Blown to atoms
By Kraig Noble
Nearly 120 years ago, an explosion outside the small town of St. Marys sent shockwaves through the community and the laws that determine liability when transporting volatile chemicals.
One of the more unusual events in the history of St. Marys occurred on a cold day in January 1896. It was the height of the local oil boom in the St. Marys area. For 10 years oil men had been drilling hundreds of wells in the vicinity including the first off-shore well on the huge canal reservoir. On the 25th day of the month, a Saturday morning, Sam Angel, employed by the Bradford Glycerine Company of Findlay, drove his two-horse team through the streets of St. Marys. While passing through town, young Angel stopped at the Makley blacksmith shop on South Main Street, for the apparent purpose of getting a new singletree for his wagon. (A singletree is a wooden bar swung at the center from a hitch on the wagon and hooked at either end to the traces of a horse’s harness.)
While at Makley's, Sam complained about being required to work in the rainy weather and then drove away. About 20 minutes after Angel pulled away from the blacksmith shop, a tremendous explosion ripped through this village of 5,000 souls in west central Ohio, throwing inhabitants to their knees, knocking plaster off the walls and shattering windows all over town. Hundreds of citizens rushed to the scene, the location of Bradford’s storage facility, a mile and a half from the center of St. Marys. There they found stark evidence of the force of the explosion, a huge hole, 10 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter, and not much else. For 200 feet around, the explosion had ripped trees out from their roots and stripped others, still standing, of their bark. On the latter, they found hanging bits of flesh, harness and clothing. Other than a horse’s head, no piece of man nor beast, larger than a human hand was found. The local undertaker and his assistants were able to collect about 15 pounds of human remains, which they placed in a coffin for shipment. In a rare extra edition of the St. Marys Daily Democrat, published on the day of the explosion, Sam Angel, a large headline proclaimed, was “Blown to Atoms.”
There was no question as to what caused the explosion, for Sam’s wagon carried about 90 cans containing a total of 750 quarts of nitroglycerine. His employer was one of the main suppliers of that dangerous substance to the region’s oil and gas industry. While this incident is fascinating on its own, it also led to legal proceedings that eventually wound their way to the Ohio Supreme Court. In that case, St. Marys Woolen Manufacturing Company vs. The Bradford Glycerine Company, Ohio’s top court established new precedent, cited to this day in national legal publications, allocating how fault would be determined when using dangerous substances in an era of increasing industrial activity. This case not only established new law but involved facts that are uniquely illustrative of that particular period in our history.
Nitroglycerine was an essential component used by the oil drilling industry as it existed in the late 19th century. In the Lima Field, the name describing the oil producing region that stretched from northwestern Ohio into central Indiana, and at the time the largest in the world, drillers found large quantities of petroleum products at a depth of about 1,000 feet. Many times, to get the oil to flow in the initial drilling of the well or to restart a well that had gone dry, they had to break up the cap of Trenton limestone, the rock strata containing the oil.
Breaking up this cap required the use of an explosive, and nitroglycerine filled this requirement. First discovered in 1847, it was the first practical explosive more powerful than black powder. To “torpedo the well” or “shoot the well,” as they called this procedure, drillers would place the liquid explosive in tin canisters each about three and a half to five inches in diameter and 10 feet in length. These canisters had conical bottoms; and, when lowered into the well, would fit together on top of each other. Drillers would lower these canisters and stack them until they had inserted as much as 200 quarts of the explosive. Once in place, the shooter, a recognized expert in conducting this procedure, would drop a device called a “go-devil,” which had a percussion cap, or in a later version a “go-devil squib” (which held about a quart of nitroglycerine), into the well to fire the charge. Although it didn’t happen in all cases, the hoped-for result was that oil would begin to flow.
With hundreds of wells being drilled and the large amount of nitroglycerine needed for each charge, a strong demand for the explosive developed. Located in Findlay, where oil and gas was first discovered in northwestern Ohio, the Bradford company did a brisk business in supplying this explosive to the oil and gas industry. Companies like Bradford would operate a factory that manufactured up to 1,440 quarts of nitroglycerine a day.
