With no rain and the temperature rising to 84 degrees, the day offers all the promise of midsummer in the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire. But at pastoral Newfound Lake in Bristol, a shocking tragedy looms of a scale that will attract nationwide news coverage and front-page headlines in Boston newspapers.
It is Monday, Aug. 5, 1940.
The region is looking forward to the launching of the S.S. Mount Washington II cruise ship on Lake Winnipesaukee, replacing the first Mount Washington that had been destroyed by fire the previous December. In six days, some 10,000 to 15,000 onlookers will send up a roar of applause and cheers as the vessel is christened.
On the southeast shore of Newfound Lake, local contractor C. Morton Plankey and his workman of 15 years, Martin Keith, are getting a 50-foot-deep well ready for use at a summer cottage owned by Arthur Farineau of Malden, Mass. The well and cottage are located between Lakeside Road — then Route 3A — and the shoreline. Later upgraded and relocated uphill, further away from the lake, Route 3A was then a major north-south corridor heavily used for travel to and from the White Mountains. (Today, Lakeside Road is a quiet residential side road that reminds us how narrow our major highways were at the time, especially compared to today’s interstates.)
At the moment, Plankey and Keith are pumping muddy water from the well, which was dug by another contractor the previous fall. Keith, 40, originally from Gorham, N.H., had been joined by his wife in their new home in Bristol four weeks earlier.
Plankey and Keith are using a gasoline-driven pump at the surface with a hose reaching into the well. They later lower the pump on a platform some 20 feet into the well to increase the yield as the water level decreases.
All is fine until shortly after noon when the water flow stops, though the gas engine is still running. Keith goes down a ladder to check on it. What he finds isn’t clear, but on his return to the top he offers to take a pole down further into the well to measure the water level (which later proves to be about seven feet deep).
The Unfolding of a Disaster
Keith’s second descent down the well triggers a horrifying chain of events.
Plankey hears a splash and at first thinks a stone has fallen into the water. However, he gets no response when he calls down to Keith. Plankey twice descends to the bottom of the well and moves his hands and feet around, but is unable to locate Keith. He doesn’t realize that carbon monoxide has accumulated in the well from the operation of the gas engine. He feels no personal discomfort, other than his heartbeat is somewhat faster than usual. (Why Plankey wasn’t affected by the fumes in the well is never fully understood; doctors later speculate about differences in time and location of the fumes, and in individuals’ differing tolerances).
At that point — 1:30 p.m. — efforts to get emergency help begin. Frustration quickly follows.
The Farineau cottage does not have a phone. Someone tries to stop cars passing by on Route 3A, but the local newspaper, the Bristol Enterprise, later reports that “Car after car rushed by without stopping. Finally one stopped and word was sent for aid.” Meanwhile, Mary Farineau, the landowner’s wife, and her daughter Marjorie rush to nearby Prince’s Place, a cluster of cottages at the foot of the lake, and place an emergency phone call from there. But knowing the fire department consists only of volunteers, they then race in their car the two miles to the center of Bristol. They are unable to find any medical or emergency help there, but they do pull the alarm at the fire station at 2 p.m.
The Ill-Fated Responders
|Earl Wells, the youngest victim.|
Four men from the volunteer fire department respond: Vernon Tilton, 46, a mechanic and truck driver; Forrest Martin, 41, a mill hand; Albert Paddleford, 50, occupation unknown; and Earl Wells, 23, clerk. Martin and Paddleford are firemen and members of the Rescue Squad. Tilton is a fireman with the longest service of the group — 22 years. Wells is a substitute fireman whose application to become a permanent volunteer for the department is to be acted on the following night.
Wells was married just one week earlier. His wife Louise, who is expecting, is in Laconia, N.H., today, buying furniture for their new home. Tomorrow is her birthday. Working in his clerk position at Moody’s Picture Shop in downtown Bristol, Wells hears the alarms and jumps on the fire wagon as the others pass by en route to the well site.
