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Post What's a Turpentine Bomb? Gary Moore Explains
Created by John Eipper on 07/06/21 6:53 AM

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What's a Turpentine Bomb? Gary Moore Explains (John Eipper, USA, 07/06/21 6:53 am)

Gary Moore writes:

"What's a turpentine bomb?" he wondered aloud.

My conversation with Scott Ellsworth, the premiere historian on the Tulsa race riot of 1921, led, on that quizzical Wednesday, March 24, 1999, to him eventually asking the perplexed question. It's an oddly central question on the Tulsa riot, urged by persistent stories--and no few prestigious authorities--as they insist that "turpentine balls" or "turpentine bombs" disastrously fueled the 1921 riot, supposedly being dropped from attacking airplanes.

Nevertheless, even after Ellsworth's two-plus decades of digging into every accessible facet of the 1921 riot, starting in the 1970s when he was a lonely voice in the riot's official oblivion, and even after his finding and getting to know the survivors as nearly no one else, and getting to know the documentary archives like the back of his hand--and then at last even after he was showered with awards and accolades for his tireless investigations--even after all that, in 1999, as a new wave of examination and excitement was sweeping over the old Tulsa scar, here was this front-line authority on the 1921 violence scratching his head, having found nothing in the daily lives or quotidian knowledge of 1921 Tulsans, black or white, to shed any light on the question at hand. It was not just the question of whether any "turpentine bombs" or "turpentine balls" were or were not hurled in the riot, but much more fundamentally, the problem of there seeming to be no knowledge or mention whatever, outside very tightly focused stories growing after the riot itself, that any kind of turpentine-soaked projectile, bomb or ball, was known to exist, in any context. The idea of such a thing seemed to have come into the riot's aftermath from nowhere.

But the "nowhere" can be traced.

I had to respond to Ellsworth with a shrug. I couldn't answer the question either--though, quirkily, I happened to have a much closer association with bygone issues involving the heady liquid, turpentine. We were talking in 1999 because the wave of re-examination on cases like Tulsa involved us both, me because I had dug up the Rosewood incident from 1923 Florida that started the 1990s re-examinations with the tumultuous Rosewood claims case of 1991-1994, and Ellsworth working in 1997-2001 on the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which was inspired by Rosewood, as were similar 1990s exhumations of old Jim Crow explosions in North Carolina and Arkansas.

And turpentine, as it turns out, had been central to Rosewood. Survivor after elderly survivor told me chapter and verse about a surprising old southern industry that today is covered in forgetfulness. That industry was concentrated far from inland Tulsa, and centered among the great pine forests of the South's coastal littoral. For turpentine, unlike other flammable liquids (notably gasoline and kerosene), does not come from petroleum veins in the ground. Turpentine is distilled from the resin of living trees: sap-rich, aromatic longleaf pines. Consider Rosewood survivor Minnie Mitchell, who fretted, on the dangerous night of January 4, 1923, that her older brother Ruben was late coming home--from his job just up the railroad tracks at a turpentine still. At the turn of the twentieth century Rosewood had boomed with three different turpentine distilleries, each crudely but expertly boiling off clear, sweet-smelling spirits of turpentine, along with the thicker bi-products pitch and tar, crucial in sealing wooden ships, hence the turpentine industry's now-vanished name: "naval stores." Today we get only mysterious echoes of all this, in phrases like "tar baby" and "Tar Heels."

In 1923 Rosewood, most people had queasily ingested a swig or two of turpentine, as a supposed (though toxic) cure-all. It suffused their descriptions and tales, far more than in the folkways of distant Tulsa at the dryer gateway to the plains. Yet nobody from pine-rich Rosewood--not the turpentine dippers and chippers, not the entrepreneurial families with their pine leases, nor even the pained witnesses to Rosewood's January 1923 destruction by racial cleansing arson--none of them spoke of any kind of "turpentine balls," much less "turpentine bombs." The reason is clear. Even back in 1923 there stood, just down the tracks from Rosewood, a jug-top Gulf Oil gasoline pump for the Model-Ts, with all the arson accelerant any budding fire-bomber might want--though more probably the Rosewood arsonists simply dumped some "coal oil" (kerosene, not really from coal but petroleum) out of sloshing cans that served farm lanterns and lamps. Hence, even in the pine-choked heart of Turpentine Central, there was apparently not even an occasional yarn about anything so whimsical as a "turpentine ball."

