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Death and Desolation
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The terrible situation on the second day after the great disaster only intensifies the horror. As information becomes more full and accurate, it does not abate one tittle of the awful havoc. Rather it adds to it, and gives a thousand-fold terror to the dreadful calamity.
Not only do the scenes which are described appear all the more dreadful, as is natural, the nearer they are brought to the imagination, but it seems only too probable that the final reckoning in loss of life and material wealth will prove far more stupendous than has even yet been supposed.
The very greatness of the destruction prevents the possibility of an accurate estimate. Beneath the ghastly ruins of the once happy towns and villages along the pathway of the deluge, who shall say how many victims lie buried? Amid the rocks and woods that border the broad track of the waters, who shall say how many lie bruised and mangled and unrecognizable, wedged between boulders or massed amid débris and rubbish, or hidden beneath the heaped-up deposits of earth, and whether all of them shall ever be found and given the last touching rites?
Already the air of the little valley, which four days ago was smiling with all the health of nature and the contentment of industrious man, is waxing pestiferous with the awful odor of decaying human bodies. Buzzards, invited by their disgusting instinct, gather for a promised feast, and sit and glower on neighboring perches or else circle round and round in the blue empyrean over the location of unfriended corpses, known only to their keen sense of smell or vision.
But another kind of buzzard, more disgusting, more hideous, more vile, has hastened to this scene of woe and anguish and desolation to exult over it to his profit. Thugs and thieves in unclean hordes have mysteriously turned up at Johnstown and its vicinity, as hyenas in the desert seem to spring bodily out of the deadly sand whenever the corpse of a gallant warrior, abandoned by his kind, lies putrefying in the night.
There is a cry from the afflicted community for the policing of the devastated region, and there is no doubt it is greatly needed. Happily, Nemesis does not sleep this time in the face of such provocation as is given her by these atrociously inhuman human beings. It is a satisfaction to record that something more than a half dozen of them have been dealt with as promptly and as mercilessly as they deserve. For such as they there should be no code of pity.
There is an inexhaustible store of pathos and heroism in the tale of this disaster. Of course, in all of its awful details it never can be fitly written. One reason is that too many of the witnesses of its more fearful phases “sleep the sleep that knows not waking.” But there is a greater reason, and that is that there is a point in the intenser actuality of things at which all human language fails to do justice to it. Yet–as simply told as possible–there are many incidents of this great tragedy which nothing has ever surpassed or ever can surpass in impressiveness. It is a consolation, too, that human nature at such times does betray here and there a gleam of that side of it which gives forth a reflection of the ideal manhood or womanhood. Bits of heroism and of tender devotedness scattered throughout this dark, dismal picture of destruction and despair light it up with wonderful beauty, and while they bring tears to the eyes of the sternest reader, will serve as a grateful relief from the pervading hue of horror and blackness.
There is the very gravest need of vigorous relief measures in favor of the survivors of the flood. A spontaneous movement in that direction has been begun, but as yet lacks the efficiency only to be derived from a general and organized co-operation.
When Superintendent Pitcairn telegraphed from Johnstown to Pittsburgh Friday night that the town was annihilated he came very close to the facts of the case, although he had not seen the ill-fated city. To say that Johnstown is a wreck is but stating the facts of the case. Nothing like it was ever seen in this country. Where long rows of dwelling houses and business blocks stood forty-eight hours ago, ruin and desolation now reign supreme.
The losses, however, are as nothing compared to the frightful sacrifices of precious human lives. During Sunday Johnstown has been drenched with the tears of stricken mortals, and the air is filled with sobs that come from breaking hearts. There are scenes enacted here every hour and every minute that affect all beholders profoundly. When brave men die in battle, for country or for principle, their loss can be reconciled to the stern destinies of life. When homes are torn asunder in an instant, and the loved ones hurled from the arms of loving and devoted mothers, there is an element of sadness connected with the tragedy that touches every heart.
“The loss of life is simply dreadful. The most conservative people declare that the number will reach 5000, while others confidently assert that 8000 or 10,000 have perished.”
How Johnstown Looks after Flood and Fire Have Done Their Worst.
