This story was first reported in the December 1910 issue of “World’s Work."
William Newby of White County, Illinois, a Private in Co. D of the 40th Illinois Infantry was killed at Shiloh on April 6, 1862 and buried on the battlefield by his comrades. His widow removed to Texas after the war with her children, however they scattered to the winds after reaching adulthood.
In 1891 a stranger walked into the Texas town and announced to all that he was William Newby. Rather than being dead and buried, William Newby claimed that he had been wounded in the head, an injury that had caused both “insanity” and amnesia. After years spent in aimless wandering a miracle had suddenly occurred and he was once again in full possession of all his mental faculties.
The still grieving widow, who had been receiving a pension for close to thirty years, was summoned and, “after a little talk, declared that this was her missing husband.” The “restored” Newby immediately filed application for a pension. If granted he stood to collect serious money in retroactive benefits. World's Work claimed the arrears would have been in the neighborhood of $15,000, however, that was an exaggeration on their part. Even at the highest rates allowable under the pension laws back payments probably would have been in the neighborhood of $2800, an amount nobody sneezed at back then.
The Pension Bureau raised a suspicious eyebrow and decided to investigate. They immediately found a couple of things wrong, like different eye colors and the fact the resurrected Newby’s pension affidavit established him as twenty years younger than the supposedly deceased Newby.
The reunited husband and wife pushed the claim and the Pension Bureau pushed their investigation. They were able to identify the claimant as one “Rickety Dan” Benton, who had lived in White County as a child and later spent time in jail.
Dealing with an alleged case of fraud, the Pension Bureau threw the entire weight of its bureaucratic might against Benton and took him to court. “Rickety Dan” and his attorney didn’t go down without a fight though. The defense team called 140 witnesses, including the former widow and her son, all of whom swore up and down, so help them God, that Benton wasn’t Benton, that he really was the long lost and suffering William Newby.
The prosecution, in turn, paraded 60 people to the stand. In the end Benton’s own body betrayed him and swayed the jury to render a guilty verdict. The damning evidence? The fact that he lacked scars and other identifying marks that the real Newby’s daughter and brother declared the deceased had incurred in his lifetime.
And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.
For your review, a host of typical pension claims culled from National Archives records:
Application for Invalid Pension filed by George B. Hayden; dated South Scituate, MA, Dec. 13, 1865
That while in the service aforesaid, and in the line of his duty, he was disabled as follows, to wit: he was shot through the ankle joint of the right foot by a Minnie ball at the battle of Pine Woods, up Red River, May 1, 1864, the ball striking in front of the inner ankle & coming out in front of the outer ankle joint. Since his discharge he has resided in South Scituate, Mass. and that his occupation has been shoe making & farming.
Claim for Invalid Pension filed by Melvin G. Leach; dated Chillicothe, Missouri, May 15, 1869
That while in the service aforesaid, and in the line of his duty, he received the following wound, on the 3d day of June 1864, in action called Bethesda Church near Petersburg, Va. he was shot through the kidneys under the spine. The rifle ball entering the left hip pierced through and rested against the right hip from which it was taken by a surgeon.
Declaration for an Army Invalid Pension filed by Ebenezer C. Vickery; dated June 29, 1871
That while in the service, aforesaid, and in the line of his duty, he while in the line of his duty in service and present with his Company at Camp Sharpsburg, Md. on or about the 21st day of Sept. 1862, he contracted fever and ague, which was brought on by exposure, climate, &c. He was immediately excused from duty and remained in his quarters under Asst. Surgeon Merriam’s care for about three weeks and was then sent to a hospital in a dwelling house at Keedersville, Md. where he remained about 10 days and was then sent to U.S. Genl Hospt. Corner 16th and Filbert St., Phila, Penn. where he remained until discharged. On his arrival at the last named Hospt. he was immediately taken with typhoid fever and remained unconscious for fourteen days. After getting over the typhoid fever, Dr. Mitchell who had charge of him while he remained in said Hospt. examined his lungs every day for about a fortnight and although he did not tell him that he had a lung trouble, he felt satisfied that the Doctor found it so as he was subject to severe pains in his left chest and side and the Doctor often called his students attention to his chest and had the student sound him. That when he left the service he was suffering from general prostration and was greatly broken down in health and ever since this disability has increased upon him until the Doctors’ tell him that he is in consumption. His occupation was that of a shoe maker but since his discharge he has been obliged to give it up and seek light work in the open air. That he delayed applying for a pension until this time as he had hopes that he would recover his health.