At least, not in 1923.

But before exploring that sneaky "at least," dial a thousand miles northwest to Tulsa, and just two years earlier in 1921, when the riot there occurred. If even the oil-poor swamps of Florida saw booming, blasting petroleum products as any arsonist's choice, what shall we say then of the "oil capital of the world"? This was how gushing Tulsa boasted of itself in 1921. After World War I's skyrocketing demand, "as much as 20 percent of the oil powering the Allied armies passed through Tulsa's pipeline terminals, refineries and rail yards." As in all of America in 1921, Tulsa still had some miscellaneous cans of pine-scented, flammable turpentine around, but in peripheral uses like thinning paints. Turpentine was more expensive, harder to find and less volatile than gasoline. Any hypothesized airplane-flying roughneck, if envisioned as peopling the Tulsa violence of 1921, would have been much more intimate with what flew his very vehicle.

And yet, without doubt, the underground tales that kept whispering in Tulsa's rebuilt African American community after the 1921 riot have continued to insist on a nagging flourish: "turpentine balls." This was what came to be said as having dropped, never verifiably, from unidentified World War I-vintage aircraft in the Tulsa riot. Not gasoline balls. Not kerosene balls. The tales fixed on a peculiarly exotic hook, seemingly inexplicable by the usages of 1921.

But not by earlier history.

The industrializing nineteenth century had veritably burst into light, moving from the flickering shadows of candlelight and whale oil lamps toward the brilliance of electricity. But in between had come rapidly changing phases. As the whales were disappearing in the 1850s, a next step, flaming in sometimes elaborate parlor lamps, was alcohol-based "camphene" or "burning oil." This was good news for the naval stores industry of the slave South, for a major component of camphene was turpentine. Not until the Civil War would such alcohol/turpentine lamps begin to be outstripped by fuels from strange new contraptions called oil wells. Before internal combustion engines had arrived to use the products, petroleum distillates boomed originally in lighting ("coal oil" really was made from coal in the early days, before petroleum-based kerosene usurped the nickname, being much more efficient). In the second half of the nineteenth century, when inventors were spark-plugging the larger future of the oil boom in the internal combustion engine, the fate of turpentine began to sputter. Before that breakpoint--before the Civil War--escaped slaves were said to signal Underground Railroad skiffs on the Ohio River by tossing up flaming beacons: turpentine balls. Wadded cotton was soaked in the piney, flammable liquid. Colonel Drake's history-changing first oil well came in 1859; prior to that, accelerant choices were limited. If a rodeo cowboy wanted to spin an entertaining fireball on a lariat, it had to be a turpentine ball. Festival crowds could happily play a fiery form of mob rugby, chasing flaming turpentine balls.

But by the 1880s, even before automobiles and their gasoline thirst, turpentine was being pushed aside. Lamp lighting (just before gaslights and electricity) was being taken over by kerosene, distilled from the fast-multiplying oil wells. As early as the 1870s, insurrectionists in Cuba were firebombing barracks with "kerosene-soaked cotton balls." Yet only a decade earlier in the American Civil War, occasional incendiary cannon shots still had to use what was available: turpentine--as makeshift artillery had been doing for centuries (unless natural oil seeps happened to provide a stronger liquid, as suggested by departures like "Greek fire"). A Civil War train-wrecking tale suggested the shift, combining turpentine, camphene, and pine stumps "that'd burn like a turpentine ball." The earlier anti-Masonic excitement of 1826 had burned a printing office by planting (not hurling) "straw and turpentine balls." Nebraska arsonists in 1871 used "turpentine balls," not kerosene or gasoline. In Oklahoma itself, an Indian fighting tale from the depths of the nineteenth century had the cabin roof of a besieged Comanche breached with a burning "turpentine ball."

