Thursday, May 29, 2014



On May 29, 1925, one of the greatest explorers of the early twentieth century, Percy Fawcett, vanished without a trace into the jungles of the Amazon basin in South America. In search of a lost city that was believed to be hidden in the depths of the rain forest, Fawcett, his son, Jack, and a friend left a final written letter – and were never heard from again.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, before air travel was commonplace, the faraway jungles of the Amazon basin were largely unknown to civilized man. Although much of Brazil had been mapped and explored by that time, the Amazon region and the Matto Grosso lay undisturbed, shrouded in mystery and legend.

And they were strange legends indeed. They were tales of ancient stone towers with lights that never went out and stories of barbaric white Indians with blue eyes and blond hair called the “Bat People,” who lived in caves during the daylight and went out at night and attacked the nearby tribes while they slept. And, of course, the legend of the fabulous lost city that was built in Greco-Roman style, half buried in the sands of centuries, yet glittering like gold in the equatorial sun.

The lost lands of the Matto Grasso haunted writers and explorers for decades. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote one of his famous novels, The Lost World, about an expedition to the unknown lands and adventurers dreamed of venturing into the dark Brazilian jungles.

One such adventurer was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who dreamed of the uncharted region for nearly twenty years before he vanished without a trace, lured to his death by visions of riches and a fabulous lost city. The story of Colonel Fawcett is a tale of one of the last great explorers in history and it remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of all time.

Percy Fawcett was no wide-eyed treasure hunter, motivated by greed. He was a cautious, deliberate explorer whose goal was cultural discovery. Exploration and adventure was literally in his blood.
Fawcett was born in 1867 in Torquay, Devon, England, to Edward and Myra Fawcett. His father had been born to colonist parents in India and was a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, gentleman explorers of the day. Percy’s older brother, Edward, was a mountain climber, Eastern Occultist, and popular writer of adventure novels. In 1886, Percy received a commission in the Royal Artillery and served in Trincomalee, Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka) where he also met his wife. While in Ceylon, he spent much of his free time searching for tombs and hidden treasure. Later, he worked for the British secret service in North Africa and learned the surveyor's craft. He was a friend of authors H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, who used Fawcett's Amazonian field reports as an inspiration for The Lost World.

Adventurer Colonel Percy Fawcett

Fawcett's first expedition to South America was in 1906 when he travelled to Brazil to map a jungle area at the border of Brazil and Bolivia at the behest of the Royal Geographic Society. The society had been commissioned to map the area as a third party, unbiased by local or national interests.
During the expedition, an arduous journey that dragged on for three years, Fawcett claimed to have seen a giant anaconda, for which he was widely ridiculed by the scientific community. It would be a number of years later that science would finally concede that such animals did exist.

Fawcett made seven expeditions between 1906 and 1924. He mostly got along with the locals through gifts, patience and courteous behavior. During these years, he became fascinated by the mysterious secrets of the Brazilian interior, especially the seemingly endless and unknown jungle plateau known as the Matto Grosso. Somewhere in that forbidding jungle, he believed, was a great and ancient city whose artifacts and treasure would prove it to be the true cradle of civilization, pre-dating the cities of Egypt by thousands of years.

Fawcett was convinced the city existed and he referred to it as “Z,” thanks to a rare document that he unearthed in 1901 in Rio de Janeiro. The incredible lost city, which purportedly rested on the side of a cliff, was discovered by a Portuguese expedition that went into the Matto Grosso in 1743. The expedition had been in search of the gold, silver and diamond mines of adventurer Melchior Dias-Moreya, a half-Indian, half-Portuguese soldier of fortune who was known to the natives as “Moribeca.” He had allegedly discovered the mines in 1610. Moribeca was imprisoned when he would not reveal the location of the mines and he died in 1622, his secret intact. The Portuguese expedition of 1743 in search of the fabulous mines went off course and ended up wandering through the Matto Grosso. By accident, they stumbled into a steep crevice and then climbed through an artificial breach in the cliff wall, following ancient paved steps.

Once they entered the passageway, the explorers walked into a giant city in ruins – wide streets, huge temples, and elaborate courtyards surrounded by massive buildings. Mysterious inscriptions, which were copied down by the amazed adventurers and that remain undeciphered to this day, decorated the temples, walls and buildings. In addition to a wealth of archaeological treasure, a nearby river was said to actually glitter with massive gold deposits.

The Portuguese were stunned and overwhelmed by their accidental discovery, but lack of food and depleted supplies forced them to abandon the city and search for a way to get home. Only three members of the expedition survived and stumbled, lost and bedraggled, to the coastal state of Bahia, where they told their weird tale in 1754. The eleven-year journey was soon forgotten, except for a detailed report that was filed away in the Biblioteca Nacional in Rio. Colonel Fawcett found the report there and became determined to find the city himself.

The Great War interrupted Fawcett’s plans and he returned to Britain for active service in the Army. After the war ended, he returned to Brazil and launched his first expedition to look for the “Lost City of Z” in 1920. The exploration ended when one of the colonel’s companions suffered a nervous collapse. Fawcett had to all but drag his men back to civilization, complaining that the explorer of the modern day was soft in comparison to the Portuguese adventurers who had none of the luxuries of the 1920s. It was Fawcett’s habit to travel fast and with little equipment, living off the land and getting assistance from what friendly natives could be found. Unfortunately, the native population of central Brazil was sparse. The Indians that did live in the Matto Grosso were hostile and superstitious and were more apt to kill intruders than to accept their gifts and trinkets.

Colonel Fawcett on one of his expeditions into the jungle.

Fawcett refused to give up his dream of finding the lost city and, in 1924, submitted a new plan to the Royal Geographical Society. On this new expedition, he would be accompanied by his son, Jack, and another young Englishman, Raleigh Rimmel. The expedition would leave civilization at Cuyaba and travel north to the Paranatinga, moving downriver by canoe and then moving east on foot, crossing the Xingu River, then the Araguaya River, making for Port Imperial on the Tocantins and then emerging from the Matto Grosso at Barra de Rio Grande on the Sao Francisco.

The three men would travel light, which most explorers thought was a terrible mistake. Fawcett was mad, they said, to enter the area without heavy supplies; one earlier expedition had entered the Matto Grosso with fourteen hundred men, a large amount of food and equipment and all but three of the men had starved to death. Fawcett explained to the society, which would fund the exploration, that “no expedition could carry food for more than three weeks, for animal transport is impossible owing to lack of pasture and blood-sucking bats.” Porters were out of the question because most of the tribes hated and feared their neighbors and would rarely accompany anyone beyond the limits of their own territory. Food was also a problem for a large group. Wild game was not plentiful and while there was enough to feed a small party, a larger one would starve.

