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Saturday, July 09, 2016

Don Serfass Wrote of This Tamaqua Tale

Parade of the doomed

Editor’s note: To mark the 85th anniversary, we are revisiting a local tragedy.

Life is priceless.
Yet it took only one dime to kill at least seven men.
Nobody talks about it today. But it was one of the darkest days in the Tamaqua area, and Wednesday marks the 85th anniversary.
It happened during the days of Prohibition. Booze was scarce and so was money.
Still, the summer night of Monday, July 13, 1931, provided an opportunity to party.
A group of coal-region men decided to gather for a good time. They figured they’d build a campfire and secretly enjoy a few illegal drinks. It was a time when the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol was forbidden by law.
They set up camp just outside of Tamaqua at the ruins of H.A. Weldy Gun Powder Works, which had been out of business about 25 years.
“It closed about 1906 or 1909,” says historian Dan Schroeder of Locust Valley. The plant’s concrete ruins rest on the banks of the Little Schuylkill River just west of Hometown Hill along Route 309, then called Pennsylvania Route 29.
The serene site is situated at the entrance to the Tamaqua Railroad Tunnel, the historic feat of 1854 engineering.
The 21-acre complex lies mostly secluded, the perfect setting. In that peaceful valley, the night was supposed to be one of fun, laughter and camaraderie.
But something went horribly wrong.
Parade of doomed
The first hint of disaster came shortly after noon July 14 when Norman Bilzeit, 45, of Tamaqua, staggered into the Sun Oil Company plant at the Taggartsville bridge near the foot of Hometown Hill.
He fell to the floor. A doctor was summoned and Bilzeit was pronounced dead.
Around the same time, Daniel Evans, 54, of Coaldale, entered Tamaqua town hall and police station on Rowe Street, just steps away from the railroad tracks. Evans said he was sick. He asked workers to summon a doctor. Employees placed Evans on a cot inside in a cell, where he spoke of at least two other pals back on the hill. He said they were sleeping off the effects of liquor. Then he died. It was 1 p.m.
Tamaqua Police Chief Nelson Hughes and cops scurried to the north of town. But instead of finding sleeping men, they stumbled on a horrific sight.
John Cashman, 40, of Shamokin, and Thomas Davis, 37, of Nesquehoning, were dead. Their bodies were discovered in bushes at the bottom of the mountain. Both corpses were found in a violent, twisting and writhing position, as if the men had suffered excruciating pain.
The death count was now four.
But the day was still young.
More victims
Shortly after, a motorist passing northbound through Tamaqua approached the Pine Street Bridge.
He noticed a man sitting on the bank of the Little Schuylkill River. Suddenly, the man collapsed, falling headfirst into the water.
The motorist stopped, pulled him out, and rushed him to Coaldale Hospital, where he passed away. He was Alfred Murton, 50, of Centralia.
Police realized a tremendous tragedy was unfolding. But they were stumped. What in the world was going on?
Shortly after 4 p.m., police found a man lying in the woods at the north end of Washington Street, still alive.
He was Patrick Slavin, 58, of McAdoo.
Another victim, still alive, was discovered inside a train boxcar owned by the Reading Railroad Co.
The train car was stationed at a rail siding at the 400 block of Railroad Street. The victim was found after a nearby resident heard moaning sounds coming from inside the car. The cries were from James Sweeney, 59, of Mahanoy City.
Sweeney and Slavin were very ill. Both asked for water.
According to a report in the Tamaqua Evening Courier, the men were treated by Dr. Robert Dress, then rushed 3 miles to Coaldale Hospital by the police chief and Constable Howard Eddinger.
Sweeney died shortly after admission. Slavin remained in critical condition. Though gravely ill, he was able to speak. His broken words provided the first glimpse into what had taken place. The story was nothing short of incredible.
Deadly elixir
“Between gasps … Slavin said that the gang was at the camp Monday night and it was then they started drinking,” reported the Evening Courier.
“The stuff had an oily odor,” Slavin said. In order to drink it, they were forced to strain it through an old rag at least six times to remove oil and dirt.
It was mixed with water, and “it tasted good at the time,” said Slavin, an itinerant umbrella mender by trade.
Slavin said two men grew seriously ill almost immediately. The others became scared, so they threw away the fluid and rags. But it was too late. All had taken a taste of the deadly potion. They were doomed.
The next day, just before 6 p.m., Slavin died at the hospital. Before passing, he said his eyesight was growing bad. His eyes appeared inflamed, police said, and he complained of stomach pains, “at times, simply staring away, unable to say a word.”
Descendant comments
The stark reality of the suffering is felt deeply by one of Slavin’s descendants, who today wonders why so many grown men willingly drank a curious, unknown potion.
“Slavin would’ve been a cousin to my great-grandmother on my mother’s side,” says Rob Evans, 65, of Auburn.
Evans, a native of Deer Lake, says his family didn’t care to speak about what took place.
“My grandmother didn’t talk much about it,” he says. Instead, all of the heartbroken families quietly buried their dead and kept silent. The episode was swept under the rug.
Yet it was a tragedy that challenges the imagination. In total, seven men were dead, six of whom died within a span of 12 hours.
But the story doesn’t end here.
A drunken man was seen wading through the Little Schuylkill River before disappearing up the mountainside. That person — an eighth victim — could not be found despite an exhaustive search.
John Murphy, 35, of Sunbury, eventually surfaced in that town, his face red and swollen. He admitted to having been at the party. He said he drank some of the “stuff” and became ill, but was able to get home.
What became of Murphy is unclear. He was banished from Sunbury that same day after being caught stealing socks from a clothing store. Did he survive long-term? Or was he ultimately the eighth one to die? Nobody is quite certain.
As for the others, physicians said all died in “extreme agony.” A police report indicates the men’s contorted bodies attest to the severe pain.
Before passing, Slavin said Murton was the one who purchased the deadly drink. Physicians said the concoction was a slow poison and certain death.
What was it?
Trooper Joseph Davey of the Pennsylvania State Police said Murton had entered Leo Faust’s Taggartsville garage on July 13 and asked to purchase a product called alkerene.
But none was available. So instead, he asked to buy 10 cents’ worth of radiator alcohol, somewhat comparable to today’s antifreeze.
Mary Jones, deputy coroner, visited the campsite and found dozens of heating preparation cans and several radiator alcohol containers in a fire pit.
Police said the cans contained alcohol in a gelatin base, similar to today’s Sterno-type fuel.
According to police, addicts had a formula for extracting alcohol by straining it through cloth, then adding lemon to kill the taste. In this case, the men may have mixed that liquid with antifreeze. After the tragedy, all area stores and garages stopped the sale of those products.
In a sad twist of timing, the 21st Amendment was ratifiedDec. 5, 1933. It lifted Prohibition and made consumable alcohol available to the public. But it came too late to prevent the tragedy of Hometown Hill.
Today, nobody seems to know about the death and suffering that took place at the bottom of the mountain.
Generations have come and gone. Those who knew details have passed. Little or nothing has been handed down.
After 85 years, the “parade of the doomed” has been lost to the passing winds.
In so many ways, time itself can mimic the effects of alcohol.
It eases the mind. It washes away sorrow. It gives us distance from the cruelties of life.
Then, when nobody is left to remember, all of the pain evaporates.
An unspeakable tragedy is forgotten.

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