And yet by 1916 when Pancho Villa burned Columbus, New Mexico, his men came with cans of kerosene. It would have been ridiculous to use turpentine. In 1920, Irish rebels wouldn't have dreamed of using balky turpentine; they threw petrol bombs--using gasoline--as in 1936 in Spain and finally when the Finns in 1939-40 named the Molotov cocktail. In the 1921 Tulsa riot itself, a band of white arsonists reportedly broke into a mill and demanded that the owner give them the logical liquid: kerosene.

But still, none of this is to suggest that the chain by which Tulsa's post-riot folklore acquired the phrase "turpentine ball" is vague. There were key players in the adoption of the phrase--fictionalizers who dredged up a barely remembered image, from the bygone nineteenth century, to designate objects which in 1921 Tulsa were physically non-existent--but were psychologically required.

"Fictionalizers"? Think of the two logically suspect professions: journalism and the law.

On Thursday, June 2, 1921, the Chicago Defender, a phenomenal force that had become the nation's first multi-state newspaper for African Americans, and the largest, had to move quickly. Its weekly publication day was on June 4, and the Tulsa riot had burst into national knowledge on June 1. But the Defender, notoriously in those days, had the advantage of imagination. It didn't need to send out a reporter. In the 1916 Jesse Washington spectacle lynching in Texas, according to impressively through investigator Patricia Bernstein, the Defender saved reporting expense by attributing its reportage to a "fictional on-site observer," who sent back sensational observations that no real reporters seemed to see, in keeping with the Defender's "tradition of publishing exciting fabrications." The Chicago weekly's controversial but wealthy publisher, Robert Abbott, owning a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and a Duesenberg convertible, was quoted pointedly by The Crisis, the national magazine of the NAACP, as dismissing critics with a credo of fabrication: "I tell the truth if I can get it, but if I can't get the facts, I read between the lines and tell what I know to be facts even though the reports say differently."

My own research first met the results of this process when I unearthed the 1923 Rosewood case and traced its long-silent survivors. The picture emerging from them, even allowing for predictable eyewitness and memory lapses, uniformly showed the mainstream white press in 1923 to have obscured the real Rosewood events with a concoction of true details and fictional misimpressions. But compared to this, the Defender's headliner on Rosewood was in a different world. Its news story about what had supposedly happened in the Florida swamps in January 1923 bore almost no resemblance to the real events, including the use of a completely imagined hero, "Ted Cole," who was said to have come, conveniently, from Chicago, besides being a glamorous movie promoter and World War I veteran. This was presented as real news. Records confirm the obvious, that no one even remotely like "Ted Cole" ever existed (though the 1997 John Singleton film Rosewood, swelling out of the Rosewood claims case, excitedly preferred Abbott's old 1923 deception, and resurrected the Defender's faked hero as the 1997 movie's male lead). Robert Abbott's seeming genius for untruth could have a long reach. Another black leader of the early twentieth century, Marcus Garvey, denounced Abbott because of the Defender's flood of ads touting skin lighteners, hair-straighteners and get-rich scams, aimed at an anxious and self-doubting audience. Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist who helped generations of children by funding black education in the South, characterized Abbott with words that are unprintable.

It was a rough age for journalism. Garvey called Robert Abbott a mini-William Randolph Hearst, and indeed Abbot was successfully sued by Hearst in 1918 for plagiarizing the entire Hearst masthead and logo in pretense of a fake Hearst paper--though in the same period Hearst himself was also sued by the Associated Press for Hearst's stealing of news dispatches--while Abbott, in turn, grumbled about his own dispatches (or imaginings) being stolen by the Associated Negro Press. In this world--its inner workings unseen by the millions inheriting its illusions--the Tulsa "race war" would meet its first round, though not its final, triumphant round, of imagined aerial bombing.

