On the morning of August 28, 1888 residents of the Dimmock Hollow area woke up knowing that it was going to be a memorable day. They couldn’t have known how right they were.
A political rally had been planned by some local Republicans to support Benjamin Harrison in his presidential campaign against Grover Cleveland. Republicans knew that the race would be close, nowhere more so than here in Cleveland’s home state of New York.
The rally was planned after Democrats raised a liberty pole near the schoolhouse in Dimmock Hollow, a tiny crossroads close to the Ostego-Chenango County border between South New Berlin and Morris. Republicans were determined not to let their rivals have all the fun.
Liberty poles raisings were important events for local communities; enthusiastic demonstrations of patriotism and unity for like minded neighbors. The very first liberty poles in the United States had been raised during the American Revolution as an act of defiance against the British. Later generations of Americans claimed the symbol for their political parties, making liberty poles a central part of their rallies.
As was the custom of the time, Republicans from Dimmock Hollow and other neighboring towns decided to raise their own, taller, liberty pole nearby (theirs was 124 feet tall). It was also custom for pole raisings (sometimes called “jollifications”) to include a full day’s worth of revelry and celebration. It was a time when carousers could give raucous speeches, share a keg of hard cider, and make a lot of noise.
The Republicans planned, as one attendee later remembered, an “elaborate program” for the day. That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.
A picnic and grand campaign speeches for supporters and curious onlookers alike were planned to accompany the pole raising. But here is where it gets interesting: some of the more “athletic” Republicans thought the day would be more memorable if they fired a cannon during the proceedings.
The hauled an ancient cannon to Dimmock Hollow, said to have been a relic of the Mexican War. It brought by Addison Hill, the son of a local army veteran. Hill stuck around to oversee the loading and firing of the gun, but the actual work was left some fearless young men.
Powder and dry sand were mixed together in equal parts and loaded into the old cannon. The crowd, eager to hear the cannon’s roar, gathered around the gun. After the first discharge, one of the axles shattered from the force of the explosion. Undaunted, the men repaired it and the cannon was reloaded. “The old cannon had a vicious recoil and it didn’t take many shots for the brute to kick itself loose from its carriage,” one witness recalled. Unfazed by the shattered carriage and dire warnings from a Civil War veteran in the crowd, Hill and his assistants balanced the muzzle of the cannon on a log and prepared to fire another Republican salute at noon before they paused for lunch. Afterwards they would all return and finally raise their liberty pole.
As the band began to lead the way to the picnic ground, an extra heavy charge of powder was loaded. Crammed in with paper wadding and tamped down with sand, the charge was packed into the barrel and the fuse lit. It only took a few seconds for the festivities turn into a horrifying disaster.
An old iron gun,
Of course its gonna blow up,
Now three guys are dead.
Several jagged pieces of the cannon were hurled into the crowd of onlookers and claimed the lives of John Dixon, Fred Sage, and his cousin Albert Sargent. They were struck in the head and all died instantly. “The spectators stood as though paralyzed for a moment,” one reporter wrote, “and then the entire throng surged toward the three victims of the explosion.” All three men were local, and had been standing in the nearby crowd with their families. They were all 26 or younger.
Onlookers tried in vain to aid their friends. One jumped on a horse and hurried to find a physician. When he arrived at the doctor’s office, he discovered that his “trousers from the knee to the bottom were bespattered with brains.”
No one ever figured out why the cannon exploded that day. Some thought the men loaded the cannon with too much powder. Others thought that it was simply too old and shouldn’t have been fired in the first place. Addison Hill was never able to give a satisfactory explanation.
Oddly enough, none of the men firing the cannon were killed or even harmed, though one man did loose part of his hat and several pieces of the barrel crashed through the wall of the nearby cheese factory several yards from the explosion.
Distraught, the men in charge postponed the liberty pole raising and abandoned the picnic lunch and other activities of the day. The next day local papers reported that “the pole still lies prostrate and it is probably that no further attempt will be made to raise it.
How could this have happened? Were presidential politics really this intense and eventful in 19th century American towns? Yes. Yes they definitely were. Though this particular rally at Dimmock Hollow’s ended on a tragic note, the day’s activities were far from uncommon.
A lot of effort and excitement went into 19th century political rallies like this one. For the citizens of Dimmock Hollow, a presidential election was the perfect opportunity to support your candidate and have a good time…at the same time. There were more connections between small town American life, politics, and entertainment back then than you might expect. Continue reading “The Tragedy of Dimmock Hollow”