Declaration for Original Invalid Pension filed by Willard Plumley; dated June 3, 1882
That while a member of the organization aforesaid, in the service and in the line of his duty at Cold Harbor, in the State of Virginia, on or about the 13th day of June 1864, he was captured by the enemy. He was taken to Andersonville prison in the State of Georgia where he was taken sick about August 1864 with scurvy and fever. That he was paroled Dec. 13th 1864 at Florence, S.C. and taken from there to Annapolis, Md. and taken at once to hospital.
That he was treated in hospitals as follows: Navy Yard Hospital, Annapolis, Md. about two weeks until his wife came after him and he was given a furlough. After furlough he expired was in hospital at Boston.
That since leaving the service this applicant has resided in the towns of Orange & Greenfield in the State of Mass., and his occupation has been that of a Mechanic.
Declaration for Original Invalid Pension filed by Matthew Gaffney; dated Jan. 20, 1883
That while a member of the organization aforesaid, in the service and in the line of his duty at Rappahannock Station, in the State of Virginia on or about the Seventh day of November 1863, he received a severe wound in his left leg by the bursting of a shell.
That he was treated in hospitals as follows: in a hospital at Washington, DC for about six months; afterwards in a hospital at Long Island, NY for about five weeks; afterwards at Knight Hospital, New Haven, Conn. for nearly eight mos.
…He served on board the gunboat Norwich. He was discharged from 219 Co. 2 Batt. V.R.C. in which he had served for about eight months.
That since leaving the service this applicant has resided in the City of Gloucester in the State of Mass., and his occupation ahs been that of a caulker.
General Affidavit of Edward Coyle; dated July 11, 1893
I received wound of forward at a skirmish in the battle of Fredericksburg June 13th 1862 & cant furnish witnesses as it was only a slight wound and I did not make any report of it. The disabilities that plagues me and disable me from manual labor is rheumatism, heart disease, skin disease & spinal disability. They are of a permanent character and are not due to vicious habits and disables me two thirds of the time. I can furnish all the evidence necessary as my troubles not be the results of vicious habits. I have all ready furnished Dr. Golden affidavit who is my attending physician.
I admit to having gotten caught up in the story of the Washington Arsenal explosion. I really can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the dead and the cemetery factor. Maybe I’m just plain morbid. Maybe it was just a compelling story. But it led to a phone call to Mt. Olivet Cemetery, asking if they had records of grave locations. I was assured they did, I just needed to provide the name and year of burial through an email request.
Mt. Olivet is a large cemetery, with over 1500 graves listed on the Find A Grave Web site. And that’s only a partial listing. I’ve been there and it was hard enough locating Mary Surratt’s grave. Trying to find the graves of Kate Horan, Johannah Connor, Bridget Dunn, and Catherine Hull, all victims of the Arsenal fire, probably would have taken countless hours of searching as it would have entailed looking at every headstone. Provided they even had markers.
I sent my email and got a reply. The cemetery would be very happy to conduct research to the tune of fifty bucks an hour. I don’t know if they walk the cemetery, open a book, or stare at a computer screen.
After the sticker shock wore off I asked myself, if the story was really that compelling to me. I had my answer when I tucked a check into an envelope.
For three years Washington had been a depot for wounded soldiers arriving by train, wagon, ambulance, and boat. Whereas crowds had gathered earlier in the war upon the arrival of casualties from battlefields, the city had become progressively inured to the masses of torn and mutilated bodies brought for medical attention. The once eager helping hands of civilians no longer assisted in the unloading of those battered by shell, shot, and minie balls. Instead, the wounded and dying were processed in seeming isolation, while hospitals, once occupying virtually every church and public building, had been relocated to the outskirts of the city. Amputees, with their empty sleeves or trouser legs, wandering through the city no longer drew notice. These unfortunates were as common to the downtown streets as newsboys hawking the latest edition of a paper. Too, after three years there was a feeling of security. After numerous alarms in years past the city was under no immediate threat. Grant was in motion with his massive army slugging his way closer to Richmond. Jubal Early and his marauding butternuts were still a month away from their approach down the Seventh Street road, while theaters, restaurants, shops, hotels, pickpockets, muggers, and whores were all doing a landmark business.
The explosion at the Washington Arsenal had done more than shake the main laboratory building. The city had quite literally been stunned. In a place overrun by government clerks and regiments drawn from the local populace consigned to nearby guard and picket duty, the fire had claimed nineteen women who lived with their working class families in working class neighborhoods on the Island, on Capitol Hill, in the Northern Liberties. Whole families had been touched by the flames even if those flames hadn’t licked at their skin. Neighbors and friends had been touched by the flames even if those flames hadn’t melted the metal hoops of their dresses. For those who had escaped and were wrapped in the arms of loved ones, guilt singed their hearts for the sin of having survived.
