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Monday, March 7, 2011

The Fatal Stove

[This is a bit of a mess at the moment -- made up from a fairly random collection of stories about stoves and gory endings, some criminal, some accidental, that I found while trawling through American metropolitan dailies looking for rather more serious stove stories.  I will complete this compilation of unusual vignettes of the darker side of Americans' lives (and occasionally deaths) with  stoves, and I may even manage to sort it into a better running-order.  I might break it up into a series of themed blog entries -- this is unmanageably large.]

Stoves were ubiquitous in the late19th and early 20th century American household and workplace.  As a result, they figure in plenty of lurid news stories, for example:

"Three Men Killed," New York Times 24 Apr. 1884, p. 9.

A group of Irish log drivers in Marquette, MI -- perhaps unfamiliar with stoves, or alternatively too familiar with explosives, "attempted to thaw some dynamite over a cook stove in their shanty.  The result was a terrible explosion," as you might imagine --leaving three dead, and two more seriously injured.

Evidently explosives were easy to come across, and to mistake for other less dangerous combustible substances -- e.g.

"Stove Goes Like a Bomb," Los Angeles Times 23 Feb. 1902, p. A15.
subtitle: GIANT POWDER FUEL PLAYS SMASH IN A STORE AT COVINA.

This was another accident, reported humorously because, miraculously, there were no deaths or even serious injuries.  A carpenter had thrown "a large bunch of excelsior [thin curly wood shavings used for packing or stuffing] into a hardware store stove, "and about two seconds later there was no stove. There happened to be several sticks of giant powder or dynamite in the exclesior used to replenish the fire, and that material is not a success as a fuel.

There was a terrific explosion, and the stove burst like a bomb, the fragments flying, in all directions, many piercing the woodwork like bullets."

There were several pounds of dynamite and a hundred "caps of high power" (detonators) on the store counter, which didn't explode; so maybe the Irish log-drivers weren't quite so unwary, trusting in their dynamite's stability in proximity to a fire.


"Explosion of a Stove," New York Times 7 Dec. 1883, p. 2.


CASTLETON, NY -- "Mrs. Warren Fuller sat yesterday near a stove ... Without previous warning the stove exploded with frightful force into atoms, crashing out the windows, upsetting the furniture, and hurling Mrs. Warren a distance of several feet, where she lay stunned until the neighbors, who had heard the report, came to her rescue.  The demolition of the contents of the room was complete.  A clock on the mantel was picked up in twenty different pieces.  Particles of the iron stove were found deeply imbedded in a wooden partition.  It was appropriately named 'Lively Times.' No fuel had been added to it for several hours.  It is believed that a cartridge or other explosive was in the coal, so great was the force of the explosion.  The ignition of coal gas could not possibly have created so great a wreck."


* * *

Well, those incidents were just unfortunate accidents.  But sometimes stove explosions were deliberate: would-be murderers had worked out that there was a neat way of introducing death into their intended victims' kitchens and parlors, e.g.

"Gunpowder in the Coal," Chicago Daily Tribune 5 Jan. 1901, p. 3.
subtitle: EX-MAYOR OF MICHIGAN TOWN HAS NARROW ESCAPE. JAMES COLLINS AND WIFE OF STEVENSVILLE RETURN HOME AFTER SEVERAL DAYS' ABSENCE -- BUILD A FIRE IN THE PARLOR STOVE, WHICH IS INSTANTLY BLOWN TO PIECES -- MRS. COLLINS IS SEVERELY INJURED -- COAL IN BINS FILLED WITH THE EXPLOSIVE.

"The servant-girl, while in the act of filling several lamps...,discovered that the oil contained a strange-looking black powder, but she failed to notify Mr. Collins. Later it was discovered that the oil in the can contained half a pound of black gunpowder."  The coal in the coal-bin was covered with black powder too.

I came across another similar story in the New York Times, but didn't note it down at the time (always a mistake!) and couldn't find it again.  But I recall the details -- it was about a gang wanting to "fix" a jockey who wouldn't cooperate in nobbling horse races in which he was involved.  He was done for by the black-powder-in-the-coal trick, too.

Sometimes the press reported incidents like this as funny stories, if the victims were from a low-status ethnic group, e.g.


"An Explosive Day," Atlanta Constitution 10 Feb. 1882, p. 5.

reporting another attempted murder-by-exploding-stove in Georgetown, Colorado, involving two Italians "severely injured by an explosion of giant powder in a cook stove, placed there maliciously by another Italian,
whom the sheriff is now in pursuit of."  It was reported as likely that both would die, but this was not enough to prevent the Constitution's sub-editor from attaching a humorous headline to what was evidently a wire-service story.

* * * 


Robbers, too, could take it for granted that households contained a reliable source of heat, which was useful to them as they went about their business -- e.g.

