Category Archives: Thriller Thursday

Thriller Thursday – The Carver Bakery Explosion

It time for another Thriller Thursday, a prompt suggested by members of Geneabloggers. This week’s post is about the explosion of the Carver bakery that rocked Boyertown, Pennsylvania back in February of 1902.

It was just before 11 o’clock on the evening of February 3, 1902 when flames were spotted by the bakers working at George Carver’s Bakery on Philadelphia Avenue in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. The building was an L-shaped structure which housed the bakery in the rear and residence of the Carver family in the front. The fire had originated in the basement of the bakery, possibly in an over-heated flue.

As soon as the fire was detected, Friendship Hook and Ladder Company was summoned. The Carver family and the others in the building quickly evacuated, closing all the doors and windows so as not to provide oxygen to the fire. While waiting for the hook and ladder company, they attempted to put out the flames. However, despite their best efforts, the fire continued to spread and had reached the second floor by the time the fire fighters arrived at the scene.

At this point, the flames, which were fast approaching the roof line, were only visible from the rear of the building. So as a crowd gathered out front, the fire fighters focused their efforts and their hoses upon the rear. What no one realized at the time was that pressure was building up inside the closed building. With little or no warning, the  brick front of the building blew out in a deafening roar. The unsuspecting on-lookers were showered with bricks, timbers and other debris.

When the dust settled, four were dead and many others were injured. The dead were Henry Shaner, aged 38, who left a widow and 3 young children; Lawrence Shaner, his 14 year-old son; George Grimm, aged 35, who left a widow and 6 children; and Irvin Hough, the 13 year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Philip Hough.

In addition to the loss of life, damage to the Carver residence was considerable. The residence portion of the building had been built the previous summer at a cost of $4000. The estimated damage was $2500. The rooms on the upper floor were gutted and the sitting room and dining rooms also damaged. The store suffered from smoke and water damage. Despite the damage, George did rebuild and continued with the bakery business.

While my main connection to this tragedy is to the Shaners. I also have ties to the Carvers. George Carver and his wife Rosa Dellicker were the parents of two sons. The elder son was Newton D. Carver. Ironically, he was born in 1888 and was about the same age as Lawrence Shaner and Irvin Hough, the two boys who died in the bakery explosion. In 1908 Newton married Susan Burdan, daughter of Henry S. Burdan and Catharine Bryan. Susan was my 4th cousin, twice removed. Coincidently, Newton and Susan named their first child Lawrence.

As for the Shaners, Henry S. Shaner was my 3rd cousin, 3 times removed. He was the sexton of Fairview Cemetery. His wife was Amanda F. Renninger. A very sad post script to this story is that Amanda and two of her remaining children, Paul and Charles, died in the Boyertown Opera House fire about six years later in January 1908.  And in November 1910 Edgar, who survived the opera house fire and was the last remaining child of Henry and Amanda, died of “lung affection.”  Though Edgar was only 17 years old when he died, he fathered a child named Catherine. Unfortunately she died of membraneous croup in 1915 at the of 5. Catherine was the only grandchild and the last member of the ill-fated family of Henry and Amanda Shaner.

If you have any connections to these families I would love to hear from you.


Thriller Thursday – William S. Shaner’s Terrible Death

Today’s Thriller Thurday posting (a prompt suggested by members of Geneabloggers) is the tragic story of William S. Shaner.

William S. Shaner was born November 24, 1840, probably in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He was the oldest child of Thomas Maberry Shaner and Naomi Strickland. William had a hard childhood in so much as his mother died October 4, 1849 just months before William’s 9th birthday. He and his younger siblings were apparently taken in by relatives or apprenticed out as none of them are living with their father in the 1850 census.

While there are a couple of other William Shaners in Chester County of similar age, it is believed that he is the William Shaner, age 9, living with the family of David (aka Daniel) Benner in East Coventry Township, Chester County, PA in 1850. (William’s younger brother, Davis E. Shaner, is living with Henry and Elizabeth Shaner and is listed on the same census sheet, just 2 families later.) Mr. Benner was a carpenter, and although William did not become a carpenter himself, it is possible that he was originally placed with the Benners to learn that trade.

