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.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings Jim,

    Thank you for sharing this tragic and touching story. I'm almost certain that John Carkeet, one of the victims from the explosion, was my grandfather's grandfather. Born and raised in Natchez, John L. Carkeet, Jr. would tell his children and grandchildren the many tales about his childhood days in the (usually) sleepy little town. I do not recall him mentioning this tragedy, though the disaster took place a decade before his birth.

    Regardless, thank you for sharing this small yet significant piece of history for the Carkeet family.