A Gunpowder Explosion

By Jenny Weisburger, President Friends Of Bedford Burying Grounds

Three headstones located in the Old Burying Ground in Bedford Village reveal a sad story about the everyday dangers of life in Bedford in the early 19th century.

One hundred and ninety-five years ago on June 24th 1818, the village of Bedford suffered a terrible tragedy that took the lives of three of its children.

William Jay, son of the first Chief Justice John Jay, refers to the accident in his diary entry for Wednesday, June 24, 1818–
I heard this afternoon that Phillip Smith’s
house in Bedford was this morning burned
down & that several of his own children and
one of Mr. Canfield’s were greatly injured.

The fire was caused by a spark to several barrels of gunpowder recently delivered to Smith’s store, which was either in or adjacent to his house.

Captain Amos Canfield (of Revolutionary War Service) and his wife, Theodocia Palmer Canfield, lost their son, Isaac L. Canfield. Isaac’s headstone is inscribed:

Isaac L son of
Amos & Theodicia Canfield
Died June 24, 1818, by the
Explosion of Gunpowder
Aged 13 years 1mo & 17 days

Philip and Sally Smith lost two of their children – little Mary was just 5 years old, and Henry Stebbins Smith, who was 16. Mary died the day of the explosion, her brother Henry died two weeks later as a result of his injuries. The inscription on Mary’s stone reads:

Mary, daughter of
Philip & Sally Smith
Died in Lord’s grace on
Wednesday June 24
1818, by an explosion of powder
which took place on the
morning of June (illegible)

Henry’s stone simply reads:

Henry Stebbins
son of Philip &
Sally Smith
died July 18 1818
In his 16 year

Seeing these headstones in the Burying Ground, and having read the town history about this tragedy, I was curious to see if the Smiths had other children. I did a bit of genealogical research into the family, using the website Ancestry.com.

Typical for this era, the Smith family was a large one: they had eight children, born within a fifteen-year period. Their children were Sally Ann (b. 1798), Benjamin (b. 1799), Samuel Starr (b. 1800), Henry Stebbins (b.1803), Philip Edward (b. 1804), Betsy Holly (b. 1808), Chauncey (b. 1810), and Mary (b.1813).

Interestingly, I found a passport application for Mary and Henry’s brother, Chauncey Smith, dated 1857. The application lists the 47- year-old Chauncey’s physical features: Forehead- high, Nose- small, Complexion- fair, Hair- dark brown, Eyes- Hazel, Face- marked by a burn.

So Chauncey at age 8 was most likely a witness to the explosion that took the lives of his brother and sister.