Some members of the society questioned the reason for the expedition. Fawcett could not be sure of the exact location of “Z,” or if he knew, he wasn’t telling anyone. They also knew that Fawcett faced unknown jungle trails, vicious attacks by swarms of lethal insects, snakes and other dangerous animals, jungle sicknesses, the fear of falling asleep in the wrong spot where swarms of vampire bats might attack – and worse. Fawcett was, as usual, undaunted and only looked at the positive side of the near-impossible journey, “Science will, I hope, be greatly benefitted, geography can scarcely fail to gain a good deal, and I am confident that we shall find the key to much lost history.”

Colonel Fawcett speaking with one of the expedition’s guides shortly before he disappeared.

The three explorers walked into the wilderness at Cuyaba on April 20, 1925. By May 29, they reached the point where Fawcett had turned back in 1920 – Dead Horse Camp, now called Camp Fawcett. It was from this point, at the dark edge of the Matto Grosso, that Colonel Fawcett’s last words were recorded:

Here we are at Dead Horse Camp, the spot where my horse died in 1920. Only his white bones remain. My calculations anticipate contact with the Indians in about a week or ten days, when we should be able to reach the waterfall so much talked about… our journey has been no bed of roses. We have cut our way through miles of cerraba, a forest of dry scrub; we have crossed innumerable small streams by swimming and fording; we have climbed rocky hills of forbidding aspect; we have been eaten by bugs… Our two guides go back from here. They are more and more nervous as we push further into Indian country… We shall not get into interesting country for another two weeks. I shall continue to prepare dispatches from time to time, in hopes of being able to get them out eventually through some friendly tribe of Indians. But I doubt if this will be possible.

Fawcett, his son, Jack, and their friend, Raleigh Rimmel, entered the jungle and were never heard from again. The Royal Geographical Society held out hope for two years, the length of time that it was estimated it would take for Fawcett’s party to reach “Z,” but by 1927, things were looking grim. Even the most stalwart believers, with the exception of Fawcett’s wife, who never gave up hope of seeing her husband and son again, were resigned to the fact that they would never return.

Dr. Hogarth of the Royal Geographical Society released a public statement: “We hold ourselves in readiness to help any competent and well-accredited volunteer party, which may propose to proceed on a reasonable plan to the interior of Brazil in order to try for news of Colonel P.H. Fawcett… I am forecasting a mission of inquiry alone, not one of relief. The latter is out of the question, as Colonel Fawcett himself stated emphatically, when he proposed to go where none but he could hope to penetrate and pass.”

Hogath’s announcement was interpreted as an appeal for a search party and thousands of adventurers, from experts to crackpots, immediately volunteered to cut their way through the jungle in search of Fawcett and his companions. The Brazilian government believed that the Fawcett party, exhausted and starving, was killed by one of the various tribes that lived along the Xingu River.

But reports from the Brazilian jungle claimed that Fawcett still lived. A Sergeant Roger Couturon, retired from the French Army, reported in the pages of a Rio newspaper in November 1927 that he had been hunting alligators near Cuyaba and had met a white man in the jungle. Couturon said, “He was a man of fifty to sixty years old with luxuriant grayish hair and a pepper and salt beard. He was wearing khaki shorts, like those worn by scouts with a wide-brimmed hat.” Couturon approached the man and saw that his bare legs were covered with mosquito bites, although the old man seemed not to care. He was standing silently, watching as the insects continued to devour his legs. He assumed the old man was a foreigner and addressed him in English.

“I say, man, the mosquitoes seem to be taking care of you,” the Frenchman said.

The old man looked up at him. His face showed obvious signs of fatigue and the general weakness brought on by fever. But his eyes were straight and forceful and Couturon got the impression that the man had been a soldier. Finally, he replied, “Those poor animals are hungry, too.”

Couturon went on his way that day, but he told several stories about the old man, whom he believed to be Fawcett. He said the explorer was living in a luxurious ranch in Brazil’s interior and that he had given up on the civilized world and had become a jungle recluse. He also claimed that he had gone mad in the jungle and that some Indians that found him had made a white god of him. In Peru, some months later, the inventive Couturon insisted that he had met Jack Fawcett, who was living a life of ease and begged him not to inform the British government. Since the Fawcett party had been declared dead, Couturon said, Mrs. Fawcett was receiving a handsome pension and Jack didn’t want her to lose this. (Mrs. Fawcett never received a pension) Such fanciful reports further confused the Fawcett disappearance.

The first official expedition in search of Colonel Fawcett was led by Commander George Dyott, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He led a party into the Matto Grosso in May 1928.  Dyott’s party was large and well-equipped and carefully followed Fawcett’s three-year-old trail from Dead Horse Camp down the Rio Kuliseu. Along the river, Dyott questioned the chief of the Anauqua Indians, who told him that Fawcett had reached the dangerous Kuluene River sometime in 1925. Both Jack Fawcett and Rimmel were physical wrecks by that time and almost unable to speak. Fawcett, obsessed with finding the lost city, practically carried the younger men across the river and into the unknown jungles to the east. For five days, the Anauqua and Kalapolo Indians, who inhabited both sides of the river, watched the camp fires of the white men. On the sixth day, Fawcett’s fires went out and the Anauqua believed that they had been murdered by a fierce inland tribe called the Suya. A short time later, Dyott spoke with a chief of the Kalapolo, who told him that the Anauqua were lying and that they had killed Fawcett and his companions.

Dyott never found the Fawcett party’s remains and after spending more time with the Anauqua, he became suspicious of them and his expedition slipped away under the cover of darkness, abandoning much of their equipment. Upon his return to civilization, he announced that Fawcett was, in all probability, dead.

But was he really? Not everyone believed this to be the case.

In 1931, a Swiss trapper named Stephen Rattin was in the Matto Grosso and reported seeing a “tall man, advanced in years, with blue eyes and a long beard” living with an unknown tribe north-northwest of Cuyaba, along the Iguassu Ximary, a tributary of the Sao Manuel River. Rattin spoke with the white man, who was dressed in animal skins, in English while the Indians occupied themselves with getting drunk. The man did not identify himself as Colonel Fawcett but explained that he was a captive and had formerly held the rank of colonel in the British Army. He asked that Rattin contact Major T.B. Paget, a friend of his who lived in Sao Paolo, and inform him that he was alive but his son was “asleep.” Paget had been the man who had helped to fund Fawcett’s last expedition. Before being taken away by the Indians, the white man showed Rattin a signet ring that Mrs. Fawcett later identified as belonging to her husband.

When he returned to civilization, Rattin, whose story sounded authentic to many, mounted his own expedition to search for the captive man when he was told that it may have been Colonel Fawcett. The expedition, however, ended in failure.

