Martial Law Source Unknown
Rangers, highway patrolmen & nearby units of the
National Guard were ordered to London by Gov.
Allred. Martial law soon reduced the confusion
to order & the work of recovering the bodies of
the dead & getting the injured to hospitals or
homes went on with system, made easier too by
the prompt sending of doctors, nurses, ambulance
& medical supplies from about all the towns &
cities in East Texas. With the arrival of the
soldiers, by order of the Gov. an investigation
of the cause of the explosion was gotten under
way. Other investigations forecast were by the
Legislature, State fire marshal & the railroad
In as much as many of the bodies taken from the
ruins were unrecognizable, it was thought at
Austin that fingerprints given by school
children at Centennial last fall might lead to
the identification of some of the dead. The
safety Dept. sent men to take fingerprints of
such children as otherwise might not be
Rev. R. L. Jackson, Methodist minister at
London, lives 2 blocks from the high school
site. He said that the explosion threw members
of his family to the floor. L. V. Barber, a
senior, was in study hall & gave his experience
as one of the survivors. He remembers hearing no
explosion but the first intimation he got of the
trouble was feeling the particles of falling
plaster or mortar on his neck. Then he saw the
building was caving-in & heard the rumble of the
falling roofs & walls. He thought that most of
the students in the study hall escaped through
Miss Olgo Larsen, Red Cross nurse from Tyler,
found about 1,000 rescue workers digging in the
ruins for bodies she said. She was joined by
some 25 other nurses of her order. Miss
Christine Beasley, teacher, was in the school
cafeteria when she became conscious of the
calamity. She at once ran towards the crumbling
high school building in a shower of bricks,
mortar & various falling dangers. She stumbled
over bodies of children that had been stricken
down on the campus by flying wreckage or hurled
from the building by the blast. Evelyn Peters
was among those who were flung by the explosion
through a window, her foot striking a nail in a
board or beam, causing a painful wound, but
considered herself very fortunate indeed to have
escaped worse fortune.
J. B. Nelson, Jr., oil company employee, was
also among those retiring from the building
through a window. He saw 20 children in a room,
he said, buried under falling books from the
bookshelves & some badly injured. Houston sent
nurses, physicians & skilled rescue workers.
The Humble Oil & Refining Co. got 15 nurses & 4
physicians to London by special bus at 7 o'clock
on the evening of the explosion. The contingent
was in charge of Dr. T. L. Fontaine. Dallas sent
even a larger body of workers in all lines of
Besides the Red Cross, of which the President is
the head, the War Dept. & the Bureau of Mines at
Washington headquarters set relief agencies at
once in motion Thurs. evening, and each started
an investigation to ascertain the cause of the
disaster. Wichita Falls sent an airplane load of
nurses & doctors.
Principal T. R. Duran, whom the newsmen sought
to get information as to London's fine school,
now destroyed in part, said that the pride of
the school is the manual training dept. which
includes a workshop equipment costing $7000 with
a mechanical drawing room. A 65 piece band is
one of the musical features; there is some $3500
invested in band instruments; 2 laboratories
have $2000 worth of equipment; the athletic
field is lighted, graded & sodded. Steel
bleachers has a seating capacity of 1260.
Reliable estimates places the value of the
school properties, including oil well royalties
from the school district owned lands, at
Dallas sent 30 doctors, 100 nurses, 25 embalmers
& many ambulances. A man who sells school
supplies had an appointment with one of the
school teachers on the afternoon of the
disaster. He arrived (having been delayed,) two
minutes after the explosion. One story was that
a boy and a girl were found together in the
ruins Friday morning, having been there since
3:20 o'clock the afternoon previous, under the
ruins, but sheltered by an encrusted mass of
fallen roof. They were alive but hysterical as
they were bourn out of the wreckage.
Midafternoon Friday, the work of clearing away
the wreckage ceased at the scene of the
disaster. The last body had been taken from the
ruins Friday morning-it being the 425th. The
oilfield laborers who had done most of the work
earned much praise from parents, observers &
newsmen. They toiled long & faithfully in the
ruins from mid afternoon Thurs. until the same
hour Fri. afternoon.
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Grief of Old Lingers Still
65 years ago, a blessing blew up in Texas
by Geneva Stovall
March 21, 2002
William Harold Follis thought about playing
hooky the day his school blew up.
The London, Texas, seventh-grader and his best
friend Junior Meadows toyed with the idea, then
discounted it. After all, it was Thursday and
there'd be no school the next day, so they
already had a long weekend in front of them.
