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Midway through 1861, well-known Richmond chemists Edward T. Finch and Joseph Laidley lent their expertise to the Confederacy in a risky venture: gun powder production. Each was among the most respected in his field in Virginia, but working with highly combustible material was out of their comfort zones.
Before the war, Finch boasted in the city’s newspapers of his discovery of “very delicate chemical process, a new and beautiful liquid” that would remove grease and paint from clothes. He lived with his wife, five small children and a black female servant in a two-story, brick house on Clay Street, near a Methodist church.
The Irish-born Laidley, who married into a prominent Virginia family, was an 1850 graduate of the prestigious Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. The 32-year-old ran a drug store on North Main Street, selling “all new and rare remedies,” toilet mirrors, handkerchief extracts, pomatums and more.
At about 8 a.m. on June 6, 1861, Finch was working in his house with about a pound of highly explosive fulminating powder for use in percussion caps for the Virginia Ordnance Department. The material wasn’t dangerous wet, but when dry and combined with heat or friction, well, that could be a recipe for disaster.
Assisted by his servant, Finch spread some of the powder on newspaper in a second-floor room, then placed it on a hot grate near a wood fire for drying. Clearly, he should have known better. Moments later ….
A massive explosive rocked the house, cracking side walls, severely damaging the roof, blowing out a rear wall, tearing off window sashes and sending the rest of Finch’s family in a room below into a panic amid fallen timbers and bricks. “A complete wreck,” the Richmond Dispatch called the Finch dwelling. Neighbors were startled by the blast, which even broke windows and bent piping in the church nearby,
Miraculously, one of Finch’s daughters in the blast room escaped physical injury. Buried under the debris with the 38-year-old chemist, the servant was initially feared dead. But she was quickly revived, treated for serious cuts on her legs at a hospital and expected to recover. The horribly mangled Finch, however, had life-threatening wounds.
Bruised, burned “nearly black” and blinded, the chemist was examined in a neighbor’s house by four doctors. His face and eyelids were lacerated. The forefinger and thumb of the right hand were torn apart and probably couldn’t be saved. “The situation of Mr. Finch was so critical,” the Dispatch wrote, “that it is possible that he may not survive his injuries.”
To aid Finch and his family, Richmond newspapers advocated for the establishment of a relief fund, which was “liberally met” by citizens. A day after the tragedy, the Dispatch praised the chemist and suggested Virginia was obligated to come to his family’s aid should he die.
“Being a practical Chemist, Mr. Finch was well aware of the attendant danger,” the newspaper wrote, “but from patriotic motives and a desire to aid our common cause, he was induced to undertake the operation, hoping by care and watchfulness he might escape without injury, and that should he fall a victim, the State would not let his family suffer.”
But there indeed was no saving Finch, who died a week after the explosion.
Sometime between noon and 1 p.m., a huge blast at the shed — like the sound of a six-pounder cannon, according to a report — reverberated in the Confederate capital. First responders found a scene of “rare horror” inside what little remained of the demolished structure. In an extremely graphic account published the day after the tragedy, the Dispatch wrote:Weeks before Laidley officially began work for the rebel government, he was making percussion caps of “unsurpassed quality,” wrote the Dispatch, noting, “We invite the attention of the proper authorities to this fact. It certainly deserves consideration at their hands.”
Impressed Confederate authorities constructed a wooden outbuilding for Laidley’s percussion cap work on the slope of a hill behind the Richmond Arsenal, near a cartridge factory. The popular chemist and a young assistant named Robert B. Clayton were making cap powder there the day before the Fourth of July 1861. Some saw Laidley smoking a cigar, a risky activity for anyone working with gunpowder.
Mr. Laidley was found lying on his back, one of the most horrible objects of mutilated humanity which it is possible to conceive. Within a few yards of the body was found a portion of the poor man’s brains, looking as if they had been torn by a superhuman agency from the skull and splashed upon the floor. The entire head, except the lower jaw, had been blown off, and nothing remained to mark the features of a man, except a pair of whiskers and a portion of the neck. The right arm was torn off below the elbow, and from the bloody stump hung the fragments of nerves, veins and sinews which were left behind.
One of Laidley’s hands landed 200 yards away in the yard of the arsenal; a portion of his face reportedly was discovered 300 yards from the explosion, near the banks of the James River. The chemist’s watch, its crystal and minute hand missing and hour hand pointed to noon, was located in the debris. Hanging on a hook, Laidley’s coat still had a cigar in a pocket.
“We are daily entering upon new and praiseworthy enterprises. Our people are bravely setting themselves to the production of articles which a little experience will prove can be easily obtained among us, and while supplying our wants, will enrich our citizens. But at the same time new experiments are always attended with danger.”Unconscious but remarkably unscathed, Clayton lay against a nearby post, “doubled up as if he had suffered a fearful contortion.” Physicians were confident the gunpowder maker would recover. The cause of the explosion was unknown.
What was left of Laidley was gathered and placed in a metallic coffin at a house behind the cartridge factory. His funeral was held the next afternoon, presumably attended by his frail widow, Sarah.
“He was an estimable man in all the relations of life,” the Dispatch wrote, “and a valuable citizen. His untimely death is much deplored.”
In the account of Laidley’s death, the newspaper also referenced the demise weeks earlier of fellow chemist Finch. “Both gentlemen were working for the benefit of the Southern States,” the Dispatch wrote. “Peace to their ashes.”
Days later, the Dispatch reflected further on the tragedy:
Continued the newspaper:
“Some are risking their lives on the battle-field — others in furnishing the means to fight with. Sad as is the death of Joseph Laidley, and valuable as were the services he was rendering to his State, yet, if he be the means of saving others, the awful dispensation will not have been in vain.”
“The victims of Lincoln’s cruel war by accident,” the Dispatch concluded, “have far outstripped the number of those who have fallen before the enemy.”
— Richmond Enquirer, June 13, 1861.
— Richmond Dispatch, July 16, 1859, March 14, May 20, June 7, July 4, July 8, 1861.
— Richmond Whig, June 7 and July 4, 1861.