Edward Stanton, cold, calculating, intolerant, and feared, directed that “the funeral and all the expenses incident to the internment of the sufferers by the recent catastrophe at the Arsenal will be paid by the [War] Department. You will not spare any means to express the respect and sympathy of the Government for the deceased and their surviving friends.”
A committee of workers from the Arsenal chose neatly stained poplar wood for the construction of the coffins, which were “lined with muslim and trimmed with white satin and ginap.” All metal, including the handles screws, and tacks were silver-mounted, while the coffin-plates were silver plated. An appropriate site at the Congressional Burying Ground was arranged and James King, John Stahl, and G. Collison were in charge of procuring hearses, appointing pall-bearers, and conducting the funeral procession.
The funeral was scheduled on the Arsenal grounds for three o’clock in the afternoon on June 19th, two days after the fire. A crowd had begun forming by noon and by two o’clock more than a thousand people were concentrated outside the gates. By 2:30, when the gates finally swung open, the number had tripled and the stampede through the comparatively narrow opening resulted in injuries to more than a few. Several divisions of the Sons of Temperance and a band affiliated with Finley Hospital also made their appearance on the grounds.
Rising fifteen to twenty feet above the ground, a canopied platform draped with the American flag and symbols of mourning supported fifteen coffins. Eight bore a label with the word “unknown,” while seven, lined side by side bore the names of Annie Bache, Julia McCuin, Mrs. Collins, Elizabeth Branagan, Lizzie Brahler, Eliza Lacey, and Maggie Yonson. Each was adorned with bouquets and wreaths made from white lilies and roses, a tribute from their female co-workers.
A contingent of Veteran Reserves struggled to hold back the crowd, which tried to press closer to the platform, even as relatives of the deceased were brought onto the platform. Sobs wracked the stage as family members looked for their loved ones. Emily Bache’s family clutched at her coffin, demanding it be opened, while the sister of Melissa Adams, one of the unknown, conducted a futile search and collapsed in a dead faint.
The crowd finally lapsed into a respectful silence when Father Bokel of St. Dominic’s began reciting the Catholic burial service, sprinkling holy water on the caskets. Though earnest and feeling in his remarks, he imparted this lesson to those who looked on: “Those before them, though dead, speak to us in words of warning, that we too must die, and we know not the hour or circumstances in which the Almighty may summon us to appear before him.”
The Reverend S.V. Leech, a Methodist Episcopal minister who followed tried to console family members. “It would have been consoling, indeed, if the father and the mother could have stood by the side of the daughter and bade her adieu; but we have this consolation, that those who believed in Christ were not harmed by death, and scarcely felt the touch of fire before they were hastened to a blissful immortality…”
The police opened a passage through the crowd and the coffins were borne in line to waiting hearses and ambulances. The procession moved out through the north gate at 4 o’clock, led by the Finley Hospital band and followed in order by the Sons of Temperance, various ladies auxilleries of which Susie Harris, Bettie Branagan, and Eliza Lacey had been members, officiating clergymen, the hearses and ambulances, President Lincoln and Edward Stanton riding in a carriage as chief mourners, officers of the Washington Arsenal, relatives and friends of the deceased, and employees from the different Arsenal workshops. Forming behind were 150 hacks, other vehicles, a large procession of horses, and finally pedestrians, the whole of which stretched for miles and took about thirty-five minutes to pass one point. Moving up 4 ½ Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, the procession met a similar party assembled for Catherine McElfresh at F Street and the two combined in their slow march toward Congressional Cemetery.
As the funeral procession made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue the crowd grew and suddenly hundreds jumped from the sidewalks to the front of the line, calculating that the move would give them a vantage point at the cemetery. Unbeknownst to them the cemetery had been jammed with spectators for more than three hours.
Two large pits, each measuring six feet long, fifteen feet wide and five and a half feet deep, yawned open in the earth. Eight of the coffins were laid in one, six in the other; Catherine McElfresh’s coffin having been placed in a grave near her father and Annie Bache’s in a vault. Police had to restore order to a pushing, shoving, and clothes tearing mob before families members could be led to the gravesite, where the Reverend Leach officiated. With the repetition of the words “Farewell Sisters, Farewell,” and a final benediction, the crowd finally dispersed.
Three miles away four other funerals were taking place, those of Kate Horan, Johannah Connor, Bridget Dunn, and Catherine Hull, whose own service had taken place at the home of an uncle John King, who resided at the corner of K and Fifth Street Northeast. All were led in smaller separate processions, the largest of which encompassed twenty carriages, to Mt. Olivet Catholic Cemetery, the eventual resting place for Mary Surratt and Henry Wirz, former commandant of prisoners at Andersonville.
