Load your cannon carefully

A curious youngster investigates the mouth of a Civil War era cannon, claiming he “wanted to see where the noise came from.” (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

If any Leader Herald readers feel a patriotic urge to annoy neighbors by firing noisy salutes from an old cannon this July 4th, they’d be wise to first ponder the following explosive tales of old time cannon-firings gone wrong.

The 1867 Gloversville Intelligencer gave a brief resume of local 4th of July activities in its July 9 issue, headlined, “Regarding the Celebration in Gloversville,” reminding us that the fourth in those old times was indeed a very noisy day from dawn ’til dark, and anyone hoping to sleep late or go do bed early didn’t stand much chance of success.

“The first information of the coming of the Fourth was about five minutes past midnight when we heard the firing of a cannon, accompanied by the music of tin horns and pans. In the early morning, firing was heard for a short time, then stopped entirely, and soon news of the sad accident circulated: in attempting to load the cannon without first swabbing it out, it discharged prematurely, and a man named Sweeny had three fingers and a thumb blown off.”

On the same page, a follow-up letter discussing this accident was also printed, written by a Mr. L.D. Holley, Chairman of the Gloversville Citizen’s Temperance Society. Basically, Holly suggested Sweeny got what he deserved.

“There are many stories afloat regarding the cause of the accident on the morning of the fourth, many blaming me, so I will make a plain statement of the facts. Mr. Sweeny was on the ground when we were ready to commence firing and volunteered his services, professing to have been an artilleryman in the late war. He was not satisfied with the size of the cartridge and kept increasing the size of the charge until he had about five times as much powder as was originally intended, and he opened the last cartridge, putting powder in loose. I remonstrated, but to no avail. There being fire left in the piece from a previous shot, the moment the loose powder came in contact with it, it ignited and caused the accident. Sweeny was told to worm out the piece to see if there were any bits of the powder bag from the previous shot still smoldering inside it, but he refused. Anyone will see that if there was fire left in the cannon, the moment loose powder contacted it, an explosion must come.”

One might think such an explosive result arising from poor ‘cannoneering’ would be long remembered, but the old saying that those who don’t learn from history — or who fail to properly load a cannon — are condemned to repeat it surfaced again 18 years later, and not far from the earlier event. This time a much more serious accident occurred on July 4, 1885 at Starin Place, the summer home of Commodore John Starin, which still stands just east of Fultonville.

According to a retrospective article in the June 28, 1926 Amsterdam Recorder, “It was the custom of Commodore Starin to acknowledge the Fourth by firing a salute at sunrise, noon, and four o’clock. On this particular afternoon, the cannon, supervised by William Weeper, a veteran of the Civil War and supposedly an experienced cannoneer, was being loaded and discharged as per schedule. The day was very hot and the sun beat down on the cannon’s brassy surface, and this was thought to have brought about the premature discharge, with the result that William Van Voast was, by the ram rod, tore through his abdomen, his body rolling down the hill into the grass. His more fortunate chum, Charles Maxwell, was not killed, but was considerably mangled, losing one eye and some fingers.”

One wonders what so-called cannon expert Weeper was doing at the fatal moment: he certainly wasn’t properly supervising the cannon.

For a contemporary account, the July 17, 1885 Roman Citizen, Rome’s weekly newspaper, reported the story “transmitted by the Fonda Mohawk Valley Democrat”. “William Van Voast, 23, was instantly killed and Charles Maxwell, 22, was injured by the premature discharge of a large brass cannon on Commodore Starin’s grounds at Fultonville. Van Voast was hurled twenty-five feet down an embankment. His right arm and leg were torn off. One hand and wrist were blown down the hill four hundred feet. The ramrod was shot through his body and landed one thousand feet away. His body was terribly mangled and burned. Charles Maxwell was blown sixty feet away and was found unconscious and in an almost unrecognizable condition. William Weeper’s thumb was carried away.” Charles Maxwell lost one eye, but otherwise recovered.

Commodore Starin was in New York when this tragic accident occurred. When informed of it, he immediately telegraphed his regrets and notified authorities he would pay Van Voast’s funeral expenses, plus Maxwell and Weeper’s medical expenses. His cannon was shortly removed from Starin Place, never to announce the fourth again.

William Weeper died June 12, 1901 aged 58, and was indeed a veteran, having belonged to the local 115th Regiment, Company A. As such, he should have known enough about cannon etiquette to advise Van Voast against standing in front of it while loading powder.

In an ironic twist, The Roman Citizen reported that Van Voast, “turned to Weeper and Maxwell, smiled, and declared, “This is my last shot,” just as he rammed the fatal charge into the cannon.” Van Voast was right: it was.