Digging for the Dead

Map of the district swept by the flood
Map of the district swept by the flood

A party started in early exploring the huge mass of débris banked against the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge. This collection, consisting of trees, sides of houses, timber and innumerable articles, varies in thickness from three or four feet to twenty feet. It is about four hundred yards long, and as wide as the river. There are thousands of tons in this vast pile. How many bodies are buried there it is impossible to say, but conservative estimates place it at one thousand at least.

The corps of workmen who were searching the ruins near the Methodist Church late this evening were horrified by unearthing one hundred additional bodies. The great number at this spot shows what may be expected when all have been recovered.

When the mass which blazed several days was extinguished it was simple to recover the bodies on the surface. It is now a question, however, of delving into the almost impenetrable collection to get at those lodged within. The grinding tree trunks doubtless crushed those beneath into mere unrecognizable masses of flesh. Those on the surface were nearly all so much burned as to resemble nothing human.

Meanwhile the searchers after bodies, armed with spikes, hooks and crowbars, pry up the débris and unearth what they can. Bodies, or rather fractions of them, are found in abundance near the surface.

Tracing Bodies by the Smell

I was here when the gang came across one of the upper stories of a house. It was merely a pile of boards apparently, but small pieces of a bureau and a bed spring from which the clothes had been burned showed the nature of the find. A faint odor of burned flesh prevailed exactly at this spot. “Dig here,” said the physician to the men. “There is one body at least quite close to the surface.” The men started in with a will. A large pile of underclothes and household linen was brought up first. It was of fine quality and evidently such as would be stored in the bedroom of a house occupied by people quite well to do. Shovels full of jumbled rubbish were thrown up, and the odor of flesh became more pronounced. Presently one of the men exposed a charred lump of flesh and lifted it up on the end of a pitchfork. It was all that remained of some poor creature who had met an awful death between water and fire.

The trunk was put on a cloth, the ends were looped up making a bag of it, and the thing was taken to the river bank. It weighed probably thirty pounds. A stake was driven in the ground to which a tag was attached giving a description of the remains. This is done in many cases to the burned bodies, and they lay covered with cloths upon the bank until men came with coffins to remove them. Then the tag was taken from the stakes and tacked on the coffin lid, which was immediately closed up, as identification was of course out of the question. There is a stack of coffins by the railroad bridge. Sometimes a coffin is carried to the spot on the charred débris where the find is made.

Prodding Corpses with Canes

The searchers by thrusting down a stick or fork are pretty sure to find a corpse. I saw a man run a cane in the débris down to the hilt and it came up with human flesh sticking to it. Another ran a stick into the thoroughly cooked skull of a little boy two feet below the surface. There are bodies probably as far down as seventy feet in some cases, and it does not seem plain now how they are to be recovered. One plan would be to take away the top layers of wood with derricks, and of course the mass beneath will rise closer to the surface. The weather is cold to-day, and the offensive smell that was so troublesome on the warm days is not noticeable at a distance.

Saved From Disfiguration

The workers began on the wreck on Main street just opposite the First National Bank, one of the busiest parts of the city. A large number of people were lost here, the houses being crushed on one side of the street and being almost untouched on the other, a most remarkable thing considering the terrific force of the flood. Twenty-one bodies were taken out in the early morning and removed to the morgue. They were not very much injured, considering the weight of lumber above them. In many instances they were wedged in crevices. They were all in a good state of preservation, and when they were embalmed they looked almost lifelike. In this central part of the city examination is sure to result in the unearthing of bodies in every corner. Cottages which are still standing are banked up with lumber and driftwood, and it is like mining to make any kind of a clear space. I have seen relations of people who are missing, and who are supposed to be in the ruins of their homes, waiting patiently by the hour for men to come and take away the débris.

When bodies are found, the location of which was known, there are frequently two or three friends on the spot to see them dug up. Four and five of the same family have been taken from a space of ten feet square. In one part of the river gorge this afternoon were found the bodies of a woman and a child. They were close together and they were probably mother and infant. Not far away was the corpse of a man looking like a gnarled and mis-shapen section of a root of a tree. The bodies from the fire often seem to have been twisted up, as if the victims died in great agony.

Rapidly Burying the Dead

The order that was issued last night that all unidentified dead be buried to-day is being rapidly carried out. The Rev. Mr. Beall, who has charge of the morgue at the Fourth ward school-house, which is the chief place, says that a large force of men has been put at work digging graves, and at the close of the afternoon the remains will be laid away as rapidly as it can be done.

In the midst of this scene of death and desolation, a relenting Providence seems to be exerting a subduing influence. Six days have elapsed since the great disaster, and the temperature still remains low and chilly in the Conemaugh Valley. When it is remembered that in the ordinary June weather of this locality from two to three days are sufficient to bring an unattended body to a state of decay and putrefaction that would render it almost impossible to prevent the spread of disease throughout the valley, the inestimable benefits of this cool weather are almost beyond appreciation.