Subsequent events will show a critical need for more responders, but other volunteer firemen don’t respond, believing that only the Rescue Squad is wanted. But the seven other members of the nine-person Rescue Squad are all unavailable, being out of state or otherwise unreachable, leaving Martin and Paddleford as the only squad members present.
The search for a doctor adds exasperation. The first one contacted is already on another emergency. Some four or five doctors ultimately show up at the site by day’s end, but the Enterprise notes that, overall, “Because of the shortage of (responders) and the lateness of their arrival, the delay was distressing and pathetic … To (the people trying to get help) there seemed to be one unavoidable delay after another.”
At the Scene
By the time the four firemen pull up at the Farineaus’ property the workman, Keith, has been under the water at the bottom of the well for somewhere between a half hour and an hour. The water level is now slowly rising, the pump, motor and platform having been removed from the well by Plankey. At about this same time Everett Merrill, a member of Bristol’s Fire Commission, also arrives.
Paddleford is the first responder to descend the ladder into the well. At Merrill’s insistence Paddleford has a rope attached to him and carries another. Merrill then leaves to call an ambulance.
There are gas masks on the fire truck, but the men do not use them.
Martin follows Paddleford, carrying a powerful light but not secured by a rope. He and Paddleford succeed in finding Keith and bring him to the surface of the water. They are about to tie a rope around him when suddenly Martin succumbs and drops limply into the water.
At the same moment, Paddleford feels himself losing consciousness. But he has one leg entwined around a rung of the ladder in what is known as a “fireman’s grip.” By shouting or other means (reports vary) he manages to alert those at the top of the well to his distress. They haul both the ladder and Paddleford up.
Paddleford is still breathing. By this time, word of the tragedy has spread and people are hurrying to the scene. Several are medical personnel who happen to be vacationing at Newfound. This includes Nathaniel Sears, a Red Cross instructor from Ashland, Mass., who gives Paddleford artificial respiration. Stable but delirious, Paddleford is driven to Plymouth Hospital. (He is released the next day.)
Wells, then Tilton now descend into the well, one after the other. Neither has a rope or a mask, only a light. Wells has extra motivation to act: Forrest Martin, now lying next to Keith in the water at the bottom of the well, is his brother-in-law, Martin having married Wells’ sister.
Both Wells and Tilton are overcome by the deadly fumes and topple into the water. The reactions of those at the top of the well are not recorded, but can be easily imagined. The splashing sound, the stillness that followed and the lack of a response from Wells and Tilton were surely horrifying.
There are now four unconscious and possibly dead men at the bottom of the well.
Chaos and Anger
Up at the surface, confusion soon reigns. All now realize that anyone else who enters the well must have some sort of protection against the deadly gas. In a tragic irony, however, the only people trained in using the gas masks on the fire truck are Paddleford, who was incoherent before being taken to the hospital, and the three firemen at the bottom of the well. All others, including other firemen who heard of the emergency and have now arrived, have only “haphazard knowledge,” as the Enterprise reported, of how to use the masks.
An emergency call for assistance goes out to the fire department in the city of Franklin, N.H., a larger community some 16 miles to the south. In the meantime, hundreds of onlookers are descending on the scene, including many from several of the lake’s nearby youth camps as well as vacationers from the many cottages in the area. A massive traffic jam has developed on Route 3A, which passes within a few feet of the well, as more people hear of the tragedy and try to get there. For a time, northbound traffic is redirected to the western side of the lake.
Bristol’s population in 1940 is only 1,632 (half what it is today). The crowd of firemen, police and local residents now at the top of the well are neighbors and friends of the men at the bottom. They are frantic in their desire to do something — anything — to help the men, but also fearful now that even more will perish if others make the deadly descent.
The well is now a terrifyingly mysterious black hole.
The late Nelson Adams, a lifelong area resident who graduated with Earl Wells in the Class of 1936 at Bristol High School, went to the site after hearing sirens. Looking back when interviewed for this article, he said, “Nobody knew what to do.”
Nate Morrison, a local farmer, picks up a piece of lumber and threatens to use it against anyone else who dares to try and go down the well. But even he eventually gives in to the desperate desire to do something. He goes partway down the well before being warned that he should have a mask on. He tries on one and is unable to breathe with it. He holds up the mask and asks, “Isn’t there one single soul around who knows how to use this?”
