Shadows of Despair

Another graphic account of the fearful calamity is furnished by an eye-witness: The dark disaster of the day with its attendant terrors thrilled the world and drew two continents closer together in the bonds of sympathy that bind humanity to man. The midnight terrors of Ashtabula and Chatsworth evoked tears of pity from every fireside in Christendom, but the true story of Johnstown, when all is known, will stand solitary and alone as the acme of man’s affliction by the potent forces to which humanity is ever subject.

The menacing clouds still hover darkly over the valley of death, and the muttering thunder that ever and anon reverberates faintly in the distance seems the sardonic chuckle of the demon of destruction as he pursues his way to other lands and other homes.

The Waters Receding

But the modern deluge has done its worst for Johnstown. The waters are rapidly subsiding, but the angry torrents still eddy around Ararat, and the winged messenger of peace has not yet appeared to tell the pathetic tale of those who escaped the devastation.

It is not a hackneyed utterance to say that no pen can adequately depict the horrors of this twin disaster–holocaust and deluge. The deep emotions that well from the heart of every spectator find most eloquent expression in silence–the silence that bespeaks recognition of man’s subserviency to the elements and impotence to avert catastrophe. The insignificance of human life is only fully realized by those who witness such scenes as Johnstown, Chatsworth and Ashtabula, and to those whose memory retains the picture of horror the dread experience cannot fail to be a fitting lesson.

A Dreary Morning

This morning opened dark and dreary. Great drops of rain fell occasionally and another storm seems imminent. Every one feels thankful though that the weather still remains cold, and that the gradual putrefaction of the hundreds of bodies that still line the streams and lie hidden under the miles of driftwood and débris is not unduly hastened.

The peculiar stench of decaying human flesh is plainly perceptible to the senses as one ascends the bank of Stony Creek for a half mile along the smouldering ruins of the wreck, and the most skeptical now conceive the worst and realize that hundreds–aye, perhaps thousands–of bodies lie charred and blackened beneath this great funeral pyre. Searchers wander wearily over this smoking mass, and as occasionally a sudden shout comes over the waters, the patient watchers on the hill realize that another ghastly discovery has been added to that long list of revelations that chill every heart and draw tears to the eyes of pessimists.

From the banks many charred remains of victims of flames and flood are plainly visible to the naked eye, as the retreating waters reluctantly give up their dead. Beneath almost every log or blackened beam a glistening skull or the blanched remnants of ribs or limbs mark all that remains of life’s hopes and dreams.

Since ten o’clock last night the fire engines have been busy. Water has been constantly playing on the burning ruins. At times the fire seems almost extinguished, but fitful flames suddenly break out afresh in some new quarter, and again the water and flames wage fierce combat.

The Count is Still Lacking

As yet there is no telling how many lives have been lost. Adjutant General Hastings, who has charge of everything, stated this morning that he supposed there were at least two thousand people under the burning débris, but the only way to find out how many lives were lost was to take a census of the people now living and subtract that from the census before the flood. Said he, “In my opinion there are any way from twelve thousand to fifteen thousand lost.”

Up to this morning people living here who lost whole families or parts of families hardly seemed to realize what a dreadful calamity had befallen them. To-day, however, they are beginning to understand the situation. Agony is stamped on the faces of every one, and it is truly a city of mourning.

The point of observation is on the hillside, midway between the woolen mills of Woodvale and Johnstown proper, which I reached to-day after a journey through the portions of the city from which the waters, receding fast, are revealing scenes of unparalleled horror. From the point on the hillside referred to an excellent view of the site of the town can be obtained. Here it can be seen that from the line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which winds along the base of Prospect Hill, to a point at which St. John’s Catholic Church formerly stood, and from the stone bridge to Conemaugh, on the Conemaugh River, but twelve houses by actual count remain, and they are in such a condition as to be practically useless. To any one familiar with the geography of the iron city of Cambria county this will convey a vivid idea of a swarth averaging one-half mile in width and three miles in length. In all the length and breadth of the most peaceful and costly portion of Johnstown not a shingle remains except those adhering to the buildings mentioned.

Houses Upside Down

But do not think for an instant that this comprehends in full the awfulness of the scene. What has just been mentioned is a large waste of territory swept as clean as if by a gigantic broom. In the other direction some few of the houses still remain, but they are upside down, piled on top of each other, and in many ways so torn asunder that not a single one of them is available for any purpose whatever. It is in this district that the loss of life has been heartrending. Bodies are being dug up in every direction.

