Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Wood Dogs of Watershops

I always considered my 94-year-old uncle one of Springfield’s best unofficial historians—he tells me interesting stories that I had never heard, so when he mentioned a notorious, scruffy Depression-era group of men called the “Wood Dogs” that used to have drunken parties on the shore of Watershops Pond, I wanted him to tell me more.

He asserted that the Wood Dogs, many of whom lived in the Six Corners neighborhood, were virtually wiped out by methyl alcohol poisoning after one of their outdoor bashes. “Around 10 of them died,” he said. I thought he had to be exaggerating. Surely I would have heard about this calamity. But when I looked it up, he was close: on February 1, 1932 nine Wood Dogs perished after drinking industrial alcohol.

An investigation revealed that the men had been buying denatured alcohol from hardware stores and paint shops for years and drinking it at a place off Hickory Street on Watershops—a spot they called “Pittsburgh” or “Smoky City,” the latter nicknamed after the stuff they imbibed: “smoke,” which is a cloudy, murky white (and sometimes deadly) cocktail. On the day of the fateful party, one of the Wood Dogs, 40-year-old Charles Higgins, of 278 Walnut Street, bought methyl alcohol (antifreeze) from a gas station and brought it to the shoreline behind the Springfield Ice Company’s icehouse off Hancock Street (pictured below—the conveyor ramp is on the left). He and his buddies built a bonfire and started sipping.

The white arrows below mark the spot of the party. It’s now the land occupied by Springfield College’s Gulick Hall and its President’s House.

This was no ordinary binge: later in the day the partygoers started getting really sick. Of the 12 Wood Dogs who quaffed the “smoke,” only three survived. No charges were ever filed. The gas station attendant was exonerated because he didn’t know they would drink it.

Thirty-seven-year-old Michael Splaine was working for the city as a foreman for a road repair crew and was on his way home from work when he joined the party. He was feeling cold and gladly accepted the drinks when offered. I bet that brew warmed him up all right! He also said the Wood Dogs were in good spirits (Because the spirits were good!) and told him that the liquor was the best they had had in a long time. For most of them, it was their final bender.

It’s no secret that during Prohibition (1919-1933) some people resorted to drinking denatured alcohol, and antifreeze mixtures were especially sought after during the Great Depression (1929-1939) because it sold for 50 percent less than ordinary denatured alcohol. Despite well-publicized fatalities, people drank it anyway: on Christmas Day in 1926 and on the two following days, 31 people in New York City died of methyl alcohol poisoning.

In fact, the Wood Dogs used to drain radiator fluid from cars parked near Springfield College and drink the rusty liquid!

The end of the article refers to the “1919 catastrophe in the Connecticut Valley,” in which a (literally) staggering 53 people—not including the death toll in Hartford—succumbed near the end of the year after drinking concoctions that were made of whiskey and wood alcohol (methyl alcohol). There were charges in this massacre, but it’s hard to tell if there were any convictions from these holiday parties gone bad.

There were many such deaths nationwide around Christmas of 1919—enough to lead to severe restrictions on the sale of this “coroner’s cocktail.”

The federal government had required companies to denature—that is, deliberately poison—industrial alcohol to make it undrinkable long before Prohibition, but bootleggers hired chemists to “renature” it—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The Treasury Department’s response, especially after an estimated 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol was being stolen every year in the 1920s, was to add even more poisons to it in 1926. This caused the New York Christmas tragedy.

There was outrage. Public health officials were incensed. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” said New York City medical examiner Charles Norris in the closing days of 1926. “Yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

But in 1927, even more poisons were brought into denaturing formulas, including kerosene, gasoline, benzene, iodine, mercury salts, ether, formaldehyde, and chloroform. Yum! I’ll take mine on the rocks! They also upped the percentage of methyl alcohol that was added: in some cases, denatured alcohol was now made up of 10 percent methanol.

Later that year Seymour M. Lowman, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Prohibition, bragged that boozers were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch'” and that if the result was a sober America, “a good job will have been done.”

The government “spiking” of industrial alcohol ultimately led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people before the repeal of the 18th amendment. The New York death toll in 1926: around 400. The following year: approximately 700.

The government’s “special” (homicidal?) denaturing program ceased at the end of prohibition, but the stuff is still deliberately rendered toxic, and people still drank it after Prohibition ended. This happened in 1941:

Unbelievably, Sterno (“canned heat”) caused 31 deaths in Philadelphia in the Christmas of 1963. Such fatalities are now rare, except maybe in South Africa and Russia (during a really cold winter).

* * * * * * * *

What became of the rest of the Wood Dogs? Hard to say. Frank McClellan, one of the survivors, was arrested for stealing a purse the following year. Was there a booze crew to replace the Wood Dogs on the bank of Watershops Pond? There were undoubtedly other groups of men who drank in the woods in Springfield as the Depression went on, but it’s probably safe to assume that police checked that spot fairly regularly immediately after the fatal party. Still, a 1947 article notes that there were drunkenness arrests at the place every once in a while, but not lately. “Occasionally, some of them would build shelters with branches and old clothes, and even dug holes in the ground to protect them a bit from the elements. On rare occasions one of the inebriates would steal some minor item and get in trouble with the cops,” according to the article. But “the Wood Dogs who used to hang out there for many years have vanished. Probably most of them are dead, police said.”

Eventually, the woods were gone. Development “wiped out the wilderness tract where the locally famous Wood Dogs made their habitat,” according to a 1951 article. Drunks instead made the banks of the Connecticut River their official party place because it was “far removed from the prying eyes of suspicious cops.” For many years “it has been the gathering spot for certain lugs to foregather and sun themselves leisurely.”

Indeed, the term “Wood Dogs” was used by the Springfield Newspapers to generically describe alcoholic vagrants who used drink…well…in the woods in the 1940s and 1950s, and the nickname was even used as late as 1960 in an article on drunkenness arrests in Springfield.

Come to think of it, we used to drink in the woods. Were we the “Wood Dogs” of the late 1970s and early 1980s? After all, we used to drink some pretty rotgut stuff:

But we definitely didn’t even consider the alternative, which is why we’re still alive today!

Good thing for us Acres Wood Dogs that the government didn’t poison Southern Comfort or Kappy’s Gin. Then again, it did spray marijuana crops with paraquat. But that’s another story. Cough.