"Sat Him on a Hot Stove," Atlanta Constitution 2 Jan. 1895, p. 8.
subtitle: UNTIL HE TOLD THE ROBBERS WHERE HIS MONEY WAS.

Decatur, IL: "One of the most atrocious robberies ever recorded in this county" involved an old man, Mr Florey, with eighty acres of fine land, who lived by himself and was thought to have money.  Three masked men broke into his house, "built a fire in the cook stove and held Florey's hand on the top until he told them where to find $500.

Then to make him tell them where to find more they forced him to sit on the stove. They tortured the old man from 11 until 4 o'clock, and when they left they carried $1,300, of which $1,020 was in gold." 

"A Red Hot Stove," Atlanta Constitution 30 Mar. 1887, p. 7.
subtitle: A WOMAN CLAIMING TO BE A SISTER OF THE JAMES BOYS IN TROUBLE

This as a report of an argument between two women, one of them drunken, which led to a fight. "Mrs. Finley left the house promising to make it warm when she got back."  So she lit up the cooking stove, firing it with wood until it reached red heat, then picked up her neighbor and was about to place her on the red-hot stove top when the two of them were separated by a servant.


* * * 

There were plenty more domestic tragedies associated with stoves too, e.g.


"Seriously Burned," Atlanta Constitution 5 Feb. 1887, p. 7.


A very routine story -- a young girl is lighting a fire in a cook stove to make breakfast; her clothing catches fire.



"A Woman Burned to Death," New York Times 13 Dec. 1883, p. 5.


Rochester, NY -- She was "seized with apoplexy and fell on the stove" while preparing dinner.

"Killed by Paris Green," Atlanta Constitution 7 June 1908, p. C6.

A fourteen-year-old dies from an exploding kerosene can, and her mother is badly burned -- "The accident occurred while trying to start a fire in the cook stove."  There are so many similar stories like this that it's easy just to pile up the examples (and the bodies).  They were common enough for the press to treat them as suitable subjects for humor, e.g.

"Short Cuts," New York Times 16 Feb. 1887, p. 4. 

"We learn from a scientific journal that 'all modern high explosives are now almost universally exploded by the agency of electricity.' There is one notable exception.  Coal oil is still exploded by the agency of the hired girl and the cook stove." [from the Jersey City Journal]


One of the earliest such reports that I've found -- these accidents depended on increasing availability of petroleum products in the home after the Civil War -- is this one:


"Casualties. Fatal Explosions," Chicago Daily Tribune 1 Feb. 1874, p. 4,

Loudon, Iowa -- The cause was "an attempt to kindle a fire with kerosene oil." -- the late Mrs Beetle "attempted to hasten the fire in her parlor stove by pouring oil upon it from a can.  The fire reached to the can, which exploded with terrific force, scattering the oil in all directions, and setting on fire the clothes of Mrs. Beetle and her little girl.  The mother and daughter were terribly burned, and the injuries sustained by Mrs.
Beetle were so fearful that she died yesterday in great agony.  The little girl is lingering along in great suffering, and her death is constantly expected."  Mrs & Ms Beetle's tragedy was the lead story in a column of fires, explosions, accidents, and bridge collapses -- reminders both of the hazards of everyday life in mid-century America, and newspaper readers' insatiable appetite for stories about them. 

* * *

Speaking of which, stoves could be useful to criminals, especially to murderers, as ways of attempting to dispose of bodies, not always successfully:

"Dismembered, His Remains Burned," Boston Globe 7 Jan. 1909, p. 13.

A gory and, probably, very smelly incident in Columbus, St Clair County, near Detroit.  The subtitle says it all: MICHIGAN CLERGYMAN VICTIM OF MYSTERIOUS MURDER. BODY OF REV JOHN H. CARMICHAEL FOUND IN STOVES IN CHURCH.

The press loved this kind of horror story, e.g.

"Caught in the Act. Dr. Brooks," Chicago Daily Tribune 4 Mar. 1877, p. 8.

This is an account of the trial of a Chicago abortionist, who had, like the Rev. Carmichael's killers, a problem -- disposing of the evidence.  But help was at hand: "infants, 5, 8, and even 9 months old, are strangled, and then cremated in the parlor stove, which is a self-feeder."  This was the way it was put in an anonymous letter of denunciation which started police enquiries: I'm not sure why, but there's something particularly horrifying about the final, apparently unnecessary technical detail.  A lovingly-detailed police-court account follows, including the testimony of an undercover investigator sent to look into the abortionist's affairs: "The spy inquired what was done with the result of these crimes, and in reply a female finger pointed to a pile of ashes in the back-yard, together with the remark, 'Rats and bone-yards tell no tales.'"  A line almost worthy of Dickens, as is the gruesome image in the following story:


"Found Dead in the Kitchen," New York Times 27 Feb. 1885, p. 3.