But by the end of the day, Harold Follis's long
weekend stretched painfully into months of grief
and years of guilt, and life ended for his young
It was this week 65 years ago when East Texas's
greatest blessing became its most monumental
horror. London School, built just a year earlier
as a byproduct of the oil boom, exploded in a
roiling rubble of concrete and steel and
schoolbooks and students, and when the dust
settled from this nation's worst disaster
involving children, 282 students were dead,
along with 14 of the burgeoning school's staff.
Some said a generation died that day.
And Follis, 78, now of Nashville and formerly of
Memphis, remembers it all too well.
Family circles broken
Follis was in math class that afternoon when,
right after his teacher made him move to a desk
at the front of the class, the outer wall of the
second-floor classroom vanished. Follis and
several other students emerged, dazed, from
beneath a row of battered lockers.
"The right knee of fabric was cut out of my
overalls," he says, "but there wasn't even a
scratch on my knee. Later I realized I had a cut
on my lower back."
Follis gingerly worked his way down the side of
the gaping building and jumped first onto a
small utility shack, then to the ground. He
started helping rescuers dig others from the
The Harold Follis of today suddenly begins to
cry, still carrying the self-imposed guilt he
felt as a helpless 12-year-old.
While digging, he found three students pinned
together under the steel, concrete and bricks.
They were bloody and barely conscious, and "I
uncovered them, then had to watch them die."
Edwin Zane Elrod thought of playing hooky that
day, too, but his sister Geneva, the eldest of
the school-age Elrod progeny, would not hear of
it. She made him climb on the bus with her and
his other brother and sister, Alvin and Juanita,
and only a few hours later half of the four were
dead. Edwin and Juanita were killed instantly,
Alvin was unscathed, and Geneva was taken to a
hospital in a bread truck pressed into emergency
service. She'd been literally blown out of her
second-story English class.
In triage in the hospital hallway, she was
placed against a wall and left for dead. With
many broken bones, some protruding from her
legs, she was deemed beyond saving. There were
so many others with less severe injuries who
stood better chances of survival. But she clung
to life, and eventually the doctors put her back
together as best they could. Long after her
brother and sister and all the others had been
laid to rest, she left the hospital. At home she
progressed from wheelchair to crutches, then
walked on her own, something her doctors had
said she'd never do again.
After her return home, she graduated - receiving
her diploma while standing on her own front
porch. The 18-year-old went on to marry and have
a family, and eventually moved to Memphis in
1989. She died eight years later at age 79.
Cause and effect
The Saturday after the explosion, a military
tribunal was convened at the site of the ruins
during a light dusting of spring snow. W. C.
Shaw, the school superintendent, was blamed by
many for the catastrophe, even though his own
son was killed and Shaw himself was injured; he
appeared before the tribunal wearing bandages.
But the culprit was determined to be natural gas
that had collected within an open area beneath
the school's basement shop class. The oil from
the many derricks on the countryside had a
distinct smell, but the gas did not. After the
explosion, the Texas Legislature mandated that a
malodorant be added to natural gas.
On the afternoon of March 18, 1937, a few
minutes before school was to be dismissed for
the day - and the three-day weekend, thanks to
an all-day school competition Friday in nearby
Overton - the state-of-the-art building was an
ersatz bomb with a fuse about to be lit.
It happened in the basement shop class, when an
electrical spark from the plug to a piece of
shop machinery ignited the trapped gas, sending
the youngest part of town into hospitals,
cemeteries and history books.
After the military court of inquiry's
investigation exonerated the superintendent,
calls for Shaw's resignation soon ceased, and
London went about the grim task of burying its
dead and restoring its soul. And despite the
anguished scurrying of parents to locate their
dead and injured children, the bodies of two
girls lay unclaimed in a mortuary for several
In many cases identification was next to
impossible, and Follis recalls two anguished
fathers literally "hitting each other with their
fists" in a fight to claim one girl's body as it
lay on the floor of a church gymnasium.
Two days after the explosion, Follis was asked
to go to the church gym in Overton, a few miles
away, to help identify other victims. It was
there that he came across the body of his best
friend and hooky co-conspirator, Junior Meadows.
Bobby Clayton and other survivors, like Geneva
Elrod, were included on the list of the known
dead published in newspapers across the state in
the early days following the explosion.
In the early 1940s, Clayton lived in West Point,
Ark., and his discharge from the Navy in 1946
came at the Naval Air Station at Millington. He
now lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., and has a sister
who lives in Germantown.
Clayton has sent some of his clothing to the
London Museum - "my little trousers that I had
on that day. They plan to display them." Now 75,
Clayton was in the fifth grade at the time of
the explosion and had transferred to London from
Kensett, Ark., just three weeks earlier.
