Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 79

James Thomas was highway commissioner of Cannon Township when Walter Tompsett died 12 hours after being struck in the knee by the cannon's rammer. It was a horrible scene and the accident was preventable because of slip of tongue while talking to Fred Thomas' father. James probably suggested where they dismounted and buried the cannon the first time, but he failed to keep it secret. Fred Thomas overheard the elder Thomas' talking or after finding the cannon missing questioned the men and discovered they buried it. It was a consensus of town fathers that they were going to protect the younger men from firing it on July 4, 1885.

Upon the death of Tompsett the township officials left it up to Tompsett's five friends to dispose of the ancient cannon and officials didn't want to know where or how the cannon was disposed. It was a secret burial. That way they could never tell no tales about its disappearance. These five men swore themselves to the ultimate secret. Residents of the outlying township were kept out of the decision to dispose of the cannon. It was a liability issue the township could not afford should they be sued, which was the norm in the 1880's.

James wasn't at the last cannon burial, but he did know where it was buried. He stayed at home tending to his grandson who was injured in the flash shock. He was in horrible pain and they got him drunk on hard cider. Christian men in the tiny village didn't drink alcoholic spirits. A badgered drunk would tell where the cannon was buried. Inquiring minds would ply him with alcoholic spirits to loosen his tongue. James probably insisted he not know where they buried the cannon. Those that did were hounded for information, but seven refused to ever again tell the cannon's secret whereabouts. James Thomas and Rena Tompsett knew, too, for they orchestrated the burial.

James sold his smithy business years before the Tompsett tragedy. Blacksmiths were in every town and their smithy skills were used wherever people lived, worked or traveled. Village blacksmith shops were places where people met to discuss what bugged them. Blacksmith shops were near crossroads where traffic was greatest to shoe horses, repair carriage wheels and mold cannonballs and they were an important industry to iron furnaces, freighting concerns, mills and other businesses. They were the fixit shops of America when you couldn't afford to replace something instantly like we do today. We want instant gratification. We don't repair or save to buy it new.

The arrival of the first automobiles signaled a death blow to independent smithys. Those that remained became shadowy figures, but the skills they acquired wouldn't make them an extinct species of commerce. James before the accident was getting up in years and he couldn't withstand the rigors of the smith business. When he sold his business that's when he put the cannonballs into the floor for safe keeping. James grew up listening to the legends about Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston.

Bob used his fertile imagination to believe it was Fred Thomas who overheard James and his mother Carrie (Kronmer) and John Thomas talking about the cannon burial on July 3rd. Fred thought they were so callous to bury the township's namesake so on a whim and so the next morning he summoned the other men to find it. They found it, dug it up, cleaned and remounted it and pulled it thru town. At the picnic grounds they fired off a shot to announce a grand picnic would start about noon July 4th.

Originally Bob thought Fred overheard James and grandmother Elizabeth talking, but that wasn't true because she died May 30, 1880. All the Thomas' lived in the same house and that's probably why a second story was added to the house. Bedrooms were sorely needed. Only God knows who truly placed the cannonballs in the floor.

After the accident James lived a solitary life and became heavily involved in township business. He couldn't sit home and whittle and stand being pestered about the cannon's demise. Work consumed his days from sunrise to sunset until the early 1890's. He used horses and chains to pull stumps during road construction. He hoped there would be a better way in the future to pull stumps. Digging and cutting roots was hard work, but it was a way for him to keep busy and not think about the Tompsett tragedy. His mind was still sharp until one day when a logging chain snapped and it flew backwards striking James head causing a severe concussion. He was out of work forever.

This accident erased most of his short-term memory. No longer did he have to worry about revealing any secrets for they were locked in his brain. With short-term memory lost he couldn't remember the question long enough to apply an answer. He didn't remember the tragedy or tell the secrets so many wanted to know. His concentration of any question disappeared within seconds and he couldn't provide an intelligent answer. Fred Thomas could only tell folks what happened at the picnic up until the cannon prematurely discharged. Beyond the blast he knew nothing except for flashback sequences until Tompsett died.

Fred Thomas was the powder man and Tompsett the rammer, but Tompsett made the mistake of standing, his leg in front of the muzzle bore at the precise moment when John Murray for what reason is unknown lifted his thumb from the vent hole. Some distraction caused Murray to lose his concentration and lift his thumb momentarily causing the nest glowing embers to seize oxygen and "BOOM!" This was why whenever Bob quizzed Murray tears poured out of his eyes on repeated buggy rides when crossing the glacial stream coming down from Pickerel Lake. Bob's big dig was about twenty feet west of this bridge crossing.

Up at the picnic grounds Thomas placed the gunpowder bag into the muzzle bore and Tompsett excitedly nests the charge with the rammer. Tompsett used his upper body weight and arm strength to ram the tight fitting powderbag down, nests and compresses it and momentarily released his hand just as Murray releases his thumb from the vent hole. Oxygen rushed inside brightening the glowing embers that already started to burn the bag and fire and oxygen instantaneous ignited, the cannon discharging prematurely. This accident was preventable before the powderbag was rammed down the muzzle. Nothing could have prevented the discharge. It was an inevitable situation especially when none of the men had any strict artillery training. That was the first big mistake in judgement and this is what township officials feared more than the age of the cannon.