Morrison will later excoriate local officials, saying, “No one around the well showed any authority at all.” Others agreed. Sears, the vacationing Red Cross instructor from Massachusetts, will say, “I saw confusion with no leadership.”
Local resident Charles Powden volunteers to go into the well. Morrison and others help him don a mask and give him ropes and a light. Three days later, Powden fought to keep himself under control when he described what he did: “I went down the hole. I saw four dead bodies. (He succeeded in getting a grip on one of the bodies, but was unable to bring it to the surface.) I didn’t bring any bodies out. I just wasn’t man enough.”
Finally, The Rescuers Are Brought Up
Shirley Jewell, a young laborer and volunteer fireman, then goes down with a mask, ropes and a light. He manages to get a rope around Keith, the workman whose collapse triggered the string of tragedies, and brings him to the surface of the well. Keith is unresponsive. Ironically, of the men at the bottom of the well, the one Jewell has brought up has been there the longest by far and likely has the least chance of survival. Martin, Wells and Tilton have been in the well over an hour now.
At that point the Franklin firemen arrive, having raced the 16 miles to the site “in a record run.” (Other New Hampshire towns — Laconia, Rumney, Concord and Plymouth — would also send men and equipment.) The Franklin responders have better equipment than the Bristol contingent, including a blower, air tubes and inhalators. They quickly retrieve the three men from the well. (The Concord Daily Monitor will offer this blunt report: “The contrast between the quick work of the Franklin group and the heroic but fumbling efforts of local firemen was drawn directly and indirectly by a number of people.”)
None of the men are breathing, nor do any have a pulse. “While hundreds of horrified spectators press around the mouth of the well,” the men are laid out on blankets a few feet away, alongside Keith. A varied group of medical and fire personnel use artificial respiration and oxygen equipment to try to revive the four men. The group includes Sears and Mary Keenan, a registered nurse from Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts who is also vacationing at the lake.
At 3:30 p.m. a doctor pronounces all four men dead. Yet those working to revive them keep at it until they finally give up at 6 p.m.
All of the men are found to have water in their lungs. Accordingly, the Medical Referee’s official report to the County Solicitor and the State Attorney General gives the cause of the deaths as “Asphyxiation by carbon monoxide and suffocation by water.” But the true evil behind their deaths is clear to all. Blood specimens from all of the men show 70 to 75 percent saturation with carbon monoxide. The responding physician states, “If it had been a dry well, all would have died just the same.”
News of the tragedy spread quickly over the wire services. Four men dying in a well was unusual in itself, but the way in which the men went to their deaths — following one another into the well, despite what happened to those who preceded them — undoubtedly sparked added interest. Reports appeared the next day in newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times.
Locally, the shocked residents of the small town of Bristol and the villages surrounding it tried to come to terms with this unprecedented disaster. While all grieved, some angrily demanded answers.
Local farmer Nate Morrison had been outraged at the well site by the fact that no one other than the victims had known how to use the gas masks, and by what he perceived as a total lack of leadership in the efforts to save the rescuers. The day after the tragedy, he sent a petition with 35 residents’ signatures on it to the New Hampshire Attorney General stating, “We, the undersigned taxpayers of the Town of Bristol … demand and call for a Coroner’s Inquest into the death of four of our citizens … ”
|County Solicitor’s letter to the New Hampshire Attorney General on the inquest conducted on the tragedy.|
The County’s Solicitor and Medical Referee conducted an inquest in Bristol two days later. By all accounts, the hearing was emotionally charged. The Concord Daily Monitor’s front-page headline declared, “Witnesses Nearly Hysterical as They Tell of Deaths of Four in Well at Inquest.”
The Monitor noted, “[The two hearing officials] sifted through the confused accounts of many witnesses for almost three hours … At least two of the men who had assisted directly in the futile rescue attempts seemed close to breaking down as they told their tales in low voices.”
