Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster

Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Coal miners in the early 20th century risked their lives just to go to work every day. In the first decade of the 20th century, around a half-dozen miners died on the job every month in the coal mines of northern Illinois. Nationwide, more than 2000 coal miners died on the job every year between 1905 and 1930. But the workers at Cherry Mine in Cherry, Illinois, which included some underage workers as young as 10, never expected a disaster on the scale of the 1909 fire that killed 259 miners.

Cherry Mine, which was operated by The St. Paul Coal Company, opened in 1905 and was producing 300,000 tons of coal annually just four years later. The mine consisted of three veins of coal, two of which were being mined in 1909; each day, approximately 300 men went to work on the second vein and another 200 on the third and deepest vein.

The mine was state-of-the-art for the time. It had two vertical shafts: One, the escapement shaft, had steps and a fan to blow fresh air into the mine; the other, the main shaft, had two cages that lowered men and supplies down and carried coal out—but only to the second level. To reach the third level, miners had to walk to the escapement shaft and take a different cage to the third level. Though the mine was equipped with electric lights for safety, by November 1909, the electrical system had not been working for some weeks, and old-fashioned kerosene torches were attached to the mine walls for light.

Just after lunch on Saturday, November 13, a wagon carrying six bales of hay for the underground mules was lowered into the mine.At some point during the transportation from the main shaft to the escapement shaft, it’s believed that the hay was left too close to one of the kerosene torches and was ignited—but the fire was small, and the miners thought they could control it. Some passing by to catch the 1:30 cage out thought so little of the danger that they didn’t even mention the fire when they reached the surface.

Miners tried to dampen the fire with water from the mule stable, but they couldn’t see because of the smoke, and when they attempted to lower the wagon to the third level, where there was a water hose used to wash off the mules, it got stuck in the cage. They eventually dumped the wagon with the burning hay down the air shaft. It was easily extinguished on the third level—but during the hour or so of firefighting on the second level, the wind from the air shaft had fanned the flames until the wooden supports on the second level were ignited.  

When miners on the third level noticed the air quality falling, they called for the cage and got no response. They climbed the ladder to the second level and found the cage station abandoned and the passageway on fire. The fan at the surface then had been reversed, and was now drawing air out of the mine in an attempt to suffocate the flame. A few men were able to climb the escapement shaft ladder to the second level, but the ladder was on fire above them, due to the fan that was now sucking air upward.

The miners on the third level rushed to the main shaft. The main shaft only lowered a cage to the second level, but there was a fairly new emergency cage installed between the second and third levels. It had yet to be put into operation, and no one knows for sure if it had ever been attached to the hoisting equipment. 

The cage brought dozens of miners up to the surface from the second level, but many more were succumbing to smoke inhalation and lack of oxygen in the mine. A dozen Cherry residents, some with relatives below ground, volunteered to go down and help the miners out. They alternated on trips down in order to bring as many men up as possible in each lift, making seven trips down. On the last mission, the cage operator received nonsensical signals from below. He hesitated, not sure what to do. When the cage was finally lifted up, all 12 men aboard were dead. There were no more rescue trips.

That evening, the two shafts were closed. There were 280 men still below ground, but no one knew if any of them were alive. Once a day, the openings were checked, but the fire raged on. By Wednesday, one person was able to enter the mine wearing heavy equipment, and on Thursday, firefighters entered to try to extinguish the remaining flames. Then emergency workers spent several days bringing up the dead.

Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

But for Walter Waite, Thomas White, and a handful of other miners who were excavating a remote region of the second level that day, work continued as usual until George Eddy, the mine examiner, arrived to warn them of what was going on and try to coordinate an escape. They rang the bell for the cage, but there was no response, so they gathered a group of 21 men and headed back to their remote work spot, where the air was better. (When the disaster was investigated, the possibility was raised that the signals from those miners were what confused the cage operator, leading to the death of the 12 men in the cage. The time of the events coincided exactly.)

On Sunday, a day after the blaze began, the men built a wall between themselves and the fire—but the air was getting worse. They knew that if the fire didn’t reach them, they could still die from “black damp,” a combination of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, the unbreathable mixture left over when the air’s oxygen is depleted. Eddy and Waite, the leaders of the group, ventured out to check the fire and were forced back. On the third such trip, they encountered black damp, which told them that the mine had been sealed. The kerosene lights gave out, and there were only the small carbide lanterns left. The men sealed up the last of the wall, leaving them in an enclosed passageway between 300 and 500 feet long. They wrote letters to their families as they waited.

I write these few lines to you and I think it will be for the last time. I have tried to get out twice, but was driven back. There seems to be no hope for us. I came down this shaft yesterday to help to save the men's lives. I hope the men I got out were saved. Well. Lizzie, if I am found dead take me to bury me in Streator and move back. Keep Esther and Jenny and Clarence together as much as you can. I hope they will not forget their father, so I will bid you all good-by, and. God bless you all.

They found a spot where water trickled into the chamber, and made a small reservoir to collect it. By Tuesday, the carbide lamps refused to burn in the deteriorating atmosphere. By Thursday, the water was almost depleted, and Eddy assigned a guard to make sure no one took more than their share. The water then replenished itself. Some of the men started talking to themselves in gibberish. They all grew weaker.

On Saturday, November 20, a week after the fire began, the miners partially breached the wall and discovered that the air beyond it was a little fresher, indicating that the shafts were open. The strongest of the men left the chamber in two groups of four at a time. A few hours later, a signal of two whistles was heard, meaning the men had found good air further out in the mine. At about the same time, the wandering miners ran into recovery workers. All 21 men were removed from the mine alive—several had to be carried out—but the oldest, Daniel Holafick, was unconscious by the day of the rescue, and died a couple of days later.

The news of the survivors spurred more rescue attempts, even as firefighters continued to battle the burning areas of the mine. No more were found. Eleven days after the fire began, it was determined that the coal seam itself was burning, and the mine was sealed once again. It wasn’t reopened until February 1910, when the temperature underground had finally stabilized.

Around 160 women were widowed by the disaster, and around 400 children were left without financial support. An investigation determined that the Cherry Mine had employed at least nine boys below the age of 16, a violation of the law, and four of them died in the disaster. The St. Paul Mining Company was fined $630 for violating child labor laws, and was compelled to pay the families of the dead $1800 each. The public was appalled at the low amount, and raised another $1800 for each family through private donations. In the wake of the tragedy, new federal safety standards for mines were established, and the United Mine Workers gained hundreds of new members. A campaign was started that eventually led to the Illinois Workmen's Compensation Act.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.


Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.


Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.


Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.


In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.


A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.


Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.


For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)


While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.


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