Other expeditions followed, including one led by Vincenzo Petrullo, who, like Dyott, believed that Fawcett’s party had been murdered. In 1932, another expedition was led by Robert Churchward. Peter Fleming, a member of the Churchward party (which was actually more of a hunting trip than a search party), later wrote about the expedition, which reached the conclusion that Fawcett’s party, near death from fatigue and starvation, was murdered by the Kalapolo Indians as an act of mercy. Fleming added, however, “there still remains an infinitesimal, a million to one, chance that Fawcett is still alive. If he is, we must assume that he is in some way mentally deranged.”

Throughout the 1930s, Fawcett legends multiplied. He was reportedly seen all over the Matto Grosso and it seemed that almost every adventurer who traveled north of Cuyaba returned with a story about having seen Fawcett alive. No less than fifty depositions were recorded by a Cuyaba notary public, all attesting to Fawcett’s whereabouts. Many of the stories were contradictory: one gold miner saw three skeletons in a cave and believed they were the Fawcett party. A trapper said that he had run across the colonel alive and urged him to return to civilization but he had refused to face public admission of his failure to find the lost city. One man saw him on the Tocantins River married to four native women and worshipped as a god. Another swore that he had seen his dried and shrunken head hanging from a string in an Indian’s hut.

In 1934, an American newspaper reporter, Albert de Winton, went to find Fawcett and he too disappeared in the Matto Grosso. In 1937, a missionary, Martha L. Moennich, came out of the Brazilian interior with a story about a half-breed “white” Indian boy called Dulipe. Found in 1926 at an Indian village by Reverend Emilio Halverson, Dulipe was believed to be the son of jack Fawcett and a local Indian woman. Moennich had seen Dulipe in 1926 and again in 1937. The Fawcett family refused to accept this story. If Dulipe had a white father, they said, it was not Jack Fawcett.
In 1943, a Brazilian newspaper organized a research expedition that was headed by a reporter named Edmar Morel. It concluded that the explorers had been killed by Indians.

Orlando Villas Bôas with the bones he said were those of Colonel Percy Fawcett

In April 1951, Orlando Vilas-Bôas of the Central Brazil Foundation said that he had discovered the bleached bones of Colonel Fawcett after traveling into Kalapolo country. The bones were sent to England, where they were tested and it was discovered that they did not belong to Fawcett. The teeth, as well as the dead man’s stature, were not correct. Even as late as 1955, Edward Weyer, Jr., a writer and adventurer, claimed that he met an aged white man in the Matto Grosso who might have been Fawcett.

In January 1952, the last formal expedition was launched in search of clues of the fate of the Fawcett party. Members of the expedition included Orlando Vilas-Bôas and Brian Fawcett, the colonel’s youngest son. They talked to many Indians and visited a site that was purported to be the Fawcett party’s grave – but Brian was not convinced that it belonged to his father and brother.

Strange stories still come from Brazil about this famous missing explorer, but Colonel Percy Fawcett’s disappearance still remains a mystery. We will never know what really happened to him, but one can dream that this real-life “Indiana Jones” really did find the lost city of his quest. Perhaps he remained there, never to return to civilization. The mystery will never be solved and Colonel Fawcett remains as lost today in the wilds of the Matto Grosso as the legendary city that he so diligently sought.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014



On May 28, 1903, a very strange man died in St. Louis. His name was Dr. Francis J. Tumblety and he had a passionate hatred for women, surgical skills and happened to be in London, England in 1888 – at the same time that the mysterious killer known as “Jack the Ripper” was killed prostitutes in the city’s East End. Was Tumblety, as some believe, Jack the Ripper?

In the year 1888, the city of London, England was terrorized by a killer who called himself “Jack the Ripper.” The madman prowled the streets of the Whitechapel District in East London and slaughtered a number of prostitutes, carving his way into the historical record as the first “modern serial killer.” As the years have passed, the Ripper has held the morbid curiosity of professional and amateur sleuths, armchair detectives and crime buffs alike. Having eluded capture in the 1880s, his identity has been debated ever since and scores of suspected have emerged, with a number of Americans among them. Many St. Louisans have been surprised over the years to find that one of the suspects lived in St. Louis and died there 15 years after the murders in London stopped.

London’s Whitechapel District in the 1880s

Suspicion by police officials that Dr. Francis J. Tumblety may have been Jack the Ripper came about in 1913, a number of years after the murders took place. In a letter dated on September 23, Inspector John Littlechild, head of the Special Branch in England, wrote to George Sims, a journalist, about a medical man who may have been the killer. He was apparently replying to Sims about other possible suspects when he wrote:

I never heard of a Dr. D in connection with the Whitechapel murders, but amongst the suspects, and to my mind a very likely one, was a Dr. T (which sounds much like a D). He was an American quack named Tumblety and at one time was a frequent visitor to London and on these occasions constantly brought under the notice of police, there being a large dossier concerning him at Scotland Yard. Although a “Sycopathis Sexualis” [sic] subject, he was not known as a sadist (which the murderer unquestionably was) but his feelings toward women were remarkable and bitter in the extreme, a fact on record. Tumblety was arrested at the time of the murders in connection with unnatural offenses and charged at Marlborough Street, remanded on bail, jumped his bail and got away to Boulogne. He shortly left Boulogne and was never heard of afterwards. It is believed that he committed suicide but certain it is that from the time the “Ripper” murders came to an end.

And while not all of Inspector Littlechild’s facts were correct, he did make an interesting case toward the American doctor being the fiendish killer. In fact, the idea was so compelling that when the letter resurfaced years later, the theory was later turned into flawed but fascinating book by two British police officers, Stewart P. Evans and Paul Gainey, called Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer.

But was the “medical man” the real Whitechapel killer? Let’s look into the facts and the fancy behind the intriguing suspect.

Dr. Francis Tumblety, photographed in the pseudo-military garb that he was so fond of

Francis J. Tumblety was born in Canada in 1833 and moved with his family to Rochester, New York at a very young age. Although uneducated, he was a clever man and became wealthy and successful as a homeopath and a mixer of patent medicines. There is no record as to whether or not these “snake oil” cures worked or not, but it is certain that Tumblety held no medical degree. He did claim to possess Indian and Oriental secrets of healing and good health and he was described as charming and handsome, so it’s not surprising that he made quite a bit of money in this questionable field.

When not charming customers, Tumblety was said to have been disliked by many for his self-aggrandizing and his constant boasting. He had a penchant for staying in fine hotels, wearing fine clothes and making false claims. Often these tall tales got him into trouble and he left town on more than one occasion just a step ahead of the law.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Tumblety was living in Washington, D.C. and from this period, the first stories of his deep-seated hatred for women began to surface. During a dinner party one night in 1861, Tumblety was asked by some guests why he did not invite any single women to the gathering. Tumblety replied that women were nothing more than “cattle” and that he would rather give a friend poison than see him with a woman. He then began to speak about the evils of women, especially prostitutes. A man who was in attendance that evening, an attorney named C.A. Dunham, later remarked that it was believed that Tumblety had been tricked into marriage by a woman who was later revealed to be a prostitute. This was thought to have sparked his hatred of woman, but none of the guests had any idea just how far the feelings of animosity went until Tumblety offered to show them his “collection.” He led his guests into a back study of the house, where he kept his anatomical “museum.” Here, they were shown row after row of jars containing women’s uteruses.

