8.  Tales of Destruction...Mercury Fulminate

All explosives are tested for sensitivity to impact.  When using the Picatinny Arsenal impact test apparatus, the sensitivity to impact is expressed as the minimum height of fall in inches of a 2 kilogram weight required to cause at least one explosion in ten trials, or the minimum height of fall to cause explosions in 50% of the trials.  Below are listed values for some explosives of today and of yesteryear.

           Black Powder......................16 inches
           TNT...............................14 inches
           Ammonium Nitrate..................31 inches
           PETN (pure and dry)................6 inches
           RDX  (pure and dry)................8 inches
           50-50 Pentolite (cast boosters)...13 inches
           Mercury Fulminate..................2 inches
           Nitroglycerin......................1 inch

The tale that follows concerns mercury fulminate, an extremely sensitive explosive.  The only amazing thing about this story is that it did not happen sooner!

McLaurin describes a tragedy that happened on March 19, 1869, "On Church Run, two miles back of Titusville, Colonel Davidson established a torpedo manufactory in 1868.  A few months passed safely and then the tragedy came.  With three workmen - Henry Todd, A.D. Griffin, and William Bills - Colonel Davidson went to the factory, as was his practice, one morning in September.  A torpedo must have burst in course of filling, causing sad destruction.  The building was knocked into splinters, burying the occupants beneath the ruins.  All around the customary evidences of havoc were presented, although the sheltered position of the factory prevented much damage to Titusville.  The mangled bodies of his companions were extricated from the wreck, while Colonel Davison still breathed.  He did not regain consciousness and death closed the chapter during the afternoon.  This dismal event produced a deep impression, the extinction of four lives investing it with peculiar interest to the people of Oildom, many of whom knew the victims and sincerely lamented their mournful exit."

The following headline and article appeared in The Titusville Morning Herald on March 19, 1869:

Frightful Torpedo Explosion - Three men instantly killed and another fatally injured

"The most terribly fatal accident we have been called upon to record, took place on Church Run yesterday afternoon, resulting in the instant death of A.D. Griffin, W.H. Todd, and Wm. Bills, and the fatal injury of Col. P. Davidson.  The accident occurred at about four and a half o'clock, at the office of Col. Davidson on the territory leased by him on Church Run, about one mile from the city.  So far as the facts can be ascertained, the parties were engaged in preparing a torpedo for one of the wells.  As Col. Davidson subsequently explained, they were all inside the house, and while Griffin, Todd, and Bills were standing about the torpedo, jarring down the charge, he (Col. D.) was about walking toward the door.  It is thought that the charge contained about seven pounds of mercury fulminate powder while about twenty additional pounds were lying near.  The explosion resulted from percussion, and the shock was perceptibly felt all over the city.  The building was of course blown into fragments, and its inmates, with the exception of Col. Davidson, were instantly killed.  Their clothing was almost entirely stripped from their bodies, which were shockingly lacerated in every part.  A crowd of men was speedily gathered from the vicinity.  Col. Davidson was found to be conscious, but utterly helpless and experiencing the intensest pain.  His right thigh was severed to the bone, as though laid open by an axe, and his chest, back, arms, and head were covered with ghastly burns, his face burned to a crisp, and the sight of one eye destroyed.  His first inquiries were concerning the fate of his companions, whom he feared were more severely hurt, and desired that they be attended to.  A litter was constructed upon which as speedily as possible he was borne to the Bush House and placed under medical attention.  The remains of Griffin, Todd, and Bills were conveyed to the city, and placed in charge of the acting coroner, Justice Strouse, and an inquest was in progress last evening.

"Mr. Griffin came to the oil regions from Chicago about three years ago, and had spent most of that interval at West Pithole, where he was engaged in the oil business.  During the last year he became interested with Col. Davidson in a patent which the latter had secured upon a torpedo of his own invention, as well as mercury fulminate, which for blasting purposes was considered scarcely inferior to nitro-glycerine.  Mr. Todd was also from Chicago, and is supposed to have been interested in the same improvements.  He had been a resident of the oil regions from about three years past.  Mr. Bills was from Allegheny City, and had but recently entered the employ of the company for exploding torpedoes.  All of the parties made their home at the Bush House.  Few of our citizens were better known or more sincerely respected than Col. Davidson.  At the outbreak of the rebellion he entered the military service as Colonel of an Illinois regiment of volunteers, raised at Peoria.  Previously he had been practicing law in that city, and had filled the position of District Attorney there.  At the conclusion of the war, on returning from the service, he came to the oil region, where he has since remained as a practical operator, and with somewhat variable success.  Removing to this city from Pithole in 1866, he commenced operations upon Church Run.  He was an ardent Republican, and during the Presidential campaign of 1868, his services were generously given to the party, in advocacy of the political principles which he cherished as personal convictions.  He possessed a vigorous and well disciplined intellect, a very social temperament, and the most generous impulses.  His address in this city on the occasion of the decoration of the soldiers' graves last summer, was of a highly superior order.  Having at an early period made unfortunate investments, he still adhered tenaciously to his purpose of repairing all his losses, and realizing all his expectations.  His recent reported discovery of a valuable explosive compound, together with oil developments prospectively certain, where he was largely interested, seemed to give promise of an abundant prosperity.  Cut off in the vigor of physical and intellectual life, in the midst of the brightest anticipations, surrounded by a large circle of attached friends, the appalling fate that has overtaken him seems to point to the impressive moral, 'What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue.'  This terrible visitation casts a melancholy gloom over the entire region, and finds no parallel in anything that has proceeded it.

"P.S. Col. Davidson expired at 11:05 last night."

Close up his eyes and draw the curtain close…--Shakespeare

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