An eye-witness writing from Pittsburgh says:–We have just returned from a trip through what is left of Johnstown. The view from beyond is almost impossible to describe. To look upon it is a sight that neither war nor catastrophe can equal. House is piled upon house, not as we have seen in occasional floods of the the Western rivers, but the remains of two and four storied buildings piled upon the top of one another.
The ruins of what is known as the Club House are in perhaps the best condition of any in that portion of the town, but it is certainly damaged beyond possibility of repair. “On the upper floor five bodies are lying unidentified.” One of them, a woman of genteel birth, judging by her dress, is locked in one of the small rooms to prevent a possibility of spoliation by wreckers, who are flocking to the spot from all directions and taking possession of everything they can get hold of.
Here and there bodies can be seen sticking in the ruins. Some of the most prominent citizens are to be seen working with might and main to get at the remains of relatives whom they have located.
“There is no doubt that, wild as the estimates of the loss of life and damage to property have been, it is even larger than there is any idea of.”
Close on to 2,000 residences lie in kindling wood at the lower end of the town.
An idea of the eccentricity of the flood may be gathered from the fact that houses that were situated at Woodvale and points above Johnstown are piled at the lower end of the town, while some massive houses have been lifted and carried from the lower end as far as the cemetery at the extreme upper portion of the town. All through the ruins are scattered the most costly furniture and store goods of all kinds.
I stood on the keyboard and strings of a piano while I watched a number of thieves break into the remnants of houses and pilfer them, while others again had got at a supply of fine groceries and had broken into a barrel of fine brandy, and were fairly steeping themselves in it. I met quite a number of Pittsburghers in the ruins looking for friends and relatives. If the skiffs which were expected from Pittsburgh were there they would be of vast assistance in reaching the ruins, which are separated by the stream of water descending from the hills. A great fear is felt that there will be some difficulty in restoring the stream to its proper channel. Its course now lies right along Main street, and it is about two hundred yards wide.
Something should be done to get the bodies of the dead decently taken care of. The ruins are reeking with the smell of decaying bodies. Right at the edge of the ruins the decaying body of a stout colored woman is lying like the remains of an animal, without any one to identify and take care of it.
A number of Hungarians collected about a number of bodies at Cambria which had been washed up and began rifling the trunks. After they had secured all the contents they turned their attention to the dead.
The ghastly spectacle presented by the distorted features of those who had lost their lives during the flood had no influence upon the ghouls, who acted more like wild beasts than human beings. They took every article from the clothing on the dead bodies, not leaving anything of value or anything that would serve to identify the remains.
After the miscreants had removed all their plunder to dry ground a dispute arose over a division of the spoils. A pitched battle followed and for a time the situation was alarming. Knives and clubs were used freely. As a result several of the combatants were seriously wounded and left on the ground, their fellow countrymen not making any attempt to remove them from the field of strife.
JOHNSTOWN, PA., June 2, 11 A.M.
“They have just hung a man over near the railroad to the telegraph pole for cutting the finger off of a dead woman in order to get a ring.”
The way of the transgressor in the desolated valley of the Conemaugh is hard indeed. Each hour reveals some new and horrible story of suffering and outrage, and every succeeding hour brings news of swift and merited punishment meted out to the fiends who have dared to desecrate the stiff and mangled corpses in the city of the dead, and torture the already half crazed victims of the cruelest of modern catastrophes.
As the roads to the lands round about are opened tales of almost indescribable horror come to light, and deeds of the vilest nature, perpetrated in the darkness of the night, are brought to light.
Just as the shadows began to fall upon the earth last evening a party of thirteen Hungarians were noticed stealthily picking their way along the banks of the Conemaugh toward Sang Hollow. Suspicious of their purpose, several farmers armed themselves and started in pursuit. Soon their most horrible fears were realized. The Hungarians were out for plunder.
Lying upon the shore they came upon the dead and mangled body of a woman upon whose person there were a number of trinkets and jewelry and two diamond rings. In their eagerness to secure the plunder, the Hungarians got into a squabble, during which one of the number severed the finger upon which were the rings, and started on a run with his fearful prize. The revolting nature of the deed so wrought upon the pursuing farmers, who by this time were close at hand, that they gave immediate chase. Some of the Hungarians showed fight, but being outnumbered were compelled to flee for their lives. Nine of the brutes escaped, but four were literally driven into the surging river and to their death. The inhuman monster whose atrocious act has been described was among the number of the involuntary suicides. Another incident of even greater moment has just been brought to notice.