The Lindell Hotel in St. Louis, a haven for Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War

In 1863, Tumblety came to St. Louis for the first time and took rooms at the Lindell Hotel. As he recounted in letters, his flamboyant ways did not appeal to those in St. Louis and he claimed to have been arrested in both the city and in Carondelet, an independent city at that time, for “putting on airs” and “being caught in quasi-military” dress. Regardless of his claims, Tumblety most likely caused trouble during these troubled times in the city because of his apparent southern sympathies. In 1865, he was arrested on the serious charge of what amounted to an early case of biological terrorism. Federal officers had him arrested after he was allegedly involved in a plot to infect blankets, which were to be shipped to Union troops, with yellow fever. The whole thing did turn out to be a case of mistaken identity (an alias of Tumblety’s was remarkably close to a real doctor involved) but it’s likely that he would not have been suspected if not for some actions on his part. Tumblety was taken to Washington and imprisoned until the confusion over the plot could be cleared up and was later released. According to British records, Tumblety was then arrested again after the death of President Abraham Lincoln, this time as a conspirator in the assassination. He was again released but this time, his reputation was destroyed in Washington and he fled to New York. After that, he began traveling frequently to London during the 1870s and 1880s.

Although there has been much debate over the years as to how many victims that Jack the Ripper claimed, and just when the murders began, it is generally believed that the first killing occurred on August 31, 1888. The victim was a prostitute named Mary Ann Nichols. Her death was followed by those off Annie Chapman and Elizabeth Stride on September 8. On September 30, the Ripper claimed Catherine Eddowes. Organs had been removed from the bodies of both Chapman and Eddowes, including the latter woman’s uterus.

Just prior to the start of the murders, Dr. Tumblety had come to London and had taken lodgings in Batty Street, the heart of Whitechapel and within easy distance of the murder scenes. It is on the record that he was watched closely by the police, especially after an incident involving a pathological museum. During the Annie Chapman inquest, police investigators heard information that has created the most pervasive and enduring myth of the Whitechapel murders, that of the Ripper as a surgeon. Only one medical examiner, arguing against all other expert testimony, believed that the killer had expert anatomical knowledge. He was basing his theory on a witness that claimed the killer was hunting for women’s uteruses to sell to an unknown American. This bizarre bit of testimony came about because Tumblety did indeed visit a pathological museum in London and had inquired about any uteruses that might be for sale. He apparently wanted to add them to his collection.

On November 7, Tumblety was arrested, not for murder, but rather for “unnatural offences,” which was usually a reference to homosexuality. He was later released on bail, although when exactly that was has been a matter of debate for many years. According to some records, he was released on November 16 but according to others, he was actually let go on November 8. The entire theory of whether or not he was Jack the Ripper hinges on the date that he was released from jail.

The reason for this is that on November 9, the Ripper claimed his last victim. Her name was Mary Kelly and she was mutilated in ways that cannot be imagined in her own bed. She was butchered beyond recognition and a number of her organs were removed, including her heart and uterus.

A gruesome crime scene photo from the Mary Kelly murder. 
Was it the work of Dr. Tumblety?

If Tumblety was actually released on November 8, then he could have easily killed Mary Kelly. One account of the days following the murder states that he was arrested on suspicion of her murder on November 12, was released without being charged and then vanished from Whitechapel. On November 24, it is alleged that he took a steamer to France and then sailed from France to New York. Scotland Yard detectives were said to have pursued him to New York and while they kept on eye on him, had no evidence to arrest him and could not have him extradited for the still outstanding indecency charges. They eventually gave up and went home.

Those who do not believe that Tumblety was the Ripper give a different accounting of the days after Mary Kelly was killed. According to these sources, Tumblety was not released on bail until November 16. As Inspector Littlechild writes, he was then believed to jump bail and escape to Boulogne with the police pursuing him. From there, he booked passage to New York, where police staked out his lodgings. He escaped them, however, and vanished. He was not, as far as recorded, further pursued for his part in the killings. With that said, it would have been impossible for Tumblety to be the Ripper. If he were the killer, then someone would have had to copy and exceed his previous work on Mary Kelly while the doctor was still in jail. Most would agree that this seems highly unlikely.

But our story is not quite over.

Regardless of what is written about the last days of Tumblety in London, all will agree that after his escape he did end up in St. Louis. He also traveled for a time, avoiding Washington but frequently visiting Baltimore, New Orleans and St. Louis. He continued to live in hotels and established no permanent residence in any of the cities. In April 1903, though, Tumblety checked himself into St. John’s Hospital and Dispensary at 23rd and Locust Streets in St. Louis. The hospital, which was then located in the old Catlin-Beach-Barney Mansion, provided care for indigents, which is how Tumblety was presenting himself at this time. The hospital is still in operation today as St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, located at Interstate 64 and Ballas Road.

According to accounts, Tumblety was suffering from a long and painful illness, although what it may have been has never been specifically identified. Some have suggested that it may have been a debilitating case of syphilis, the contraction of which might have been cause for his hatred of women and especially prostitutes. Whatever it was, though, Tumblety remained at St. John’s until his death on May 28, 1903. However, he was far from indigent when he died. Court records showed that Tumblety left an estate of more than $135,000, some of which St. John’s managed to recover. The hospital asked for about $450 to cover the room expenses and medical tests for a man who was clearly not poor. The rest of the estate, except for costs to a St. Louis undertaker, went to Tumblety’s niece, Mary Fitzsimmons of Rochester, New York.

Aside from the hospital, there was one other claim to Tumblety’s estate. While the hospital’s costs can be seen as clearly legitimate, the additional claim was quite strange, especially in light of Tumblety’s clear prejudices on the subject. The challenge to a will that Tumblety had written on May 16 came from an attorney in Baltimore named Joseph Kemp. He claimed that Tumblety had written an earlier will in October 1901 that left $1,000 from his estate to the Baltimore Home for Fallen Women --- in other words, a halfway house for prostitutes. The claim was thrown out of court but it does provide an interesting final note to the life of a man who has been suspected of being the most famous killer of prostitutes in history.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014



The small community of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia looks like a picture postcard of small-town America. An old rusty railroad bridge stretches out over the water where the New River merges with the Gauley. Houses dot the steep hills and line the banks of the river. A few stores can be found along the town’s main street. A renovated old train station serves as the town hall. The speed limit is just 25 miles an hour through town. Children ride bicycles and play in the yards. People smile and say hello to one another as they pass on the sidewalks. A farmer’s market in the middle of town sells fresh vegetables in the summer and pumpkins and bales of straw in the fall.

