Friday, October 18, 2013

Lost in Flames: The Natchez Drug Company Explosion

At about 2:00 in the afternoon on March 14, 1908, a huge explosion ripped through downtown Natchez, Mississippi, destroying the five-story Natchez Drug Company and spreading flames to nearby residences. Killed in the explosion were several employees of the company as well as bystanders. Debris covered the area and smoke from the fire could be seen from a great distance. For the next several days, the citizens of Natchez were placed under martial law while authorities worked to assess the damage and recover the bodies of the victims.

The Natchez Drug Company, owned by John H. Chambliss, had recently installed a gas-fired stove in a fourth-floor laboratory. Among the workers who installed the gas piping for the stove was 21-year-old Sam Burns, a local plumber and a member of the Natchez Volunteer Fire Department. About noon on March 14, Burns was working at a house on North Pearl Street when he was abruptly called to the Natchez Drug Company to investigate a gas leak. Arriving at the building, Burns went to the laboratory to test for the location of the gas leak using the accepted method of the day, which was a lighted candle. After failing to discover the leak on the fourth floor, Burns went to the basement where, unfortunately, he found it. The force of the resulting explosion blew out the walls of the building and shot brick, wood and shards of glass in all directions. Trapped in the burning building were a number of company employees, including five young women: Luella Booth, Mary “Lizzie” Worthy, Carrie O. Murray, Inez Netterville and Ada White. All five were killed in the explosion. Notably, all but one were still in their teens (the exception being Carrie Murray, who was 22 years old). The youngest, Mary Worthy, was just twelve years old. Not much older (at 25) was Cleveland Laub, a licensed pharmacist in charge of the laboratory. On the night of March 15, the day after the explosion, Laub’s body was recovered from the debris. According to a contemporary newspaper account, his corpse was “enfolded in an excelsior mattress” in which he presumably tried to protect himself from the flames (Laub's grave in the Natchez City Cemetery is above). The same evening, volunteers discovered the “charred torso of a woman” later identified as Inez Netterville. Although not an employee of the Natchez Drug Company, a carpenter by the name of Uriah Hoskins (sometimes misidentified as Hotchkiss) was working on the third floor at the time of the explosion. When he saw he could not escape the flames, he jumped from a third-story window and broke his neck in the attempt. He was already dead by the time the fireman rushed to his assistance. Incredibly, several people were able to escape the flames and survived without injury, thanks to the work of the Hook and Ladder Companies, one of whom was Joseph Burns, the brother of Sam Burns.

There were also bystanders who were also victims of the explosion. Eliza Ketteringham, for example, was burned in the fire and died the same day. John Carkeet, meanwhile, suffered what were described as injuries “of the gravest character.” Carkeet was standing in front of his own building on Union Street when flying timbers struck him in the legs below the knee, shattering both limbs. Two days later, he died at his home, no doubt suffering intensely from his injuries. His funeral, conducted by the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, took place the next day at his home. Born in 1836, he was a Confederate veteran and served in the "Natchez Rifles," a company of the 4th Louisiana Battalion. His regiment was involved in the siege of Jackson and the battle of Chickamauga and then fought throughout the Atlanta Campaign, finally surrendering at Spanish Fort, Alabama. After the war, Carkeet regularly participated in reunions and memorial observances but was also well known in Natchez because of his profession: he was an undertaker. When he died on March 17, his body was prepared for burial by another Civil War veteran and undertaker named Allison Foster.

