Emmett Bunyan

Feb. 7, 1921, began as an ordinary winter day in Lawrence County, Illinois. It was a Monday, the start of a new school week. At that time, rural areas were still dotted with small, often one-room schools overseen by a single teacher. One of these in Lawrence County was what was known as the Crossroads School, a frame building located about two and a half miles west of Lawrenceville. Students of all ages, both boys and girls, attended the Crossroads School, many of them the children of area farmers. Their teacher was 26-year-old Emmett Bunyan, who also worked as a farmer. At morning recess that day, the boys saw a small, rusty, oddly shaped container floating in a ditch that ran near the school. Some threw rocks at it until reprimanded by Bunyan. Unbeknownst to both the teacher and students, the container held the remnants of the explosive nitroglycerine. During the noon recess, one of the boys retrieved the container and tossed it to another boy, who attempted to open it using a wrench that he got from a nearby car. The other boys, naturally curious about the find, gathered all around him. Bunyan was heading to the coal shed, when he saw what was happening and approached the group. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in time to stop the boy from striking the container with the tool causing a deadly explosion. The scene at the school was truly unspeakable. Five boys and the teacher lay dead, and two more boys had such severe injuries that they would succumb later that day at Good Samaritan Hospital. Several of the other children were thrown to the ground shaken and bruised, while others ran away in shock and panic. Every window in the school was broken. Caps, mittens and other pieces of clothing hung from the treetops. People who lived nearby quickly arrived at the school and were stunned by the carnage. The boys who died were brothers, Thomas and Henry Harold Legg, ages 13 and 6 respectively, Elmer Mellette 9, Raymond Groves 9, Robert McCausland 6, Richard Peters 7, and Charles Welton 6. Thomas Legg and Robert McCausland were the two children who died at or on the way to the hospital. All of the deaths were, of course, devastating to the families. The Legg boy’s father was Harley Legg, a rural mail carrier. Thomas and Henry were his only children. None of the girls had been nearby and were thus spared injury. The bodies, with the exception of that of Bunyan and one of the boys, were badly mutilated. Bunyan’s body was thrown some 50 feet and came to rest at the base of a tree, with only some scratches. In fact, observers stated that it looked as if he was simply asleep. His death came from a severe concussion. Bunyan was a World War I naval veteran. He had married just the previous October. He and his wife, the former Gladys Woolsey, resided on a farm a little over a mile from the school. Gladys, having been ill at home, heard the explosion and ran all the way to the school without wearing a hat or coat. She was later taken to her in-law’s home in Lawrenceville, where she remained ill and in shock. For a time, her condition was described as critical. The explosion was heard and felt in Lawrenceville and the gravel road between the city and the school was jammed with vehicles for the remainder of the day and evening. Many went to the scene out of morbid curiosity. The road became so rutted from the traffic that it was nearly impossible to traverse. How the nitroglycerine container came to be in the ditch would remain a mystery. The obvious supposition was that it had been used in the oil fields, perhaps years ago, and then carelessly discarded. It only held a tiny amount of the deadly liquid, but that was all it took to cause the devastation. The coroner held an inquest, and the jury’s verdict for each of the victims read simply “That the deceased came to his death in the explosion of a can presumably containing nitroglycerine.” Funeral services for the dead were held over the course of that week. It was determined that the nitroglycerine in the container was manufactured by the American Glycerin Company. Nearly a year later, at the start of February 1922, Gladys Bunyan and the parents of the deceased children entered damage suits in the Lawrence County Circuit Court against the company and their local representative, Charles Townsend, suing for $10,000 for each death. Bunyan’s case was heard first, with the jury trial taking place in October 1922. The jury, after deliberating for 22 hours, awarded the plaintiff the sum of $8,000 (more than $124,000 in today’s money). Mr. Townsend was absolved of any wrongdoing. The remaining seven damage cases were settled in February 1925, with six plaintiffs awarded the sum of $2,500 and one $3,000. Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the horrific Crossroads School tragedy. Brian Spangle can be reached at brianrspangle60@outlook.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.