At half-past eight this morning an old railroader who had walked from Sang Hollow stepped up to a number of men who were congregated on the platform stations at Curranville and said:–“Gentlemen, had I a shotgun with me half an hour ago I would now be a murderer, yet with no fear of ever having to suffer for my crime.
“Two miles below here I watched three men going along the banks “stealing the jewels from the bodies of the dead wives and daughters of men who have been robbed of all they held dear on earth.””
He had no sooner finished the last sentence than five burly men, with looks of terrible determination written on their faces, were on their way to the scene of plunder, one with a coil of rope over his shoulder and another with a revolver in his hand. In twenty minutes, so it is stated, they had overtaken two of the wretches, who were then in the act of cutting pieces from the ears and fingers from the hands of the bodies of two dead women.
With revolver leveled at the scoundrels the leader of the posse shouted, “Throw up your hands or I’ll blow your heads off!” With blanched faces and trembling forms they obeyed the order and begged for mercy. They were searched, and as their pockets were emptied of their ghastly finds the indignation of the crowd intensified, and when “a bloody finger of an infant, encircled with two tiny gold rings”, was found among the plunder in the leader’s pocket, a cry went up “”Lynch them! Lynch them!”” “Without a moment’s delay ropes were thrown around their necks and they were dangling to the limbs of a tree, in the branches of which an hour before were entangled the bodies of a dead father and son.”
After the expiration of a half hour the ropes were cut, and the bodies lowered and carried to a pile of rocks in the forest on the hill above. It is hinted that an Allegheny county official was one of the most prominent actors in this justifiable homicide.
Another case of attempted lynching was witnessed this evening near Kernville. The man was observed stealing valuable articles from the houses. He was seized by a mob, a rope was placed around his neck and he was jerked up into the air. The rope was tied to the tree and his would-be lynchers left him. Bystanders cut him down before he was dead. The other men did not interfere and he was allowed to go. The man was so badly scared that he could not give his name if he wanted to do so.
Two colored men were shot while robbing the dead bodies, by the Pittsburgh police, who are doing guard about the town.
To one who saw bright, bustling Johnstown a week ago the sight of its present condition must cause a thrill of horror, no matter how callous he might be. I doubt if any incident of war or flood ever caused a more sickening sight. Wretchedness of the most pathetic kind met the gaze on every side.
“Unlawfulness runs riot.” If ever military aid was needed now is the time. “The town is perfectly overrun with thieves”, many of them from Pittsburgh. The Hungarians are the worst. They seem to operate in regular organized bands. In Cambria City this morning they entered a house, drove out the occupants at the point of revolvers and took possession. They can be constantly seen carrying large quantities of plunder to the hills.
The number of drunken men is remarkable. Whiskey seems marvelously plenty. Men are actually carrying it around in pails. Barrels of the stuff are constantly located among the drifts, and men are scrambling over each other and fighting like wild beasts in their mad search for it.
At the cemetery, at the upper end of the town, I saw a sight that rivals the inferno. A number of ghouls had found a lot of fine groceries, among them a barrel of brandy, with which they were fairly stuffing themselves. One huge fellow was standing on the strings of an upright piano singing a profane song, every little while breaking into a wild dance. A half dozen others were engaged in a hand-to-hand fight over the possession of some treasure stolen from a ruined house, and the crowd around the barrel were yelling like wild men.
The cry for help increases every hour. Something must be done to get the bodies decently taken care of. The ruins are reeking with the smell of decaying bodies. At the very edge of the ruins the body of a large colored woman, in an advanced state of decomposition, is lying like the body of an animal.
The fire in the drift above the bridge is still burning fiercely and will continue to do so for several days. The skulls of six people can be seen sticking up out of the ruins just above the east end of the bridge. Nothing but the blackened skulls can be seen. They are all together.
The sad scenes will never all be written. One lady told me this morning of seeing her mother crushed to pieces just before her eyes and the mangled body carried off down the stream. William Yarner lost six children and saved a baby about eighteen months old. His wife died just three weeks ago. An aged German, his wife and five daughters floated down on their house to a point below Nineveh, where the house was wrecked. The five daughters were drowned, but the old man and his wife stuck in a tree and hung there for twenty-four hours before they could be taken off.