At some point in the 1850s, William’s father Thomas married a woman named Margaret. Together they had a son Thomas Jr., born in 1859. By the time of the 1860 census, both William and his younger sister Phoebe had moved back home and were living in Uwchlan Township with their father and his new wife and son. Oddly enough both William (then aged 19) and Phoebe (then aged 14) are listed as having attended school that year.

On December 21, 1864, William married Sallie Milligan at the Lutheran parsonage at Lionville, Pennsylvania. Together they had two known children, Jefferson S. in 1865 and William in 1869. In 1870, the couple and their sons were living in Uwchlan. Sadly, Sallie died in 1876. And it was only about a year later, on December 20, 1877 that William S. Shaner met his tragic fate.

William was an employee of the American Wood Paper Company of Spring City, PA. Paper-making was a big business in Chester County, PA. As early as 1800 there were at least 8 paper mills and by 1874 there were reportedly 37 paper mills in the county. The American Wood Paper Company, where William was employed, was noted as being a pioneer in the use of wood as a raw material for making paper rather than the traditional rags, linen and cotton.

Paper-making was a hazardous industry and due to the nature of the machinery and the pulleys, personal injury was a constant threat. Sadly, William’s life was claimed in just such an industrial accident.

It was about 5 o’clock on a Thursday morning, and William was in the process of shifting some belts on one of the pulleys in the paper mill. Unfortunately he became entangled in the belt and was pulled between a fly wheel and the stone floor – a space of only about 5 inches in height. Although his co-workers attempted to stop the machine as soon as possible, it was too late. Just about every bone in William’s body was crushed. His neck was broken and his spine was fractured. In addition, his left arm was wrenched from the socket and his ribs were crushed. Physicians believed that his death was nearly instantaneous. His death was ruled a tragic accident.

William was 37 years old when he died. He was widowed and the father of two young boys. His sons apparently moved to West Chester, PA and were raised by their grandfather and step-grandmother, Thomas Shaner and his wife Margaret.

My connection to William S. Shaner is that he was my 3rd cousin, 4 times removed. If you also have a connection to this family, I would love to hear from you.

Thriller Thursday – The Shocking Murder of Sarah Bechtel

It’s time for another Thriller Thursday article, a weekly prompting post suggested by members of Geneabloggers. This one is the story of the ill-fated lives of William and Sarah Bechtel of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It was Saturday, April 1st 1848, and the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was still reeling from the horrific murder of Mrs. Rademacher, who had been stabbed twelve to fourteen times as she lay sleeping in her bed. Her husband, a book seller and homeopathic druggiest, was also severely cut and badly beaten in the attack. The perpetrator had recently been caught and the city was still very much a buzz with the latest developments in the case. And so to have another murder just a few weeks later was frightful and appalling…

Sarah Bechtel was about twenty-six years old back on April 1, 1848. She was a young wife and mother. She had given birth to several children, but only one was still living. Her husband, William Bechtel, was a boatsman and, in fact, on the day of the murder he had been down by the river arranging for an upcoming trip on the Schuylkill Canal.

Presumably the Bechtels were not wealthy. They lived in an apartment on Schuylkill and Thompson Streets in a section of the city known as the District of Penn. It was located near Girard College. On the day of the murder, Sarah and her upstairs neighbor had gone down to Fairmount Park to see if her husband was on board his boat.  Thus she was not at home when he returned that evening with two friends.

Reportedly, William Bechtel had been drinking much of the day. Although it was said the couple often argued, William did not seem upset when Sarah first arrived back home that night. Shortly thereafter, however, he apparently snapped. In front of several witnesses, he grabbed her by the hair, jerked her head back and slit her throat with a jack-knife. Despite the fact that two physicians were summoned immediately, Sarah bled profusely and died about a half an hour after the attack.