Feb. 7, 1921, began as an ordinary winter day in Lawrence County, Illinois. It was a Monday, the start of a new school week. At that time, rural areas were still dotted with small, often one-room schools overseen by a single teacher. One of these in Lawrence County was what was known as the Crossroads School, a frame building located about two and a half miles west of Lawrenceville.

Students of all ages, both boys and girls, attended the Crossroads School, many of them the children of area farmers. Their teacher was 26-year-old Emmett Bunyan, who also worked as a farmer. At morning recess that day, the boys saw a small, rusty, oddly shaped container floating in a ditch that ran near the school. Some threw rocks at it until reprimanded by Bunyan. Unbeknownst to both the teacher and students, the container held the remnants of the explosive nitroglycerine.

During the noon recess, one of the boys retrieved the container and tossed it to another boy, who attempted to open it using a wrench that he got from a nearby car. The other boys, naturally curious about the find, gathered all around him. Bunyan was heading to the coal shed, when he saw what was happening and approached the group. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in time to stop the boy from striking the container with the tool causing a deadly explosion.

The scene at the school was truly unspeakable. Five boys and the teacher lay dead, and two more boys had such severe injuries that they would succumb later that day at Good Samaritan Hospital. Several of the other children were thrown to the ground shaken and bruised, while others ran away in shock and panic. Every window in the school was broken. Caps, mittens and other pieces of clothing hung from the treetops.

People who lived nearby quickly arrived at the school and were stunned by the carnage. The boys who died were brothers, Thomas and Henry Harold Legg, ages 13 and 6 respectively, Elmer Mellette 9, Raymond Groves 9, Robert McCausland 6, Richard Peters 7, and Charles Welton 6.

Thomas Legg and Robert McCausland were the two children who died at or on the way to the hospital.

All of the deaths were, of course, devastating to the families. The Legg boy’s father was Harley Legg, a rural mail carrier. Thomas and Henry were his only children. None of the girls had been nearby and were thus spared injury.

The bodies, with the exception of that of Bunyan and one of the boys, were badly mutilated. Bunyan’s body was thrown some 50 feet and came to rest at the base of a tree, with only some scratches. In fact, observers stated that it looked as if he was simply asleep. His death came from a severe concussion.

Bunyan was a World War I naval veteran. He had married just the previous October. He and his wife, the former Gladys Woolsey, resided on a farm a little over a mile from the school. Gladys, having been ill at home, heard the explosion and ran all the way to the school without wearing a hat or coat. She was later taken to her in-law’s home in Lawrenceville, where she remained ill and in shock. For a time, her condition was described as critical.

The explosion was heard and felt in Lawrenceville and the gravel road between the city and the school was jammed with vehicles for the remainder of the day and evening. Many went to the scene out of morbid curiosity. The road became so rutted from the traffic that it was nearly impossible to traverse.

How the nitroglycerine container came to be in the ditch would remain a mystery. The obvious supposition was that it had been used in the oil fields, perhaps years ago, and then carelessly discarded. It only held a tiny amount of the deadly liquid, but that was all it took to cause the devastation. The coroner held an inquest, and the jury’s verdict for each of the victims read simply “That the deceased came to his death in the explosion of a can presumably containing nitroglycerine.”

Funeral services for the dead were held over the course of that week.

It was determined that the nitroglycerine in the container was manufactured by the American Glycerin Company. Nearly a year later, at the start of February 1922, Gladys Bunyan and the parents of the deceased children entered damage suits in the Lawrence County Circuit Court against the company and their local representative, Charles Townsend, suing for $10,000 for each death. Bunyan’s case was heard first, with the jury trial taking place in October 1922. The jury, after deliberating for 22 hours, awarded the plaintiff the sum of $8,000 (more than $124,000 in today’s money). Mr. Townsend was absolved of any wrongdoing.

The remaining seven damage cases were settled in February 1925, with six plaintiffs awarded the sum of $2,500 and one $3,000.

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the horrific Crossroads School tragedy.

Brian Spangle can be reached at brianrspangle60@outlook.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.

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