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When the "Poor House" Made the Front Page

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 11, 1932

When the “Poor House” Made the Front Page
By Howard Burba

      As a general rule the “poor house” is not, in the language of the newspaper fraternity, “good copy.”  There is enough human misery afloat through the streets and in the homes of a modern city to satisfy the demand of those who feel an urge to read of someone’s misfortune and heartaches.  Newspaper men have long ago found it unnecessary to supply this demand by assigning a reporter to cover that one great centralization point of human heartaches—the “poor house.”

     But there has been such a thing as the “poor house” crashing the front page without being invited to do so.  As I have said, it doesn’t happen often, but it has happened, and quite a few readers of those lines will recall vividly the one time when the Montgomery co. infirmary—a far gentler word, if you please—made the front page and for one whole day, held it despite the attempt of all other events of the same date to crowd it off.  That was the day a steam boiler exploded out there and tragedy of a new and different sort was added to that which is constantly present, in various other forms, at this institution.

     “Unprecedented in the history of local fatalities was the frightful boiler explosion and its attendant results at the county infirmary, five miles west of the city, this morning,” reads the leading paragraph in that tragic first-page story in The News of Sept. 21, 1895.  “In the twinkling of an eye,” continues the news story of that date, “two souls were wafted into eternity and simultaneously two workmen were probably fatally injured.  That the toll of death was not far greater is considered a modern miracle.  With a score or more of the inmates of the institution within a few paces of the scene of the explosion, it seems wonderful and truly providential that consequences were not more startling or harassing.”

     So with the date fixed, and the event recalled to the minds of those capable of thinking back to that September morning 37 years ago, let’s dig up the details of the tragedy which was sufficiently important at the time to spread itself over the front page of an earlier generation’s favorite local newspaper.

     There had for several years previous to the day of the explosion been an insufficient water supply at the county infirmary.  Time and again it had been called to the attention of county officials, and as many times the question of how to provide sufficient water to meet all possible demands of the inmates was evaded.  Finally matters reached the point where evasion was no longer possible, so the commissioners entered into a contract with one William Johnson, a local well-driller, whereby he was to sink a number of wells near the main building.

     One of these wells had been sunk in the rear of the insane ward, and on the morning of the tragedy Johnson and his men were engaged in walling it up and putting on the finishing touches, a generous stream of water having been struck.  Near the well stood the old stationery engine that had been used in drilling, an outfit similar to that still in use by well-drillers and not unlike the motive power we are accustomed to seeing with the ordinary wheat threshing outfit.

     The fireman had a full head of steam in the boiler by the time the well-drilling crew arrived on the job, and was standing nearby, chatting with several residents of the institution, when the explosion occurred.  The blast, sufficiently loud to be heard at the Soldiers’ Home, a mile away, rocked the rear wall of the main infirmary building, causing that part of it sheltering the insane patients to collapse.  Within a moment pandemonium reigned as escaping steam and the debris from the crumbling wall enveloped in blinding clouds all those who had been working or idling on that part of the infirmary grounds.

     As the escaping steam was wafted away, and flying debris had settled down officials and residents rushed to the scene from the front of the building.  Bodies were lying scattered about the wreckage, and it was naturally supposed that many of the insane patients had been trapped and killed beneath the fallen wall.  Chaos reigned, and the work of rescue was hampered by the shouts and cries of those unable to leave their beds or to escape beyond the iron bars which imprisoned them.  For a brief time it was impossible for the officials to lend their attention to the work of rescue, every effort on their part being required to prevent a serious out break of the insane patients.  Such a contingency was averted, however, and the work of rescue began.

     The body of Paul Botonhorne, inmate of the infirmary, was the first uncovered from the debris.  It was believed that his death had been instantaneous.  At about the same moment others engaged in the work of rescue extracted James Hoolan, another inmate, from beneath the fallen wall.  He was badly cut about the hips and abdomen, his body being literally bathed in blood when lifted from the wreckage and carried into the infirmary.  Frederick Ulmer, a member of the well-drilling crew, was next taken out, so badly hurt that rescuers believed him dead at the time.  Johnson who had the contract for digging the wells, and who had been standing within a few feet of the boiler when it let go was found lying several yards away where he had been thrown by the force of the explosion, but aside from cuts and bruises he had suffered no serious injury.

     A finished well, that had been left uncovered, was located within a few feet of the one on which the men were working when the tragedy occurred.  Some of the rescuers thought to peer into this.  By the dim light that filtered into the hole they could see someone struggling in the water below.  Ladders were promptly secured and one of their number descended into the well.  It was to find the body of Pearl Rhodes, 28, in inmate of the infirmary.  He had been badly injured as he was thrown into the well and believed to have drowned while the rescuers were making their way down to him.

     With two known dead and two believed to be so badly hurt that they could survive but a few hours, the rescuing party started digging away the crumbled mass of brick and woodwork that had formed the rear wall of the building.  With each blow of the pick they expected to find fresh victims.  Several unfortunates, pinned down by the debris, were released and carried into the main building for medical attention.  None of them, it was found, had suffered serious injury.

     “As usual,” wrote the reporter who “covered” the story for The News that afternoon, “reports were greatly exaggerated.  Word quickly reached the city that the entire main building of the infirmary group had been destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and that dozens of inmates lie buried beneath it.  There was a rush to the scene, and within an hour the crowd was so dense that it was with difficulty the rescuers could prosecute their work.

     “Rhodes’ death was especially peculiar.  It was possible that he sustained a fracture of the head, while his left leg was smashed.  It seems that the force of the explosion knocked him into the well, which contained eight feet of water, and he met his death directly by drowning, though it is not probable that he would have lived with such injuries.”