Allison H. Foster (seen here driving a buggy) was a New Hampshire native and a Union veteran in the Civil War. A year after the war he moved to Natchez and married a woman he is said to have met while serving in Natchez during the Union occupation.* Like Carkeet, he regularly participated in memorial observances with former Confederates and delivered speeches as a representative of Union veterans. Believing that all rancor had been put aside after the war, Carkeet wrote in 1888 that in Natchez “Sectionalism…is buried in the dark gloom of the past, and its phantom is not permitted to cross or shadow, our pathway.” Indeed, he had been elected chancery clerk and was the proprietor of the Foster Funeral Home, an establishment which continued well into the 20th Century. Foster’s home was “Cottage Gardens,” built about 1840, and he was a close acquaintance of Henry Norman, a prominent local photographer whose studio was next door to the Natchez Drug Company. Norman photographed the disaster as it unfolded (see above), perhaps after rushing out of his studio to save his own life. Foster’s daughter, as it turned out, married Norman’s son Earl, who also became a prominent photographer and also lived at “Cottage Gardens.” Today, the collection of photographs produced by Henry and Earl Norman is an important window into the world of late 19th and early 20th Century Natchez.

In all, there were ten victims of the Natchez Drug Company explosion, and at least two other buildings were destroyed. Flames spread to several others buildings and houses but were saved due to the work of the fire brigade. For all of the victims, Allison Foster was the undertaker and almost all the victims were buried in the Natchez City Cemetery. Five are buried together – all of the young ladies who worked in the laboratory. At least two of them, and perhaps all five, had come from elsewhere to work in Natchez (both Inez Netterville and Carrie Murray were from Wilkinson County). None, of course, were buried with their families. Devastated by the tragedy, John Chambliss, the owner of the company, paid to have a memorial erected to their memory. Today, this monument (top left) is known as “The Turning Angel,” so named because – so the story goes – the angel statue appears to turn and look at those driving past the cemetery. In 2005, Natchez native and best-selling author Greg Isles borrowed the name of the statue for a novel, which only increased the popularity of the monument and made it a regular stop for tourists visiting the cemetery. The inscription on the monument (above) reads: “Erected by the Natchez Drug Company to the memory of the unfortunate employees who lost their lives in the great disaster that destroyed its building on March 14, 1908.” A list of the victims follows, but the list fails to recognize Cleveland Laub, who is buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery, or any of the others who died in the explosion.

In the aftermath of the disaster, an inquiry was made into whether Sam Burns was at fault for the tragedy, and a jury returned with the finding that he was not. According the Natchez Democrat the jury was correct in finding that “young Burns, the youth who gave his life with the others would have sacrificed all that he held dear before doing as he did, if he could have but known.”  The editorial went on to say that “No man knowing him would undertake to question for a moment that he employed the same method that has been the practice for years and years by old and experienced men and is known to all plumbers and to many who are not.” Contrary to most accounts, the Natchez Drug Company did not cease operation after the disaster. Instead, John Chambliss announced in the paper the next day that business would resume “after the recovery and burial of those lost in the conflagration.” Indeed, the Natchez Drug Company continued to operate for several more years. As for Chambliss himself, he eventually left Natchez to pursue other interests. Unfortunately, his ultimate fate and final resting place has proved elusive. However, his wife, the former Emelia Mueller of Dodge City, Kansas, lived until New Year’s Day in 1958. She was 90 years old at the time of her death and is buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

* Unfortunately, a search of the roster of soldiers from New Hampshire has thus failed failed to support his enlistment in any regiments of that state. There were, however, several New Hampshire units in the vicinity of Natchez during the war.

Editor's Note: For assistance in gathering information for this story, I am indebted to Samuel Burns, Jr., whose father was born on June 28, 1908. On the day of the fire, his grandmother was at the cemetery placing flowers on family graves when she saw the smoke rising from town. She, of course, was unaware that her brother-in-law had just died in the explosion. Three months later, she named her son (Samuel Burns Sr.) in his honor. I am also grateful to Leonore O'Malley and Elizabeth Coleman, both from Natchez, who provided additional details for this article. 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Newspaper article: Courtesy of Samuel Burns, Jr. 
(2) Laub grave:
(3) Fire photo:
(4) Foster: From the Natchez Democrat, December 3, 1978 (on
(5) Turning Angel:
(6) Inscription:
(7) Newspaper ad: Courtesy of Samuel Burns, Jr.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

John Chambliss and the Natchez Drug Company

On August 19, 1883, the New York Times reviewed a new play which opened in New York City's Fourteenth Street Theater. "As it was observed last night," the Times wrote of "The Devil's Auction," "it was so entirely tedious, silly, and pointless that the conventional praise which is amiably accorded to spectacle and burlesque on the ground that they are not to be taken seriously is here quite out of place." Rather, the reviewer opined, the play "was not well presented. There was a good deal of cheap scenery, much poor ballet-dancing to bad music, and an abundance of stupid performance." All in all, the play received a proverbial 'thumbs down' in New York's newspaper of record. Despite the bad reviews, the play was received by "large and appreciative audiences" a year later by the people of Natchez, Mississippi.