The modern reader would assume that under the law, the risk of legal liability for injuries resulting from the use of such explosives would be a barrier to a company like Bradford’s success; but, at the time of Sam’s death, the law’s imposition of liability on these suppliers had yet to be fully developed. At that time tort law (the field of law dealing with the imposition of civil liability for a person acting in a negligent manner) was still developing in how it dealt with the injuries resulting from the use of extremely dangerous substances like nitroglycerine where there was no evidence of a negligent act.
The world knew that nitroglycerine was dangerous from the time it was invented. One notable explosion killed 15 people in San Francisco where a quantity was in storage pending use in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. One physical property of nitroglycerine (and perhaps a factor in the St. Marys explosion) is that it has a relatively high freezing point (55° F) making it even more sensitive in its frozen state. On a local level, just a year before Sam Angel lost his life, three men died in a glycerin explosion near Wapakoneta, and this explosion involved only one-tenth the amount of nitroglycerine that exploded near St. Marys on that January day in 1896.
These disasters prompted a government response in the form of criminal laws regulating the use and transportation of nitroglycerine, as the state of California passed laws regulating the substance after the explosion there. In Ohio, regulation occurred more at the local level. The neighboring town of Celina had legislation in place as evidenced by newspaper reports from the previous year where a Mr. Angel (presumably the same Angel who died that January morning) was arrested for transporting nitroglycerine through that town. In January 1896, however, no such law existed in St. Marys so Angel was free to travel with his load. It was reported that he had arrived from Findlay the previous evening and had left his wagon parked on the outskirts of town.
The cause of the explosion was undetermined but the common speculation was that Sam dropped one of the containers while transferring the cans from his wagon to one of the two magazines Bradford maintained there. This was a transfer wagon used to transport the explosive from Findlay to the different storage magazines owned by the company near where oil men were drilling wells. There were two magazines at the St. Marys site, and many were amazed that the other remained intact, since more than 1,000 quarts exploded, 700 in the wagon and an estimated 300 in the magazine.
Newspaper accounts of the damage were graphic. The explosion threw a woman passerby, a Mrs. Moneysmith, and her horse and wagon into a fence corner, covering her with dirt but miraculously surviving. The blast knocked an infant child, who was not that close to the scene, insensible and apparently unconscious for more than 15 minutes. The closest structure to the explosion was the home of John Ryan, across the road (referred to as the Van Wert Pike). It was all but a total wreck with plaster knocked off the sidewalls and ceilings and all the windows destroyed. The beautiful residence of Lewis Brewer was reported as “riddled.” Throughout St. Marys, broken flying glass injured many.
From the vantage point of almost 120 years later, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to experience this shock. Newspapers in Celina, Wapakoneta and New Bremen carried articles and noted that the shock was felt in those towns miles away. It was a minor miracle that, other than Sam Angel, no one was killed.
The reports of the blast indicated severe damage to the business buildings located in the center of town on Spring Street, well over a mile from the blast scene, especially noting the destruction of plate glass windows. Several of these buildings belonged to the St. Marys Woolen Manufacturing Company, one of St. Marys oldest and best-known industries. In 1849, attracted by the availability of water power and a large quantity of water, William Moss built a woolen mill along the canal. At the time of the explosion, the products of the St. Marys Woolen Manufacturing Company, under the leadership of the Herzing family, were known throughout the country. Just in the past year, the company had suffered the loss of its factory in a major fire in the heart of St. Marys destroying its facility on “the island” between the river and the canal but was immediately rebuilding. The owners of the mill also controlled the Home Banking Company, which also had a new structure on Spring Street.
The Bradford company did assume some responsibility for the damage as reports indicate that after the explosion, a company representative, a Mr. George Cusac, was in town paying for the damage done to property and acting “as a gentlemen with all who applied to him.” What is curious here is that apparently the Woolen Mill was not satisfied with Cusac’s offer or perhaps he made no offer to the Woolen Mill because it decided to take legal action and filed a lawsuit against Bradford before a justice of the peace in Hancock County (the home county of the Bradford Glycerine Company) for the value of the three plate glass and three common glass windows broken in its buildings as a result of the explosion. The amount claimed was $244.10, which seems an incredibly small amount to pursue a claim all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court with the time and legal fees involved, even if you multiply that figure by a factor of 10 or 20 to account for the inflation of the dollar. One can only speculate if there may have been other factors in play, perhaps animosity between the parties or outside interests who wanted to make this a test case.