In a matter of three seconds the forceful explosion, intense heat flash, the belch of white smoke burst against Tompsett's leg, the rammer rocketing out striking his knee. Skin, bones and tissue splattered across the grass, the leg still intact held only by skin. Fred Thomas barely had time to turn away, the cannon concussion throwing him sideways, the flashburn searing his skin. He probably suffered from ear concussion, too, rendering him partially deaf as a post for several days. If Thomas wasn't injured why didn't he go along for the final cannon burial. This was a mystery. Only God knows the answer.

Statewide newspaper snipits said it was Tompsett who died. The moment Tompsett died is when secrets began out of respect for Rena and young Walter Tompsett's loss. No other comments were ever rendered by township officials.

Tompsett's face, chest, arms and hands were scorched from the heat blast. He screamed in terror and agony as he crumpled and wreathed on the ground holding his leg. Bits of his leg were incinerated and his life blood gushed from the wounds. He was struck by the rammer and not rod and cannonball. This wasn't how to end a glorious picnic on Independence Day celebrations.

John Murray, the teary eyed man kept flashbacks of the horrible scene for 58 years (1857-1943). It was his leaden or leather thumb stalls removal from the vent hole and his distraction that was more responsible for Tompsett's death. Just a slight thumb rise or shift momentarily from the cannon vent allowed oxygen inside to brighten embers instantly and "BOOM!"

Cannons don't prematurely explode. They explode because of human errors in judgement, lack of concentration and/or missing tools. Evidently between firings the adrenalin was rushing and nobody used a worm rod to twist down the glowing embers to the seat and then use a sponge rod dabbed with vinegar and water to cool and dampen the glowing embers. Worm rod useage also pulls out burning and dampened charges. It also holds rags for final cleaning before the cannon is primed with powder again. This rod was missing! The men got so caught up with fast repeat firings they failed to understand the importance of safe cannon firing methods. The cannon was ancient and the implements to fire it safely were absent or lost. I couldn't help wonder why if certain tools were missing why didn't James or another blacksmith make replacement tools?

White vinegar and cool water was used to cool minor burns on small skin areas. It takes the heat away, but it can't be used on large areas of blistered skin because an individual could succumb to hypothermia on an 80-degree F. day. Tompsett was badly burned by the flash explosion, too.

What if Mr. Murray, too, didn't have a leaden thumbstall? Without it he couldn't keep his thumb over the vent hole or whatever he did have might not have kept his thumb cool enough on the hot metal. Bronze cannons remain cooler, but you couldn't touch an iron cannon vent hole after one shot.

The test of cannon metal is butter. After one shot a stick of butter doesn't melt on bronze, but an iron cannon shot butter is liquified. Bronze cannons can be repeat fired for hundreds of times without incidences of premature discharging due to heat, but not iron. Repeat firings are good for only 30 rounds before they prematurely discharge. It takes lots of vinegar and water to cool iron cannons.

Bob envisioned that Thomas was the rammer, but he wondered why Tompsett's knee was directly in front of the muzzle bore. It was possible that Tompsett, too, was distracted by something said and walked across the front of the cannon just as Thomas nested the gunpowder bag. It is possible that Thomas nested it and Tompsett was going to pull the rammer out and nest the cannonball or leaden stone. Just as Tompsett steps up to remove the rammer it explodes. It was also possible that Tompsett had the cannonball in hand, dropped it and pulled the rammer out causing air to rush in, the embers glowing and "BOOM!" If so Tompsett committed a grievous error in judgement by an unknown distraction and his lack of strict artillery training. All seven men were distracted.

Safe firing of cannons requires everyone to concentrate on the task. No deviations or distractions. Years ago on a big American battleship, believe it was the Iowa, when being loaded a distraction in firing point procedures caused the big guns to explode and kill everyone in the turrent. The distraction being an arguement over a woman caused a sailor artillerymen to add a second gunpowder charge and when the cannon was fired the distress of metal caused an immediate over explosion, the gun metal bursting. Not concentrating firing point procedures killed many.

The ancient Cannonsburg cannon was a muzzleloader. Breech loaders were first invented in the 1400's, but they were expensive to make and quickly lost in wars. It is also possible that Mr. Murray removed his thumb to prime the vent with primer cord. Something though distracted everyone in the group. Attention to detail was broken.

The lack of artillery training, the strict regimens of safe firing were absent. Age of cannon and missing tools is what prompted the town elders to consider dismounting and burying the cannon in a hurry of July 3, 1885. Their ancient cannon was getting too dangerous to fire, the men, too and the liability for injury or death taxed their minds and they seized upon the Federal governments warning.

Sponge rods and worm rods were specialty tools required for safe firing of cannons, but had the Cannonsburg town elders have made new ones the accident may have not happened in their lifetime, but later. It was time for it to go missing, but one would wonder why they just didn't spike the vents and plug the bore. Since all those firing the cannon were young men it is a reasonable assumption that none had paid particular attention to the tools their fathers used to fire the cannon and so town elders didn't remember them.

Why not preserve the historical artifact in the town square? Why the need to erase its glorious character and history? We could only apply a guess?

To bury it the first time without the concensus of township residents is probably why they chose to bury it. It would be out of sight for the July 4th celebrations, but easily retrieved after the Fourth of July celebration and its future decided later. Unfortunately they couldn't keep quiet and were irresponsible about its secret burial. Next time I'll discuss what the discovery of the cannonballs produced.

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