This explosion took place on March 13, 1863. Like most other ordnance factories and arsenals, the Laboratory employed many poor white young women and girls for much the same reasons during the war. Their contributions helped keep the Confederate army in the field. Here, they manufactured cartridges, fuses, caps, fixed ammunition, signal rockets, grenades, and primers.
The Laboratory had been established by Captain Wesley Smith in early 1861 on Brown’s Island, which was a mound of dirt in the James River at the base of Seventh Street. Initially, the laboratory operated in nearby tobacco factory buildings until Brown’s Island was cleared of brush and the necessary buildings were erected. Smith hired a small number of workers, trained them, and hired more as necessary. It is thought that the mostly-female workers, ages nine to twenty, turned out an average of 1,200 cartridges a day.
The explosion took place between 11 A.M. and noon on March 13, 1863. It was characterized by a dull roar coming from the direction of Brown’s Island. Many Richmonders, who were used to test explosions from the nearby Tredegar Iron Works, thought little of it until dense smoke appeared. This sent people running toward the bridge to Brown’s Island.
The Richmond Examiner reported the next day:
“A tide of human beings, among them the frantic mothers and kindred of the employees in the laboratory, immediately set towards the bridge leading to the island, but the Government authorities, soonest apprised of the disaster, had already taken possession of the bridge, and planting a guard of soldiers, allowed passage to none except the workmen summoned to rescue the dead and wounded from the ruins.”
According to the Examiner, the apartment in which the explosion had occurred was in ruins, with the roof lifted off and the walls blown to bits. The flames were put out, and ten to twelve bodies were taken from the ruins. Another twenty to thirty who would later die suffered in agony, their hair burned away, blinded, and their clothing hanging in burned shreds. In such a state, many of those wounded were hard to recognize. The immediate treatment of those who were burned consisted of removing their clothing, covering the body with a thick layer of flour and cotton, soaked with oil. Chloroform was administered all around. The wounded were either taken home or to General Hospital No. 2.
Several girls whose clothes were on fire had jumped into the river; all came back out save one: Martha Burley, whose body was later found and turned over to friends for burial. Another girl, whose clothes were also on fire, had run toward another laboratory building where a large amount of gunpowder and combustibles were kept. A male employee grabbed her before she reached the door, potentially saving more lives and worse damage.
The explosion was thought to have been caused by Mary Ryan, and 18-year-old native of Ireland. According to witnesses, she was working on a primer when it got stuck to the varnishing board. Ryan had hit the board off of the table three times trying to free the primer, which blew her up to the ceiling, and upon coming down, was blown up again. She later died at her father’s home on Oregon Hill, within a mile of the laboratory.
After the explosion, a three-officer board conducted a probe into the operations of the Laboratory, and produced a report, dated March 25. Captain Smith had been in his office when the explosion occurred, and was on the scene within two minutes. He testified that fifteen to twenty minutes before the explosion, he had cautioned Mary Ryan - who was filling friction primers - about the potentially dangerous work she was doing. Smith insisted that this was not due to any carelessness on Ryan’s part, but in keeping with his habit of enforcing safety upon his employees. Also, a coal-burning stove had been in the room as well as numerous other girls filling cartridges and breaking up condemned ones, which added to the danger. However, other witnesses had said they had seen Ryan striking a board containing primers against the table before, but no one knew why this practice had not been stopped. Nonetheless, the report concluded that many safety precautions had been followed in the Laboratory, which had had heretofore a good reputation for safety. This suggests that, as with the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, tragedy might have been averted had the rules been better enforced.
Richmond residents rallied to help the victims of the explosion. Joseph Mayo, the mayor, asked the Young Men’s Christian Association to assist in raising funds for the relief of victims and their families. A committee was established to solicit donations, and employees of the Richmond Arsenal and Laboratory helped as well. The owners of two local theatres donated the proceeds of a night’s entertainment. Even Confederate soldiers in the field donated what little they could spare to help these young girls. Here, too, there seems to have been no compensation from the government.
Starting on Sunday, the burials of the victims began. So numerous were the funeral corteges that several passed each other on the street on the way to the same cemetery. Many of the girls – including Mary Ryan – were buried in Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery. Others were interred in Shockhoe and Oakwood Cemeteries; Catholic victims were buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. As to the Laboratory itself, some of its buildings burned during the evacuation of Richmond on April 2-3, 1865, along with the nearby arsenal, armory, and laboratory at Seventh and Canal Streets.
Soon after the dust settled from the explosion, operations resumed at the Laboratory. In December 1863, women workers struck to raise their wages from $2.40 to $3 per day. Inflation was rampant in Richmond by this time, and the women eventually succeeded. The next year, single women were earning $5 per day, while married women earned $7. All the single women demanded the same wage as those who were married, and threatened to strike. The government fired all of them and replaced them with 300 new workers. At a time when so many Confederate citizens needed money, news of the explosion there does not seem to have been a deterrent.
“Terrible Laboratory Explosion on Brown’s Island – Between Forty and Fifty Killed and Wounded - Horrible Scenes.” Richmond Examiner, 14 March 1863.
(More will follow from the aforementioned website).
Burton, David L. “Friday the 13th: Richmond’s Great Homefront Disaster.” Civil War Times
Illustrated, 21, No. 6. October 1982, 36-41.
Harper, Judith E. Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Williams, David. A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom.
New York: The New Press, 2005.