On the main street, from which the waters have receded sufficiently to render access and work possible, bodies are being exhumed. They are as thick as potatoes in a field. Those in charge seem to have the utmost difficulty in securing the removal of bodies after they have been found.

The bodies are lying among the mass of wrecked buildings as thick as flies. The fire in the drift above the bridge is under control and is being rapidly smothered by the Pittsburgh firemen in charge of the work. About seven o’clock this morning a crowd of Battery B boys discovered a family of five people in the smoking and burned ruins above the bridge. They took out father, mother and three children, all terribly burned and mutilated. The little girl had an arm torn off.

Finding the Dead

The Village of Johnstown before the Flood
The Village of Johnstown before the Flood

The work of rescuing the bodies from the mud and débris has only fairly begun, and yet each move in that direction reveals more fully the horrible extent of the calamity. It is estimated that already 1,800 corpses have been found in all parts of the valley and given some little attention. Many of them were so mangled as to be beyond identification.

A regularly organized force of men has been at work most of the day upon the mass of débris about the stone bridge. Early in the forenoon ten bodies were found close together. There was nothing to identify them, as they were burnt almost to a crisp. Several of them must have belonged to one household, as they were taken from under the blackened timbers of a single roof.

Soon after a man, woman and child were taken from the ruins. The child was clasped in the arms of the woman, and the trio were evidently husband, wife and child.

It is a most distressing sight to see the relatives of people supposed to be lost standing around and watching every body as it is pulled out, and acting more like maniacs than sensible people.

As the work progressed the number of the ghastly finds increased. The various parties of workmen turned out from ten to fifteen bodies and fragments of bodies an hour all day long.

Many of the corpses found had valuables still clasped in their hands. One woman taken from the mill this morning had several diamond rings and earrings, a roll of government bonds and some money clasped in her hands. She was a widow, and was very wealthy. Her body has been embalmed and is at the house of relatives.

Suicide Brought Relief

From under the large brick school-house 124 bodies were taken last night and today, and in every corner and place the bodies are being found and buried as fast as possible. The necessity for speedy burial is becoming manifest, and the stench is sickening. A number of bodies have been found with a bullet hole in them, showing conclusively that in their maddening fright suicide was resorted to by many.

Work was commenced during the day on the south side of the town. It is supposed that five hundred or six hundred bodies will be found in that locality.

About twelve o’clock ten bodies were taken out of the wreck near the Cambria Library. On account of the bruised and mangled condition, some having faces crushed in, it was impossible to identify them. It is supposed they were guests at the Hurlbert House, which is completely demolished.

Eight bodies were recovered near the Methodist Church at eleven o’clock. It is said that fully one hundred and fifty bodies were found last evening in a sort of pocket below the Pennsylvania Railroad signal tower at Sang Hollow, where it was expected there would be a big find.

Kernville One Vast Morgue

Over one thousand bodies have been taken from the river, dragged from the sluggish pools of mud or dug out of the sand about Kernville during the day. Three hundred of them were spread out upon the dry sand along the river’s bank at one time this afternoon. The sight is one that cannot be described, and is one of the most distressing ever witnessed. A crowd of at least five hundred were gathered around, endeavoring to find the bodies of some friends or relatives. There were no coffins there at the time and the bodies had to be laid on the ground. However, five hundred coffins are on the way here, and the undertakers have sent for five hundred additional ones. Kernville from now on will be the place where most of the bodies will be found. The water has fallen so much that it is possible to get at the bodies. However, all the bodies have to be dug out of the sand, and it causes no end of work.

It is thought that most of the bodies that will be found at Kernville are under a large pile of débris, about an acre in length. This is where most of the buildings drifted, and it is natural to suppose that the bodies floated with them. A rain is now falling, but this does not interfere with the work. Most of the rescuing party have been up for two days, yet they work with a determination that is wonderful.

Nineveh, the City of the Dead

Nineveh Station, where two hundred bodies were found
Nineveh Station, where two hundred bodies were found

Nineveh is literally a city of the dead. The entire place is filled with corpses. At the depot eighty-seven coffins were piled up and boxed. On the streets coffin boxes covered the sidewalks. Improvised undertaking shops have embalmed and placed in their shrouds 198 persons. The dead were strewn about the town in all conceivable places where their bodies would be protected from the thoughtless feet of the living.

Most of the bodies embalmed last night had been taken out of the river in the morning by the people at Nineveh, who worked incessantly night and day searching the river. The bodies when found were placed in a four-horse wagon, frequently twelve at a time, and driven away. Of the bodies taken out near Moorhead fully three-fourths are women and the rest children. But few men are found there. In one row at the planing mill to-day were eighteen children’s bodies awaiting embalming. Next to them was a woman whose head had been crushed in so as to destroy her features. On her hand were three diamond rings.