But on May 20, 1931, a local newspaper attempted to tell the secret that lies under the sunny surface of this little town – but publication of the story was stopped by a local judge. It’s a dark secret that has become a terrible memory of death, an almost forgotten horror of one of the worst industrial disasters in American history: the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy. The disaster occurred during the years of the Great Depression, when times were hard and a man would do just about anything to feed his family. Taking advantage of this fact, powerful and wealthy men started a dangerous project that would claim the lives of an unknown number of men and cause the community of Gauley Bridge to become known as the “Town of the Living Dead.”

A haunting image of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel as a worker emerges from the mist caused by the drilling of the stone – the same fine mist of silica that was destroying the lungs of the men breathing it.

The Hawk’s Nest Disaster resulted from the construction of a tunnel through the mountain near Gauley Bridge. The three-mile-long passage was designed to divert water to an electrical power station by Union Carbide, the sponsor of the plan. However, the subcontractors on the job failed to follow standard safety precautions during the drilling operations, which ended with at least 764 dead workers. None of the companies involved were charged with criminal negligence.

Union Carbide (the company that would later be involved in the chemical explosion in Bhopal, India, in 1984) was formed in West Virginia by the merger of several companies in 1917. By the late 1920s, the company created the New Kanawha Power Co. in order to produce power that would be used in the production of ferro-metals, like aluminum, at a site below Gauley Bridge. The proposal required the damming of the New River just below Hawk’s Nest, a spectacular overlook on the river, and the construction of a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain. This tunnel would carry the rushing water to electric generators downstream.

New Kanawha Power contracted with Rinehart & Dennis Co. of Charlottesville, Virginia, to build the tunnel and the dam. Tunneling began on March 31, 1930 and progressed at breakneck speed until it was completed in December 1931. No one knows for sure why the tunnel had to be completed at such a fast pace, but it was believed that uncertainly about the Federal Power Commission’s control over the New River was one of the reasons. If the project could be hurried through, the government would have little say over what could, or couldn’t, be done during the project. Management drove the workers hard to make sure that the tunnel was completed on time.

Finding workers in Depression-era Appalachia, where numerous coal mines had closed, was an easy task. Word spread through the region, and through the rural south, that jobs were available at Gauley Bridge. Men walked, drove and hopped freight trains to be first in line for the promised work. Rinehart & Dennis hired mostly black workers from outside West Virginia for the project. Reportedly, 75 percent of the 1,494 men who worked inside the tunnel as drillers and mockers – who removed rock debris – and their assistants were African-American. There were another 1,488 workers, also mostly black, who held jobs that involved tasks inside and outside the tunnel. The reasoning behind this is grim in hindsight – in the early 1930s, black workers were seen as expendable.

A group of workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. Like the man in the front of the photo, the majority were African-American, laboring under unsafe conditions because they were considered largely “expendable.”

Workers labored on the tunnel project for ten hours a day, always under the watchful eyes of bosses who used guns and clubs to force ill or unwilling men to start each day’s work. Black workers were paid in company scrip instead of cash, always at lower rates than white workers. When they were dropped from the payroll, they were evicted from company housing, which consisted of overcrowded, segregated boxcars, and run out of town by the Fayette County Sheriff.
Neither Rinehart & Dennis, nor the Union Carbide engineers overseeing the projects, followed even minimal safety precautions during the drilling operations. Workers tunneled from 250 to 300 feet per week through 99 percent silica. Experts knew that miners who inhaled silica dust stood a good chance of contracting silicosis, a deadly lung ailment. But the company ordered that the workers use a dry drilling technique that would create more dust because this method was faster and cheaper. The high-velocity drills that bored cavities in the rock for the insertion of dynamite charges did not spray water on the stone, which was a standard technique to reduce dust. Air ventilation was inadequate. No measurement was taken of dust levels in the tunnel. Ventilators and masks were not issued to tunnel workers, but they were supplied to company executives during inspection tours of the project.

Not surprisingly, few workers stayed on the job for long. Sixty percent of the African-American migrant workers worked less than two months on the project. However, this was long enough to pay a deadly price for signing on at Hawk’s Nest.

The men emerged from the hole in the mountain each day with their dark skin covered by clouds of white dust. They looked like phantoms as they came out of the cloud-filled tunnel, blinking and coughing from the dust that filled their eyes and lungs. They began dying two months after they first entered the tunnel. Their deaths were painful. As the silica they inhaled created fibrous nodules in their lungs, their lungs grew stiff and the men found it harder and harder to breath. Eventually, they strangled to death, writhing and choking until they drew their last punishing gasp. It was reported that a man named Cecil Jones struggled so hard for breath that he kicked the wooden slats out of the baseboard of his bed before he died. Silicosis could not be cured, but doctors knew what it was. Rather than diagnose it, a company physician told tunnel workers that they had a new disease called “tunnelitis” and gave them worthless pills.
On May 20, 1931, the local newspaper, the Fayette Tribune, tried to break the story of the sick and dying tunnel workers and their unsafe working conditions, but a gag order issued by a local judge stopped publication. But even without the story, local residents knew something was wrong. Gauley Bridge was being dubbed with a nickname – “town of the living dead.” A Congressional report from February 4, 1936, described the scene: "The men got down so they had no flesh left on them at all. As they express it down there, the men got so they were all hide, bone and leaders, which means he is just skin and tendons and looks like a living skeleton."
A problem arose as the black workers died. There was no “colored” burial ground in the area. Handley White, local funeral parlor owner in Summersville, located a field on his mother's farm and was given a contract to open a burial ground on the Martha White farm in Summersville. Handley was paid $50 per body with the promise of "plenty of business." Lieber Cutlp, a local resident and friend of White’s son, later recalled the days of the burials. White contacted him and asked if he wanted to make some extra money with his flatbed truck. Cutlp, anxious to make any extra money he could, quickly agreed. The dead workers were stacked in rows and strapped on the back of the flatbed truck, he remembered. More of the dead workers were arranged in an upright sitting position as if they were alive for their ride to their final resting place. For years rumors spread about workers buried in mass graves on the Martha White farm, but White family members deny this accusation.

Between July and December 1932, local attorneys filed dozens of lawsuits on behalf of workers who had suffered acute silicosis. The disease had wreaked havoc on the workers, ravaging their lungs and making them susceptible to secondary infections, such as tuberculosis. Silicosis had been recognized as an industrial disease in America since the early 1900s. The United States Bureau of Mines had published warnings in the 1920s about the dangers from it while using high-speed drills. Acute silicosis, from which death could occur within months of exposure, however, was not a recognized disease in 1930. West Virginia did not classify silicosis as an industrial disease at all and the state rejected worker’s compensation claims from men who claimed that they had contracted it at Hawk’s Nest.