As the June 1 riot caught Abbott by surprise, his June 4 imagining had time only for a few flourishes; the big extravaganza would come in the following week's paper. The Defender leased or had access to an Associated Press telegraph wire, and worked by cribbing rough outlines of stories from that or other published sources, then adding imaginings as desired. For example, in the white-run Associated Press, a lynching precursor to Rosewood got only a paragraph; then the January 5, 1923, Defender lifted that small blurb verbatim, but added to it 14 words--which changed the entire meaning of the lynching, from drunken banality to glorious economic struggle. On June 1, 1921, Tulsa police announced that they were using six local bi-planes to monitor the riot, both its arsonists and its refugees. Some planes that day seemed to buzz low, terrifying African Americans fleeing from ground-level rioters. Rumors about the planes grew, though no story claiming actual bombardment could be traced to a verifiable witness. It was not a stretch to feel that if rioting whites could burn more than 1,000 residences (per the Red Cross), they might do just about anything. And feelings loomed large in this sudden, devastating trauma. Meanwhile, mainstream white newspapers, no bastions of restraint, would have been itching for a sensational aerial bombardment angle, and yet only minor mentions of the airplanes were made--and only as an exotic presence, not as combatants.

Then came the Chicago Defender's June 4 headline, peering at Tulsa and seeming to see what others couldn't see: "Bombs Hurled From Aeroplanes." The announcement was cryptic, for in the front-page text below the headline no explanation was made; you had to follow the story to a back page to find a single disembodied nod: "Airplanes rained bombs down on the few hundred of our men fighting there. Several of these were disabled by rifle shots." And that was all for June 4. At that early point the Defender was more interested in fictionalizing another angle, suggested by the stirring words "our men fighting there." The headline "Hurled From Aeroplanes" read in full: "Bombs Hurled From Aeroplanes in Order to Stop Attacks on the Whites." The depth of that should be allowed to sink in. It wasn't just whites who were saying the riot started with black attacks on whites; the black press, notably the Defender, was trumpeting it as a boast. In the "race war" era, such compensatory boasting also took the form of distorted body counts, which became an eerie form of ethnic scorekeeping in folklore, on both sides. The June 4 Defender said of Tulsa: "The known number of dead whites is forty-four. Thirty-six bodies of Race victims have been recovered." These numbers were pulled from thin air, to "even the score" and make whites the supposed fatality losers. The wording grew specific: "The number of whites dead [sic] is being suppressed in order to put fear into the hearts of those who are fighting them."

Decades later in the 1990s, Oklahoma representative and African American leader Don Ross was the driving force behind formation of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, but Ross had grown up with a scorekeeping mentality passed down from the old Jim Crow atrocities; he seemed to moderate his views greatly after his commission unearthed facts, but at its beginning he put both scorekeeping and aerial bombing together in a single explosive sentence, recorded on video: "Our side won the riot--until they brought in the airplanes!" Throughout the aerial bombardment stories, this is the sub rosa message: The riot was a mutual-combat "war," and was not "lost" until the winning side brought in unfair aerial technology.

But notice above: no turpentine. Not yet.

By the next week, the Chicago Defender had grasped the possibilities. If the game was imagination, why go halfway? The Tulsa cataclysm was now looked back upon telepathically:

"With the coming of daylight, airplanes from the local aviation field...directed the movements of the oncoming army. At 6:15 a.m., men in the planes began dropping fire bombs of turpentine and other inflammable material on the property. Women and children running from their burning homes were struck dead by the incessant machine gun fire from the hills or burned to death by the liquid fire poured down from the airplanes."

This is rather public horror. And no confirmable witness saw it?

But now we've got the turpentine--still only in a single mention, competing with images like "liquid fire." And nowhere, in this epic, is there a specific "turpentine ball." Not yet. Instead, a dream-like lack of coherence finds "fire bombs of turpentine and other flammable material" turning handily into "liquid fire poured down." The Defender's imagination roved freely through musty archetypes from the past. Ancient Byzantine siphons that burned enemy ships with flaming jets of Greek fire suggest themselves in: "The scorching, white fire from airships above was poured upon them." But the mental archives might also summon the 1915 war debut of German flammenwerfen, petroleum-based flame throwers. And apparently there was also a cobwebbed memory of that forlorn bygone incendiary liquid, turpentine. Before the Defender's June story, no indication emerges that anyone in Tulsa was imputing turpentine to the elusive rumors of aerial bombing. Through the summer in the niche press for African Americans, various of the weeklies would try the aerial bombing story, copying Abbott or using their own rumors, with the competing versions sometimes alleging dynamite, sometimes nitroglycerin. None matched the Defender in imagination.