Dr. Graff, of the State Board of Health, stationed at Nineveh, states that up till ten o’clock this morning they had embalmed about two hundred bodies, and by noon to-day would about double that number, as they were fishing bodies out of the river at this point at the rate of one every five minutes. In the driftwood and débris bodies are being exhumed, and an additional force of undertakers has been despatched to this place.

In a Charnel House

At the public school-house the scene beggars description. Boards have been laid from desk to desk, and as fast as the hands of a large body of men and women can put the remains in recognizable shape they are laid out for possible identification and removed as quickly as possible. Seventy-five still remain, although many have been taken away, and they are being brought in every moment. It is something horrifying to see one portion of the huge school taken up by corpses, each with a clean white sheet covering it, and on the other side of the room a promiscuous heap of bodies in all sorts of shapes and conditions, looking for all the world like decaying tree trunks. Among the number identified are two beautiful young ladies named respectively Mrs. Richardson, who was a teacher in the kindergarten school, and Miss Lottie Yost, whose sister I afterwards noticed at one of the corners near by, weeping as if her very heart was broken. Not a single acquaintance did she count in all of the great throng who passed her by, although many tendered sincere sympathy, which was accentuated by their own losses.

Lost and Found

At the station of Johnstown proper this morning the following names were added to the list of bodies found and identified: Charles Marshall, one of the engineers Cambria Company. A touching incident in connection with his death is that he had been married but a short time and his widow is heartbroken.

Order at any Cost

Ex-Sheriff C.L. Dick, who was at one time Burgess of Johnstown, has charge of a large number of special deputies guarding the river at various points. He and a posse of his men caught seven Hungarians robbing dead bodies in Kernville early this morning, and threw them all into the river and drowned them. He says he has made up his mind to stand no more nonsense with this class of persons, and he has given orders to his men to drown, shoot or hang any man caught stealing from the dead. He said the dead bodies of the Huns can be found in the creek.

Sheriff Dick, or “Chall” as he is familiarly called, is a tall, slim man, and is well known in Pittsburgh, principally to sportsmen. He is a first-class wing shot, and during the past year he has won several live bird matches. He is slow to anger, but when forced into a fight his courage is unfailing.

Shooting Looters on the Wing

Dick wears corduroy breeches, a large hat, a cartridge belt, and is armed with a Winchester rifle. He is a crack shot and has taken charge of the deputies in the wrecked portion of the city. Yesterday afternoon he discovered two men and a woman cutting the finger from a dead woman to get her rings. The Winchester rifle cracked twice in quick succession, and the right arm of each man dropped, helplessly shattered by a bullet. The woman was not harmed, but she was so badly frightened that she will not rob corpses again. Some five robbers altogether were shot during the afternoon, and two of them were killed.

The lynchings in the Johnstown district so far number from sixteen to twenty.

Treasure Lying Loose

Notwithstanding this, and the way that the town is most thoroughly under martial law, the pilfering still goes on. The wreck is a gold mine for pilferers. A Hungarian woman fished out a trunk down in Cambria City yesterday, and on breaking it open found $7,500 in it. Another woman found a jewel box containing several rings and a gold watch. In one house in Johnstown there is $1,700 in money, but it is impossible to get at it.

Hanged and Riddled with Bullets

Lynching and drowning thieves
Lynching and drowning thieves

Quite an exciting scene took place in the borough of Johnstown last night. A Hungarian was discovered by two men in the act of blowing up the safe in the First National Bank Building with dynamite. A cry was raised, and in a few minutes a crowd had collected and the cry of “Lynch him!” was raised, and in less time than it takes to tell it the man was strung up to a tree in what was once about the central portion of Johnstown. Not content with this the Vigilance Committee riddled the man’s body full of bullets. He remained hanging to the tree for several hours, when some person cut him down and buried him with the other dead.

The stealing by Hungarians at Cambria City and points along the railroad has almost ceased. The report of several lynchings and the drowning of two Italians while being pursued by citizens yesterday, put an end to the pilfering for a time.

While Deputy Sheriff Rose was patrolling the river bank he found two Hungarians attempting to rob several bodies, and at once gave chase. The men started for the woods when he pulled out a pistol and shot twice, wounding both men badly. From the latest reports the men are still living, but they are in a critical condition.

Cutting Off a Head for a Necklace

It is reported that two Hungarians found the body of a lady between Woodvale and Conemaugh who had a valuable necklace on. The devils dragged her out of the water and severed her head from her body to get the necklace. At eleven o’clock to-day the woods were being scoured for the men who are supposed to be guilty of the crime.