The emanations from the half mile of débris above the bridge are but little more offensive than yesterday, and should this cool weather continue a few days longer it is possible hundreds of bodies may yet be recovered from the wreck in such a state of preservation as to render identification possible. Many hundreds of victims, however, will be roasted and charred into such shapeless masses as to preclude a hope of recognition by their nearest relative.

Getting Down to Systematic Work

The work of clearing up the wreck and recovering the bodies is now being done most systematically. Over six thousand men are at work in the various portions of the valley, and each little gang of twenty men is directed by a foreman, who is under orders from the general headquarters. As the rubbish is gone over and the bodies and scattered articles of value are recovered, the débris is piled up in one high mass and the torch applied. In this way the valley is assuming a less devastated condition. In twenty-four hours more every mass of rubbish will probably have been searched, and the investigations will be confined to the smoking wreck above Johnstown bridge.

The Westmoreland Relief Committee complained of the Indiana county authorities for not having a committee to search the shores on that side for bodies. They say that all that is being done is by parties who are hunting for anything valuable they can find.

Up to two o’clock this afternoon only eight bodies had been taken out of the drift above the bridge. None of them was recognized. The work of pulling it out goes on very slowly. It has been suggested that a stationary engine should be planted on the east side of the pile and a rope and pulley worked on it.

The Keystone Hotel, a huge frame structure, was rapidly being pulled to pieces this morning, and when this has been done the work of taking out the bodies will be begun at this point.

The immense wreck will most undoubtedly yield up many bodies. The bodies of a woman and three children were taken from the débris in front of the First National Bank at ten o’clock this morning. The woman was the mother of the three children, ranging in age from one to five years, and she had them all clasped in her arms.

Booth & Flinn, the Pittsburgh contractors, have just put to work another large force of men. They have divided the town into districts, and the work is being conducted in a systematic manner. Main street is being rapidly opened up, and scores of bodies have been taken out this morning from under the Hurlburt House.

Only Found One of Her Family

The first body taken from the ruins was that of a boy named Davis, who was found in the débris near the bridge. He was badly bruised and burned. The remains were taken to the undertaking rooms at the Pennsylvania Railroad station, where they were identified as those of William Davis. The boy’s mother has been making a tour of the different morgues for the past few days, and was just going through the undertaking rooms when she saw the remains of her boy being brought in. She ran up to the remains and demanded the child. She seemed to have lost her mind, and caused quite a scene by her actions. She stated that she had lost her husband and six children in the flood, and that this was the first one of the family that had been recovered. At the First Presbyterian Church, which is being used as a morgue, seventeen bodies taken from the débris and river have been brought in.

The relief corps from Altoona found a body near Stony Bridge this morning. On his person was found a gold watch and chain, and $250 in money, which was turned over to the proper authorities. This corps took out some thirty-two bodies or more from the ruins yesterday.

A.J. Hayes, whose wife’s body was taken out of the river last night, had the body taken up into the mountains where he dug her grave and said:–“I buried all that is dear to me. As for myself I don’t care how soon death overtakes me.”

At quarter past one this afternoon, fifty bodies had been taken from the débris in front of the Catholic Church in Johnstown borough. About forty of the bodies were those of women. They were immediately removed to the morgue for identification.

Dr. Beall, who has the supervision of the morgues in Johnstown, said that so far 2,300 bodies had been recovered in Johnstown proper, most of which had been identified and buried.

Dynamite and Derricks Used

At one o’clock this afternoon the use of dynamite was resumed to burst the logs so that the débris in the dam at the bridge can be loosened and floated down the river. The dynamite is placed in holes bored into the massive timbers. When the log has been broken a chain is attached to its parts and it is then hoisted by a machine on the bridge and dropped into the current of the river. Contractor Kirk has abandoned the idea of constructing a dam to overflow the mass of ruins at the bridge. The water has fallen and cannot be raised to a serviceable height. A powerful windlass has been constructed at a point about one hundred feet below the bridge, and a rope attached to it is fastened to logs at the edge of the débris. In this way the course between one of the six spans of the railroad bridge has been cleared out. Where dynamite has been used to burst the logs another span has been freed of the débris, a space of about twenty by forty feet being cleared. The men are now well supplied with tools, but the force is not large enough to make rapid headway. It is believed that many more bodies will be found when the débris is loosened and started down the river.

Dynamite Tears the Bodies

Thirteen bodies were taken from the burning débris at the stone bridge at one time this afternoon. None of the bodies were recognizable, and they were put in coffins and buried immediately. They were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to keep them until they could be identified. During a blast at the bridge this afternoon two bodies were almost blown to pieces. The blasting has had the effect of opening the channel under the central portion of the bridge.

