Chapter 21

     Where the carcass is, there will the vultures be gathered together. It is humiliating to human nature to record it, but it is nevertheless true, that amid all the suffering and sacrifice, and heroism and generosity that was displayed in this awful time, there arose some of the basest passions of unbridled vice. The lust of gain led many skulking wretches to rob and despoil, and even to mutilate the bodies of the dead. Pockets were searched. Jewels were stolen. Finger-rings and ear-rings were torn away, the knife often being used upon the poor, dead clay to facilitate the spoliation. Against this savagery the better elements of the populace sternly revolted. For the time there was no organized government. But outraged and indignant humanity soon formulates its own code of laws. Pistol and rope and bludgeon, in the hand of honesty, did effective work. The reports of summary lynchings that at first were spread abroad were doubtless exaggerated, but they had a stern foundation of truth; and they had abundant provocation.
     Writing on that tragic Sunday, one correspondent says: "The way of the transgressor in the desolated valley of the Conemaugh is hard indeed. Each hour reveals some new and horrible story of suffering and outrage, and every succeeding hour brings news of swift and merited punishment meted out to the fiends who have dared to desecrate the stiff and mangled bodies in the city of the dead, and torture the already half-crazed victims of the cruelest of modern catastrophes. Last night a party of thirteen Hungarians were noticed stealthily picking their way along the banks of the Conemaugh toward Sang Hollow. Suspicious of their purpose, several farmers armed themselves and started in pursuit. Soon their most horrible fears were realized. The Hungarians were out for plunder. They came upon the dead and mangled body of a woman, lying upon the shore, upon whose person there were a number of trinkets of jewelry and two diamond rings. In their eagerness to secure the plunder, the Hungarians got into a squabble, during which one of the number severed the finger upon which were the rings, and started on a run with his fearful prize. The revolting nature of the deed so wrought upon the pursuing farmers, who by this time were close at hand, that they gave immediate chase. Some of the Hungarians showed fight, but, being outnumbered, were compelled to flee for their lives. Nine of the brutes escaped, but four were literally driven into the surging river and to their death. The thief who took the rings was among the number of the involuntary suicides."
     At 8.30 o'clock this morning an old railroader, who had walked from Sang Hollow, stepped up to a number of men who were on the platform station at Curranville and said:-
     "Gentleman, had I a shot-gun with me half an hour ago, I would now be a murderer, yet with no fear of ever having to suffer for my crime. Two miles from here I watched three men going along the banks stealing the jewels from the bodies of the dead wives and daughters of men who have been robbed of all they hold dear on earth."
     He had no sooner finished the last sentence than five burly men, with looks of terrible determination written on their faces, were on their way to the scene of plunder, one with a coil of rope over his shoulder and another with a revolver in his hand. In twenty minutes, so it is stated, they had overtaken two of their victims, who were then in the act of cutting pieces from the ears and fingers from the hands of the bodies of two dead women. With revolver leveled at the scoundrels, the leader of the posse shouted:-
     "Throw up your hands, or I'll blow your heads off!"
     With blanched faces and trembling forms, they obeyed the order and begged for mercy. They were searched, and, as their pockets were emptied of their ghastly finds, the indignation of the crowd intensified, and when a bloody finger of an infant encircled with two tiny gold rings was found among the plunder in the leader's pocket, a cry went up, "Lynch them! Lynch them!" Without a moment's delay ropes were thrown around their necks and they were dangling to the limbs of a tree, in the branches of which an hour before were entangled the bodies of a dead father and son. After half an hour the ropes were cut and the bodies lowered and carried to a pile of rocks in the forest on the hill above. It is hinted that an Allegheny county official was one of the most prominent in this justifiable homicide.
     One miserable wretch who was caught in the act of mutilating a body was chased by a crowd of citizens, and when captured was promptly strung up to a telegraph pole. A company of officers rescued him before he was dead, much to the disgust of many reputable people, whose feelings had been outraged by the treatment of their deceased relations. Shortly after midnight an attempt was made to rob the First National Bank, which, with the exception of the vaults, had been destroyed. The plunderers were discovered by the citizens' patrol, which had been established during the night, and a lively chase ensued. A number of the thieves-six, it is said-were shot. It is not known whether any were killed or not, as their bodies would have been washed away almost immediately if such had been the case.
     A number of Hungarians collected about a number of bodies at Cambria which had been washed up, and began rifling the trunks. After they had secured all the contents they turned their attention to the dead.
     The ghastly spectacle presented by the distorted features of those who had lost their lives during the flood had no influence upon the ghouls, who acted more like wild beasts than human beings. They took every article from the clothing on the dead bodies, not leaving anything of value or anything that would serve to identify the remains.
     After the miscreants had removed all their plunder to dry ground a dispute arose over a division of the spoils. A pitched battle followed, and for a time the situation was alarming. Knives and clubs were used freely. As a result several of the combatants were seriously wounded and left on the ground, their fellow-countrymen not making any attempt to remove them from the field of strife.
     A Hungarian was caught in the act of cutting off a dead woman's finger, on which was a costly ring. The infuriated spectators raised an outcry and the fiend fled. He was hotly pursued, and after a half-hour's hard chase, was captured and hanged to a telegraph pole, but was cut down and resuscitated by officers. Liquor emboldened the ghouls, and Pittsburg was telegraphed for help, and the 18th and 14th Regiments, Battery B and the Washington Infantry were at once called out for duty, members being apprised by posters in the newspaper windows.