"The Devil's Auction" played to a packed house at the Temple Opera House (right), an impressive five-story structure located at Main and South Union, "catty-corner" from the city's even more impressive Catholic cathedral. Built in 1891 on the site of the original Masonic lodge, the high-rise contained not only the new Masonic lodge and the Temple Opera House but other businesses as well, including Behrens Fruit Company, specializing in bananas, lemons, oranges, coconuts and California fruits, as well as oysters when in season.

About 1904, the building was purchased by John H. Chambliss, whose father, Hiram, was a Confederate soldier serving in Darden’s Co., Jefferson Flying Artillery. John was born in Jefferson County about 1864. Although his father survived the Civil War, he died soon thereafter and John moved with his widowed mother and two siblings to St. Louis, where she had family. In 1872, she met and married A.J. Anthony, a cattleman, stage coach conductor, sutler, buffalo hunter and county treasurer in Dodge City, Kansas. Thus, John Chambliss’ formative years were spent on the wild plains of Kansas and in the rough and tumble town of Dodge City. The Anthony home (left) was located about a mile west of town. At age eighteen, John went back to Mississippi and located in Rodney. After establishing himself in various business pursuits, he went back to Dodge City to marry his childhood sweetheart.

Twenty-one-year-old Emelia Mueller was the daughter of German immigrant and Union veteran John Mueller. Mueller came to Dodge City in 1875 and established a boot shop on Front Street. Before moving to Kansas, he was a neighbor of the Anheuser and Busch families in St. Louis and was reportedly approached by Eberhard Anheuser about investing in the brewery business. "No, you'll never make money selling 5-cent beer," was Mueller’s response and he chose instead to make boots and shoes on the western frontier. As a boot maker, Mueller was certainly successful, filling custom orders for Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody, among others. He did so well selling boots, in fact, that he decided to invest in a saloon and in three cattle ranches. By 1879, he had amassed enough of a fortune to build a prominent home for his family. Constructed of limestone, the Mueller-Schmidt House is now a museum and an important Dodge City landmark. In the photo above, John Mueller is in the center and Emelia is on the left.

John Chambliss and Emelia Mueller were married on Thursday, June 13, 1889. The wedding was apparently the social event of the season, attracting a large party of guests, including Chalk Beeson, the owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Like the groom’s stepfather, Beeson (left) had been a buffalo hunter before moving to Dodge City and had taken Phillip Sheridan, George Custer and Grand Duke Alexandrovich of Russia on buffalo hunting expeditions. After setting up the Long Branch Saloon, where he made acquaintances with Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, Beeson went on to serve as sheriff of Ford County. For the wedding festivities, Beeson brought his Long Branch Silver Cornet Band to entertain the guests. After exchanging vows in the parlor of the house, the couple was showered with gifts, including silver utensils and fine linens, many of which are now on display at the Mueller-Schmidt House museum (left). Finally, about midnight, the guests and the band departed and the newlyweds boarded a train to Denver for their honeymoon. After that, John and Emelia Chambliss planned to move to Fort Reno in the Indian Territory to begin a new life.

