In the Archives: Lit by Kerosene

Mock lamp label: "Homicide made easy!"

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s In the Archives column for The Chronicle appears monthly. Look for it around the end of every month or sometimes towards the beginning.

On a May evening in 1866, 15-year-old Ann Arborite Maria Benham got ready for bed in her Third Ward home, which also housed her cabinetmaker father Warren, her mother Rachel, and siblings George, Menora, and Alice.

Maria was a grammar school student at the Union School at Huron and State Streets, later the site of Ann Arbor High School and eventually renamed the Frieze Building. The school year was almost over, and the annual yearbook was about to be printed.

Non-explosive lamp, kerosene

Advertisement from the Dec. 25, 1869 Ypsilanti Commercial.

When it came out, Maria’s name had an asterisk.

Maria removed the glass chimney of her kerosene lamp and flipped her apron at the flame to puff it out. Instead, the lamp exploded, enveloping her in flames. Maria ran downstairs towards the cistern. Someone spotted her and threw his overcoat over her flaming body, suffocating the fire.

Maria had severe burns over her entire body. After an agonizing night, she died at 6 a.m. She would have been sixteen that August.

Her story, originally reported by the Ann Arbor Argus, was reprinted by papers in Hillsdale, Marshall, and elsewhere in the state. Unfortunately, it was a familiar tale. Kerosene lamp explosions were tragically common in 19th-century Michigan. It seems odd, because kerosene is a relatively stable, non-explosive fuel, far less volatile than such lighter petroleum products as gasoline or naptha. A lit match thrown into a cup of room-temperature kerosene will simply go out.

Maria had been born in 1850, around the dawn of the domestic oil industry. Many unscrupulous oil refiners of that era pursued profits at the cost of lives like hers.

Refining Kerosene

The problem began at the oil refinery. Early crude oil refineries in the mid-19th century functioned like whiskey stills. A typical refinery consisted of a giant cylindrical metal vat that received the crude oil. A pipe ran from the top of the vat, descended the side, and entered a long trough filled with cold water, emerging at the end of the trough. A fire burned beneath the vat.

Crude oil is a mixture of many liquid hydrocarbons, each with a differently-sized molecule. Those with smaller molecules such as benzene and gasoline are more volatile, and those with longer, heavier molecues such as kerosene and lubricating oil, less so. When a fire was started under the vat, vapors from the more volatile compounds began ascending into the pipe and condensed on the inner pipe walls. The condensed fuel dripped from the pipe’s end into a container.

As the heat beneath the vat was raised, successively heavier hydrocarbons vaporized. The worker at the collection container could measure the specific gravity of the liquid coming out to determine when it became heavy enough to be called pure kerosene.

Dangerous Mix

Kerosene was a prime mover behind the petroleum industry from the 1860s until the popularization of the gasoline engine in the 1890s. In Maria Benham’s day, gasoline and other light fuels were regarded as the refinery’s cheap byproducts and sometimes even discarded. They were so cheap – a few pennies per gallon – that many refiners fudged the line between the light fuels and the more expensive pure kerosene, and they adulterated the kerosene with cheap fuels.

The liquids mix readily, and the lighter fuels lowered the flash point, or ignition temperature, to dangerous levels. Once the “kerosene” was delivered around the state, some vendors also took their cut by adulterating it even further.

The Dec. 25, 1869 Ypsilanti Commercial advertised a “Non-Explosive Lamp” that offered “Absolute Safety, Economy, Beauty, and double the light given by any other lamp.” The problem, however, was not about lamp construction or strength.

It was that Michiganders had Molotov cocktails on their dining room tables.

Regulation of Kerosene

The year 1869 also saw Michigan’s first legislation against adulterated kerosene, “An Act to provide for the Inspection of Illuminating Oils Manufactured from Petroleum.”

