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10.  Tales of Destruction...Nitroglycerin Thieves

During the time of the torpedo wars, the citizens of the oil regions had to be concerned not only about the wild wagon rides of the moonlighters trying to evade detection by the Roberts spotters, but about the nitroglycerin thieves who also plied their trade by night.  It is with this preface that a story that first appeared in The Petroleum Gazette, Vol. I, No. 11, of June 17, 1897, is introduced.

A Glycerine Experience

Recounting reminiscences related by a group of old-time oil men, a New York correspondent of The St. Louis Globe-Democrat tells this incident of the Gallaghers, the widely known well shooters, "Bill and his brother Jim are all that are left of a family of seven.  The other five brothers have been killed one after another by handling nitroglycerine.  Bill and Jim Gallagher once gave me the liveliest experience of my life, and one that I don't care to ever have repeated.  We were riding one night along the streets of Olean, and Bill was telling me about the tricks of nitroglycerine thieves, when all of a sudden the sky away in the south of the town was reddened by a vivid flash, and the ground trembled beneath us.  Bill said that the thieves, whose practice it is to do their work at night and then fire the looted magazine in order to destroy all evidence of their crime, had been at it again, and had just robbed and blown up a magazine belonging to the Gallaghers and located on the Wildcat road, a couple of miles out of Olean, N.Y.  He declared that if we made haste we might be able to overtake the thieves, and the next instant we were driving rapidly behind a splendid team of blacks along the main street of Olean and out into the night.  Half an hour later we turned into the forest road leading to the scene of the explosion.  Bill leaped from the wagon and closely inspected the road with the aid of a lantern.  The fresh imprint of wheels and of horses' hoofs showed that the thieves had been there within the hour and the direction in which they had gone.

"Bill climbed back into the wagon, saying that, as the thieves had carried away a heavy load, we should be able to overhaul them, and we again started in pursuit.  At short intervals one of the brothers would leap to the road and hurriedly inspect it with the lantern.  Each time the trail was easily discernible.  We had gone but a short distance when the full moon came out from behind a cloud, making the road plainly visible for a long distance ahead.  At the end of another half a mile the rattle of a wagon came to us through the clear night air, plainly audible above the creaking of our own vehicle.  Jim pulled up, and we all bent our heads and listened.  The wagon was coming toward us at breakneck speed from in front!  We had halted at the foot of a steep hill, and at their present pace the horses would soon become visible at the top of the incline.  A moment later they shot into view at the top of the hill.  A dark object, that was either a blanket or a man, was outlined against the shining tin boxes which filled the wagon, the half-crazed animals were dragging after them.

"The thieves' team were running away, and, as the road was narrow, would the next moment be in deadly collision with our own.  Quicker than it takes to tell it, Jim pulled his horses sharply to the right and gave them a wicked lash with the whip.  Startled by the blow, they leaped into the bushes at the side of the road and stuck fast, with only the rear wheels of the wagon projecting over the highway.  'Run and lie down', shouted Bill.  We needed no urging!  The three of us as one man leaped from the wagon and fled away from the road and death.  Step by step I fought my way through a thick undergrowth of bushes, threw myself upon the ground and waited for the explosion.  A moment later there was a deafening report, and the brush about me was raked as if by a galling fire of grape and canister.  For what seemed an age the deadly fusillade continued.  Then it ceased almost as abruptly as it had begun, and its echoes died slowly away among the hills.  I scrambled to my feet and, Bill and Jim appearing unharmed in answer to my shouts, we started back to the road.  The brush through which we hurried, broken, torn, and covered with dust, looked as if it had been swept by a hurricane.  More impressive still, our hands soon came in contact with shreds of raw flesh clinging to the bushes.

"Such a scene of wreck and ruin as the moonlight finally displayed I never want to see again.  We found our horses about twenty feet from the roadside.  They had been lifted bodily and blown that distance, but aside from a few cuts and bruises, were unharmed.  Our wagon, however, had been literally reduced to kindling wood, the tongue being the only portion of the vehicle that remained intact.  A rod or so below the spot we found a great hole in the middle of the road a dozen feet in diameter and three or four feet deep.  Embedded in the bank a few yards distant were several fragments of the thieves' wagon, and for many rods down the hill we found the road littered with pieces of spokes, iron and fragments of horses' flesh.  As we stood looking at the wreck, the sound of footsteps came to our ears from the top of the hill.  Two men were coming toward us as fast as they could run.  Bill motioned to us to keep silent, but the next moment the strangers caught sight of us and slackened their pace.  Then one of them cried, 'It's the Gallaghers!' and ran back up the hill, followed by his companion.  Before we could overtake them they had plunged into the brush and were gone.  We returned in disgust to the scene of the explosion.  Suddenly a round, bright object lying in the road caught Bill's eye.  He picked it up and began examining it by the light of the moon.

"Did either of you notice a black object on the wagon?' I asked.  'That might have been a blanket or a .' 'Man?' interposed Jim.  'Yes, I thought it was a blanket.'  'And so did I' , said Bill in a low voice, 'but the horse that wore this will never again be curious about the time of day.'  As he uttered these words he placed in my hand the bright object he had been examining - the scarred and battered case of a silver watch.  It was a man and not a blanket I had seen on the wagon!"

The Hand

The story of the discovered hand would today conjure up a crime scene, but in the oil regions of yesteryear, the more likely explanation was nitroglycerin.  The following article appeared in The Titusville Morning Herald on May 18, 1870:  "A portion of a human hand was found near Rouseville, Pennsylvania last week, and it is supposed that somebody had been fooling around with torpedoes in that vicinity, though nothing was heard to drop."


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