The Awful Work of Death

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Johnstown Flood image38The record of June 3rd continues as follows: The horror of the situation does not lessen. The latest estimate of the number of dead is an official one by Adjutant General Hastings, and it places the number between 12,000 and 15,000.

The uncovering of hundreds of bodies by the recession of the waters has already filled the air with pestilential odors. The worst is feared for the surviving population, who must breathe this poisoned atmosphere. Sharp measures prompted by sheer necessity have resulted in an almost complete subsidence of cowardly efforts to profit by the results of the disaster. Thieves have slunk into places of darkness and are no longer to be seen at their unholy work.

All thoughts are now fixed upon the hideous revelation that awaits the light of day, when the waters shall have entirely quitted the ruins that now lie beneath them, and shall have exposed the thousands upon thousands of corpses that are massed there.

A sad and gloomy sky, almost as sad and gloomy as the human faces under it, shrouded Johnstown to-day. Rain fell all day and added to the miseries of the wretched people. The great plain where the best part of Johnstown used to stand was half covered with water. The few sidewalks in the part that escaped the flood were inches thick with black, sticky mud, through which tramped a steady procession of poor women who are left utterly destitute. The tents where the people are housed who cannot find other shelter were cold and cheerless.

A Great Tomb

The town seemed like a great tomb. The people of Johnstown have supped so full of horrors that they go about in a sort of a daze and only half conscious of their griefs. Every hour, as one goes through the streets, he hears neighbors greeting each other and then inquiring without show of feeling how many each had lost in his family. To-day I heard a gray haired man hail another across the street with this question.

“I lost five; all are gone but Mary and I,” was the reply.

“I am worse off than that,” said the first old gentleman. “I have only my grandson left. Seven of us gone.”

And so they passed on without apparent excitement. They and everyone else had heard so much of these melancholy conversations that somehow the calamity had lost its significance to them. They treat it exactly as if the dead persons had gone away and were coming back in a week.

The Ghastly Search

The melancholy task of searching the ruins for more bodies went on to-day in the soaking rain. There were little crowds of morbid curiosity hunters around each knot of workingmen, but they were not residents of Johnstown. All their curiosity in that direction was satiated long ago. Even those who come in from neighboring towns with the idea of a day’s strange and ghastly experiences did not care to be near after they had seen one body exhumed. There were hundreds and thousands of these visitors from the country today. The effect of the dreadful things they saw and heard was to drive most of them to drink. By noon the streets were beginning to be full of boisterous and noisy countrymen, who were trying to counteract the strain on their nerves with unnatural excitement. Then the chief of police, foreseeing the unseemly sights that were likely to disgrace the streets, drove out and kept out all the visitors who had not some good reason for their presence. After that and far into the evening all the country roads were filled with drunken stragglers, who were trying to forget what they had seen.

One thing that makes the work of searching for the bodies very slow is the strange way that great masses of objects were rolled into intricate masses of rubbish.

Horrible Masses

The remains of Cambria City
The remains of Cambria City

As the flood came down the valley of the South Fork it obliterated the suburb of Woodvale, where not a house was left, nor a trace of one. The material they had contained rolled on down the valley, over and over, grinding it up to pulp and finally leaving it against an unusually firm foundation or in the bed of an eddy. The masses contain human bodies, but it is slow work to pick them to pieces. In the side of one of them I saw the remnants of a carriage, the body of a harnessed horse, a baby cradle and a doll, a tress of woman’s hair, a rocking horse, and a piece of beefsteak still hanging on a hook.

The city is now very much better patrolled than it has been at any time since the flood occurred. Many members of the police force of Pittsburgh came in and offered their services. One of them showed his spirit during the first hour by striking a man, whom he saw opening a trunk among the rubbish, a tremendous blow over the head which knocked him senseless. Several big trunks and safes lie in full sight on the desolate plain in the lower part of the town, but no one dared to touch them after that.

The German Catholic Church at Cambria City, a short distance west of Johnstown, is almost a complete wreck. Rather a singular coincidence in connection with the destruction of the above is that the Immaculate Conception, that stood in the northwest corner of the lecture rooms, stands just as it was when last seen. The figure, which is wax, was not even scratched, and the clothes, which are made of white silk and deep duchess lace, were spotless. This seems strange, when the raging water destroyed everything else in the building. Hundreds of persons visited the place during the day.

Ten Bodies an Hour

Bodies are now being brought in at lower Cambria at the rate of ten per hour.