One could almost see the leering bigot leaning acrobatically from his swooping bi-plane, with his inexplicable, inexhaustible bucket of boiling white magic: "white fire...poured upon them." The image didn't try to cohere. The skies above Tulsa were a morphing Hieronymus Bosch inferno, tailored to the vulnerabilities of the desperate:

"The whites stormed the church, the defenders putting up a game fight until the airplanes bombed the structure...Men fought with utter abandon against the human devils above and around them. As the scorching, white fire from airships above was poured upon them, the defenders of their homes made a valiant effort to stave off the bloodthirsty passion of the hounds who killed them. Men slipped and fell in the blood of their brothers...One man, leaning far out of an airplane, was brought down by the bullet of a sharpshooter and his body burst upon the ground. Men were hideouts [hideous?--JE]. Women were evil. Judgement was in the air and the multitude perished. "

It's not unusual, in the annals of hoaxes and hoaxers, for the deceiver to grow so contemptuous of audience gullibility that broad hints are tossed out, deriding the credulity of the suckers--which sounds a bit like the last three sentences above.

But now comes a second player. As early as July, Tulsa's ruins attracted an out-of-town lawyer, known in his native area, just up across the state line, as "the greatest Negro orator in the State of Kansas." This attorney was Elisha Scott. The destroyed African American section of Tulsa already had its local lawyers, but Scott, the out-of-town big gun, would quietly muscle some of them aside. One of these had set up in a sweltering makeshift tent on Archer Street, just around the corner from his old office at 107½ N. Greenwood Avenue, which the riot had left in ruins. This was B. C. Franklin, himself an only slightly earlier newcomer to the Tulsa boomtown, and later the author, in ambiguous fashion, of the Smithsonian Institution's post-millennially-discovered typescript reminiscence (as in my earlier WAIS posts). Having survived the riot, Franklin made determined efforts that summer to push the mountains of litigation left by the event, but by August the die was cast. The big plums were going to the star from Kansas. Elisha Scott was pulling in hundreds of dollars in monthly fees from the riot relief board that Franklin had helped to found, while Franklin was left with pennies--as records carefully published each month confirmed. Though called a relief board and doling out some funds to specific riot sufferers, the temporary entity was in large part a fund for attorneys. Most of the board's donated income went to attorneys, and to Elisha Scott in particular. It was hoped that in return, large settlements would be won for riot victims, but by year's end there was still no docketed litigation, and the major result was in the lawyers' pockets.

The summer and fall of 1921 formed an open call to legal representation because property owners from the destroyed area, both blacks and whites, were desperate. They had found that their insurance policies carried routine riot exclusion clauses, basically saying that in case of war, insurrection or social upheaval they couldn't indemnify everything--or anything. Elisha Scott was already a fixture in oil lease deals around Tulsa, and in the flood of disappointments, promises and attempted end-runs against the riot exclusions, Scott rose to the top. It had also been ruled that Tulsa's municipal entity could not be sued for riot losses--so now conspiracy theories about the riot had a hard-cash incentive. If the city could be shown to have secretly aided the rioters, it might be on the hook.

A new synergy in this, between Elisha Scott of Topeka, Kansas, and Robert Abbott of the distant Chicago Defender, was elusive. They were at least passing acquaintances, but no evidence says that Scott directly contacted Abbott to plant the story about himself that would run in the Defender on October 14. Scott's efforts had been publicized in The Crisis of the NAACP, and Abbott was more likely cribbing--and then imagining--from there. The Defender spectacularly revealed:

"EIisah [sic] Scott of Topeka, Kan., one of the attorneys retained by the Tulsa riot victims, has a signed affidavit in his possession that when produced will throw an entirely new light on the insurrection carefully planned by the whites here on May 31 last [.] It is the confession of a former Tulsa policeman, Van B. Hurley (white), and consists of 31 pages. Hurley, who was honorably discharged from the force and given splendid recommendations by his captains and lieutenants, names several prominent city officials who he declared met in a downtown office and carefully planned the attack on the segregated district by the use of airplanes. He gives in detail a description of the conference between local aviators and the officials. After this meeting Hurley asserted the airplanes darted out from hangars and hovered over the district dropping nitroglycerin on buildings, setting them afire."