Morrison was one of several witnesses the hearing officials had to warn to stick to factual testimony. He bluntly related his feelings about lack of leadership, and training in use of the gas masks. His testimony “provided a high point … His words were received with a buzz of comment from the closely packed select men’s room which was pressed into service for the inquest.
“Starkest testimony came from Charles Powden [one of the local men who tried to save the firemen], who fought to keep himself under control through the solicitor’s interrogation: ‘I didn’t see anyone down there. All I saw was the hole. Somebody put a rope on me … I went down the hole. I saw four dead bodies. I had the gas mask on, but I didn’t bring any bodies out. I just wasn’t man enough.’”
In the end, the Medical Referee told the Attorney General that “I believe the whole thing was accidental.” The County Solicitor concluded that “Every act at the scene of the tragedy was voluntary and there is no person who could possibly be called the cause of this accident … in my opinion, there is nothing to present to the Grand Jury.”
A Region Grieves
Meanwhile, the Newfound Lake area was in mourning. On the afternoon of the inquest, according to the Manchester Union, “Practically the entire town joined in paying tribute to two of the victims, Forrest Martin and Earl Wells [brothers-in-law], for whom a double funeral was held … at the Bristol Baptist church. Places of business were closed during the services.” The Bristol Enterprise reported that “The Baptist church was far from being of sufficient capacity to accommodate all who desired entrance. Every seat was taken, the standing room in the aisles was crowded, and crowds remained outside.”
The day before, Verne Tilton’s funeral was held in the Bristol Congregational church; all businesses in the town were closed during his services as well. The funeral for Martin Keith, the workman whose descent into the well led to his death and those of Wells, Tilton and Martin, took place the same day in Gorham, N.H., his hometown.
Reactions Are Mixed
Opinions about the tragedy mirrored the conflicted feelings people had about the responders’ actions. There was strong sentiment that their bravery deserved admiration. But there was also head-shaking frustration over the deadly risks they took, which some saw as recklessness. The image of one man after another going down into the well, seemingly oblivious to the fate of his predecessors and then, not surprisingly, meeting that same fate, was disturbing. Some even found it embarrassing. The Bristol Enterprise came close to admitting as much in an editorial, acknowledging that “Bristol has received some unenviable publicity in this tragic affair.”
The Boston Herald editorialized that “Although the pressure of excitement and anxiety over the fate of the first man inevitably causes his would-be rescuers to want to act quickly and without thought of their own safety, that impulse should be resisted. It is far better to act cautiously, so that, if the worst happens, only one life will be lost.”
The September 1940 issue of Volunteer Fireman magazine used the tragedy as a lesson for other firemen nationwide, noting that: “The well at Bristol is typical of numerous dangerous situations in which similar accidents have happened. Manholes, cisterns, silos, and even empty fuel oil tanks, may prove equally deadly … In making a rescue from such locations the rescuers should think before they act … It is not natural for a fireman to stand idle when such an accident occurs … But it may be suicide to enter such a death trap without at least wearing a life line [rope] manned by helpers above who can pull up the wearer at the first sign of trouble.”
The author of a Letter to the Editor in the Concord Monitor wrote bluntly, “Residents of the Bristol area and witnesses to the tragic incompetence of rescuers will not soon forget the exposition of unpreparedness which they saw on Aug. 5 when four men were uselessly killed … most amazing of all, not one person in authority knew that when you let a man down into a gas filled area, he probably won’t come up unless you have provided a rope by which he may be retracted. The whole management of the emergency was ignorant of the very fundamentals of first aid.”
In other Letters to the Editor and in an Enterprise editorial, the Monitor letter writer was castigated for being insensitive and ill informed: “Isn’t there every evidence that no one knew of the existence of gas in the well? … sympathy and praise for the sacrificing efforts of all who tried should be bestowed, and not discouraging criticism … The men who went down into the well and so bravely died, died as you and I might, knowing a friend or relative was to be rescued, and scorning, in the few brief moments necessary to wait for help for themselves, the ropes that were ready. I know that under such circumstances there should be no criticism … I know many members of [fire and police departments] and I know that each, were he placed in a situation such as that which confronted the firemen at Bristol, would do the same as the men who went down into the well.”