Ruth Else, 90, now of Oxford, Miss., was a
hairdresser who lived in Overton when the
explosion occurred, and lost friends and
neighbors in the disaster. She was called upon
to style the hair of the victims before their
But, "it just got me," she said. "I worked on
several, but I couldn't stand it, so my brother
took me home."
Else was 25 at the time, and had a good friend
at London School about to graduate. "That day,
her brother said, 'Know what? I'm not going. I'm
going to play hooky.' My girlfriend Bernice said
if he did, he'd really get in trouble."
The boy didn't listen to his sister and played
hooky anyway. "Everyone in his class got
killed," Else said. Her girlfriend survived the
explosion and now lives in Houston.
"My older brother was a scoutmaster," Else says,
"and as soon as he heard, he went over to help.
It was just awful, horrible. Like Sept. 11."
Moving beyond past
Follis left London after the explosion when his
family moved to Talco, Texas, where he graduated
from high school in 1941.
When he made his first visit back to London in
the mid-'40s, he sought out old acquaintances to
discuss the disaster, "and I was told, 'Harold,
we don't talk about it around here.'"
Indeed, it was decades before London could begin
to share its collective grief.
In the 1960s, several school systems, including
London's, merged to form the West Rusk County
Consolidated Independent School District.
Today, London is known as New London, Texas, but
not because it rose from the ashes of its
despair with the new name. To give the town its
own post office, the federal government required
the name change.
The school was rebuilt long before many lives
were, and today a huge, pink granite cenotaph
rises, derrick-like, from a grassy median in
front of the school, now named West Rusk High
School. The monument is surrounded by a pink
granite fence etched with the names of those who
Every two years, alumni from all graduating
classes gather for a mass reunion on the weekend
closest to the disaster's anniversary - in 2003,
on March 14-16 - and the reunions always end
with a Sunday memorial service.
And on March 21, 1998, the London Museum opened
across the highway from the school, setting up
shop in what was for many years McConnico's
Drugstore. Mollie Ward, the museum curator, was
a fourth-grader in 1937 who was not in the
building when the explosion occurred.
The museum has three rooms, one of which is a
reproduction of a classroom. The room contains
an antique blackboard, found in the rubble that
day, on which a student had written these words,
which are still legible:
"Oil and natural gas are East Texas' greatest
mineral blessings. Without them this school
would not be here and none of us would be
learning our lessons."
It is an irony New London will never forget.
Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel
New London School Explosion
by Archie P. McDonald
December 9, 2001
East Texas has had more than its share of
disasters--the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and
the industrial explosions in Texas City in 1946
are examples--but the day the school house in
New London blew up has a singular pathos because
so many of its victims were children.
New London is located in Rusk County in the oil
patch. Wealth from the East Texas field enabled its
residents to erect one of the most modern school
buildings in the state.
By 3:05 P.M. on March 18, 1937, the school day
had nearly ended. Younger grades had been
dismissed and some youngsters waited on school
buses for older students to join them for the
ride home. Some students still in the building
practiced for Interscholastic League competition
while others put away materials. A PTA meeting
was being held in the adjacent gymnasium.
Then industrial arts teacher Lemmie Butler
turned on a sander in his shop and a spark
ignited natural gas that had leaked from pipes
under the school and been trapped in rooms
throughout the building.
The building was lifted in the explosion, then
crushed into rubble. Residents who lived four
miles away heard the explosion, though they were
not alarmed at first because such noises often
came from the oil field.
Those who knew what had happened quickly spread
the word, and help came. Governor James Allred
sent Texas Rangers and Highway Patrolmen to
assist local law enforcement personnel. If
alive, victims were rushed to area hospitals; if
not, the Texas Funeral Directors Association
sent twenty-five embalmers to help in the
massive task of preparing the nearly 300 dead
What had happened? To save a monthly $300 bill
for natural gas usage at the school, the school
district had tapped into a gas line coming from
the field. Natural gas is odorless, so teachers
and students in the building were unaware that
leaks had allowed it to become trapped in the
building. The spark from the sander ignited the
gas and the explosion destroyed the school.
However unwise, the practice of using such gas
was a common one in the area. The major positive
that came from the New London School Explosion
was legislation requiring gas companies to add
an odor to their product so anyone can determine
when natural gas is leaking or not properly
New London's citizens built a new school and in
1939 a cenotaph was erected nearby in memory to
the students and teachers who lost their lives
in the worst single disaster East Texans ever
Archie P. McDonald is Director of the East Texas
Historical Association and author or editor of
more than 20 books on Texas.
He is also a professor of history at SFA and a
contributing writer for The Daily Sentinel.