Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 25

In case you hadn't heard, a U.S. naval rescue helicopter flew down into Mt. Saint Helen's crater and recovered the body of the experienced hiker that fell 1500 feet. He was a veteran climber to the rim, but despite repeated warnings not to stand on the rim, he failed to listen. The rim collapsed under his weight, but was it an accident or could he have simply lost his balance or succumbed to a medical emergency. An autopsy will decide his fate. Accidents happen when we don't listen to others just as the Tompsett tragedy happened because of failure to listen to town elders.

Tompsett died July 5th, 1885, at Dr. Patterson's house. Twelve hours of agonizing pain was Tompsett's demise. Those outside the house were arguing over who was at fault the most. Tompsett's six friends were guilty, but two played bigger parts in the tragedy. The town elders should've buried the cannon earlier and not waited until the day before a holiday. They were even more guilty for not keeping the burial spot secret. Before Tompsett died I believe they had already formed an opinion of how to get rid of the cannon. They probably heard Rena's loud cry when Walter died and it probably was Dr. Patterson who delivered the bad news to the eyewitnesses outside that Walter died. Instant shock and sadness. The ringing of church bells shortly after 1 a.m. rang up distant valleys announcing his death. The final ring cast a silent pall over the crowd that lasted for months.

Had the seven young men not dug up the buried cannon 18 hours earlier Walter Tompsett would have been alive, but surely something would have happened in the near future or never. After the crowd dissapated, five of Tompsett's friends got some horses and hitched up the old cannon and under the cover of darkness pulled the cannon through town and went up Joyce Street past the Ward place. Estella Ward was awakened by the squeaking wheels of the cannon carriage. She sprang to the window and watched the men pass going north. The men returned about 45 minutes later and the cannon went missing for 101 years when Bob Alcumbrack enters the mystery.

Bob's dreams fueled his imagination and he felt he'd found the burial site. He always analyzed his dream and stretched it like a piece of taffy. Tompsett's friends who buried the cannon had done the township people on the whole wrong, since the cannon was an honorable gift to the founding fathers of the township and they had no right to dispose of it without a concensus of the people. Bob felt they should have disabled the cannon and kept it as a memorial to the township and Walter Tompsett's memory. After a propery grieving time they could have displayed it in front of the town hall. My thinking was surely Rena Tompsett wouldn't ever want to see that killer cannon each time she visited Cannonsburg. Put yourself in Rena's shoes. Could you look at the cannon that killed your husband without crying? You'd be heartbroken, too, each time you saw it in the public square and I'm sure it'd make eyewitnesses cry. Out of site and mind was the cannon's demise. Cannonsburg became the ultimate secret society until most of the eyewitnesses died.

What was most puzzling was "What happened to the cannon. Where did it mysteriously go missing from the public realm before sunrise on Sunday, July 5, 1885? Very little information surfaced in newspaper and community news accounts about the tragic accident, and yet, how did Bob's mind interpret the cannon as a "small military cannon?" Maybe its because one other small item on the subject classified it as military so it must have been a six-pound cannon. Then too the eyewitness accounts said it let out an "awesome" blast, but no other details about the cannon were ever mentioned.

So before Bob started digging in 1986 the cannon had grown from 9-14 feet long. It was a monster gun with a gun and carriage dry weight of 3,850 pounds. But being submerged in wet soil for 101 years the carriage would be wet weight and weigh about 6,500 pounds and the suction weight of the entire assemblage would be greater than a small backhoe could lift. Add to this water and soil disturbances. Both could destroy the carriage and the brass plaque could be lost. Bob's mind always saw "awesome" and his mind saw the flash scenes of the smoking gun.

Bob based all information he knew on the fact the cannon was pre-Civil War, but he thought since it was described as a small military cannon it had to be a six-pound cannon. What he didn't know was that these were the minimum requirements for use in the US Army at the time. They used nothing smaller. What Bob also wasn't aware of was the fact America didn't have the ability to produce cannon's yet. The military was using old captured brass cannons from the War of 1812 and American Revolutionary War and Mr. Cannon couldn't have purchased a military cannon and given it as a personal gift to Cannon Township forefathers. That was illegal, but a found cannon was legal of if founded privately. Local governments received old military cannons for protection.

Bob was infatuated with first hand accounts from John Murray, one of the five men who fired the cannon. He was emotionally scarred for the rest of his life by the accidental death of Tompsett. Bob never got true dimensions of the cannon from Mr. Murray's recollections. Bob made his own dimensions based on "awesome." What started out as a joyous celebration had turned in the town elders worst nightmare. Tompsett's death spread like wildfire throughout Michigan.