William then apparently tried to commit suicide by slitting his own throat with the same knife, but that wound proved not to be serious and he was taken into custody. Once in jail it was reported that William became a “raving maniac.” He had several periods in which he became quite violent and caused bodily harm to himself and those watching him. In mid-May he was moved from the county prison to the insane department of the Blockley Alms House.

William’s murder trial occurred in the beginning of July in 1848. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to the Eastern State Penitentiary for ten years. The conventional wisdom was that he committed the act in a fit of jealous rage fueled by the alcohol that he had consumed. There was some question as to whether or not he had any reason to suspect that his wife was in any way unfaithful, leaving open the possibility that the whole tragic situation was brought about by his own delusions.

As a postscript to this story, a death notice appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper  for a William Bechtel, aged about 40, who died May 14, 1859.  It could be the same William, but at this point I don’t know for sure. I would love to hear from anyone who has further information on William or Sarah. I am still trying to determine if they are connected to my Bechtel line.

Note that the information contained in this posting comes from several newspaper articles that reported the event back in the spring and summer of 1848.

Thriller Thursday – The Accidental Shooting of Emma

Well, it’s time for another installment of Thriller Thursday – an on-going blogging prompt suggested by members of Geneabloggers. Today I have the story of my 3x’s great-aunt, Emeline Newman Moyer Hallman.

Emeline Newman was born in December of 1852. She and her twin sister Rebecca were the youngest children of Abraham and Rebecca (Derr) Newman. For many years Abraham operated a stage coach between Norristown and Pottstown, Pennsylvania. By 1860, however, the family had taken up residence in Limerick, PA, (near Pottstown) where Abraham eventually followed the occupation of farming.

About 1871 Emma married a neighborhood boy, Charles K. Moyer. He was the son of Henry Moyer and Esther Krause. Charles and Emma had two daughters, Ella and Ida. Charles died in 1906, leaving Emma a widow. In April of 1910 Emma married John G. Hallman. John was a blacksmith. He was also widowed, his first wife Catherine Umstead having died in 1906 as well.

On the morning on September 12, 1910, Emma and her new husband were having their breakfast. The time was about 7 o’clock in the morning. As they were eating they heard a commotion. They looked outside and discovered a chicken hawk among their fowl. John got up and went to the sitting room to get his gun. As he walked back into the kitchen he tripped. The gun bumped against the door frame and discharged. Through a bizarre twist of fate, the bullet hit Emma in the back. She was actually still seated at the breakfast table when it happened. Although a physician was summoned, it was to no avail. Emma unfortunately died within a few minutes.

Emma was 56 years old and the mother of two grown daughters. She was buried in the Limerick Church Cemetery next to her first husband Charles K. Moyer. In addition to her daughters, she was survived by sisters Matilda Linderman, Mary Evans (my great-great-grandmother) and Rebecca Lightcap.

As a post script to this story, I also happen to be related to John G. Hallman. He was the son of John Hallman and Hannah Grimley and was my (half) third cousin, 4x’s removed. His first wife Catherine Umstead, was the daughter of Nathan Umstead and Eliza Shaner, and was my 2nd cousin, 4x’s removed. After the death of Emma Newman, John apparently married a third time. In 1920 he was enumerated with a wife named Mary Elizabeth. She died prior to 1930 and he died in 1937. (In case you are wondering, I have no information on the cause of death for the first or third wives.)

Thriller Thursday – Disaster on the Rails

Here’s another one for the Thriller Thursday series at Geneabloggers.

It was a cold, dark Friday evening in January. Snow blanketed the ground. The Atlantic Express train had departed Albany about 2:40 in the afternoon and was en route to New York City. The train was packed with passengers including quite a few politicians and prominent businessmen. Extra parlor-style passenger cars, as well as a second engine, had been added to the train to accommodate the all the travelers. The train was nearing the end of the 150-mile trip when an overheated axle forced it to stop. By now it was after 7 o’clock and the train was near the Spuyten Duyvil Junction.