A man named Dougherty tells a thrilling story of a ride down the river on a log. When the waters struck the roof of the house on which he had taken shelter he jumped astride a telegraph pole, riding a distance of some twenty-three miles, from Johnstown to Bolivar, before he was rescued.

Many inquiries have been made as to why the militia did not respond when ordered out by Adjutant General Hastings. “In the first place it is beyond the General’s authority to order troops to a scene of this kind unless the Governor first issues a proclamation, then it becomes his duty to issue orders.” The General said he was notified that the Pittsburgh troops, consisting of the Fourteenth and Eighteenth regiments, had tendered their services, and no doubt would have been of great service. The General consulted with the Chief Burgess of Johnstown and Sheriff of Cambria County in regard to calling the troops to the scene, but both officials strenuously objected, as they claimed the people would object to anything of this kind. As a proof of this not a breach of peace was committed last night in Johnstown and vicinity.

It has not been generally believed that the district in the neighborhood of Kernville would be so extremely prolific of corpses as it has proven to be. I visited that part of the town where both the river and Stony Creek have done their worst. I found that within the past twenty-four hours almost one thousand bodies had been recovered or were in sight. The place is one great repository of the dead.

The Total May Never be Known

The developments of every hour make it more and more apparent that the exact number of lives lost in the Johnstown horror will never be known. All estimates made to this time are conservative, and when all is known will doubtless be found to have been too small. Over one thousand bodies have been found since sunrise to-day, and the most skeptical concede that the remains of thousands more rest beneath the débris above the Johnstown bridge. The population of Johnstown, the surrounding towns and the portion of the valley affected by the flood is, or was, from 50,000 to 55,000. Numerous leading citizens of Johnstown, who survived the flood, have been interviewed, and the concensus of opinion was that fully thirty per cent of the residents of Johnstown and Cambria had been victims of the continued disasters of fire and water. If this be true, the total loss of life in the entire valley cannot be less than seven or eight thousand and possibly much greater. Of the thousands who were devoured by the flames and whose ashes rest beneath the smoking débris above Johnstown bridge, no definite information can ever be obtained.

Hundreds Carried Miles Away

As little will be learned of hundreds that sank beneath the current and were borne swiftly down the Conemaugh only to be deposited hundreds of miles below on the banks and in the driftwood of the raging Ohio. Probably one-third of the dead will never be recovered, and it will take a list of the missing weeks hence to enable even a close estimate to be made of the number of lives that were lost. That this estimate can never be accurate will be understood when it is remembered that in many instances whole families and their relatives were swept away, and found a common grave beneath the wild waste of waters. The total destruction of the city leaves no data to even demonstrate that the names of these unfortunates ever found place on the pages of eternity’s history.

“All indications point to the fact that the death list will reach over five thousand names, and in my opinion the missing will reach eight thousand in number,” declared General D.H. Hastings to-night.

At present there are said to have been twenty-two hundred bodies recovered. The great difficulties experienced in getting a correct list is the great number of morgues. There is no central bureau of information, and to communicate with the different dead houses is the work of hours. The journey from the Pennsylvania Railroad morgue to the one in the Fourth ward school house in Johnstown occupies at least one hour. This renders it impossible to reach all of them in one day, particularly as some of the morgues are situated at points inaccessible from Johnstown. At six o’clock in the evening the 630th body had been recovered at the Cambria depository for corpses.

None Left to Care for the Dead

Kernville is in a deplorable condition. The living are unable to take care of the dead. The majority of the inhabitants of the town were drowned. A lean-to of boards has been erected on the only street remaining in the town. This is the headquarters for the committee that controls the dead. As quickly as the dead are brought to this point they are placed in boxes and then taken to the cemetery and buried.

A supply store has opened in the town. A milkman who was overcharging for milk narrowly escaped lynching. The infuriated men appropriated all his milk and distributed it among the poor and then drove him out of the town. The body of the Hungarian who was lynched in an orchard was removed by his friends during the night.

There is but one street left in the town. About one hundred and fifty-five houses are standing where once there stood a thousand. None of the large buildings in what was once a thriving little borough have escaped. One thousand people is a low estimate of the number of lives lost from this town, but few of the bodies have been recovered. It is directly above the ruins and the bodies have floated down into them, where they burned. A walk through the town revealed a desolate sight. Only about twenty-five able-bodied men have survived and are able to render any assistance. Men and women can be seen with black eyes, bruised faces and cut heads.