This inaugural law outlined a ramshackle inspection plan. The law stated that if five citizens from any county petitioned the Governor, he would appoint an inspector for that county. The inspector had to provide testing equipment himself, though the nature of that equipment wasn’t specified. One large loophole in the law said that kerosene from outside the state did not have to be re-inspected.

Cleveland-based Standard Oil was rapidly expanding and shipping its kerosene into Michigan. At the same time, Ohio’s formerly stringent kerosene inspection laws, mandating independent inspectors whom refining companies were forced to pay, underwent radical change. Under the new law, the independent inspectors were gone and Ohio refiners were now allowed to inspect their own product.

Closed cup testing method for kerosene

Closed cup system for kerosene testing.

The issue of adulterated kerosene was so pressing that it was a prime concern of the Michigan’s Board of Health when it formed in 1873. Agricultural College (MSU) chemistry professor (and University of Michigan grad) Robert Kedzie was the board’s chairman of the committee on “Poisons, Explosives, Chemicals, Accidents, and Special Sources of Danger to Life and Health.”

The board’s inaugural report includes his lengthy paper on the dangers of adulterated kerosene. Kedzie specified a method of building a standardized apparatus to be used as a statewide oil-tester. He also reported the results of testing oil samples gathered from around the state, from a variety of oil companies.

Most were advertised as having a flash point of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Tables in the report show that almost all of them had a lower flash point; one sample from Dowagiac had a flash point of only 90 degrees, meaning that on a hot summer day, the liquid could begin to vaporize flammable gas.

Kedzie also addressed an even more alarming issue – the fraudulent marketing of benzene and naptha as safe illuminating oils for use in home lanterns. It is sold, he wrote, “under many fanciful names, e.g.: “Liquid Gas,” “Aurora Oil,” “Safety Gas,” “Petrolene,” “Puroline,” “Black Diamond,” “Septoline,” “Anchor Oil,” “Sunlight Non-Explosive Burning Fluid,” etc.”

Yet another scam, Kedzie wrote, was the sale of “secret” recipes that purported to remove the dangerous qualities of benzene or gasoline. The absurd recipes told consumers to add a mishmash of ingredients to gallons of gasoline or benzene in order to render them safe. The ingredients included chopped potatoes, salt, alum, oil of sassafras, and cream of tartar, and had no effect whatsoever on the volatility of the dangerous fuels.

The advertising circular for one such benzene-based recipe for Sunlight Oil, a company based in Marshall, Mich., read:

Although this oil has been before the public but a few months, nearly 350,000 families are making and using it. And wherever it has been introduced, kerosene and other burning fluids have been set aside. This celebrated oil was discovered and first invented in June, 1867, by the great French chemist and geologist, the late Dr. S. A. Culver of Paris. Fortunately for us, being near relatives of his, we succeeded, before his death, in obtaining the sole right to manufacture and sell the oil in all parts of the United States and Canada.

Perhaps it was gratitude for this munificent bequest that put the company in an altruistic mood. According to their ad, the Sunlight Company, run by one M. Wagner & Co. in Marshall, Michigan, was freeing citizens from thieving manufacturers and vendors by allowing families to manufacture their own fuel at home. Those who purchased the recipe for $2 [$36 in today’s dollars] had to keep it absolutely secret.

“For some reason M. Wagner & Co. did not cultivate the home trade,” wrote Kedzie. “[T]heir business had been carried on for months before the people of Marshall knew much about it, and even then it was very difficult for residents of Marshall to gain admittance to their office, or to buy the Sunlight Oil, or the recipe for manufacturing the same. The firm advertised in papers distant from the State, and most of their business was done in other States.”

The recipe for another benzene-based miracle fuel, French Burning Oil, originated from A. Coulter & Co in Charlotte, Michigan. The company generously allowed that the recipe, though it had to be kept secret, could be handed down to one’s heirs.

Kedzie wrote, “A person carrying a lighted lamp filled with such materials holds his death warrant in his hand, and a stumble may furnish an executioner at any moment. They should be labeled HOMICIDE MADE EASY; OR, EVERY MAN HIS OWN EXECUTIONER!” [Emphasis Kedzie’s].