Perhaps the least important detail in the Defender's blockbuster above was that now it forgot about imaginary turpentine and instead inserted imaginary nitroglycerin. Abbott apparently didn't know that Scott himself was about to say "turpentine" in a big way, which would finally cement the "turpentine ball" image. Notwithstanding, on October 14 the point deserving attention was that the talkative Van B. Hurley, Tulsa police official and conspirator extraordinaire, who had spilled the beans for 31 pages to wily Elisha Scott, did not exist. This is not just a guess. Post-millennially, when re-examination of events like Tulsa 1921 became a journalistic fashion, both avid local reporters and determined national writers dug into the Van B. Hurley story, determined to find the conspiracy. And he wasn't there. Not in police department rolls, not in Tulsa in general. No real person named Van B. Hurley, or anything close. Instead, the footprints of imagination grow morosely hilarious. Remember the Defender's June 4 headline: "Hurled From Aeroplanes"? Who better to hurl indefatigable Greek fire than a hurling Hurley--and especially if he's leading, out front, in the van?

The claimed affidavit never surfaced. Scott was busy elsewhere, working on sheaves of boilerplate riot claims laced with misspellings and misnamings, which never mentioned the Defender's "Hurley." The motive for Scott's blizzard of paperwork is unclear, for it had already been proven repeatedly that the litigation wall was unyielding--and certainly these scattershot missives were not going to change that. But they may have served Scott on the front end, if, from each desperate claimant, he could seek a retainer fee on grandiose promises. His language in the claims was sure to get publicity, and it did, as claim after claim accused: "...did, ride in an airplane, drop and caused to be dropped turpentine balls and bombs down and upon the houses."

So here it was, at last. Nobody had ever seemed to say "turpentine balls" before the Elisha Scott claims--and no wonder, since such phantasmal spheres were only faint asterisks from a vanished century. But Scott had particular reason to know this quirky phrase, a reason from the 1870s, even if the Tulsa locals did not. But before getting to that, Scott's tirelessly retyped boilerplate repeatedly accused a Tulsa police official, George Blaine, of riding in the aerial bombing squadron, though the name was misspelled as "J. R. Blaine," with the "J" inked out in some papers and a "G" written in by hand. Scott had a long-suffering typist who traveled with him, but the typist for the relief board, which was funding Scott and where the newly emerged "turpentine balls" would surely be discussed, was another scribe, Mary Parrish. An impressive achiever in various ways, Parrish would self-publish a small booklet a year after the riot, Events of the Tulsa Disaster, which preserved for popular consumption Elisha Scott's innovative phrase "turpentine balls." Parrish wrote: "more than a dozen aeroplanes went up and began to drop turpentine balls upon the Negro residences." A later historian puzzled that Parrish gave no source for these turpentine balls, nor cited anyone who supposedly said they'd seen one.

Before the riot Mary Parrish had lived next door to the office of attorney B. C. Franklin, and in the riot ruins, as Franklin made do in a tent, Parrish worked with him, paid $15 a week by the relief board. A decade later, on August 22, 1931, when an older B. C. Franklin sat down on a Saturday to rework his riot memories into a clearly fictional pastiche, various indications said he was using Parrish's 1922 booklet as one of his templates (another being a fast-paced Scribner's article that had just come out that August). With Parrish's vague, isolated reference to "turpentine balls" at his disposal, Franklin imagined a sensational 1921 scenario in front of his own Greenwood office, where he envisioned "the side-walks literally covered with burning turpentine balls." Inconveniently, Parrish had described the same place and time in a much more convincing manner, and no such wonders were there. More than a half century after Franklin's death in 1960, the Smithsonian Institution would announce that it had made a historic new discovery, supposedly a long-lost typewritten eyewitness account running to ten pages, typed by the late Tulsa attorney B. C. Franklin on August 22, 1931. It was announced that this document incontrovertibly proved that riot-torn Tulsa in 1921 had been bombed from the air, not just a little but in waves that left "the side-walks literally covered with burning turpentine balls." The Smithsonian, in a new era apparently preferring myth to history, had finally given the imprimatur of truth to a long chain of imaginers and imaginings.