John Clark was Chief of Police in Bristol until he recently resigned. From his own long experience in law enforcement and that of his father, this tragedy’s scenario was no surprise, given the rescue culture that existed in those times: “Back then, there wasn’t a lot of training. There was an admiration and fellowship for each other. If you go down in a well, I’m going to come down after you.
“Today, we have better equipment, better knowledge and much better training. If we know something like that (the possibility of gas in the well) is going on or might be going on, we have equipment we can use to test the air before we send someone down. Also, back then, there wasn’t a conscious disregard for their own safety, just not a conscious regard for all the issues that could come up. We’re much better trained and equipped today.”
A Tragedy Best Forgotten?
In researching this article, it was surprising to learn how little this tragedy was acknowledged over the years. At the time, the Concord Monitor termed it “the most horrible accident to visit this quiet town in decades.” In the 73 years since, no fatal incident in Bristol has equaled the number of lives lost at the well. Yet even those who were directly affected rarely, if ever, mentioned it:
- Mark McSheehy and his wife Barbara now own the cottage where this tragedy occurred. Barbara is the granddaughter of Arthur and Mary Farineau, the landowners in 1940 who hired the well contractor, Morton Plankey. Both Mark and Barbara spent many years vacationing at the cottage with her parents and grandparents, yet until being contacted for this article, Mark says he and his wife “had no clue” that four men had died on the property, or even that a well ever existed there. Nothing about this was ever mentioned to them. (In one of the many ironies to this story, the McSheehys get their drinking water from the popular Breck-Plankey Spring on Route 3A in Bristol. Morton Plankey’s descendants allow use of the water by the public.)
- Raymah Simpson, Bristol’s Town Clerk and Tax Collector, is the daughter of the late Perley Wells, the brother of Earl Wells. She says she always found it puzzling that the Wells family never talked about this tragedy. The most she ever heard was, “We lost John D [Earl Wells’ nickname] in a well.” In checking with the Plankey family, Morton’s descendants also had very limited, if any, knowledge of what happened.
- The silence extends to documents. A transcript of the inquest was prepared, but no copies exist at the Attorney General’s office, the County Attorney’s office, or the Bristol Fire or Police Departments. Also, Charles E. Greenwood’s History of Bristol, 1819-1969 makes no mention of this fateful day.
- As for the well itself, it was abandoned, then filled in at some later time. No sign of it remains on the property, nor could anyone contacted for this story pinpoint where it was located. From old news photos, it appears it was somewhere on the south side of the property.
“They should have known that they should not go down into that well.” That’s the first thought expressed by many in Bristol who recall or were told of this dark day in the town’s history. But is that a fair statement? Should that be the bedrock conclusion that underlies every memory of this tragedy?
Granted, the actions of Martin, Tilton, Wells and even Paddleford and Keith can be questioned on several fronts (most importantly, for not using ropes). But also consider this:
- Plankey, the contractor, the only person the responders could look to for a situation report when they arrived onsite, had been down the well himself twice (looking for Keith) with no ill effects; he may also have told them that Keith had been down and back up once before his second deadly descent;
- Plankey had removed the gas engine from the well by the time they arrived;
- Plankey couldn’t explain what had happened to Keith;
- the ladder was the equivalent of five stories in height; they could have assumed that Keith (or later, their fellow firemen), had simply fallen off the ladder to the bottom due to a misstep or defect;
- carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas;
- as former Police Chief Clark indicated, they were handicapped, compared to today’s responders, in knowledge, training and equipment;
- the unused gas masks on the truck, had they been used, might well have proven ineffective; unlike the Franklin crew’s equipment, there was no way to supply oxygen to them (their apparent effectiveness when Powden and Jewell went down later might instead be explained by the doctors’ theories on why Plankey wasn’t affected — differences in time and location of the fumes and in individuals’ differing tolerances);
- by the time Tilton and Wells (the last two to descend) went into the well, Paddleford had been brought up but was in no condition to relate what had happened to him; they only knew that something sinister was afoot, yet they still went down;
- Forrest Martin, the first fireman to succumb, was Earl Wells’ brother-in-law; add in the bond between all the men and then consider what we would do in their position, standing at the top of the well, getting no response from a relative/comrade, and knowing that we are their last hope.