In Unwholesome Company

I came up here from Nineveh last night with the most disreputable crowd I ever traveled with. They were human buzzards flocking to the scene of horrors.

There was danger of a fight every moment, and if one had been started there is little doubt that it would have been short and bloody, for the conduct of the rowdy portion of the travelers had enraged the decent persons, to whom the thought of drunkenness and ribaldry at such a time was abhorrent, and they were quite ready to undertake the work of pitching the demoralized beings off the cars.

Wedged in here and there between intoxicated ruffians, who were indulging in the foulest jests about the corpses on which they were about to feast their eyes, were pale faced women, sad and red eyed, who looked as if they had had little sleep since the horrible collapse of the dam. Some of them were bound for Johnstown to claim and bring back bodies already identified, while others were on a trip for the ruins to commence a long and perhaps fruitless search for whatever might be left of their relatives. Some of those who misbehaved were friends of the lost, who, worn out with loss of sleep, had taken to drink and become madmen, but the greater part were merely sight-seers or robbers of the dead.

Avaricious Tramps

There were many tramps whose avarice had been stimulated by hearing of diamond rings and watches found on the dead. There was one little drunken hunchback who told those in the car who listened to him that years ago he had quarreled with his parents in Johnstown and had not seen them since. He was on the way now to see if anything was left of them. One moment he was in maudlin tears and the next he was cracking some miserable joke about the disaster. He went about the car shaking dice with other inebriated passengers, and in the course of half an hour had won $6. Over this he exhibited almost the glee of a maniac, and the fate of his people was lost sight of. Then he would presently forget his gains and go sobbing up the aisle looking for listeners to his pitiful story.

There were two sinister looking Hungarians in the smoking car and their presence excited the anger of a handful of drunken maniacs. They made loud speeches, denouncing the conduct of Hungarians who robbed the Johnstown dead, leveling their remarks at the particular two. As they grew more excited they demanded that the passengers make a move and lynch the fellows. A great deal of trouble would have ensued, doubtless, if the train had not at that moment stopped at Sang Hollow, four miles from Johnstown. The conductor shouted out that the passengers must leave the car and walk along the track the remainder of the distance.

A Strange Procession

We started out in the fast gathering darkness and the loiterers who held back made a long string. The drunken ruffians staggered along the tracks, howling with glee and talking about corpses, showing what their object was in coming. The tired out and disheartened women crowded under the shelter of the more respectable men. There was one member of the Pennsylvania National Guard in the troop with his bayonet, and he seemed to be the rallying point for the timid.

When the mob reached the outskirts of Johnstown they came across a little camp of military with outposts. I had been told that soldiers were keeping people who had no business there out of the lost city, and to insure my passage through the lines I had procured an order from Mr. McCreery, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Committee at Pittsburgh, stating that I was entitled to go through. I knew that the drunken lunatics behind me could have no such documents, and I imagined the soldiers would stop them. Nothing of the kind happened. Whole troops surged through the line. No passes were asked from them and they showed none. They only quieted down for a moment when they saw the uniforms of the National Guard.

Reinforcing Disorder

The mob merely helped to swell the host of thieves, cutthroats and pickpockets with which the region is infested.

The trains which had passed us, going from Johnstown to Pittsburgh looked as if they might be made up of joyous excursionists. The cars were crowded to the platforms, and for some reason or other dozens of the inebriated passengers thought it appropriate to cheer and yell, though God knows the whole surroundings were calculated to make a human being shed tears of anguish. The sight of the coffins in the baggage cars, some of them containing the dead, had no dampening effect upon the spirit of these roysterers.

The reaction from debauches and excitement is terrible, and there can be little doubt that many minds will give way under the strain. One of the wonders of the disaster is the absence of suicide and the apparently calm way in which the most wofully bereaved support themselves under their terrible loss. It must be an unnatural calm. Men have quietly told me that they have lost their entire families and then have suddenly changed the subject and talked of some absurdly trivial matter with an air of great interest, but it was easy to see that there was some numbing influence over the mechanism of the mind. It is unnatural and awful. It is almost impossible to realize that the troops of workmen leisurely digging in the ruins as if engaged in everyday employment are really digging for the dead, and it is only in the actual sight of death and its emblems that one can persuade one’s self that it is all true. The want of sleep conduces to an unnatural condition of the mind, under which these awful facts are bearable to the bereaved.

Picketing the Ruins

It was like a military camp here last night. So many citizens have been knocked down and robbed that the soldiers had special instructions to see that no queer characters got through to the centre of the town. I had an excellent chance of seeing how impossible it was for an unauthorized person to move about the town easily, although he could get into the interior. I had been kindly invited to sleep on a wisp of hay in a neighboring barn, but being detained late in the valley reached the press headquarters after my host had left. It was a question of hunting shelter or sleeping on the ground.