One year later a memorial would rise above Congressional Cemetery in remembrance of a city's lost daughters.
Note: the following post is based on a series of stories that ran in The Washington Star from June 17th to June 20th, 1864.
Sometime between eight and nine a.m.. on June 17, 1864, Thomas Brown, a pyrotechnist at the Washington Arsenal, laid out three copper trays filled with star shaped fireworks in the sun to dry. The fireworks were from a recipe of Brown’s own composition and considered by him less combustible than others which had been manufactured. It was routine for fireworks to be dried in the sun, even in August when the broiling Washington heat reached its apex, and as Brown would later state, there was little concern they would ignite.
Inside the Arsenal 108 young women were at work in four rooms of the one story main laboratory making both cartridges for small arms and fireworks. They all worked silently, as talking or laughter could result in dismissal. 29 of the women housed together were engaged in “choking” cartridges, a process by which they attached the ball by a machine, which, in turn, fastened the cartridge to the ball. The work conducted in the other three rooms included making boxes and cylinders, or cases.
No one was absolutely certain as to what happened, however a juror’s inquest fingered Thomas Brown’s negligence as the contributing cause to an explosion that ripped through the cartridge choking room at ten minutes to twelve. It was believed that the star fireworks, which had been drying approximately thirty feet from the main laboratory, had ignited and a burning fuse had flown through an open window causing the cartridges to explode, setting off a raging inferno. Witness accounts said the explosion sounded muffled and there was little initial damage to the brick structure, although the roof of the building reportedly lifted a foot into the air.
Panic immediately set in as some women were instantly engulfed in flames. Many made for windows and doors and more were set on fire when their own clothing came in contact with those already consumed. A Mrs. Scott stated at the time of the initial explosion she was buried under a dozen bodies, but managed to extricate herself and escape from the building with a severe burn to one leg. Others who leapt from windows in total flames were not as fortunate. In many cases hoop skirts acted as a chimney and rapidly funneled the flames upward toward the head. One woman who dove through a window was immediately grabbed by an onlooker who ran with her to the river, where both plunged into the water. Three others had their clothing ripped off by quick thinking bystanders, an action that ultimately saved their lives.
The response to the emergency was swift as eight fire companies raced to the scene and battled the fire with their hoses. Of importance was containing the blaze to prevent its spread to the barge magazine, where several tons of powder was stored. Even with their efforts a secondary explosion rocked the cartridge choking room sending debris into the air.
News of the explosion and fire spread as rapidly as the flames. A telegram had been sent to Edward Stanton at the War Department advising of the catastrophe, pleading for doctors to be sent to aid the injured. Stanton and General Henry W. Halleck rushed to the scene as did countless relatives frantically searching for family members, the crowd growing so large that a contingent of the Veteran Reserve Corps had to be called in to help control the growing number of seekers and onlookers. Thirteen of the workers, most badly burnt, had made their way to a tug docked nearby, and were ferried to the Sixth street wharf where they were then taken to friends and family. They were among the fortunate, as were Sallie McElfresh, Catherine Goldsmith, and Ada Webster, all severely burnt about the hands, arms, and face, and Julia Mahoney, badly injured while jumping from a window. Kate Plummer was hurt when a piece of iron plunged into her neck when she jumped through a window, while a Miss Kidwell, who was later found to have scraps of lead melted into her body whispered to friends “When I saw the blaze, I threw my hands over my face, and saved my eyes.”
When the fire was finally brought under control, the grim task of searching the shell of the remaining structure began in earnest. In total, 17 bodies were discovered. Those who walked through the ruin eyed a grisly scene beyond imagination. “In nearly every case only the trunk of the body remained, the arms and legs being missing or detached.”
Johanna Connor and Margaret Horan were identified by relatives who recognized small portions of their clothing that had not been consumed by flames. The list of the dead continued with Maggie Yonson and Ellen Roche, neither of whose bodies were recognizable, Elizabeth Branegan, who resided on E street south, between 4 ½ and 6th, Julia McCuin a resident of 4 ½ Street, Bridget Dunn of Capitol Hill, and Lizzie Brohler and Eliza Lacy, neighbors of Elizabeth Branegan. Rebecca Hull and Sallie McElfresh were among those taken to hospitals for treatment, but failed to pull through. One of the more tragic stories was that of Melissa Adams, the third child in a motherless family to die in an accident, one brother having accidentally shot himself during a hunting trip, while another had been killed when run over by a carriage.
