The Blowing up of Andy Kimball

From Historic Rambles about Dover by Robert A. Whitehouse c1999.

Andrew Kimball, prominent hatter of Dover, lost his life on July 20, 1823 under circumstances which have probably never been duplicated either here or elsewhere, before or since.

Andrew, born and raised in Gilmanton, only son of Hezekiah Kimball, a blacksmith connected with the famous Iron Works there, had forsaken his father’s trade for the somewhat more refined calling of a hatter.

As a young man he had learned the craft, how to scrape felt and glue beaver fur and roll and shape the material into the tall beaver hats that were standard men’s wear of the period.

Gilmanton was too small a community in which to sell beaver hats to profit and so Andrew Kimball betook himself to more sophisticated Dover. He set up his own hat shop. It was a two-story frame building with his workshop in back, store and display in front and his own living quarters above.

                The young man’s business was well established and he was contemplating matrimony when the regrettable accident occurred that terminated his promising career, literally shook Dover to the soles of its cowhide boots, and broke so much window glass summer had turned to cold weather before it could all be replaced.

Andrew Kimball, hatter of Dover, could never be replaced- he could not even be sufficiently accumulated to make for an honest funeral. It had to be sort of a token affair made up of an assortment of what might or might not be original Andrew Kimball.

                It was about time for the annual Militia Muster and Dover was preparing for the great event. Under the impression that military preparedness was somehow aided, local militia units gathered for a few summer days each year and indulged in parades, sham battle, band concerts and general public jubilation. Next to Camp Meetings, Muster Day was the most hilarious and often drunken spree of the long monotonous agricultural year.

Down at the lower end of the town a freight wagon had just come from “down country” and its cargo was being checked prior to delivery to the consignees. There were half a dozen teams, surrounded by the full complement of teamsters, hostlers, hangers-on, and general loafers that always flocked around transportation activity of any kind.

                One team attracted especial attention, because it was loaded with kegs of gunpowder being delivered for the Muster and Training Day Events.

                The Quartermaster for the Militia inspected the powder kegs nesting in their bed of straw in the heavy wagon, but refused to sign for their delivery until he had tested the quality. There had been some woeful experience in the past with the wrong kind of gunpowder.

                There were three recognized grades of rifle powder designated F, FF and FFF respectively. The more “F’s” involved, the more phlegmatic the powder. Single F powder was fine grained and exploded so rapidly it would blow the breech out of most big bore muskets. It was suitable for rifles or priming only.

                The Quartermaster with his proving instrument tested one powder keg after another, flashing a thimbleful of the black grains in the pan and gauging the “force” of the explosion on its calibrated scale.

                No one knows exactly what happened. It happened too fast. Either a spark from the “provwer”, a carelessly held cigar, or something ignited the straw in the wagon bed. Flame singed the tails of the horses- and that was enough for them.

                There was just enough time for a whoop of warning before the team stampeded up the Main Street of Dover drawing a flaming wagon rocking and swaying behind it. Only those left far behind knew that a dozen kegs of gunpowder lay in the now burning straw.

                Andrew Kimball heard the runaway coming and ran out into the road to head them off. He knew if you were resolute enough even the wildest team could be brought to a halt by deflecting their course into something solid like a tree or building.

                Waving his apron, he swung the frightened team toward the tree in front of his hat shop. He had just stepped forward to unhitch the horses from the blazing wagon when it happened.

                There was a white flash of flame followed by a mushroom billow of smoke that shot heavenward and a roar like a dozen Muster Days compressed rocked Dover.

                When the smoke slowly rolled away there was a crater in the center of the street bordering a vacant lot where the sign “A Kimball, Hatter” had once swung.

Witnesses swore in awe that a fine drizzle of wagon, horses, horseshoes, harness, and hatter fell all the rest of the day, and it was pretty hard to identify which was which. But the coroner did the best he could, and “Death by inadvertence” was the monumental understatement that placed a final period on the career of ill-tarred Andy Kimball.