Continued Problems with Kerosene

Despite the Board of Health’s alarm and recommendations, the trade in adulterated kerosene and unsafe illuminating oils continued. A decade after Maria’s death, “[o]ver 6,000 people perished in these United States last year, victims of kerosene accidents,” said the November 2, 1876 issue of the insurance trade paper Baltimore Underwriter.

Fifteen years later, the deadly fuel was still taking lives. In July of 1891 the Michigan legislature changed the oil-testing method from the “closed cup” system that Kedzie endorsed, whose lid trapped vapors and simulated the actual conditions inside a lamp, to an “open cup” system.

open cup system for kerosene testing

Open cup system for kerosene testing.

Because the flammable kerosene vapor evaporates away more readily in the open cup system, the effect was that the flash point appeared higher than it actually was, making possible the sale of lower-grade fuels. The more stringent old law had been “set aside by the machinations of the Standard Oil Trust, assisted by a weak legislature, and … has been productive of the loss of many lives and the destruction of thousands of dollars worth of property,” said the March 29, 1893 issue of Paint, Oil, and Drug Review.

The same month that the test was weakened, the number of kerosene accidents around the state increased. In the first half of 1891 there occurred 19 lamp explosions and 2 kerosene stove explosions with two fatalities. In the second half of the year, there were 74 lamp explosions and 6 stove explosions, with 9 lives lost.

November saw the greatest number of incidents. It is worth examining the roster of accidents in order to appreciate the frightening scale of the problem.

On the first of that month, a kerosene stove caused a fire in Lansing, and a Kalamazoo girl was burned while lighting a furnace. On the second of the month, a Kalamazoo man was burned while using kerosene to light a stove. Also on the second, an exploding lantern in Rockford caused a barn fire; the same happened in Corey. On November 5, a kerosene stove exploded in Ypsilanti, severely burning a woman.

The next day, a lamp exploded in Watertown township. On the 9th, two lamps exploded in Grass Lake, another exploded in Ithaca, and a Bay City boy was severely burned while trying to light a fire with kerosene. On the 11th, a lantern exploded in an Addison barn, causing a number of buildings to burn and causing $17,000 in damage [about $407,000 today]. On the same day, lamps exploded in Watertown Township and in Dushville, the latter causing the deaths of two children.

The month wasn’t even half over.

On the 12th, a Kalamazoo boy was severely burned while trying to light a furnace with kerosene. On the 19th, a lamp exploded in Albion. On the 22nd, a lamp exploded in Northfield, another exploded in Plainfield township and destroyed a barn and all its contents, and a third exploded in the Ann Arbor home of W. W. Douglas, burning his carpet and furniture.

It would be years before the state again adopted the more stringent closed cup test.

Kedzie continued to speak out over the years on the subject of kerosene adulteration at conventions and meetings of various associations around Michigan. Twenty-five years after his initial words in the Board of Health’s inaugural report, he gave a retrospective talk on the Board’s accomplishments at its quarter-centennial 1898 meeting in Detroit.

Kedzie singled out four major topics of concern and achievement for the board over the years: potable water, the draining of Michigan’s swamps, the architecture of schoolhouses, with a focus on the dangers of stairs to the anatomy of female students (a story for another day) and “the kerosene battle.”

“The headline ‘Another Kerosene Horror’ was seen in nearly every daily paper,” said Kedzie, “with sickening details of some poor woman roasted like a martyr at the stake, set on fire by a lamp explosion . . . [w]hen the Michigan Oil Tester adopted by the Board … were made the legal method of testing, and a State Oil Inspector [made] to have charge of this business, then the people found a safe light.” The struggle to ensure safe and universal testing, said Kedzie, was ongoing.

