He threatened to strike a match, but lawmen called his ‘bluff’.
Crime in the 19th-century West wasn’t always as straightforward as outlaws robbing a bank or one man shooting another from ambush. Take the case of one Dong Ng Chang, a Chinese man who in 1898 had been employed at Western Fuse & Explosive Co.in Melrose, California, for nine years and had recently been promoted to manager of the little brick powder magazine. Melrose sat across the bay from San Francisco and would be incorporated into Oakland in 1906. On July 18,1898, the magazine was packed with at least 5,000pounds of military-grade black powder, though some estimates put the amount between 7,500 and 40,000pounds. A boxcar filled with black powder had arrived and sat unloaded on the tracks a considerable distance from the powder magazine. Chang, who lived in a cabin just 20 yards from the powder, was not a happy man that day. In fact, he was fit to explode.
Earlier that month Chang had purchased a .25-centlottery ticket from local butcher Hong Hi Sing and was convinced his ticket had won $100. Sing, however, insisted the ticket was worthless. Suspecting the butcher was trying to cheat him,Chang pressed his case, determined to claim the prize.On the 18th an exasperated Sing made the fateful decision to drop by Chang’s cabin and assure him the ticket was not a winner.The butcher’s words only inflamed Chang. And when further talk seemed pointless, Chang stopped listening and attacked Sing with a hatchet. After hacking the butcher, Chang picked up his five-shot, .38-caliber Bulldog revolver and put a slug in Sing’s belly. Sing collapsed, and while the butcher was writhing on the ground in pain, Chang fled to the nearby magazine. He carried with him the revolver, ammunition and a handful of matches. Using the key his employer had entrusted to him, Chang opened the only door. And then he barricaded himself inside using 25-poundkegs of gunpowder, leaving the door open just a crack to look out.
After bystanders reported the brutal assault outside Chang’s cabin to authorities, company superintendent Henry F. Pringle and company secretary Pittman arrived on the scene and tried to coax Chang out of the magazine.Chang, though, was not in a talkative mood, only telling them to keep their distance, no closer than 40 feet. They continued to plead with him, saying it was in his best interest to surrender.Chang tersely responded to their pleas.
“Two, three days,” he said.
Local Deputies Daniel Cameron,Charles White and George Woodsum,along with Constables Gus Koch, John J. Lerri and Harry Cramer, were the first lawmen to arrive. Sing soon died from his wounds, and his body was carried off. The six lawmen then surrounded the magazine but kept their distance, as they did not want to risk an exchange of gunfire with the suspected killer.
Pringle and Pittman were not getting anywhere, so they sent for Ah Puck, the boss of the tong (Chinese secret society)Chang belonged to in San Francisco.When Puck arrived, Chang allowed him to approach the building, and the men spoke for several minutes. Puck then reported to authorities that Chang would not emerge, first because he had no money, and second because the men in the yard (the lawmen) were making trouble. All Chang wanted, said Puck,was a chance to slip away.
Pringle decided it might help matters if he gave $10 to Chang, so he had Puck deliver the money. When Puck returned to the superintendent, he said if Chang were left alone a while, he would probably just walk out, and Pringle passed this information to the deputies. Chang had also told Puck something else—that he would not come out for three days,and if he could not escape, he would commit suicide by detonating the magazine. For whatever reason, Puck at first kept this information to himself.
Pringle told the deputies that in his opinion Chang should be allowed to leave the magazine and scale the fence,after which the lawmen could take whatever action they deemed appropriate. Word was passed to Chang, but his suspicious nature won out again, and he stayed put. As he watched the yard for any movement, Chang blurted to the deputies: “Go away! I see you, I blow you all up!” That was a definite threat and cause for worry, especially after Pittman advised deputies the magazine contained “20 tons of black military powder.” Pittman then tried to reassure everyone, pointing out that there was no dynamite inside the building, and that if Chang actually set off the powder,“it would blow off the roof, but I don’t think it would kill anyone outside.”
Around midnight Chang asked for water, and one of the deputies suggested a quick solution to the standoff—lacing Chang’s water with morphine.Deputy White objected to the scheme,so no drug was added. Anyway, when Chang took the cup, he merely rinsed his mouth and spat it out, so the drug would have had little effect. The lawmen spent that night in the superintendent’s office, taking turns keeping a close watch on the magazine. Local reinforcements—Deputies Edward White, Frederick Sherrott, Perry Wilson and George Gibblin—arrived in the morning.
At 5 a.m. on July 19 Deputy Charles White suggested the lawmen rush the magazine, break down the door and arrest Chang. White said he was certain Chang’s threat to blow up the magazine and himself with it was merely a bluff.The others agreed. And it seemed as if they’d made the right decision, because when Chang saw them forming up, he called out, “Well, I surrender!”
“All right, Chang, we won’t hurt you,”Charles White answered. Then the deputy told a lie, likely to ease Chang’s mind about surrendering. “The man you cut up yesterday is not badly hurt and will recover.”
“All right, I come out!” Chang yelled.The lawmen waited but nothing happened. Suspicious Chang had apparently again changed his mind. By 5:18it was clear Chang had no intention of leaving the magazine on his own, so the officers charged, with White, Woodsum and Koch in the lead, followed closely by Cameron and Lerri. It took them but a few seconds to reach the magazine door. That was as far as they got. Chang had changed his mind for the last time.And he certainly had not been bluffing.
When Chang set off the powder in the magazine, far more than just the roof came off. The entire building exploded.Chang himself was blown to smithereens, leaving not a discernible trace of his body. The lawmen paid a heavy price as well. Charles White’s lifeless,mangled body came to rest 500 yards distant. Koch, Woodsum and Lerri had died instantly, their charred bodies propelled several hundred yards from the point of the explosion. Cameron’s body was badly disfigured, though he managed to cling to life until reaching a hospital. Even Deputies Ed White and Sherrott, who had not joined the ill-fated charge, were thrown 40 feet by the blast and seriously injured. Both recovered in the hospital. The other officers, Wilson and Gibblin, escaped injury, as did Pringle and Pittman.
The explosion did cause one more fatality, when the Price house—across the street from the magazine—collapsed, killing elderly visitor Sadie Hill of San Francisco. The area around the obliterated magazine was devastated for several hundred yards, and nearly everything combustible was set afire, including 14 boxcars, though not the one filled with black powder. Searchers painstakingly gathered the scattered remains of the lawmen, and officials buried them with honors. Frederick and Lisetta Kleebauer, whose house was destroyed in the explosion, and 20 other claimants filed suit for damages. The company lost but appealed. Finally, in June 1902 the California Supreme Court ruled the company had stockpiled too much explosive powder, clearing the way for the Kleebauers and others to collect damages.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.