A gentleman whom I met told me that he was living in a Baltimore and Ohio day passenger coach about a mile out, and that if we could find our way there I was welcome to a soft place on the floor. We spoke to the nearest picket. He told us that it would be madness to try to cross one part of the ground unless we had revolvers, because a gang of Huns were in hiding ready to knock down passengers and hold up any one who seemed defenceless. However, after a little cogitating, he said that he would escort us to General Hastings’ headquarters, and we started, picking our way over the remains of streets and passing over great obstructions that had been left by the torrent. Ruin and wreck were on every hand. You could not tell where one street began and another left off, and in some places there was only soft mud, as devoid of evidence of the former presence of buildings as a meadow is, though they had been the sites of business blocks. It was washed clean.

A Weird Journey

Our guide told us the details of the capture of five marauders who had been robbing the dead. They had cut off the head of a woman found in the débris to get her earrings. He said that a number of deputy sheriffs had declared that at dawn they would march to the place where the prisoners were and take them out and hang them. My military friend said that he and his comrades would not be particularly anxious to interfere. The scene as we picked our way was lighted up by camp fires, around which sat groups of deputy sheriffs in slouch hats. They were a grim looking set, armed with clubs and guns. A few had rifles and some wore revolvers in their belts in regular leather cowboy pockets. The camp fires were about two hundred yards apart and to pass them without being challenged was impossible. At the adjutant general’s office we got a pass entitling us to pass the pickets, and bidding our guardsman good-night we started off escorted by a deputy sheriff. There were long lines of camp fires and every few rods we had to produce credentials. It was a pretty effect that was produced by the blazing logs. They lighted up the valley for some distance, throwing in relief the windowless ruins of what were once fine residences, bank buildings or factories. Embedded in the mud were packages of merchandise, such as sugar in barrels, etc., and over these we stumbled continually.

A Muddy Desert

Streams were running through the principal streets of the city. In some parts all that was left of the thoroughfares were the cobble stones–by which it was possible to trace streets for a short distance–and the street railway tracks remaining in places for spaces of a hundred feet or so. There were some buildings outside of the track of the full force of the torrent, the roofs of which seemed not to have been reached. Others had been on fire and had lost parts of their walls. It was a dismal sight, this desolation, as shown up by the fitful camp fires. It was only after climbing over perilous places, crossing streams and narrowly escaping with our necks, that we came within sight of the car at two o’clock this morning. We passed by a school house used as a morgue. Several people were inside gazing by lamp light at the silent bodies in a hunt for lost ones. Piles of coffins, brown and white, were in the school playground, which resounded not many days ago with the shouts of children, some of whom lie there now. There are heaps of coffins everywhere throughout the city. Conversation with the deputy sheriffs showed a deep-rooted hatred against the Huns, and a determination to shoot them down like dogs if they were caught prowling about near the exposed property. While we were toiling over débris we heard three shots about a quarter of a mile off. We could learn nothing of their report. The service done by the deputy sheriffs was excellent.

Mistaken Identification

At St. Columba’s Catholic Church the scenes were striking in their individual peculiarities. One woman came in and identified a body as that of Katie Frank. The undertakers labeled it accordingly, but in a few moments another woman entered the church, raised the lid of the coffin, scanned the face of the corpse, and then tore the label from the casket. The undertakers were then warned by the woman to be more careful in labelling coffins in the future. She then began to weep, and left the church in despair. She was Katie’s mother, and Katie is yet among the wreck in the river below.

The lot of bodies held and coffined at Morrellville presented a different feature. The mud was six inches deep, and the drizzling rain added gloom to the scene. Here and there could be seen, kneeling in the mud, broken hearted wives and mothers who sobbed and prayed. The incidents here were heartrending.

At the Fourth ward school-house morgue a woman from Erie, whose name could not be learned, went to the morgue in search of some one, but fainted on seeing the long line of coffins. At the Kernville morgue one little boy named Elrod, on finding his father and mother both dead, seized a hatchet, and for some time would let no one enter the place, claiming that the people were lying to him and wanted to rob him of his father and mother.

One sad incident was the sight of two coffins lying in the Gautier graveyard with nobody to bury them. A solitary woman was gazing at them in a dazed manner, while the rain beat on her unprotected head.



MLA Source Citation:

Walker, James Herbert. The Johnstown Horror! or Valley of Death: being A Complete and Thrilling Account of the Awful Floods and Their Appalling Ruin. H. J. Smith & Co. 1889. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 26 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/pennsylvania/digging-for-the-dead.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


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