The lavish wedding festivities at the Mueller house was in stark contrast to the financial misfortunes of the Mueller family. In 1886, John Mueller had lost his entire herd of cattle in a blizzard and a year after the wedding would be forced to sell the family home and move back to St. Louis. No longer able to make it as a bootmaker, Mueller again joined the army, despite his age. He died two years later. Meanwhile, his son-in-law's fortunes were on the upswing. Before the turn of the century, John and Emilia moved to Natchez, where he set up shop as a druggist. In 1904, Chambliss purchased the Temple Opera House building and turned it into the Natchez Drug Company (left), an enterprise which not only served as a local pharmacy but produced bitters and other tonics for wholesale distribution, including "Nelson's Chill Cure.” In addition to the drug store, there was a "book and stationary emporium" on the ground floor. To ensure success, the Natchez Drug Company had state-of-the-art equipment, including a gas-fired laboratory on the fourth floor and Chambliss hired a team of chemists and lab assistants, many of whom were young ladies like Inez Netterville of Wilkinson County, to operate the laboratory. Among the druggists he employed was Cleveland Laub, a native of Natchez and the son of Jewish German immigrants. In 1903, Laub received a pharmacy license from the Mississippi State Board of Pharmaceutical Examiners and immediately went to work for Chambliss. He was just nineteen years old. By all accounts, the Natchez Drug Company was a success and Chambliss received recognition for his business acumen both on the local scene and among other druggists (he was an active member of the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association). Indeed, the Bulletin of Pharmacy declared that the Natchez Drug Company was "equipped better than ever to go onward and upward in its progressive career." The success of the whole enterprise, however, came to a tragic end on March 14, 1908.


(1) Temple Opera House:
(2) Anthony House:
(3) Mueller:
(4) Mueller-Schmidt House:
(5) Beeson: 
(6) Nelson's Chill Cure:
(7) Natchez Drug Company:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Perfectly satisfied to die:" Capt. Absalom Dantzler and the Battle of Corinth

Absalom Frederick Dantzler was born in 1824 in Greene County, Mississippi, the son of a wealthy farmer named John Lewis Dantzler. Absalom's younger brother, born on New Year's Eve in 1833, was Lorenzo Dantzler, who would later become a successful lumber merchant in Moss Point. In 1847, Absalom graduated from Centenary College, then located in Jackson, Louisiana, and moved to Natchez. In 1849, he caught the California gold fever. Heading west with a large company organized by Major Walter H. Harvey, a West Point graduate and an experienced miner, the "manly band," as the Holmes County Mining Company was described by a Texas newspaper, was formed as a military organization. Arriving in the Sacramento Valley after an arduous journey, Dantzler wrote to a brother in Natchez that he was confident of success. "I think I am now in the high way to fortune," he said, "and will reap a rich reward for all the troubles, dangers, and hardships that I have passed through in geting [sic] here."

By 1855, he was back in Natchez, apparently never reaping the fortune he envisioned. Major Harvey, meanwhile, was charged with the murder of "Big Jim" Savage, known as the "Blonde King of the Indians" and for "discovering" the Yosemite Valley. Savage (left), on behalf of the local Indian tribes, challenged Harvey's company (likely including Dantzler) when they attempted to move onto Indian lands in the newly created Tulare County, where Harvey had been named county judge in a rigged election. In the dispute, Harvey, who was "high-strung and absolutely fearless," shot Savage four times. He was ultimately found not guilty and continued to serve as the county judge. Harvey never returned from California, and died in Los Angeles in 1861.

Back in Mississippi, Absalom Dantzler flirted with the "Know-Nothing" party and then moved to Jasper County, where he entered the political arena. In 1859, he was elected to represent Jasper County in the Mississippi Legislature. It probably helped that he married well, but the big issue in the election (despite such topics as slavery and states' rights) was whether or not to move the county seat from Paulding, located in the eastern side of the county, to the center of the county. When Dantzler (right) threw his support behind those who wanted to hold a separate referendum on the issue, he narrowly won the seat in a hotly contested election. Dantzler, who supported secession, continued to represent Jasper County in the Legislature into the war years despite the fact that he joined the Confederate army in April 1862.