When faced with more than 250 suits that sought more than $4 million in damages by the middle of 1933, Rinehart & Dennis settled out of court, agreeing to pay $130,000, half of which went to attorneys’ fees. In accepting these settlements, the plaintiff’s attorneys agreed not to file any further suits and to surrender all case records to the defendants. The contractor brokered two additional settlements based on subsequent suits and paid out $200,000 in awards and attorney fees. The average plaintiff received $400, while the defendant took possession of the damning evidence, including x-rays and medical records. Reports circulated that Rinehart & Dennis and Union Carbide bribed witnesses and tampered with juries during the trials prior to the settlements. Few records of the sick workers remains today, most were apparently purposely destroyed.

How many workers actually died in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel? The real number will never be known. This is partly because Union Carbide wiped out the historical record and partly because most of the tunnel workers were dismissed at the end of 1931 and scattered throughout the South. Many of the men did not become sick until later, so their deaths never became a part of the official numbers.

It was also discovered at trial that the field at the Martha White farm was not the only burial ground for black workers. Apparently, Rinehart & Dennis had hired another local undertaker to dispose of the bodies of unclaimed workers and he had buried them in a field near Gauley Bridge. The location of this burial ground remained a mystery until 1972, when the West Virginia highway department stumbled onto 45 of these graves. Martin Cherniack, a medical doctor with a master’s degree in public health, attempted to reconstruct the epidemiology of the Hawk’s Nest tragedy. After painstaking historical research, his “conservative estimate” was that 746 men who worked in the tunnel had died from acute silicosis, which translated into a mortality rate of 63 percent. African-American workers made up 76 percent of the deaths.

The tragedy forced recognition of acute silicosis as an industrial hazard and a brief and ineffective congressional hearing in 1936, helped focus national attention on the condition. By 1937, all states had adopted laws recognizing the disease in some form – although West Virginia’s statute was worthless since it was written solely in the interest of corporations.

The Hawk’s Nest tragedy remains a haunting incident in American history today. Dismissed as a product of “mountain gossip” in the 1930s, it has come to be recognized as one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters and a chilling reminder of the fact that no man is ever expendable.

Monday, May 19, 2014



"The 19th of May, 1780, was a remarkable dark day. Candles were lighted in many houses; the birds were silent and disappeared, and the fowls retired to roost. ... A very general opinion prevailed, that the Day of Judgment was at hand,” Timothy Dwight wrote. The end was coming and God had lowered his hand over the people of New England for their wickedness.

Or at least that’s what a lot of religious zealots believed in the spring of 1780. The American colonies were embroiled in a war with England, murder was rampant and rebellion was in the air. It seemed that the people of America were doomed.

But what really happened that day? We don’t know for sure, even well over two centuries later. One thing that we know for sure, though, it was not the end of the world.

In the days leading up to May 19, 1780, residents in New England had were feeling relieved that winter was finally over. Spring had brought mild temperatures, which were wonderful after a particularly hard, cold winter – “the most hard difficult winter that was ever known by any person living.” There was deep snow and severe cold with widespread suffering from all points north to Maine, southeast to Georgia, west to Detroit and south to New Orleans. The harbors in Boston and New York had frozen over solid. Travel ceased, social interaction was non-existent and shipping was halted. When the land began to finally thaw in early March, many bridges were damaged by the ice flows, but people were so happy to have warmer weather that they hardly cared.

And then in May came New England’s “Dark Day.” In the days leading up to it, residents in many parts of New England had noticed that the sky was cloudy and murky at dawn, the sun had a pinkish hue to it at midday, and offered up spectacular copper sunsets. In Weston, Massachusetts Samuel Phillips Savage remarked that there was “a remarkable thick air” and that “the sun rises and sets very red.” The evening’s moon also gave off a pink reflection. Just a little past nine on the morning of May 19, Reverend Thomas Savage noted that there “came on an appearance over the whole visible heavens…a light brassy hue, nearly the color of pale cyder [sic].”

By 10:00 a.m., the sky had turned dark. Crickets began chirping and cows returned to their stalls. A preternatural night had fallen. All over New England, every farmer, schoolboy, fisherman, young woman, blacksmith, clergyman and laborer gazed upward for the missing sun and gasped at the remarkable and sudden elimination of light. A deep shadow had fallen and “everything bore the appearance and gloom of night.” Noonday meals were served by candlelight. The newspaper known as the Massachusetts Spy reported that one “could scarcely see to read common print, [and] it was the judgment of many that at about 12 o’clock…the day light was not greater, if so great, as that of bright moon-light” and “no object was discernable but by the help of some artificial light.” Samuel Savage of Weston could not even read his watch, even as he stood by his window.  His neighbor was forced to quit spreading manure in his field as he was longer “able to discern the difference between the ground and the dung.” At Sudbury, Massachusetts, Experience Richardson remarked that “it was so terrible dark …that we could not see our hand before us.”

In Connecticut, the legislature adjourned after looking out of the chamber windows and then hurried home to their families. The members of the Council of Safety lobbied Senator Abraham Davenport to do the same, as the “Day of Judgment” may very well be at hand, but he reportedly (and very wittily) said, “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” Lawyer William Pynchon of Salem, Massachusetts recorded that most people scurried about with “melancholy and fear.” -- everyone that is, except for the sailors who “went hallooing and frolicking throughout the streets” and shouted lewd remarks at women as they drunkenly tried to entice them to remove their clothing.

Religious zealots clutched their Bibles, sure that doom was coming. A number of biblical passages referred to sudden darkness and attributed it to Divine Retribution and the Lord’s Day of Judgment. Most then, thought that the Second Coming was at hand and that surely “the end was nigh.” Needless to say, they rushed to the churches to repent. Many clergymen noticed that their pews were full and one reverend even retorted to a question posed to him about the gloom’s origin that he “was in the dark about the matter just as you are”.

Some writers claimed that there was a “sulfurous odor” in the air. Many other accounts poured in from all over New England indicated a whiff of burnt leaves and smoke. Many birds were found dead on the ground, having blindly flown into structures or possibly asphyxiated by a thick smoke pall. By the next morning, things got back to normal and the sun returned as its effervescent self and occupied its right place in the sky. New England’s “Dark Day” was over.

It came and it went, but what caused it?

