By Jennifer DiCola Matos
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Spring 2021
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“It is a noteworthy fact in human experience that agencies and forces which have been devised and utilized to promote the most beneficent ends possess possibilities of the gravest harm together with the power to enhance man’s comfort and convenience,” Dr. F.W. Draper warned in an 1893 article in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. What was this force of both possibility and harm that Dr. Draper referred to? Just a little invention that brightened the lives of countless forebears: illuminating gas.
Over a 12-year period at the beginning of the 20th century, eight deaths in West Hartford were attributed to asphyxiation from illuminating gas. John Coyle, age 91, passed away on October 9, 1907. The following May, Annabel Hopkins Perdue, 33, passed away. Over the next 10 years, six more West Hartford residents fell victim to the effects of illuminating gas. Sadly, this was not unusual.
Gas lighting was a significant invention that improved interior spaces that had been dimly lit by candles or oil lamps. Gas provided a brighter light, and it was adjustable. Invented in the 1790s in England, gas lighting emerged in the United States in 1816. Baltimore, Maryland was the first U.S. city to install gas street lamps. According to Denys Peter Myers in Gaslighting in America: A Guide for Historic Preservation (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1978), President James K. Polk’s conversion of the candle-lit chandeliers in the White House’s East Room to gas in 1848 furthered gas lighting’s popularity. The following year, the first company in Hartford received a charter from the Connecticut General Assembly to start a gas enterprise.
Experiments were conducted to determine which type of gas would create the brightest illumination. Coal gas, or illuminating gas, as it was known, was created through the distillation of bituminous coal, which produced a mixture of methane, ethylene, and hydrogen. According to the National Gas Museum in Leicester, England (nationalgasmuseum.org.uk), the distillation process started with placing coal in a closed tube and heating it. This released gasses including hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Additional processes removed impurities; however, a March 20, 1869 report in Scientific American noted that even after the purification process, “enough [compounds]still remain to render the gas offensive and deleterious to health, and to greatly impair its illuminating power.”
Herein lies the danger that Dr. Draper warned about in 1893. MIT professors W.T. Sedgwick and F. Schneider Jr. warned in “The Relation of Illuminating Gas to Public Health” (Journal of American Public Health Association, 1910) that “…in the northern tier of states, gas poisoning is today a very serious cause of sickness and death.” They were particularly concerned by the use of illuminating gas as a method of suicide, which was on the rise and accounted for 50 percent of recorded gas-poisoning deaths. And yet its use remained widespread.
Most curious of all the West Hartford cases was that of a couple named Patrick and Ellen Broderick. The Brodericks were Irish immigrants who had come to America in 1860, settling in Hartford to raise their four children. Patrick worked as a soap maker while Ellen kept house. One son was a clerk at a dry-goods store, another became a policeman in Hartford, while one daughter worked at a silk mill. The family lived for many years on Front Street in Hartford, but shortly before their deaths, Patrick and Ellen moved to St. Mary’s Home for the Aged in a rural section of West Hartford.
St. Mary’s Home was operated by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order dedicated to caring for the sick and needy that was founded in Ireland in 1831. The sisters purchased an old farm on Steele Road between Albany and Asylum avenues in 1880, using the original farmhouse as a refuge for the sick and elderly. The sisters
commissioned architect John J. Dwyer to design a new facility, which opened in 1896 and featured administrative offices and dormitory wings—and gas lighting. The demand for housing was so great that an additional wing was added in 1905.
The Brodericks spent their final days in one of the dormitory wings. In a Hartford Courant story the day after they died, Patrick and Ellen were described as a “companionable couple” and as having been in good spirits. On the morning of September 11, 1913, one of the sisters smelled gas coming from the Brodericks’ room and discovered that the couple had tragically been asphyxiated by illuminating gas from a faulty light fixture. Various accounts, including town records and U.S. Census records, record Patrick as 68 or 71 and Ellen as 81 or 82 at the time of their deaths.
Change in the form of electric lighting was coming, but not soon enough to save the Brodericks and so many like them. It would take at least another decade for electricity to reach sparsely populated areas of West Hartford.
Jennifer DiCola Matos is executive director of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society. She last wrote “A Way with Wurds,” Winter 2020/2021.
Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society
227 South Main Street, West Hartford
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