The Washington Arsenal explosion occurred on the same day a lesser fire broke out at the Watervilett Arsenal near Albany, NY, one that the New York Times declared was “comparatively trifling” in terms of property loss. Both paled in comparison, however, to a fire which had claimed 78 worker lives at the Allegheny, Pennsylvania Arsenal on September 17, 1862. That tragic event had been reduced in its importance and neglected by newspapers, which instead chose to focus on the battle of Antietam.
In Washington the search for answers was quick in coming. A Coroner’s Inquest began the following day , the jury listening to testimony from Thomas Brown, Major James Benton, commandant of the Arsenal, Henry Soufferie, an Arsenal employee, Andrew Cox, an assistant to Brown, Edward Stebbins, the paymaster, Clinton Thomas, who worked in the gun carriage shop, and Charles S. Curtain, the brother-in-law of victim Johanna Connor. Conspicuous by their absence as witnesses were female employees at the Arsenal.
All fault and blame rested on Brown according to the jury. Brown, who had worked at the Arsenal for over twenty years, and by all accounts a competent and diligent employee,“was guilty of the most culpable carelessness and negligence in placing highly combustible substances so near a building filled with humans.”
Tomorrow: the funerals
As surprising as the lack of censorship with regard to letters mailed from the “Seat of War” was the accessibility of Abraham Lincoln to the general public. Herein are excerpts from letters written by soldiers of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry relating their up close and personal experiences with the 16th President.
Aug. 31, 1861
Marched to the City with the Brigade and passed in review before President Lincoln at the White House; he gave us the compliment of being the best regiment he had seen yet.
Corp. Amasa Guild, Co. F
November 20, 1861
…marched to Bailey’s cross roads, a distance of about four miles where there were concentrated between seventy and eighty thousand troops; there were all kinds of arms, troops of heavy and light infantry, artillery, cavalry, &c. After all was ready and stationed, they were inspected, having on knapsacks and equipments, by Gen. McClellan and Staff, and President Lincoln and Cabinet. After which all passed in review.
Corp. Harrison O. Thomas, Co. D
I remember Mr. Lincoln, and the appearance he made riding, almost as it had all happened yesterday instead of 36 years ago. It was the first time I saw him, and I looked for all my eyes were worth. I saw the president many times after that day, but never when he was interested me as then. He was called a homely man, and he was. His devoted admirer could hardly call him otherwise. With his long, angular form, seemingly largely made up of arms and legs, clad in an ill-fitting suit of black that appeared to touch his person only here and there, and on his head a tall silk hat, well titled back as he bounded up and down in the saddle – he was certainly a unique figure.
Pvt. Thomas H. Mann, Co. I
I see President Lincoln every week as I am to Washington every other day for transportation and medicines.
Pvt. Otis S. Guild, Co. F
July 8, 1862
Yesterday President Lincoln arrived here and reviewed the whole Army. Each Division was drawn up in masses and as he rode by each Regt saluted him with cheers and the artilery salute was fired from each Army Corp. He passed our Division at 9 in the evening the 4th of July. All the bands played the National airs and every body seemed to be in good spirits.
Capt. Joseph W. Collingwood, Co. H
October 3, 1862
The regiment was called to line this morning about 9 o’clock, and marched a short distance to where the Army Corps was formed according to order, &c., and after waiting until about noon in hot sun were called to attention and reviewed by President Lincoln, Gen. McClellan and staff. I had a better view than ever before both of Father Abe and Gen. McClellan. Cheers were offered, salutes by Artillery, Bands, and Drum Crops, &c. Returned to camp about one p.m.
Corp. Harrison O. Thomas, Co. D
I’m not writing this because I’m looking for sympathy. What started out as a mild sore throat Wednesday afternoon had me convinced by Friday that I was on my deathbed. Fever, chills, dizziness, stomach muscles hurting each time I coughed. I coughed a lot. But none of those mamby pamby remedies for me. I tried to tough it out, foregoing chicken soup, and all over the counter cold remedies, until the desire to live finally overcame stupidity.
It’s amazing how vivid and real dreams are after you chug down an entire bottle of DayQuil. So vivid and real I can read an email printed on a yellow piece of paper. It’s a solicitation from a Catholic Priest who serves a parish in Detroit. His parish has recently found thousands upon thousands of identified CDVs of Civil War soldiers, including hundreds belonging to the 18th Massachusetts. The email further explains that because of our interest in the Regiment, the church is preparing “a special publication” devoted exclusively to the 18th and, for a gift of $4,000 we can obtain a copy when it’s published.
I got up out of bed and started heading for the computer to write a response, when I realized I didn’t have the email in my hand. I turned around, climbed back into bed, and was in dreamland again ten seconds later.