NORRISTOWN, Pa. "About 3 o'clock this morning Mrs. Haxworth awoke, and, detecting the odor of burning flesh, descended to the kitchen to investigate the matter.  She found her father [a shoemaker] in a chair, dead, his head resting on the top of a hot cook stove. The flesh was partly burned away, exposing the jaw bones.  It is thought that he died from heart disease, his head falling on the stove after he expired."  


The odd thing about this story is that the cook stove should have been burning hot enough overnight to do this much damage, and that Mrs. Haxworth didn't notice the smell of her late father any earlier.

On the other hand, the cast-iron stove -- big and solid -- could also be a refuge:

"Mother Braves Fire for Burning Babies," Atlanta Constitution 25 Feb. 1913, p. 7.

ELKINS, West Virginia -- "Three small children were cremated and their mother probably fatally
burned in a fire today."  The fire destroyed their home, breaking out while the mother was visiting neighbors.  "[W]hen rescuers reached the house they found the charred bodies of the three children under a large cook stove where, apparently, they had taken refuge."  Their mother was badly injured in a desperate attempt to save them.

* * *

The real peril of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century household was probably not the solid-fuel stove but its gas or, even worse, gasoline or kerosene rival.  The latter had an particularly unfortunate habit of exploding, e.g.

"Burned in Locked Room," New York Times 8 Oct. 1911, p. 7.
subtitle: MOTHER & DAUGHTER BADLY HURT WHEN GASOLINE STOVE CATCHES FIRE

This was an incident in Detroit, and what made such an everyday event into something more than just a local story was the horror of entrapment.  "The mother beat the glass from the two windows with her naked hands, in a mad endeavor to throw the blazing stove out of doors."

"Asphyxiated by Oil Gas," New York Times 11 May 1901, p. 4.

ENGLEWOOD, NJ -- One woman died: "as the house was closed tightly because of the rain it was soon filled with gas."

"Roasted in the Flames," Boston Globe 12 Oct. 1889, p. 3.
Subtitle: Wife and Three Little Ones Cremated at Home -- Gas Cook Stove Exploded at Bradford, Penn.

The entire family was "roasted in the flames" -- "The gas pressure was very strong the pipe running direct from a neighboring oil well to the cooking stove."

"The Fateful Kerosene. Mary Doyle's Sad Experience Late Last Night," New York Times 26 Mar. 1885, p. 5.

Mary was busy at work when "she brushed against the mantel, on which was placed a kerosene oil lamp. The lamp exploded and the burning oil was scattered over Mary's dress and upon the cook stove which stood beneath the mantel. Mary's garments were speedily in flames, and with screams of terror she threw open the door leading into the front room."  Almost all of her clothes were burnt off before her father could put her out; she suffered severe injuries, which the Times thought would probably be fatal.


"Death from an Oil-Stove Explosion," New York Times 25 Dec. 1882, p. 2 -- probably the only reason that such a commonplace event was reported at all was that it took place at the home of the New Lebanon Shakers, where one might not expect it, as it did not fit with their image.

So great was the (justifiable) fear and suspicion of the oil stove that, shortly after its introduction, one manufacturer even took account of it in its marketing:


"The New Excelsior Oil Stoves," Chicago Daily Tribune 26 May 1877, p. 8.

This was an advertorial -- an obvious 'plug' -- for "One of the latest and best oil stoves we have seen," made by the Coleman Gas-Apparatus Co.  They were "marvels of beauty and completeness. They are much larger than any of the other stoves, and are perfect in point of safety. Indeed, the Company offer a reward of $1,000 to any one who can explode them by any fair means.  Their office is crowded with customers.  Call and see them.  They advertise for State and county agents."



* * *

Coal stoves could produce sometimes-fatal gas, too, so that people did not simply die by fire -- e.g.


"The Lake Tragedy. Investigations of the Coroner's Jury," Chicago Daily Tribune 19 Feb. 1874, p. 2.

Three children of a foundry worker were killed, but a baby, their mother and a nurse survived.  At first poison  was suspected, then asphyxia.  The flue damper had been left open, i.e. the explanation for a carbon monoxide gas buildup was not the usual one.  The grieving father admitted that "sometimes the parlor stove gave forth gas, but never to be very troublesome."



"Saved by Common Sense. A Couple Given Up for Dead Revived by Reporters," New York Times 2 Jan. 1893, p. 5.

LAWRENCE, Mass. -- "The coal gas came from a new parlor stove. The damper was turned off and the gas filled the room."