Useless Calls for Help

The appearance of some of the ladies is heartrending. They were injured in the flood, and since that have not slept. Their faces have turned a sickly yellow and dark rings surround the eyes. Many have succumbed to nervous prostration. For two days but little assistance could be rendered them. The wounded remained uncared for in some of the houses cut off by the water, and died from their injuries alone. Some were alive on Sunday, and their shouts could be heard by the people on the shore.

A man is now in a temporary jail in what is left of the town. He was caught stealing a gold watch. A shot was fired at him but he was not wounded. The only thing that saved him from lynching was the smallness of the crowd. His sentence will be the heaviest that can be given him.

Services in the chapel from which the bodies were buried consisted merely of a prayer by one of the survivors. No minister was present. Each coffin had a descriptive card on it, and on the graves a similar card was placed, so that bodies can be removed later by friends.

There are about thirty Catholic priests and nuns here. The sisters are devoting themselves to the cure of the sick and injured in the hospitals, while the priests are doing anything and everything and making themselves generally useful. Bishop Phelan, who reached here on Sunday evening, returned to Pittsburgh on the three o’clock train yesterday afternoon. He has organized the Catholic forces in this neighborhood, and all are devoting themselves to hard work assiduously.

Mr. Derlin, who heeded the warning as to the danger of the dam, had hurried his wife and two children to the hills, but returned himself to save some things from his house. While in the building the flood struck it and swept it away, jamming it among a lot of other houses and hurling them all around with a regular churning motion. Mr. Derlin was in a fix, but went to his top story, clambered to the roof and escaped from there to solid structures and then to the ground. His property was entirely ruined, but he thinks himself fortunate in saving his family.

Where Woodvale once stood there is now a sea of mud, broken but rarely by a pile of wreckage. I waded through mud and water up the valley to-day over the site of the former village. As has been often stated, nothing is standing but the old woolen mills. The place is swept bare of all other buildings but the ruins of the Gautier wire mill. The boilers of this great works were carried one hundred yards from their foundations. Pieces of engines, rolls and other machinery were swept far away from where they once stood. The wreck of a hose carriage is sticking up out of the mud. It belonged to the crack company of Johnstown. The engine house is swept away and the cellar is filled with mud, so that the site is obliterated.

A German watchman was on guard at the mill when the waters came. He ran for the hillside and succeeded in escaping. He tells a graphic story of the appearance of the water as it swept down the valley. He declares that the first wave was as high as the third story of a house.

The place is deserted. No effort is being made to clean off the streets. The mire has formed the grave for many a poor victim. Arms and legs are protruding from the mud and it makes the most sickening of pictures.

General Hastings’ Report

In answer to questions from Governor Beaver, Adjutant-General Hastings has telegraphed the following:

“Good order prevailed throughout the city and vicinity last night. Police arrangements are excellent. Not one arrest made. No need of sending troops. The Mayor of Johnstown and the Sheriff of Cambria County, with whom I am in constant communication, request that no troops be sent. I concur in their judgment. There is a great outside clamor for troops. Do not send tents. Have nine hundred here, which are sufficient. I advise you to make a call on the general public for money and other assistance.

“About two thousand bodies have been rescued and the work of embalming and burying the dead is going on with regularity. There is plenty of medical assistance. We have a bountiful supply of food and clothing to-day, and the fullest telegraphic facilities are afforded and all inquiries are promptly answered.

“Have you any instructions or inquiries? The most conservative estimates here place the number of lives lost at fully 5,000. The prevailing impression is that the loss will reach from 8,000 to 10,000. There are many widows and orphans and a great many wounded–impossible to give an estimate. Property destroyed will reach $25,000,000. The popular estimate will reach $40,000,000 to $50,000,000.

“I will issue a proclamation to-night to the people of the country and to all who sympathize with suffering to give aid to our deeply afflicted people. Tell them to be of good cheer, that the sympathies of all our people, irrespective of section, are with them, and wherever the news of their calamity has been carried responses of sympathy and aid are coming in. A single subscription from England just received is for $1,000.”

Grand View Cemetery has three hundred buried in it. All met death in the flood. They have thirty-five men digging graves. Seven hundred dead bodies in the hospital on Bedford street, Conneaut. One hundred dead bodies in the school-house hospital, Adam street, Conneaut. Three hundred bodies found to-day in the sand banks along Stony Creek, vicinity of the Baltimore and Ohio; 182 bodies at Nineveh.



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. 8 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/pennsylvania/the-awful-work-of-death.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


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