One of the most pitiful sights of this terrible disaster came to my notice this afternoon, when the body of a young lady was taken out of the Conemaugh River. The woman was apparently quite young, though her features were terribly disfigured. Nearly all the clothing except the shoes was torn off the body. The corpse was that of a mother, for although cold in death the woman clasped a young male babe apparently not more than a year old tightly in her arms. The little one was huddled close up to its mother’s face, who when she realized their terrible fate, had evidently raised the babe to her lips to imprint upon its little lips the last motherly kiss it was to receive in this world. The sight was a pathetic one and turned many a stout heart to tears.
Among the miraculous escapes to be recorded in connection with the great disaster is that of George J. Leas and his family. He resided on Iron street. When the rush of water came there were eight people on the roof. The little house swung around off its moorings and floated about for nearly half an hour before it came up against the bank of drift above the stone bridge. A three-year-old girl with sunny golden hair and dimpled cheeks prayed all the while that God would save them, and it seemed that God really answered the prayer of this innocent little girl and directed the house against the drift, enabling every one of the eight to get off. Mrs. Leas carried the little girl in her arms, and how she got off she doesn’t know. Every house around them, she said, was crushed, and the people either killed or drowned.
One of the most dreadful features of this catastrophe has been the miserable weakness displayed by the authorities of Johnstown and the surrounding boroughs. Johnstown needed them sadly for forty-eight hours. There is supposed to be a Burgess, but like most burgesses he is a shadowy and mythical personage. If there had been concerted and intelligent action the fire in the débris at the dam could have been extinguished within a short time after it started. Too many cooks spoiled this ghastly broth.
Even now if dynamite or some other explosive was intelligently applied the huge mass of wreckage which has up to the present time escaped the flame, and no doubt contains a number of bodies, could be saved from fire.
This, however, is a matter of small import compared with the immunity granted the outrageous and open graveyard robbery and disgusting thievery which have thriven bravely since Friday morning.
Foreigners and natives carrying huge sacks, and in some instances even being assisted by horses and carts, have been busily engaged hunting corpses and stealing such valuables as were to be found in the wreckage.
Dozens of barrels of strong liquor have been rescued by the Hungarian and Polish laborers from among the ruins of saloons and hotels and the contents of the same have been freely indulged in. This has led to an alarming debauchery, which is on the increase. All day the numbers of the drunken crowd have been augmented from time to time by fresh arrivals from the surrounding districts.
Those who have suffered from the tidal wave have become much embittered against the law breakers. There have been many small fights and several small riots in consequence. This has been regarded with apprehension by the State authorities, and Adjutant General Hastings has arrived at Johnstown to examine into the condition of affairs and to guard the desolated district with troops. The Eighteenth regiment, of Pittsburgh, has tendered its services to this work, but has received no reply to its tender.
General Hastings estimates that the loss of life is at least eight thousand.
An employee of J.L. Gill, of Latrobe, says he and thirty-five other men were in a three-story building in Johnstown last night. They had been getting out logs for the Johnstown Lumber Company. The man says that the building was swept away and all the men were drowned except Gill and his family.
The recovery of bodies has taken up the time of thousands all day. The theory now is that most of those killed by the torrent were buried beneath the débris. To-day’s work in the ruins in a large degree justifies this assumption. I saw six bodies taken out of one pile of rubbish not eight feet square.
The truth is that bodies are almost as plentiful as logs. The whirl of the waters puts the bodies under and the logs and boards on top. The rigidity of arms standing out at right angles to the bloated and bruised bodies show that death in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases took place amid the ruins–that is after the wreck of houses had closed over them.
Dr. D.G. Foster, who has been here all day, is of the opinion that most of the victims were killed by coming into violent contact with objects in the river and not by drowning. He found many fractured skulls and on most heads blows that would have rendered those receiving them instantly unconscious, and the water did the rest.
“Not fewer than three hundred bodies have been taken from the river and rubbish to-day.” It has been the labor of all classes of citizens, and marvelous work has been accomplished. The eastern end of Main street, through which the waters tore most madly and destructively, and in which they left their legacy of wrecked houses, fallen trees and dead bodies in a greater degree than in any other portion of the city, has been cleared and the remains of over fifty have been taken out.