After all this time, it remains a mystery, but we know that it was not a lunar or solar eclipse. For one, a lunar eclipse during the day does not bring darkness to earth. There was an annual solar eclipse on May 4, 1780, but the only place that it make things go completely dark was southwest of Africa in the extreme southern Atlantic Ocean – a long way from New England. And it only last for about a minute and a half. Besides that, American colonists were familiar with solar eclipses. They’d seen them on August 5, 1776, on January 9, 1777 and June 24, 1778 and no one thought the world was coming to an end. The last one had even been predicted by Benjamin Franklin in “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” It should also be noted that – a few months after the “Dark Day” on October 27, 1780 – a scientific expedition of four professors and six students funded by Harvard College foundered in the woods of Maine near Penobscot Bay as they had hoped to glimpse a total solar eclipse. Unfortunately, they missed it. Reverend Professor Williams had miscalculated the path of the eclipse and lead the group to the wrong area. This was subsequently dubbed as the “Lost Eclipse” of 1780. The point is that the colonists, in addition to the scientists of the day, were aware of and could easily identify a solar eclipse.

Could it have been caused by a dust storm? Unlikely. In those days, there were no dust storms of a magnitude to cause the day to turn completely dark. In the past century, the worst of all American dust storms was a series of destructive storms that took place during the infamous “Dust Bowl” that scoured the Great Plains in the 1930s. Drought and the accompanying erosion compounded the Great Depression with famine as farms that lost their topsoil stopped producing crops and forced a migration westward by families who had lost their homes and wandered into California looking for work. More major dust storms struck South Dakota and rained dirt on Chicago, Buffalo, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. The winter of 1934 and 1935 even yielded a red snow in New England. The king of dust storms during the Dust Bowl was definitely, “Black Sunday”, taking place on April 14th, 1935. It was one of a few dozen “Black Blizzards” that took place in the American heartland during the 1930s. Residents east of the blow could not see more than five feet ahead of themselves. But no such storms occurred in 1780. There is no record of them from trappers, explorers or Native Americans west of New England at the time.

Others have suggested a volcanic eruption, but this is also unlikely. One of the most destructive volcanic eruptions in terms of voluminous ash emitted over a very short time period, happened, oddly, only 3 years after the “Dark Day” and lasted for a period of eight months. On June 8th, 1783, in Laki, Iceland, a volcano began spewing ash, mixed with noxious sulfur dioxide. The resulting devastation that killed plant life and livestock was compounded by dark, low-lying clouds. This “Laki Haze” caused many deaths across Western Europe and altered the earth’s climate over the next few years. Great Britain suffered through the “Sand Summer of 1783” after the poisonous cloud drifted across Scandinavia, Prussia and France. This volcanic “dry fog” kept ships at port as they were unable to navigate, choked many residents to death, severely inhibited crop growth and inferred a “blood red” sun and sky. During the years immediately following the Laki spew, the weather fluctuated wildly. Extreme weather birthed incredible hail fusillades, severe winters and ironically, sweltering heat. As was the case during the “Dark Day,” this deadly haze and bizarre meteorology was attributed to “Divine Retribution” upon a sinful population and sparked cries of “the end is nigh”. The only American volcanic eruptions that took place near the year 1780 were in the late eighteenth century at Mt. St. Helens and at the lava dome of Mt. Hood. Again, Native Americans and pioneers have not come forward with any records or accounts that would indicate a blanketing ash plume that blew eastward from the Cascades or the Rockies toward New England.

The most convincing cause for the “Dark Day” is a forest fire. In Sidney Perley’s Historic Storms of New England, he notes that early in May of 1780, there were major forest fires along the shores of Lake Champlain, most likely triggered intentionally, only to rage out of control by accident. New settlements were being made in northern New Hampshire and deforestation was usually carried out by axe blade – and fire. During this period, New England was predominantly covered with forests. Fields for farming were the creations of the settlers and for all intents and purposes not native to the New England landscape. The land clearing method was basic. These trees were deliberately cut halfway through at breast high in late autumn and during the winter, brisk winds would topple many of the half-cut trees. To take down the remaining trees, woodsmen would cut a tree down on the perimeter of the lot and allow it to topple against another to create a “domino effect” with the momentum of one falling timber continuing onto the next falling tree until a whole lot would be piled high (in some cases over 20 feet deep). When the snow melted and the lumber dried, it was then torched in late April or early May. The lost was cleared the ash was used as a fertilizer for crops. In the spring of 1780, it’s believed some of these fires burned out of control.

Where were the fires that blanketed New England in smoke and darkness coming from? In Weare, New Hampshire, a six-inch deep soot was reported on the ground, indicating that it was close to the source. In Boston, on the afternoon of May 18, the day prior to the “Dark Day,” a breeze sprang up and blew a gathering smoke to the south. The following day, the wind changed direction several times before blowing from the east in an onshore breeze that caused a heavy fog. That fog then collided with a front composed of the “timber smog” and rain clouds swept up from the southwest. Could this have been a rare occlusion of a major warm front that was woven with thick smoke moving from the southwest, and then saturated and stalled by cooler moist salt air moving from the east? Could it have caused a thick cloud layer to stall over New England for several hours and consequently blot out the sun? On the “Dark Day,” considerable rain fell in Maine as thunderstorms with vivid lightning moved across southern New Hampshire. Only a little rain fell on Massachusetts. This would explain why this meteorological anomaly occurred in New England and only on a single day. As the storm came together, the thick smoke front stalled it out, causing darkness, storms in one location and hardly any rain in another. There is no guarantee that this was the reason for the “Dark Day,” but one thing we do know is that in all of American history, it never happened again.

Thursday, May 15, 2014



On May 15, 1929, about 300 patients were inside of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio when an explosion took place in the rooms where x-ray films were stored. The room and the surrounding corridors filled with flames, but worse, the x-ray films began to produce a deadly gas. The tragedy that occurred that day claimed more than 120 lives and remains one of the most terrifying medical disasters in American history – but one that is barely remembered by anyone outside of northern Ohio today.

 The Cleveland Clinic around the time that it opened in 1921.

In his dedication speech at the opening of the Cleveland Clinic in 1921, Dr. George Washington Crile said that the purpose of the clinic was “to give assistance in solving the problems of the patient of today and through its investigations, its statistical records and laboratories to seek new light on aiding the problems of the patient of tomorrow.” It was a medical facility opened with a dream and a plan to provide the future of healthcare to the people of Northern Ohio. The clinic had been founded by four renowned Cleveland, Ohio, physicians. Three of the founders, George Washington Crile, Frank Bunts, and William Lower, were surgeons who had worked together in an army medical unit in France during World War I. When they returned to the United States, they decided to establish a group practice and invited an internist, John Phillips, to join in their endeavor. The concept of group practice in medicine was relatively new at the time. Only the Mayo Clinic and military units were known to follow this model. The founders established the clinic with the vision: “Better care of the sick, investigation of their problems, and further education of those who serve.”

The clinic saw rapid growth in its early years but suffered a major setback in 1929 that almost closed its doors permanently. On May 15, 1929, a fire started in the basement of the hospital caused by nitrocellulose X-ray film that spontaneously ignited. The fire claimed 123 lives, including that of one of the founders, Dr. Phillips.

Dozens of people had come to the clinic for healing, but found death instead.