     After he had received medical attention, and his wounds had been dressed Contractor Johnson returned to the scene of the tragedy.  He was unable to realize after viewing the devastation wrought by the terrific explosion, how anyone standing near the scene escaped death.  That but two had been killed outright was, he declared to the newspaper man present, bordering on the miraculous.

     Johnson was at a loss to place the blame for the explosion.  He expressed the belief that the boiler was defective.  There were but 21 pounds of steam registered at the time, he declared, not enough to admit of the hoisting of the heavy bucket being used to lower paving stone into the well.  It was while arranging the preliminaries for this work, and awaiting for a stronger head of steam, that the explosion occurred.

     Botonhorne and Rhodes, the two men killed, had voluntarily offered to operate hand pumps while steam was being made in the engine.  They had been working at this slow and laborious process for an hour or so, and had succeeded in lowering the water in the well several feet.   They were working within a few feet of the very end of the death-dealing boiler and in this way received the full shock.

     The engine of the portable type, belonged to a man named Martin Wolf.  It was rented by Contractor Johnson, but he firmly disclaimed any knowledge of its defectiveness.  He considered it perfectly sound, and during the week or more that he had it in operation he found no cause, he explained, for fearing an explosion.

     Supt. Bryant, of the infirmary, who was among the first to reach the scene of the explosion, and who directed the work of rescue, began calling the roll of the inmates as soon as it was apparent that no more injured or dead remained beneath the wreckage.  He found that in addition to the two killed outright, and the two so badly injured, more than a dozen had been cut and bruised by the flying pieces of the boiler and crashing brick.  Among the number was Mary Miller, inmate of the institution. She had been standing but a few feet from the boiler, chatting with the men nearby.  She received the full impact of the blast, but in some mysterious way escaped with nothing more serious than a few minor body bruises.

     Throughout Sunday, the day following the tragedy, hundreds of local citizens made their way on foot and by horse-and-buggy to the infirmary.  So great was the outpouring of the curious that it was necessary to post guards about the building and grounds to prevent the further destruction of property and to preserve the flower beds and shrubbery from the feet of the hundreds who roamed about the grounds, each with his own theory of how it happened and why it “wasn’t any worse than it was.”

     In the meantime preparations were made at the infirmary for the burial of the two victims.  The two believed to be fatally injured rallied later on, and lived to tell the story of the explosion for a good many years following it.  On Monday morning, Sept. 23, The News again found the tragedy of sufficient importance, and public interest, to warrant first-page space, and we find this account:

     “The fearful fatality at the County Infirmary on Saturday is still fresh, as a thought of horror and revolt, in the minds of the county and city denizens.

     “As a final ceremony today came the burial of Paul Botonhorne, a German inmate, well advanced in years.  The body was not interred in the infirmary cemetery, but was taken quietly and without the slightest display to Cavalry cemetery this morning.  Only a few of the undertakers’ assistants and attaches of the institution witnessed the last sad rites.  The victim met with instant death, the top of his head being entirely blown off.  No parts of the body was mangled and the fate of the unfortunate German was as singular as it was shocking.

     “The remains of Pearl Rhodes, the young man who was injured and knocked into a well and drowned, were buried Sunday afternoon in the county infirmary burying ground with due solemnity, many of the inmates, attending.  The scene, under the sad conditions, was unusual.  It is not known whether or not Rhodes would have lived had he not been hurled into the well and drowned, but his chances for recovery were considered to be barely possible.  It is thought he sustained a fracture of the skull.  The injuries must have been serious or the victim could have prevented drowning in a few feet of water.

     “Reports from the institution today are that the injured are improving as rapidly as could be expected.  James Hoolan is the most seriously hurt, but Dr. G. C. Myers, infirmary physician, expresses hopes of his recovery.  Frederick Ulmer, who lives with his wife and children at 45 Vine st., and for whom little hope was held when carried from the scene of the explosion, is also rallying from the effects.”

     On the following Wednesday Coroner Corbin began his inquest, going to the infirmary to take the testimony of eye-witnesses.  On the following day, under the heading, “Very Queer, This!” the reporter had this comment to make on the tragedy:

     “The county infirmary fatality has been duly investigated, Dr. Lee Corbin concluding his inquiry yesterday afternoon.

     “A large number of witnesses were examined and all told a simple, straightforward story of the explosion as they witnessed it, substantially verifying the report of the explosion as published at the time.

     “The only mysterious circumstance in connection with the tragedy seems to center in the fact that sworn statements are made that not more than 21 pounds of steam were registered, while in the blow-up it proved sufficient to hurl the heavy engine against a brick wall and tear a hole of goodly proportions, sufficiently large enough to permit the passage of a team of horses.  Contractor Johnson evidently acted in good faith when he secured the engine, as it had previously been inspected, he was informed, and was found in thoroughly good condition.”

     But that was the concluding chapter in the infirmary tragedy, insofar as the newspapers were concerned—the first and possibly the last time it had shoved aside all other happenings and found its way to the front page.  There were other events clamoring for that favored spot in the local ness sheets of the day.  And people were too busy to concern themselves with a prolonged investigation of the cause with a view to placing the blame.

     The infirmary had its hour in the limelight.  It was just another chapter in the history of an institution that is founded on tragedy, the inmates of which breathe the very air of tragedy.  So life went on as usual in the big world surrounding the infirmary.  But in its own little world the boiler explosion marked a date that was not so readily put aside.  To this day it is recalled out there as the first instance in which the county infirmary claimed a place on the front page for an entire day.