All over town the searchers have been equally successful. As soon as a body is found it is placed on a litter and sent to the Morgue, where it is washed and placed on a board for several hours to await identification.
The Morgue is the Fourth-ward school house, and it has been surrounded all day by a crowd of several thousand people. At first the crowd were disposed to stop those bearing the stretchers, uncover the remains and view them, but this was found to be prolific not only of great delay, also scenes of agony that not even the bearers could endure.
Now a litter is guarded by a file of soldiers with fixed bayonets, and the people are forced aside until the Morgue is reached. It is astonishing to find how small a number of injured are in the city. Few survived. It was death or nothing with the demon of the flood.
Now that an adequate idea of what has befallen them has been reached, and the fact that a living has still to be made, that plants must be taken care of, that contracts must be filled, the business people of the city are giving their attention to the future. Vice President and Director James McMillan, of the Cambria Iron Company, says their loss has been well nigh incalculable. They are not daunted, but will to-morrow begin the work of clearing up the ruins of their mills preparatory to rebuilding and repairing their works. They will also immediately rebuild the Gautier Iron Works. This is the disposition of all.
“Our pockets are light,” they say, “but if nothing happens all of us will be in business again.” The central portion of Johnstown is as completely obliterated as if it had never had foundation. The river has made its bed upon the sites of hundreds of dwellings, and a vast area of sand, mud and gravel marks the old channel.
It is doubtful whether it will be possible even to reclaim what was once the business portion of the city. The river will have to be returned to its old bed in order to do this.
Among the lost is H.G. Rose, the District Attorney of Cambria county, whose body was among the first discovered.
Governor Foraker, of Ohio, this afternoon sent five hundred tents to this city. They will be pitched on the hillside to-morrow. They are sadly needed, as the buildings that are left are either too damp or too unsafe for occupancy.
The work of burying the dead began this morning and has been kept up till late this evening. The bruising of the bodies by logs and trees and other débris and other exposure in the water have tended to hasten decomposition, which has set in in scores of cases, making interment instantly necessary.
Bodies are being buried as rapidly as they are identified. The work of Pittsburgh undertakers in examining the dead has rendered it possible to keep all those embalmed two or three days longer, but this is desirable only in cases where identification is dubious and no claimants appear at all.
To-day the cars sent out from Pittsburgh with provisions for the living were hastily cleared in order to contain the bodies of the dead intended for interment in suburban cemeteries and in graveyards handy to the city.
Formality is dispensed with. In some instances only the undertaker and his assistants are present, and in others only one or two members of the family of the dead.
The dead are more plentiful than the mourners.
Death has certainly dealt briefly with the stricken city. “Let the dead bury the dead” has been more nearly exemplified in this instance than in any other in this country’s history. The magnitude of the horror increases with the hours. It is believed that not less than two thousand of the drowned found lodgment beneath the “omnium gatherum” in the triangle of ground that the Conemaugh cut out of the bank between the river and the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge.
The victims were not upon it, but were parts of it. Whole houses were washed into the apex of the triangle. Hen coops, pigstys and stables were added to the mass. Then a stove ignited the mass and the work of cremation began. It was a literal breast of fire. The smoke arose in a huge funnel-shaped cloud, and at times it changed to the form of an hour glass. At night the flames united would light up this misty remnant of mortality. The effect upon the living, both ignorant and intelligent, was the same. That volume of smoke with its dual form, produced a feeling of awe in many that was superior in most cases to that felt in the awful moment of the storm’s wrath on Friday.
Hundreds stood for hours regarding the smoke and wondering whether it foreboded another visitation more dire than its predecessor.
The people hereabouts this morning awoke to find that nothing was left but a mass of ashes, calcined human bones, stoves, old iron and other approximately indestructible matter, from which only a light blue vapor was arising. General Hastings took precautions to prevent the extension of the fire to another huge pile, a short distance away, and this will be rummaged to-day for bodies of flood victims.
The Pittsburgh undertakers have contributed more to facilitate the preparation of the dead for the graves than all others besides.
