New York, NY Candy Factory Explosion, Aug 1879



Three workmen in the candy manufactory of Battais & Ode, Nos. 139 and 141 Elm-street were on Thursday evening terribly burned and dangerously injured by an explosion of superheated powdered starch, in the drying-room of the establishment, were (sic) they were at work. Although the explosion occurred at 5:30 o’clock, no report of the occurrence reached Police Head-quarters until yesterday morning. The buildings, Nos. 130 and 141 Elm-street, are four-story brick structures, and are fully occupied as work-shops by various parties. It is reported that no less than 150 persons are employed on the different floors. The ground floor of the building, No. 141, and the second floor of both buildings are occupied by Messrs. Battais & Ode, who are manufacturers of French confections and chocolate. In their employ are usually from 12 to 15 men and boys. Situated on the second flood are the two drying rooms used in the manufacture of the candies.

At 5:30 o’clock on Thursday evening, there were in the small drying room Augustus Rowe, aged 25, of No. 33 West Third street; John Baptiste, aged 45, of No. 68 Thompson street; Carlo Bonie, aged 40, of South Fifth avenue, and George Williams, aged 16, of No. 143 Elm street, engaged in removing the dried candies from shelves. The men were almost in a nude state, as the temperature in the room was 170° near the ceiling, and 150° at the floor. Rowe, Baptiste, and Williams stood near the red-hot furnace in the centre of the room, while Bonie had mounted a step-ladder for the purpose of handing down the trays filled with candies to his fellow workmen on the floor. Bonie had five trays of gum-drops in his hands, and was in the act of handing them to Baptiste when his foot slipped, and the trays slid from his hands and were partially overturned. A cloud of fine starch-powder floated over the red-hot stove and settled on the heated surface. An explosion occurred instantly, and was quickly followed by a body of flame rising from the stove, filling the room, and rushing out of the door into the work-room.

The explosion was not sufficiently violent to throw Bonie from the ladder, and he escaped with comparatively slight injuries. His companions, however, were not so fortunate. What little clothing they wore was set on fire, and, with their clothes ablaze, they ran into the main workshop shrieking for aid. Their comrades immediately rushed to their assistance, and they were quickly stripped of their burning clothing. It was then found that they had been terribly burned about the body, face, and head. Ambulances were at once telegraphed for, and Baptiste, Rowe, and Williams were speedily removed to St. Vincent’s Hospital. Meanwhile, the fire had been promptly extinguished by the workmen with a few pails of water. Bonie’s hair and eyebrows were singes, but he received no further injury. The damage to the buildings an contents is very triding. (sic)
The buildings are old and in a rather insecure condition, and had it not been for the prompt manner in which the workmen extinguished the flames before they had gained much headway, a terrible fire, possible attended by loss of life, would have resulted. The floors of that portion of the building used as a candy factory are covered with a coating of sugar refuse, of a highly inflammable nature, to the depth of three-fourths of an inch, and the walls, tables, and machinery in the place are covered with a dust composed chiefly of powered starch.

Mr. Ode, one of the firm, said to a TIMES reporter yesterday that the accident was entirely due to Bonie’s carelessness in handling the trays. During the many years they had been engaged in the manufacture of candies, this as the first accident of the kind that had occurred in their establishment. The fires in the furnaces are kept up all night, but they employ a special watchman to guard against accidents. Mr. Ode said that he had long been aware of the explosive character of powdered starch, and, for the edification of the reporter, he gave an illustration by taking a quantity of it and throwing it gently toward a heated furnace, so that the starch fell on the heated surface in a cloud of dust. It flashed like gunpowder, and emitted a bright yellow flame. Again, he took a handful of the starch and threw it bodily on the burning coals, when it burned slowly like a quantity of flour.

The explosion on Thursday will have the effect of throwing light upon the origin of the explosion and fire on Dec. 20, 1877, at No. 63 Barclay-street, by which the candy factory of Greenfield & Son was completely destroyed and 13 persons lost their lives. This catastrophe created a profound sensation at the time, particularly as no satisfactory conclusion could be arrived at as to the origin of the fire. Fire Marshall Sheldon made an investigation which extended over several months, and the Coroner also made a searching investigation, but what caused the explosion and fire reaming a mystery. It was believed at that time that the disaster might have been occasioned by the explosion of a cloud of finely-powdered starch coming in contact with an open light or heated surface, and, in view of the circumstances surrounding the explosion of Thursday, it is rendered almost a certainty that the Barclay-street fire had its origin in the same manner.

The New York Times, New York, NY 9 Aug 1879