3.  Tales of Destruction...The First Oil Patch Nitro Fatality


In 1846, Ascanio (Ascagne) Sobrero, then a pupil of Pelouze, the eminent French chemist, hit upon Nitroglycerin by mixing fuming nitric acid, sulphuric acid, and glycerin in the proper proportions.  Ascanio didn't know it was loaded, for he subsequently blew the lab to splinters, narrowly escaping death himself.  Glycerin by itself is a harmless substance, and so it is all the more surprising when under the influence of two acids, it becomes one of the most powerful explosives ever known to man.  McLaurin described nitroglycerin as follows:  "A flame or a spark would not explode Nitro-Glycerine readily, but the chap who struck it a hard rap might as well avoid trouble among his heirs by having had his will written and a cigar-box ordered to hold such fragments as his weeping relatives could pick from the surrounding district."

In those early years, nitroglycerin had an adverse effect even upon man's basic nature, as McLaurin described life in the oil regions of Pennsylvania, "The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Co. was organized in New York to construct torpedoes and carry on the business extensively.  Oil men were rather skeptical as to the advantages of the Roberts method, fearing the missiles would shatter the rock and destroy the wells.  The Woodin well, a dry-hole on the Blood farm, received two shots and pumped eighty barrels a day in December of 1866.  During 1867 the demand increased largely and many suits for infringements were entered.  Roberts seemed to have the courts on his side and he obtained injunctions against the Reed Torpedo Company and James Dickey for alleged infringements.  Justices Strong and McKennan decided against Dickey in 1871.  Oil Producers subscribed fifty thousand dollars to break down the Roberts patent and confidently expected a favorable issue.  Judge Grier, of Philadelphia, mulcted the Reed Company in heavy damages.  Nickerson and Hamar, ingenious, clever fellows, fared similarly.  Roberts substituted Nitro-Glycerine for gunpowder in 1867 and established a manufactory of the explosive near Titusville.  The torpedo-war became general, determined, and uncompromising.  The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Co. charged exorbitant prices, two hundred dollars for a medium shot, and an army of "moonlighters", nervy men who put in torpedoes at night, sprang into existence.  The "moonlighters" effected great improvements and first used the "go-devil drop weight" in the Butler, Pennsylvania field in 1876.  The Roberts crowd hired a legion of spies to report operators who patronized the nocturnal well-shooters.  The country swarmed with these emissaries.  You couldn't spit in the street or near a well after dark without danger of hitting one of the crew.  Unexampled litigation followed.  About two-thousand prosecutions were threatened, and most of them begun, against producers accused of violating the law by engaging "moonlighters".  The array of counsel was most imposing.  It included Bakewell & Christy, of Pittsburgh, and George Harding, of Philadelphia, for the torpedo company.  Kellar & Blake, of New York, and General Benjamin F. Butler were retained by a number of defendants.  Most of the individual suits were settled, the annoyance of trying them in Pittsburgh, fees of lawyers and enormous costs inducing the operators to make such terms as they could.  By this means the coffers of the company were filled to overflowing and the Roberts Brothers rolled up millions of dollars."

As the litigation continued the devastating accidents began, "Nitroglycerine literally tears its victims into shreds.  It is quick as lighting and can't be dodged.  The first fatality from its use in the oil regions befell William Munson, in the summer of 1867 [actually 1868] at Reno. He operated on Cherry Run, owning wells near the famous Reed and Wade.  He was one of the earliest producers to use torpedoes and manufactured them under the Reed patent.  A small building at the bend of the Allegheny below Reno served as his workshop and storehouse.  For months the new industry went along quietly, its projector prospering as the result of his enterprise.  Entering the building one morning in August, he was seen no more.  How it occurred none could tell, but a frightful explosion shivered the building, tore a hole in the ground, and annihilated Munson.  Houses trembled to their foundations, dishes were thrown from the shelves, windows were shattered, and about Oil City the horrible shock drove people frantically into the streets.  Not a trace of Munson's premises remained, while fragments of flesh and bone strewn over acres of ground too plainly revealed the dreadful fate of the proprietor.  The mangled bits were carefully gathered up, put in a small box, and sent to his former home in New York for interment.  The tragedy aroused profound sympathy.  Mentally, morally, and physically William Munson was a fine specimen of manhood, thoroughly upright and trustworthy.  He lived at Franklin and belonged to the Methodist church.  His widow and two daughters survived the fond husband and father.  Mrs. Munson first moved to California, then returned eastward, and she is now practicing medicine at Toledo, Ohio, the home of her daughters, the younger of whom married Frank Gleason."