Perhaps a victim of “home court advantage” the Woolen Mill lost its first round before the justice of the peace and also the second round in an appeal to the Hancock County Common Pleas Court. Bradford won these rounds on the status of the law at the time by arguing that the Woolen Mill could not prove that Bradford, through its agent Sam Angel, had been negligent in its handling of the nitroglycerine. The parties all agreed that there was no evidence as to what actually caused the explosion. Sam, the only witness, did not survive and Bradford argued that, while acknowledging damage, there was no evidence of malice or negligence; and, as a result, the law afforded no remedy.
Not stopping there, the Woolen Mill took the case to the next level, which was then designated as the circuit court (now known as a court of appeals) and won a reversal of the common pleas decision. With the shoe now being on the proverbial other foot, Bradford Glycerine appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. On June 20, 1899, more than three years after the incident (one thing that has not changed over time is the length of time for litigation) the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the circuit court and found that the Bradford Glycerine Company owed the Woolen Mill the $244.10 as claimed.1
In a ground-breaking decision, the Ohio Supreme Court looked to English law for precedent. This may seem odd in an era when the U.S. Supreme Court is criticized for looking at the law of other countries, but one must remember that the U.S. legal system is based on what is known as English common law. For many years it was not unusual for courts in the U.S. to look to a decision of England’s highest court, the House of Lords, which in 1868, in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, ruled that if a person brings anything on his land, which should it escape and cause damage, that person is responsible, even if he has taken care or precautions to prevent the damage. In the law this is referred to as the doctrine of strict liability, meaning that a person may be found liable even though there is no proof or evidence that they committed negligence. At the time of the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling in 1899, the Supreme Courts of the various states were divided on this issue, with some courts approving the doctrine and other not (Pennsylvania at the time for example). For Ohio to adopt this rule was a major legal event.
One interesting note, was that the Ohio justices made a clear distinction concerning explosions caused by steam. They specifically noted that they were not extending their ruling to explosions of steam boilers, for, while noting that they do explode, the fact that steam was so widely used, meant that they would not extend the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher to those type of explosions. The court made an interesting observation on this point in noting that a neighboring factory run by steam has many benefits—while the erection of a nitroglycerine magazine on adjacent property would have disastrous effect on the value of nearby real estate.
The discussion as to when the doctrine of strict liability should be applied continues to this day, and involves factors such as the social utility of the particular activity allegedly causing harm.2 In the 21st century, jurists and attorneys still cite the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in pleadings and in law review articles.3
As far as subsequent events where the original incident occurred, St. Marys City Council immediately acted to impose restrictions on nitroglycerine. In Ordinance No. 155, passed on Feb. 5, the St. Marys legislative body made it unlawful to store or transport more than five quarts of nitroglycerine in St. Marys making a violation punishable by a fine of between a minimum of $5 and a maximum of $100. 1896 was the peak year of oil production, which slowly declined over the next 20 years but for some time continued to pump wealth into the St. Marys area. In the same month of the Bradford explosion, newspaper reports noted Lemon Neely’s company paid a widow $3,200 a month making her, as the newspaper speculated, perhaps a women with the largest income in Ohio. But with this infusion of wealth came accompanying dangers as this incident demon¬strated, leading to a major change in Ohio law.
Kraig Noble has served as the law director of the City of St. Marys for the past 34 years. He is an adjunct professor at Wright State University's Lake Campus and has written and spoken on various topics of local history.
1 This was reported as Bradford Glycerine Co. v. St. Marys Woolen Mfg. Co., 60 Ohio St. 560, 54 N.E. 528 (1899).
2 See Restatement of Torts, 2nd, Chapter 21, Section 519 and 520.
3 See Banford v. Aldrich Chemical Company, Inc., 2006 WL 4453926 (2006) and “Lessons from BP: Deepwater Oil Drilling is an Abnormally Dangerous Activity,” 35 Nova L. Rev. 803, 839 (2011).