Thursday, January 12, 2017

Boom! Train Explosion in Woodlawn area of Birmingham

Explosion on Birmingham Train

Have you ever heard a loud noise and wondered what is the world could have made that sound? Today, we head online to social media and media outlets as the news is almost instant. One hundred years ago in 1917, that was not the case, and the citizens of Birmingham had to wait until the next morning to read in the newspaper what really happened.

On January 7, 1917, readers of The Birmingham Age-Herald and The Birmingham News discovered that there had been an explosion on Birmingham special train of the Southern Railway near Woodlawn. Ambulances rushed to Terminal Station, and carried the wounded to local hospitals. The explosion killed 3 people and injured 15 people. The explosion was not an accident, but a deliberate act perpetrated by Louis Walton.

Train Wreckage
How did this happen? Passenger Louis Walton carried a small bag into the train’s lavatory, and the lavatory was the site of the explosion. Several witnesses on the train saw Walton with a glass bottle possibly containing nitroglycerin. Shattered windows and a bulge in the rear end of the train car were the only outwardly visible evidence of the explosion. Because the train car had been made of steel, it helped minimize the damage and loss of life. Twisted walls, overturned seats, and blown fragments lined the inside of the train car. One of the saddest stories was of J.D. Russum of West End. Previous injuries had left him crippled and without the use of his legs. As a result of the train accident, he had his right ear blown off, his head gnashed, and a large splinter in his side, and his right leg fractured, but he miraculously survived the accident.

What was Walton’s motive for blowing up the train? In 1915, Walton’s business partner, Mr. O. Barton, was found shot to death, and Walton was put on trial for his murder. The motive was to collect insurance money resulting from the death of his business partner. The courts indicted Walton for murder twice, but the two trials ended up as mistrials. However, public opinion was against Walton as many people believed that he has shot his business partner for the insurance money.

The explosion was planned as Walton had taken out multiple insurance policies the week before his train trip. Walton left behind a wife, and the insurance settlement would have left her a very wealthy woman. Insurance policies pay out double the amount for an accidental death on a train, and Walton’s wife might have received over $60,000 with this double indemnity clause. However, insurance policies do not pay out if a death is ruled a suicide. Walton’s plan unraveled, as later that week, the coroner ruled Walton’s death a suicide.

Enjoyed this story of Birmingham’s history? The Southern History Department will share a story, picture, or advertisement each Thursday from 1917 for Throwback Thursday on its Facebook page. Like the Southern History Department on Facebook, so you will not miss any of the stories of what life was like in Birmingham 100 years ago.

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