Tuesday, April 21, 2009

101 Ways, Part 79: Whose Deaths . . . Were Occasioned by the Explosion of the Powder Mill

For a brief intro to the "101 Ways to Say 'Died'" series, click here.
This stone, in Chelmsford, MA, is dedicated to two brothers who died in an explosion in 1820.

Early on the morning of December 5, 1820, a spark flared at a gunpowder factory owned by Messrs. Hale, Whipple, and Tileston. The subsequent explosion consumed 2,000 pounds of gunpowder and could be heard 30 miles away. According to the History of Chelmsford, the explosion was probably caused "by the friction of the pestle against the mortar."

Four men were killed: Levi Marshall, Nathaniel Marshall, Sherburne Chase, and John Ives.

The epitaph tells the story:
to the memory of
Sons of
Mr. James & Mrs. Joanna Marshall,
whose deaths, together with those of
Sherburne Chase of Litchfield, N.H.
and John Ives of Sudbury
were occasioned by the explosion of
the Powder Mill in Chelmsford,
Dec. 5, 1820.
They were pleasant in their lives,
And in their deaths they were not divided.

My age's hope my youthful boast
My soul's chief blessing and my pride,
In one sad moment all were lost
When Levi and Nathaniel died.
Levi Marshall and John Ives were
instantly killed, Sherburne Chase &
Nathaniel Marshall survived, the
former 44, the latter 24 hours.

Over the next decade, the gunpowder factory exploded again and again. The History of Chelmsford recounts these incidents:
  • June 5, 1821: "Between 6 and 7 in the afternnon the powder mill took fire and exploded. Three persons were killed, Fitzgerald, Howard and Farr."
  • December 11, 1821: "About 4 p.m., the drying house of the powder factory took fire from the oven and exploded. Thomas Sullivan was killed. The other buildings were much injured. Windows and barn doors in the neighborhood were burst open and broken."
  • December 22, 1826: "Whipple's powder mill exploded. One man was hurt."
  • January 4, 1830: "There was another explosion. The building was destroyed and Mr. Robinson was mortally injured."
After that, there are no further accounts of exploding powder mills in Chelmsford — either the technology got more reliable or Mr. Whipple et al. gave up the enterprise. Perhaps they had trouble hiring new employees.


Unknown said...

Dear Ms. Hopkins,

I'm working on a Website project concerning the Concord River in Lowell and happened across your interesting segment on deaths caused by the explosion of Whipple's powder mills. Would you be willing to let us use your photo of the tombstone of the Marshall brothers? Also I'd like to use your transcription of the inscription on the tombstone. Very nicely done! Please let me know. My email address is: fitzdad55@verizon.net
Gray Fitzsimons

Susan said...

Thanks for posting this. Levi & Nathaniel Marshall are my great, great grand uncles....
Susan Hall Lewis

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I have two young men buried in the Old English Cemetery here in Lowell who were killed in Oliver M Whipple's Powder Mill Explosion on March 29, 1837. Their slate tombstones are side by side. Also buried here is another victim of Whipple's Powder Mill explosion on December 17, 1835. Dangerous work!
Kim Zunino, Lowell Historic Board