The following headline and article appeared in The Titusville Morning Herald on July 11, 1868:

Disaster - Frightful Explosion at Reno
The Reed Torpedo Factory Blown Up
One Man Killed

"About ten o'clock yesterday morning the citizens living in and near Reno were startled and alarmed by a most frightful explosion that shook the earth in the vicinity with so much force as to threaten the destruction of the houses in the town.  There was a general rush to the windows, doors, and to the streets and on looking toward the railroad depot the citizens beheld a cloud of dust and smoke arising from the spot, where just a moment previously stood a building which was used as a manufactory for the Reed torpedo.  In a few moments a crowd of persons collected near the scene of the disaster.  The building in which the manufactory was located was blown to atoms, and scarcely a vestige of it remained.  Mr. F.T. Munson, the Agent of the Reed Company, was the only person in the building at the time of the explosion.  His body was lifeless and shockingly mutilated, at about three hundred feet distant.  Two other buildings in the vicinity were partially demolished.  One of these was occupied by Mr. Munsons's family, but fortunately none of them were injured. The fragments of the building that contained the manufactory were blown in every direction, and one of them entered a window of Mr. C.V. Culver's residence, striking and slightly injuring Miss Culver.  There were about one thousand five hundred pounds of powder of different varieties in the manufactory just before the explosion, besides ten or fifteen loaded torpedoes.  The cause of the explosion is shrouded in mystery."

This follow-up article appeared in the The Titusville Morning Herald on July 13, 1868, "The damage to the houses in Reno by the explosion of the Reed Torpedo Company's manufactory on Friday morning last, will not fall much short of $8,000 or $10,000.  About fifteen houses of all sizes including the Reno Company's building, were more or less sprung and shattered.  The window glass suffered severely, and there will be work for the glaziers for a week to come.  Some people are inclined to the opinion that the Reed Company is responsible for the losses."

This interesting piece about the activities of Munson prior to the explosion appeared in OilDom's Photographic Historian by Ernest C. Miller and T. K. Stratton, "The story of the attempt to bribe John Mather has appeared innumerable times in regional newspapers and magazines, and it deserves complete clarification. Colonel E.A. L. Roberts, the inventor of the oil-well torpedo, had received a patent on it on November 20, 1866, and he took prompt legal action to halt those who were making and using torpedoes not manufactured by his firm, the Roberts Torpedo Company.  Because of the prices charged by his company, which were considered excessively high by most oil producers, and the fact that he had a monopoly on the business, enmity against the Roberts company grew loud and angry.

"In the summer and fall of 1863, William Reed, successful oil producer, had exploded three experimental types of torpedoes in the Criswell well but with doubtful results, and he did no further work towards improving them.  In the fall of 1867, four years after the Reed detonations, and one year after Roberts was granted his patent, using Reed's experimental blasts as a basis, F. L. Munson of Reno, Pennsylvania, organized a group of infringers into the Reed Torpedo Company.  In order to do this, he purchased from Reed his pretense of a patent with Reed signing a blank patent application, and Munson filled in the description with an alleged invention of his own.  The new company requested an interference with Roberts original patent and litigation commenced.

"To avoid counter-injunctions and the rulings of the court, the Reed Torpedo Company suddenly switched all of its property to one William Hinds, and before Roberts could serve an injunction against Hinds, the business was again transferred to D.P. Pierce & Company.  Later Pierce sold it to a Mr. Holbrook.

"Sometime during the three years of prolonged legal action, someone approached John Mather and offered him $500 to destroy the original plate he had of the Criswell well previously used experimentally by Reed.  He refused in anger, doubtless loudly and openly, and was threatened with the statement that another photographer would be brought into Titusville to put him out of business.

"Mather held his ground, and actually the negative, or a print from it, was never mentioned in the court wrangling.  Finally the case was decided by Mr. Justice Grier in Philadelphia who ruled in favor of Roberts on every point and ordered a perpetual injunction against the infringers.

"Obviously the Reed Torpedo Company and those associated with it did not want Mather to destroy this negative as this evidence might have favored them if it had been used.  Only Colonel Roberts and his company could have benefited in any way from such a destruction, yet the case Roberts had was tight as it was, and such an attempt to destroy evidence could have been difficult to explain if brought before the court.  Did Roberts or one of his representatives ask John Mather to destroy this plate?  No one can be absolutely certain today."

Or perhaps with all the fraud that Munson and his associates were engaging in, it is more likely that the Munson crowd approached Mather hoping it would appear as a Roberts bribery attempt.  In Roberts defense, a picture of a well with no one seen loading a torpedo is fairly meaningless as evidence.  Further, considering that the Roberts brothers had become millionaires, if the picture had been all that damaging surely more money would have been offered!

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