There was a disposition on the part of many foreigners and Negroes to raid the houses, and do an all around thieving business, but the measures adopted by the police had a tendency to frighten them off in nearly every case.
One man was caught in the act of robbing the body of an old woman, but he protested that he had got nothing and was released. He immediately disappeared, and it was found afterward that he had taken $100 from the pocket of the corpse.
A half-breed negro yesterday and this morning was doing a thriving business in collecting hams, shoulders, chickens and even furniture. He had thieves in his employ, and while to some of them he was paying regular salaries, others were doing the work for a drink of whiskey. The authorities stopped this thing very suddenly, but not until a number of the people threatened to lynch the half breed. In one or two instance very narrow escapes from the rope were made.
Thousands of coffins and rough boxes have already arrived, and still the supply is short. They are brought in marked to some undertaker, who has a list of his dead, and as fast as the coffins come he writes the name of its intended tenant and tells the friends (when there are any) where to find it.
Two of them go after it, and, carrying it between them to the Morgue or to their homes, place the body in it and take it to the burial grounds.
One unfortunate feature of the destruction is the fact that some one has been drowned from nearly every house in the city, and teams are procurable only with the greatest difficulty.
Dead horses are seen everywhere. In one stable two horses, fully harnessed, bridled and ready to be taken out, stand dead in their stable, stiff and upright. In a sand pile near the Pennsylvania Railroad depot a horse’s hind feet, rump and tail are all that can be seen of him. He was caught in the rapidly running waters and had been driven into the sand.
The following telegram from Johnstown has been received at Pittsburg:
“For God’s sake tell the sight-seers to keep away from Johnstown for the present. What we want is people to work, not to look on. Citizen’s Committee.”
Three trains have already been sent out with crowded cargoes of sight-seers. At every station along the road excited crowds are waiting for an opportunity to get aboard.
That’s what would have happened to the owners of South Fork if they had put in an appearance.
There is great indignation among the people of Johnstown at the wealthy Pittsburghers who own South Fork. They blame them severely for having maintained such a frightfully dangerous institution there. The feeling among the people was intense. If any of the owners of the dam had put in an appearance in Johnstown they would have been lynched.
The dam has been a constant menace to this valley ever since it has been in existence, and the feeling, which has been bitter enough on the occasion of every flood hitherto, after this horrible disaster is now at fever heat.
Without seeing the havoc created no idea can be given of the area of the desolation or the extent of the damage.
An utterly wretched woman stood by a muddy pool of water, trying to find some trace of a once happy home. She was half crazed with grief, and her eyes were red and swollen. As I stepped to her side she raised her pale and haggard face, crying:
“They are all gone. Oh God be merciful to them. My husband and my seven dear little children have been swept down with the flood and I am left alone. We were driven by the raging flood into the garret, but the waters followed us there. Inch by inch it kept rising until our heads were crushing against the roof. It was death to remain. So I raised a window and one by one placed my darlings on some drift wood, trusting to the Great Creator. As I liberated the last one, my sweet little boy, he looked at me and said:
‘Mamma, you always told me that the Lord would care for me; will he look after me now?’
“I saw him drift away with his loving face turned toward me, and with a prayer on my lips for his deliverance he passed from sight forever. The next moment the roof crashed in and I floated outside to be rescued fifteen hours later from the roof of a house in Kernville. If I could only find one of my darlings, I could bow to the will of God, but they all are gone. I have lost everything on earth now but my life, and I will return to my old Virginia home and lay me down for my last great sleep.”
A handsome woman, with hair as black as a raven’s wing, walked through the depot, where a dozen or more bodies were awaiting burial. Passing from one to another, she finally lifted the paper covering from the face of a woman, young and with traces of beauty showing through the stains of muddy water. With a cry of anguish she reeled backward, to be caught by a rugged man who chanced to be passing. In a moment or so she had calmed herself sufficiently to take one more look at the features of her dead. She stood gazing at the unfortunate as if dumb. Finally turning away with another wild burst of grief she said:–
“And her beautiful hair all matted and her sweet face bruised and stained with mud and water.”
The dead woman was the sister of the mourner. The body was placed in a coffin a few minutes later and sent away to its narrow house.
These incidents are but fair samples of the scenes familiar to every turn in this stricken city.
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