No doubt Tompsett's six remaining friends probably retraced the tragic event in their minds, felt the guilt by association, pain and sorrow. Fred Thomas drank hard cider to excess and was so drunk the remaining five left him in town so he couldn't spill the secret where it was buried. John Murray he was devestated, but he had to make sure the cannon never appeared in public again. I imagine the six probably accused each other, but all were guilty of young impetuousness negligence and inexperience and Tompsett was one of them.

Of the township elders James Thomas, and the other three, were the saddest, because they failed to keep the cannon's first burial secret. They should have kept quiet and shouldn't have talked about its burial amongst themselves and family. Then too, the biggest burden of failure was the fact they didn't stop the seven young men from firing the cannon. They could have insisted and stopped the additional firings. None of the young men had any artillery training firing the cannons. The men were so excited about having their chance to fire the old blunderbus cannon. What these men hadn't done is paid strict attention to detail when firing cannons. These were the town elders biggest fears and it was noted by the Federal government, too.

Cannons prematurely discharge because someone else made a mistake. John Murray's grief was the most of the group, because he didn't place his thumbstall over the hot barrels vent hole or Fred Thomas didn't use a sponge rod or worm rod to brush out the glowing powder ash clinging to the inside bore chamber. That's before the ramrod nested a new powder charge. Thomas had just released his hand on the ramrod when the cannon exploded. Thomas had just nested 1.25 pounds of powder. If Tompsett wasn't the rammer could it be he was carrying the shot or was he simply distracted by conversation and was just crossing in front of the muzzle or was he going to pull out the ramrod? The rammer needs both hands and all his body weight from a side stance to ram a tight fitting powder bag down the chamber, unless he was loading loose gunpowder with a scoop.

No trained artilleryman would stand in front of a cannon being loaded unless something out of the ordinary could have caused a break in judgement. Bob had assumed they were shooting iron cannonballs or leaded stones, but he never found any on distant hillsides. Tompsett might have head someone call him and he absentmindedly turned and walked towards the cannon just as it went "BOOM!" He couldn't escape the blast, the flash in the face, the ramrod striking his knee. Since the cannon was being repeated fired Bob's reasoning said the cannon was brass. You can't repeat iron cannons -- they get hot, real hot and most iron cannons prematurely explode from decayed age. Repeat iron cannons explode before the 30th firing, but brass cannons can be repeat fired hundreds of times before failure. The military preferred brass cannons for safety reasons.

Bob's six-pound cannon was a myth. A ramrod rocketing out of the barrel wouldn't strike Tompsett in the knee, but it would have struck him in the abdomen or stomach or cut him in two killing him instantly. This was biggest miscalculation on the size of cannon.

A knee shot?

Another miscalculation was at the first burial site by the town elders. How could four old men wrestle with such a large cannon. They'd get a hernia and you'd have to dig a crater to bury cannon and carriage. This time they disassembled the unit, but how could the seven young men dig it up so fast and put it back in action within 18 hours? Bob said, 'I never did ask the eyewitnesses the dimensions of the carriage.' He just assumed it was large. From his explanation my reasoning said, "If the cannon was difficult for four men to handle why wouldn't it have been equally difficult for the five who buried it after the accident have done so in under 45 minutes to one hour? Could Estella Ward have lost track of time and didn't really know how long the men were gone? This was my take on the scenarios since the second day after I met Bob.

Large cannons require large wheels and carriage weight. If it doesn't the cannon flips or explodes upwards from the massive firepower. Cannons in surrounding towns were 4 pounders made of cast wrought iron after the Civil War. Each time they were fired the inside muzzle chamber's temperature was 575-625 degrees and the outside metal so hot you couldn't touch the muzzle. Each time the gun was fired the outside metal touch could burn those servicing the gun.

The reason Tompsett was critically injured was because of missing tools to service the gun and John Murray was distracted momentarily and released his thumbstall allowing oxygen to enter the chamber, the glowing ash seizing air and igniting the powder. This is what was actually causing so many cannons to prematurely explode all across America each Fourth of July. The Cannonsburg cannon was old with age and the necessary tools had gone missing. The sponge rod would have dampened or extinguished the glowing powder embers. The worm rod would have cleaned out obstructions and damp or glowing wadding. A missing thumbstall even a split second could ignite the glowing embers against the powder. Evidently the men were so excited they bypassed and circumvented the strict military firing point procedures after rapid firing and "BOOM!"

The result was excitement suicide by repeat cannon firings. Missing tools caused this accident and tragedy - the death of Walter Tompsett. Next time its the "Mystery of the Golden Hole."

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