But the loose end? Just why was Elisha Scott of Topeka, Kansas, during the autumn of 1921, so at home with the seemingly forgotten nineteenth-century phrase "turpentine ball," which apparently made its appearance in Tulsa not in the riot itself, but in Scott's later riot damage claims? How had it gotten into his thoughts?

Topeka, Kansas, is a long 200 miles north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, but is only a scant 80 miles from Clay County, Missouri. And there, on the fateful night of January 25, 1875, an isolated residence lay sleeping, unperturbed by its notorious nickname as "Castle James." Reports about the chaos on that famous night were often dubious, but the gist is clear. Toward the silent structure of logs and weatherboard, shadowy representatives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency managed to creep, as they pried open a shutter, causing sudden screams inside--for this was the home of Mrs. Zeralda Samuel, who, before she remarried, had been named James. Her two grown sons, Frank and Jesse, on the run once again, were hiding out inside. The botched Pinkerton plan to catch the bank-robbing James brothers erupted in pandemonium as technological preparations went awry. Tossed into the house haphazardly were two objects, both of them angrily blazing. The larger one was what the nineteenth century sometimes called a "hand grenade," though it looked more like a blackened smudge pot used in a later age for highway construction. The smaller one, made of tightly wadded and heavily soaked cotton, was burning a bit more brightly. All the stories would tell of this second one, this "turpentine ball." And these stories would swell through local newspapers and hearth sides across the Kansas state line.

Mrs. Samuel saw immediately that the turpentine ball had set afire a quilt on a bed, but the effects were so negligible that she simply tossed the quilt outside. Then she or her husband turned to the slightly larger flaming object, thinking to kick it into the fireplace, since it looked like one more low-threat turpentine ball. They were reportedly surprised at its weight. A poker was grabbed from the fireplace, and then there was one kick or poke too many, for this was a 33-pound iron bomb, filled with gunpowder and coated with kerosene, and it went off. Mrs. Samuel's right arm was severed below the elbow. A half-brother of Jesse James was killed.

Frank and Jesse got away.

For generations in the mid-twentieth century, pragmatic mainstream information laid the disturbing traces of the 1921 Tulsa race riot under a deceptive fog of oblivion. Then from the late twentieth century onward, as information fashions changed, romantic activist information made a priority of exhuming and publicizing the traces, only to coat them in an opposite kind of avoidance, rank with treacly myths--as if in the long run this is the best that a nervous nation can do, at least with certain dimensions of truth: to avoid. Could there be a better symbol for this overarching process than the shimmering, sparkling, immediately evaporating, treacherously igniting, aromatically invigorating, and deadly liquid that is turpentine? Or the corny, cottony, spinelessly roly-poly, never-focused image of the "turpentine ball"?

JE comments:  Brilliantly researched and written, Gary.  WAISers are a fearless bunch, so I trust most of us will not fall victim to TLDR (too long, didn't read).  Of the several takeaways from your essay, it's revealing that so many major "eyewitnesses" in journalism's past were simply, for lack of a better term, made up.  Hurlin' Van Hurley is quite an imaginative fabrication, and a shocking one at that:  why would a white man in the ultra-racist 1920s "betray" his own tribe to the African American press?

Regarding the central theme of your reflections above, I see several questions:  were the airborne bombs something other than turpentine, or did they not exist at all?  If an infernal projectile flies your way, are you going to reflect on what it's made of?  There's something sonorously evil about the word "turpentine" (its Spanish equivalent, trementina, is even more menacing).  Moreover, "turpentine" serves as a generic for all sorts of spiritous brews, such as the thinner for cleaning paint brushes.

One final query:  I had originally understood that the Parrish account contained no mention of the turpentine balls--see your June 26th post below.  What am I misunderstanding?


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