The image of these four men as lemmings, blindly marching one after the other into a deadly well, has persisted for over 70 years. They deserve better. After all, they were trying to rescue others. We weren’t able to rescue them. The least we can do is rescue our memories of them.
The Child Left Behind
|Louise Roby Wells, bride of Earl Wells for only a week, would later die after giving birth to Earlene.|
Remarkably, for an era when large families were common, three of the four men who died in the well were childless. The fourth, Earl Wells, the youngest of the victims by far at age 23, was looking forward to becoming a father. He and Louise Roby had been married only a week before, and she was expecting.
While grieving, Louise kept a scrapbook in the weeks following the tragic events of Aug. 5, 1940, as a way to honor her lost husband. She placed the many news articles about the well tragedy in it, including all that mentioned her husband.
Seven months later, on March 1, 1941, Louise gave birth to their baby, Earlene Louise Wells, whose first and middle names honor her parents.
Louise died a week later of post-childbirth complications. She was 21.
Earlene Louise Wells was barely a week old and had already lost both her father and mother to sudden deaths.
Fortunately, her maternal grandmother, Florence Roby, took responsibility for raising her.
Now 73 and living in Alexandria with her husband, Richard, Earlene has been forever grateful for Florence Roby’s love: “My grandmother was fantastic. When I think back now, she was in her forties at that time, with her own children grown, and for her to take in an infant … ”
She says she came to know of the well tragedy gradually. “No one talked about it when I was small. When I got to high school, my grandmother sat down with me one day and gave me the scrapbook my mother had kept.”
She looks at the well tragedy objectively: “It was a terrible tragedy. They didn’t have the precautions they have now. They did what they were trained to do, but I guess they just weren’t very smart about it, especially by today’s standards.” She never met Albert Paddleford, the lone survivor of the firemen who went into the well. He never contacted her.
Earlene looks back on her upbringing with fondness, thanks in part to the townspeople. “I was looked on as kind of special somehow. I think because of the notoriety, everyone in the town — it was a small town, of course — treated me special. I was actually kind of spoiled.”
She smiles when recounting what she learned over the years about her father. “Everyone always called him ‘John D’, after John D. Rockefeller, I guess because he was a somewhat arrogant, happy-go-lucky guy who always acted as if he owned whatever place he happened to enter.” It doesn’t surprise her that he jumped on the fire wagon as it passed by the shop where he worked, joining the others on their ill-fated way to the well.
Thanks to the Bristol Historical Society for their help, especially Lucille Keegan; to Ron Preble, for the Volunteer Fireman article; and special thanks to Earlene Wells, who could not have been warmer or more welcoming during our visits.
Several people helped in the attempt to construct an accurate account of what transpired that day, in the face of often contradictory or misleading news articles (as one example, Martin Keith was, sadly, referred to as Martin Keafe in most accounts appearing the first few days after the tragedy). Two in particular who went to great lengths to help were Nancy Cristiano, Coordinator of the Family Resource Connection at the New Hampshire State Library (and Reference Librarian at Plymouth State University’s Lamson Library), and Paul Brodeur, Chief Investigator, Criminal Justice Bureau of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office. Nancy and Paul, thank you.
Postscript from the Author
In my research, I found that the Bristol firemen who lost their lives in this tragedy were never included on the rolls of the New Hampshire Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Concord, N.H. I brought this to the attention of the Bristol Selectmen and Fire Chief. Working with the Fire Chief, we were able to get their names added to the memorial in 2011, along with those of more recently fallen firemen, during the annual ceremony that the New Hampshire Firefighters Association holds for this purpose.
Earlene Wells (“The Child Left Behind”) was among the 100 or so attendees, along with a Bristol Selectman, the Fire Chief, and myself. It was gratifying to see these three men finally honored, and it was especially satisfying that Earlene was able to see her father recognized in this way after all these years.