On May 15, 1929, about three hundred patients were within the walls of the Cleveland Clinic, an institution that everyone in the city had reason to be proud of. Some of them lay on operating tables, others rested in beds and some sat nervously in waiting rooms, unsure of what diagnosis awaited them. At 11:30 a.m., a resounding explosion occurred in the basement where the clinic’s X-ray films were stored. The films immediately burst into flame. Several theories were later advanced to explain the initial explosion. A leaky steam pipe, authorities reasoned, overheated and caused the highly combustible X-ray films in the room to catch on fire. Others believed that a carelessly discarded cigarette or match caused the fire. No one was ever blamed – the impact lay in the tragedy itself.

The Cleveland Clinic at the time of the fire.

When the X-rays caught fire, they began to release deadly fumes. The poisonous yellow gas penetrated to the waiting room on the floor above and then swirled throughout the clinic. The hollow center of the building soon filled with gases as the intense heat from below sent the fumes upward. Before anyone had an opportunity to escape, a second blast blew out a skylight. Every corner of the clinic filled with a deadly bromide gas.

People were quickly overtaken by the gas. They ran for the windows, seeking oxygen, but few were able to reach them. They were enveloped in the fumes and collapsed. The fire in the basement burned up the air supply and combined with the choking gas, began to claim victims. The fumes poured in through ventilator shafts, up stairways, through halls, and then the fire found the woodwork in the stairways and began to devour it, climbing upwards into the building. Windows burst and passersby on the street in front of the clinic were also overcome by the fumes. Witnesses on the scene after the explosion said that they could hear terrified screams from blocks away.

The first explosion in the clinic was heard by police officer Henry Thorpe, who was walking two blocks away. He immediately turned in the alarm and ran towards the building, which was located at Euclid Avenue and 93rd Street. Thorpe was still a block away when he was blinded by the gas.
Firefighters arrived within minutes of the call. They turned in a second alarm and police, hospital and county morgue ambulances soon began to arrive. Meanwhile, firefighters were trying to enter the building. Battalion Fire Chief James P. Flynn, with his driver, Louis Hillenbrand, were the first to go inside. They found 16 bodies packed in the space between the elevator and a stairway, where occupants of the clinic had tried in vain to escape. One of the people found near the elevator was Dr. J.L. Locke. He was taken outside and revived. Five of the others, who were still breathing, were taken to the roof, where firefighters were hard at work.

Rescue workers and volunteers scaled the building, trying to help the people inside escape from the flames and from the deadly x-ray fumes.

Flynn directed his men to scale the roof and enter the hospital through a skylight. They lowered themselves from the roof, but it was not an easy entry. From the skylight, the firemen suspended themselves and then swung their bodies to gain momentum in order to drop with minimum injury inside the mezzanine rail that encircled the fourth floor. The firefighters then searched the trap door that allowed access to the roof. While searching for the door, they found a mass of bodies of people who had attempted to make it to the roof on their own. One of the firefighters was horrified by the sight:

“I hope to never have to look at anything so horrifying again. Lord help me, as far down the stairway as you could see were bodies, bodies, bodies. Twisted arms and legs, screaming men and women. Bodies and screams.”

The firemen managed to lift out 15 survivors from the top of the pile of bodies. The jam at this failed escape route was so great that many of those at the bottom of the pile were crushed to death. Oxygen tanks were rushed to the roof, but for many of the survivors, it was too late. They did not live for long. Battalion Chief Flynn lowered himself into the building and was appalled at the condition of the people his men found, most of them barely alive. He ordered the firemen to concentrate all of their efforts on saving the trapped and getting people out of the clinic. They could hear screaming coming from the third floor and crews went down the stairs. By now, the flames had reached the third floor and the men had to battle the fire while their comrades worked to revive those who had been overcome by the smoke and fumes.

Some of the firefighters described their efforts on the lower floors of the building as “a descent into Hell.” Many victims were found collapsed at the windows, unable to find fresh air. Both entrances to the street were blocked by tangles of panic-stricken patients and personnel. The doorways had simply not been wide enough for everyone to exit at the same time. Trapped, they were overcome by the fumes and then burned to death by the fire. The fire had done its damage to the clinic, too. The woodwork and masonry walls were charred and blackened by the heat.

Hardened plaster was blistered and peeled from the walls. Fumes that had filled a hollow compartment between the balcony roof and the roof of the building exploded and ripped apart the brick and mortar. The casings of the skylight above and buckled and warped under the force of the explosion and broken glass had rained down on the waiting room, three floors below. The suction of the explosion shattered glass doors reinforced with steel. Compression in the hollow center of the building packed air into the halls and staircases and when this force was released by the blast of air rushed back into the center of the building, smashing doors with the force of a battering ram.
Heavy fumes hung about the building for almost two hours after the blast. Rescuers were unable to stay inside for long intervals and frequently had to use the oxygen tanks that had been brought for the victims. All of them firemen continued to go back inside and look for survivors, though, risking their own lives.

The clinic’s front lawn was soon covered with the dead and dying. Any available vehicle in the area, including taxicabs and personal automobiles, was commandeered by the police to be used as a transport from the burned-out clinic to other Cleveland hospitals. It took almost three hours to lift the bodies, one by one, through the damaged skylight. One police officer, a war veteran, described the scene as worse than his experiences on the front lines. He personally carried out 25 bodies from the building.

The poison gas from the X-ray films did not claim all of its victims immediately. Some people walked out of the building healthy and even aided firefighters in their rescue work, only to collapse and die hours or days later. A professional football player, Ben Jones, helped with the rescue efforts at the scene, felt fine and considered himself fortunate when he returned home. He died 48 hours later from the gas that he inhaled. Several firemen were also hospitalized because of ill effects from the gas.

Other, personal tragedies, occurred.  Dr. Carl Helwig, a doctor at another hospital, came to the scene to aid in the rescue effort and discovered that his wife was at the clinic that morning for a routine check-up. She died as he worked to save her. One of the clinic’s founders, Dr. George Crile, helped in the aid and rescue and later, visited fire victims at the city’s hospitals. His close colleague, Dr. John Phillips, another of the clinic’s founders, was in critical condition. Dr. Crile donated blood to save his friend, but Dr. Phillips died despite all of the efforts to save him. 
The clinic, founded by these two men and dedicated to the welfare of its patients, was witness to 123 deaths on May 15.

What could have been the end of the clinic turned out to be only the beginning. The remaining founders responded to the tragedy with brave optimism and within days, they resumed operation of the clinic in the temporary quarters of an old school. The Cleveland Clinic was rebuilt and regained momentum to become nationally recognized as a leader in the fight against cardiovascular disease. In the decades since World War II, the clinic has grown to become internationally prominent and is currently the second-largest medical group practice in the world, after the Mayo Clinic.