Pickets Set, Strangers Excluded

Up till noon to-day General Hastings has had his headquarters on the east side of the river, but this morning he came over to the burning débris, followed by about one hundred and twenty-five men carrying coffins. He started to work immediately, and has ordered men from Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and all eastern towns to do laboring work.

The Citizen’s Committee are making desperate efforts to preserve peace, and the Hungarians at Cambria City are being kept in their houses by men with clubs, who will not permit them to go outside. There seems considerable race prejudice at Cambria City, and trouble may follow, as both the English and Hungarians are getting worked up to a considerable extent.

The Sheriff has taken charge of Johnstown and armed men are this morning patrolling the city. The people who have been properly in the limits are permitted to enter the city if they are known, but otherwise it is impossible to get into the town. The regulation seems harsh, but it is a necessity.

Troops Sent Home

Battery B, of Pittsburgh, arrived in the city this morning under command of Lieutenant Sheppard, who went to the quarters of Adjutant-General Hastings in the railroad watch tower. The General had just got up, and as the officer approached the General said:–

“Who sent you here?”

“I was sent here by the Chamber of Commerce,” replied the Lieutenant.

“Well, I want to state that there are only four people who can order you out, viz.:–The Governor, Adjutant-General, Major General and the Commander of the Second Brigade. You have committed a serious breach of discipline, and my advice to you is to get back to Pittsburgh as soon as possible, or you may be mustered out of service. I am surprised that you should attempt such an act without any authority whatever.”

This seemed to settle the matter, and the battery started back to Pittsburgh. In justice to Lieutenant Sheppard it might be stated that he was told that an order was issued by the Governor. General Hastings stated afterwards that the sending down of the soldiers was like waving a red flag, and it would only tend to create trouble. He said everything was quiet here, and it was an insult to the citizens of Johnstown to send soldiers here at present.

Extortioners Held in Check

A riot was almost caused by the exorbitant prices that were charged for food. One storekeeper in Millville borough was charging $5 a sack for flour and seventy-five cents for sandwiches on Sunday. This caused considerable complaint and the citizens grew desperate. They promptly took by force all the contents of the store. As a result this morning all the stores have been put under charge of the police. An inventory was taken and the proprietor was paid the market price for his stock.

A strong guard is kept at the office of the Cambria Iron Company. Saturday was pay day at the works, and $80,000 is in the safe. This became known, and the officials are afraid that an attempt would be made to rob the place.

Sheriff Dick and a posse of his men got into a riot this afternoon with a crowd of Hungarians at Cambria City. The Hungarians got the better of him, and he called on a squad of Battery B boys, who charged with drawn sabres, and soon had the crowd on the run.

Men Hard at Work

Order is slowly arising out of chaos. The survivors are slowly realizing what is the best course to pursue. The great cry is for men. Men who will work and not stand idly by and do nothing but gaze at the ruins. The following order was posted on a telegraph pole in Johnstown to-day:–

“Notice–During the day men who have been idle have been begged to aid us in clearing the town, and many have not refused to work. We are now so organized that employment can be found for every man who wants to work, and men offered work who refuse to take the same and who are able to work must leave Johnstown for the present. We cannot afford to feed men who will not work. All work will be paid for. Strangers and idlers who refuse to work will be ejected from Johnstown.

“By order of Citizens’ Committee.”

Turning Away the Idlers

Officers were stationed at every avenue and railroad that enters the town. All suspicious looking characters are stopped. But one question is asked. It is, “Will you work?” If an affirmative answer is given a man escorts him to the employment bureau, where he is put to work. If not, he is turned back. The committee has driven one or two men out of the town. There is a lot of idle vagabond Negroes in Johnstown who will not work. It is likely that a committee will escort them out of town. They have caused the most trouble during the past terrible days.

It is a fact, although a disagreeable one to say, that not a few of the relief committees who came to this city, came only out of curiosity and positively refused to do any work, but would hang around the cars eating food. The leaders of the committee then had to do all the work. They deserve much credit.

Begging for Help

An old man sat on a chair placed on a box at the intersection of two streets in Johnstown and begged for men. “For God’s sake,” he said, “can we not find men. Will not some of you men help? Look at these men who have not slept for three days and are dropping with fatigue. We will pay well. For God’s sake help us.” Tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke. Then he would threaten the group of idlers standing by and again plead with them. Every man it seems wants to be a policeman.



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. 19 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/pennsylvania/shadows-of-despair.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


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