"Suffocated by Coal Gas," New York Times 20 Dec. 1883, p. 5.

subtitle "A MOTHER AND CHILD LOSE THEIR LIVES AND THREE PERSONS RESCUED"

A sad story from Cleveland, Ohio -- there was a baseburner (a heating stove with a gravity-feed fuel magazine, very powerful and efficient and capable, with appropriate management, of burning all winter long) outside the bedroom door, and they left the damper tightly closed while they slept, against their doctor's advice.  The family was poor, the breadwinner out of work, so it is possible that they were trying their utmost to conserve fuel.

"Two Die from Coal Gas," Chicago Daily Tribune 14 Jan. 1897, p. 5.
subtitle: MRS. ESTHER POOLE AND HER SON ARE FOUND TOGETHER. -- RETIRE AT THEIR HOME IN MILWAUKEE AVENUE, AFTER AN EVENING SPENT TOGETHER -- BOTH FALL VICTIMS TO POISONOUS FUMES EMITTED BY A STOVE -- BIRDS IN THE ROOM PERISH AND DOG NARROWLY ESCAPES 

The coal gas escaped "from an opening in a stove lid," which must have been a common risk, at sea as well as ashore: America's thousands of coastal and fishing vessels and canal boats had provided good markets for stoves since the early 19th century, and were typically installed in small, poorly-ventilated cabins.  The results could be fatal, even if not directly by fire -- e.g.

"Crew Narrowly Escape Suffocation," Boston Globe 28 Sept. 1893, p. 4.

NEW LONDON -- "Gas from an improperly closed cook stove in the cabin nearly asphyxiated the entire crew of six men" on a coal schooner from New York City travelling up Long Island Sound in early Fall.

Sometimes these incidents were not accidental, e.g.


"Charles Fick's Attempt at Suicide," New York Times 6 Dec. 1882, p. 3.

Fick was a tinsmith.  In an attempt to end his life, he disconnected the flue pipe from a small parlor stove, stuffed the end with paper also papered over the keyholes of his room all the gaps around the door and windows.  But it still didn't work, so after he was discovered and revived he was arrested and tried, attempted suicide being a crime.


But these stories did not always end happily, e.g.

"Asphyxiated by Coal Gas," New York Times 6 Mar. 1892, p. 8.

NEWBURG, NY: A twenty-year-old man dies in his bed -- "The coal gas had escaped from the parlor stove last night and caused his death by asphyxiation."


* * *

Ordinary domestic deaths and injuries usually weren't quite enough.  This kind of stove story needed an extra something, e.g.

"Death By Fire," Boston Globe 17 May 1900, p. 14.
subtitle: CHELSEA WOMAN WAS AT THE STOVE COOKING. HER CLOTHING BECAME IGNITED. WHEN HELP ARRIVED SHE WAS DEAD.

"She was cooking some pork chops, and the fat spatterg over the stove caused a flame which reached to the contents of the spider [frying-pan]. In an effort to save her supper the good woman's clothing became ignited, and when help arrived she was dead. She was terribly burned all over the body."  Her husband was a molder,  from Chelsea.

The addition of deliberate brutality and criminality helped a story's chances of publication, e.g.

"Put Child on Hot Stove," New York Times 23 Feb. 1906, p. 7.
subtitle: THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL HAS MANIA FOR BURNING CHILDREN

YORK, PA. The crime was against a three-year-old -- "The child was placed on a cook stove while the mother was absent from the house. The little one was rescued by its aunt, but not until it was burned from head to foot. It is said that the child will not recover."  The girl admitted three similar attacks to the police.

"Burned Her Child On A Stove," New York Times 9 Sept. 1893, p. 5.

ORANGE, NJ -- "[A] negro laundress living in a shanty near the Italian colony" was arrested for "inhuman and brutal treatment of her children. Last evening Maude, one of her four children, provoked her rage, and she dragged the child toward a cook stove.

'Please, mamma, let me go! Don't burn me!' the little girl screamed in terror. The child's cries were heard by the neighbors, but they had become so accustomed to screams coming from the house that they paid no attention to them.

The inhuman mother put fresh coal on the fire and opened the draughts. When the coal had been fanned into a bright flame, the woman held the little girl over the stove and pressed her hand on the hot iron until it was burned to a crisp.

A woman living next door noticed the peculiar odor of burning flesh and rushed into the house just as the mother threw the senseless child into the corner" and made a complaint to the police, who already knew the mother for her record of child abuse.

Spousal abuse, too, was facilitated by ready access to a source of red-hot iron, e.g.


"A Year for Burning his Wife," New York Times 28 Nov. 1885, p. 3.

AMSTERDAM, NY -- A man "severely burned his wife about the face with a redhot stove lifter, heated while she slept."  He was sentenced to a year in the penitentiary at Albany, quite possibly the home town of his stove and its lifter (a tool for lifting the covers off the cooking-holes on top of the stove).


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