     One correspondent wrote: "The number of drunken men is remarkable. Whiskey seems marvelously plenty. Men are actually carrying it around in pails. Barrels of the stuff are constantly located among the drifts, and men are scrambling over each other and fighting like wild beasts in their mad search for it. At the cemetery, at the upper end of town, I saw a sight that rivals the Inferno. A number of ghouls had found a lot of fine groceries, among them a barrel of brandy, with which they were fairly stuffing themselves. One huge fellow was standing on the strings of an upright piano singing a profane song, every little while breaking into a wild dance. a half-dozen others were engaged in a hand-to-hand fight over the possession of some treasure stolen from a ruined house, and the crowd around the barrel were yelling like wild men."
     These reports were largely discredited and denied by later and probably more trustworthy authorities, but there was doubtless a considerable residue of truth in them.
     There were so many contradictory stories about these horrible doings that our painstaking correspondent put to "Chall" Dick, the Deputy Sheriff, this "leading question": "Did you shoot any robbers?" Chall did not make instant reply, but finally looked up with a peculiar expression on his face and said:-
     "There are some men whom their friends will never again see alive."
     "Well, now, how many did you shoot?" was the next question.
     "Say," said Chall. "On Saturday morning I was the first to make my way to Sang Hollow to see if I could not get some food for people made homeless by the flood. There was a car-load of provisions there, but the vandals were on hand. They broke into the car and, in spite of my protestations, carried off box after box of supplies. I only got half a wagon load. They were too many for me. I know when I have no show. There was no show there and, I got out.
     "As I was leaving Sang Hollow and got up the mountain road a piece, I saw two Hungarians and one woman engaged in cutting the fingers off of corpses to get some rings. Well, I got off that team and-well, there are three people who were not drowned and who are not alive."
     "Where are the bodies?"
     "Ain't the river handy there? I went down to Sang Hollow on Sunday, but I went fixed for trouble that time. When I got into the hollow the officers had in tow a man who claimed he was arrested because he had bummed it on the freight train. A large crowd of men were trying to rescue the fellow. I rode into that crowd and scattered it. I got between the crowd and officers, who succeeded in getting their man in here. The fellow had been robbing the dead and had a lot of jewelry on his person. I see by the papers that Consul Max Schamberg, of Pittsburg, asserts that the Huns are a law-abiding race, and that when they were accused of robbing the dead they were simply engaged in trying to identify some of their friends. Consul Schamberg does not know what he is talking about. I know better, for I saw them engaged in robbing the dead.
     "Those I caught at it will never do the like again. Why, I saw them let go of their friends in the water to catch a bedstead with a mattress on it. That's the sort of law-abiding citizens the Huns are."
     Down the Cambria road, past which the dead of the river Conemaugh swept into Nineveh in awful numbers, was witnessed a wretched scene-that of a young officer of the National Guard in full uniform, and a poor deputy-sheriff, who had lost home, wife, children and all, clinched like madman and struggling for the former's revolver. If the officer of the Guard had won, there might have been a tragedy, for he was drunk. The homeless deputy-sheriff, with his wife and babies swept to death past the place where they struggled, was sober and in the right.
     The officer was a first lieutenant. His company came with that regiment into this valley of distress to protect survivors from ruffianism and maintain the peace and dignity of the State. The man with whom he fought for the weapon was almost crazy in his own woe, but singularly cool and self-possessed regarding the safety of those left living.
     It was one o'clock in the afternoon when a Philadelphia Press correspondent noticed on the Cambria road the young officer with his long military coat cut open, leaning heavily for support upon two privates. He was crying in a maudlin way, "You just take me to a place and I'll drink soft stuff." They entreated him to return at once to the regimental headquarters, even begged him, but he cast them aside and went staggering down the road to the line, where he met the grave-faced deputy face to face. The latter looked in the white of his eyes and said: "You can't pass here, sir."
     "Can't pass here?" he cried, waving his arms. "You challenge an officer? Stand aside!"
     "You can't pass here!" this time quietly, but firmly; "not while you're drunk."
     "Stand aside!" yelled the lieutenant. "Do you know who I am? You talk to an officer of the National Guard."
     "Yes; and listen," said the man in front of him so impatiently that it hushed his antagonist's tirade. "I talk to an 'officer' of the National Guard-I who have lost my wife, my children and all in this flood no man has yet described; we who have seen our dead with their bodies mutilated and their fingers cut from their hands by dirty foreigners for a little gold, are not afraid to talk for what is right, even to an officer of the National Guard."
     While he spoke another great, dark, stout man, who looked as if he had suffered, came up, and upon taking in the situation every vein in his forehead swelled purple with rage.
     "You dirty cur," he cried to the officer; "you dirty, drunken cur, if it was not for the sake of peace I'd lay you out where you stand."
     "Come on," yelled the Lieutenant, with an oath.
     The big man sent out a terrible blow that would have left the Lieutenant senseless had not one of the privates dashed in between, receiving part of it and warding it off. The Lieutenant got out of his military coat. The privates seized the big man and with another correspondent, who ran to the scene, held him back. The Lieutenant put his hand to his pistol pocket, the deputy seized him, and the struggle for the weapon began. For a moment it was fierce and desperate, then another private came to the deputy's assistance. The revolver was wrestled from the drunken officer and he himself was pushed back panting to the ground.
     The deputy seized the military coat he had thrown on the ground, and with it and the weapon started to the regimental headquarters. Then the privates got around him and begged him, one of them with tears in his eyes, not to report their officer, saying that he was a good man when was sober. He studied a long while, standing in the road, while the officer slunk away over the hill. Then he threw the disgraced uniform to them, and said: "Here, give them to him; and, mind you, if he does not go at once to his quarters, I'll take him there, dead or alive."


Go to chapter 22
Go Back to the Documents page!


Go back to the PRR index!
This page has been accessed 808 times since December 2, 2007
Last modified on:
©1998-2010 Robert Schoenberg - robs@railfan.net