Kerosene Today

The UM grad’s legacy is preserved in current Michigan legislation. Modern-day purchasers of kerosene are protected by a law (Act 328 of 1931) that mandates that the fuel, whether made in Michigan or out of state, have a 100-degree flash point as tested by the closed cup tester that Kedzie championed. Violators can go to jail for up to 6 months, pay up to $750, or both.

This summer will feature thousands of Michiganders operating kerosene outboard motors (they do exist), cooking over kerosene camp stoves, and using kerosene lanterns, the safety of which devices is due in no small part to pioneering UM alum Robert Kedzie. His legacy burns brightly.

Mystery Artifact

This column’s Mystery Artifact is one that was recently brought into the Ypsilanti Archives by a visitor. Several of us there puzzled over it, but no one could figure it out.

Mystery Artifact

Mystery Artifact

The legend says “BALL BEARING 5.”

The visitor took it over to the Automotive Museum and he got an answer. What do you think it is?

Laura Bien is the author of “Hidden History of Ypsilanti” and “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Look for her article on Coldwater School, a short version of which first appeared here, in the July/August issue of Michigan History Magazine.

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  1. By TJ
    June 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm | permalink

    formatting problems here (at least when read in Safari)

  2. June 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm | permalink

    Re: formatting

    TJ thanks I’m working to repair that, it’s not just Safari. Apologies all around. This is The Chronicle’s problem, not Laura Bien’s.

  3. June 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm | permalink

    I believe that I’ve fixed the formatting, which caused long chunks of text to appear as part of the image captions. If any readers still experience problems, please let me know either in a comment left here or by email. (

  4. By Laura Bien
    June 6, 2012 at 3:41 pm | permalink

    Looks great at present (using Safari). Thanks Dave!

  5. June 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm | permalink

    So was last month’s artifact a stamp dispenser?

    Thanks for continuing the “things that blow up” theme. I’m going to guess the artifact is from a 19th century petroleum refinery, and was part of the ventilation system. These were introduced after “Ball Bearing 4″ suffered frequent failures, causing entire towns to be wiped off the face of the State. The destruction was so complete that today the Marathon Detroit Refinery is the only one left in Michigan.

  6. June 6, 2012 at 8:12 pm | permalink

    Key line upon which to reflect: Many unscrupulous oil refiners of that era pursued profits at the cost of lives like hers.


    Beautiful article, Laura. I can’t imagine the pain that this poor girl went through (and her family/friends suffered) just so Mr. McOil RichDude could make a few extra dollars :(

  7. By George Hammond
    June 7, 2012 at 12:53 am | permalink

    Fascinating article! Thank You!

  8. By Laura Bien
    June 7, 2012 at 2:43 am | permalink

    Jim: You are exactly right, and I apologize, I forgot to say that indeed the previous item was a stamp dispenser. Thanks for the reminder; I appreciate it. I have the dispenser on my desk right now.

  9. By Laura Bien
    June 7, 2012 at 2:48 am | permalink

    Teacher P and George H: Thank you for your kind words. Can you imagine having a glass lamp full of benzene or gasoline on your dining room table? The unscrupulousness of that person selling the benzine recipe in “distant states” gave me a chill when I read about it. And the relentlessness of the oil companies in pressing down the flash point…at any cost.

  10. By Laura Bien
    June 7, 2012 at 2:50 am | permalink

    *benzene. Sorry, it was spelled “benzine” in many older pubs; I mistakenly defaulted to that spelling, there.

  11. By Laura Bien
    June 7, 2012 at 2:58 am | permalink

    artifact hint: this is actually only part of the actual artifact. And it’s a seasonal artifact.

  12. June 19, 2012 at 7:47 am | permalink

    I think this is an idler pulley wheel.


  13. By Russ Miller
    June 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm | permalink

    I think the artifact is a wheel from reel type push mower – with perhaps a gear cast into a drum on the back side. Seems like an awfully skinny thing to push across a lawn but there might have been a hard rubber tire cast on the rim.