallic tape line was also found and handed to our reporter on the cars as a relic of the terrible catastrophe.

"The remains were conveyed to Wilcox and Butts, undertakers at Rouseville, where they were treated with carbolic acid kept on ice, and afterwards placed in a metallic coffin.  The face was placed in the usual position in a fine rosewood casket, and nothing else was visible through the glass.  Mr. Payne was a son-in-law of Mr. Sanders, his partner, was 34 years of age, and leaves a wife but no children.  He was a native of Philadelphia, where his father and other relatives reside.

"There was no coroner's inquest, and the relatives determined to have the remains temporarily interred this morning at ten o'clock, in the Rynd Farm burying ground.  Those desiring to attend the funeral will meet in the Baptist Church at Rouseville.  It is the intention subsequently to remove the remains to Philadelphia for burial.  The deceased was a man highly respected by all who knew him; he was sober, industrious, and his untimely death will be deeply mourned by a large number of friends and acquaintances.  He had been twenty months at the torpedo business, and was always afraid of it.  He told a friend of his last Saturday that this would be the last well he would torpedo, and then he would quit the business entirely.  The moment his wife heard the explosion half a mile off in Rouseville, she remarked that she was sure that it was a nitroglycerine explosion and that her husband was killed, which proved to be only too true.  The indentation in the road was not so marked as the fragmentary condition of the bushes, which were completely stripped of leaves for a wide space in a northerly direction.  A large stone, about sixty feet up the road was completely overturned, which must have weighed several hundred pounds.  There was no hole in the road, as has been the case on previous occasions, although some of the heavy stones were fractured.

"The explosion must have been in a northerly and easterly direction, as the horses, facing west, escaped with comparatively little injury.  Their tails and flanks were badly burned, and a bolt from the wagon penetrated one of their shoulders, they were otherwise injured with splinters, but have no indication of either being seriously injured or knocked down.

"The cause of the explosion was evidently spontaneous combustion.  The can was square in shape and contained twenty pounds of the explosive.  It was tightly closed and was supposed to have been covered with wet cloths, which is the usual custom.  Mr. Sanders informs us that copper vessels with tubes are provided for the purpose of conveying this highly dangerous compound, but on this occasion the tin can, as received from the factory, and which had been stored in the magazine all winter, was used.  It is now a well established fact that nitroglycerine which has been frozen, and is afterwards exposed to a high temperature, say 80 to 100 degrees, especially when agitated by being conveyed over a rough and stony road is liable to show signs of decomposition, and in that condition is liable to explode.  It requires 365 degrees of heat to explode it in neutral or ordinary condition, and it would be difficult to conceive that any amount of jarring or agitation could raise it to such a temperature.

"Were it to slop over and saturate the springs of the vehicle the concussion of the springs over the roughest roads could not raise it to this temperature; and even if it did would not be liable to explode the can.

"The terrible warnings which we have experienced in handling this compound, but more particularly in transporting it, is a matter requiring serious consideration.  The men who make it their business to fire torpedoes and handle nitroglycerine take their lives in their hands, and are supposed to be prepared for the consequences, but when we consider the large amount of this subtle element which is daily carried through our public thoroughfares and over our public highways it is high time that some stringent measures should be adopted to mark the wagons which carry it, so that all persons having a regard for their personal safety may keep out of its reach.  The recurrence of such accidents is simply a question of time, and no one can tell whose turn will come next."

See Torpedo Transportation for more information on early nitroglycerin transport accidents.

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