Spuyten Duyvil. It was an area in the Southern Bronx named for the adjacent Spuyten Duyvil Creek – a body of water separating the Bronx from Manhattan. It is a Dutch phrase meaning Devil’s Whirlpool and is descriptive of the turbulence of the creek, particularly during high tide. And so to those of us predisposed to superstition, what could be more prophetic than to have disaster strike on the evening of Friday the Thirteenth near the Devil’s Whirpool?

The year was 1882, and the passengers, though inconvenienced by the unexpected stop, were keeping warm and comfortable with the stoves and lamps in the parlor cars. When it first became necessary to stop the train to let the overheated axle cool, the brakeman was supposed to walk back the track far enough so that he could use lanterns to signal any approaching train in enough time for it to stop. And in fact, this very night, just 13 minutes or so behind the Atlantic Express was the Tarrytown Special. It was pulling only three passenger cars and reportedly moving at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.

Now this particular section of the train track was said to mirror the curvature of the creek. It was described as curving like the letter S, with very few areas of straight line track. As it happened, the brakeman for the Atlantic Express walked back several lengths along the track with his latern. He was positioned near a curve in the track. Unfortunately, the Tarrytown Special conductor never saw the brakeman’s signal until he rounded the curve. At that point, he not only saw the signal lantern, but also the glowing lights of the Idlewild, the last car of the Atlantic Express.

The Tarrytown conductor may have signaled for the brakes to be applied, but the train had not slowly significantly before barreling into the Idlewild and ramming it into the next to the last car, the Empire. Both the Idlewild and the Empire were what was known as parlor-style palace cars. They were luxury cars that would have had individual chairs rather than bench seating. There was thought to be about 10 to 12 people in the Idlewild and as many as 18 or 19  in the Empire. However, since the train had stopped, some of the travelers had been wandering through the train. Upon impact, people in both the Idlewild and the Empire were thrown to the floor. The chairs, lanterns and stoves were toppled over. Some people were pinned under the debris. Fires were started when the stoves and lanterns were knocked over igniting the woodwork and upholstry. The Idlewild suffered the severest damage, followed closely by the Empire.

According to eye witness reports, most of the passengers probably survived the initial impact. Unfortunately, those in the Idlewild were pinned by debris and unable to escape the burning car on their own. Their cries and moans could be heard, but rescue efforts were hindered by the lack of axes to break through the crushed train cars and the debris. Also, there was little or no water readily available to douse the flames. In the absence of water, some would be rescuers threw snow on the fire. Most of those in Idlewild either burned to death or were overcome by the smoke before they could be freed.

Initial reports were that nine people, possibly more, died. Amazingly, after all the dust settled and some heretofore unaccounted for people were located, the number was revised to seven dead and several dozen injured. Those who were killed were NY State Senator Webster Wagner; Oliver B. Keeley, a stove manufacturer from Spring City Pennsylvania; newly married Parker Valentine, aged 22 and his bride, 19 year-old Louise Gaylord; Rev. Father Marechal; Mrs. Maud Brown; and Mr. D. L. Ransom. Only one passenger on the ill-fated Idlewild car survived, that being Miss Mary E. Daniels. She was badly burned, but apparently recovered from her injuries. Mr. Valentine Sr., the father of the groom who perished, was also on the train. He had happened to step out onto the back platform of the Idlewild just as the Tarrytown Express was bearing down on it. He managed to jump off the platform and escape to safety in the nick of time.

The story of the train wreck at Spuyten Duyvil, New York was reported throughout the nation. While the coroner’s inquest found fault with nearly all the personnel of both trains as well as the railroad officials for failing to put forth proper procedures to ensure the safety of passengers, the ultimate blame seemed to rest on the brakeman of the Atlantic Express. He was put on trial for manslaughter that November. Surprisingly, he was found not guilty.

My connection to this tragic story is Oliver B. Keeley. He was the son of Joseph Keeley and Anna Markle and he was my 3rd cousin, 4 times removed. He was only 36 years old when he died. He left a wife, Mary (nee Stauffer) and a young daughter named Clara.