With the onset of the Civil War, thousands of volunteers rushed to enlist in the Confederate cause. Many of Mississippi’s early regiments went to Virginia and Kentucky where the fighting seemed most eminent. Other regiments, however, were not formed until after the war had been underway for some time. Such is the case with the 37th Mississippi Infantry. Formed on April 28, 1862, the 37th Mississippi was mustered into service at Columbus. Among the companies which comprised the regiment was Co. K, known as the “Jasper Avengers.” Elected as captain was Absalom Dantzler. No doubt his experience with the mining expedition in California and his political connections played a major role in his selection. Once formed, the 37th Mississippi became part of Col. John D. Martin’s brigade, along with the 36th and 38th Mississippi, and in September moved with Sterling Price to Iuka to cooperate with Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky. Alerted that Price was in Iuka, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant tried to catch the Confederates in a pincer. During the battle of Iuka on September 19, 1862, Price’s men fought one of the attacking Union columns, commanded by William S. Rosecrans, south of town. Although the 37th Mississippi was not engaged until late in the day and was separated from the rest of the brigade, the regiment still lost 78 men killed, wounded and missing in what Col. Robert McLain termed “a heavy cross-fire upon our right and front.” The next day, Price’s outnumbered army escaped the trap, evacuated Iuka and moved south to join Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate army.

On October 3, 1862, Price and Van Dorn’s combined force attacked Rosecrans at Corinth, Mississippi. Corinth was an important crossroads. As the junction of the Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads, the town had been the target of Union armies under the command of Henry W. Halleck in the spring and had finally been captured after an agonizingly slow advance (so slow it’s known as a ‘siege’). Now, in an autumn of Confederate advances into Kentucky and Maryland, Earl Van Dorn, a native of Port Gibson, took aim at recapturing the vital crossroads town. To do so, he would combine his army with Price’s and sweep down in a broad arc from the northwest. Advancing on the Confederate left with Price’s wing of the army, the 37th Mississippi was back with the rest of Martin’s brigade. Emerging from the woods fronting Rosecrans’ thinly defended outer line (which was the old Confederate defensive works from the siege of Corinth), Martin’s brigade swept inexorably forward, despite the impediments of felled trees and the increasing fire from Union defenders. In a matter of minutes, Price’s men pushed back the Yankees and captured the outer works, causing a cheer to erupt along the line. Left in the wake, however, were numerous casualties, one of whom was Capt. Absalom Dantzler. Hit above the shoulder blade, Dantzler died slowly from loss of blood after the bullet hit an artery. Colonel Martin was also wounded in the assault and died later that afternoon. A week after the battle, a soldier who stayed with Capt. Dantzler until he died wrote his wife Susan to relate the circumstances of his death. According to his account, Dantzler “talked as long as he had breath. He was as calm as if in common conversation perfectly satisfied to die.” *

On October 4, Van Dorn’s and Price’s men failed to follow up their initial victories in the previous day’s fighting, and Rosecrans mounted a successful counterattack which turned the fleeting Confederate victory into a disaster of monstrous proportion. All totaled the 37th Mississippi lost 81 men during the battle of Corinth in killed and wounded. While many would recover and fight on, the war was over for Absalom Dantzler. Back in Jasper County, his wife was left to mourn his death as a widow with several children. Of course, she joined many others with a similar fate. On December 18, the Mississippi Legislature finally filled Dantzler’s vacant seat and he was buried in the Heidelberg cemetery in Jasper County, where he remains today. Unfortunately, a memorial stone (above) erected in front of his gravestone has the incorrect date of the battle. In time, Susan Millsaps Dantzler remarried. Her first cousin, Reuben Webster Millsaps, also a Confederate veteran, went on to a successful business and banking career and later founded Millsaps College in Jackson. The controversy over the Jasper county seat apparently was never completely resolved, however, as Jasper County is one of ten counties in Mississippi with two county seats. And Absalom Fredrick Dantzler, killed 151 years ago today, is one of many thousands of Mississippians who lost their life in the bloodiest war on American soil.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Savage:
(2) Dantzler:
(3) Flag:
(4) Map:
(5) Grave:

* Note: From Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation by Timothy B. Smith. The original is in a collection at Duke University.