Deadliest Night for St. Louis Police

The deadliest incident in St. Louis Police history was not a shootout, natural disaster or act of terrorism.  The deadliest incident in St. Louis Police history occurred on the night of Monday, September 3, 1900.  The assailant was electricity, when a power line with 3300 volts of electricity fell onto the telephone lines, at Eight Street and Carr Avenue, that connected all the policemen’s call boxes.

70 policeman patrolling the Downtown District were potentially victims as they made their way to the call boxes for their 7:00 p.m. check-ins.  By the end of the night, two policeman lay dead and thirteen others were seriously burned or suffered injuries from being thrown from the call boxes or the call center at headquarters.

Before the implementation of the two-way radio, policeman had to call in on the call box every hour, so the station would know that they were okay.  The call box was also the primary way to call for a transport after someone had been arrested.  As the policemen began to make their way to the call boxes, a radio operator was knocked back against the wall in the station due to the shock.  St. Louis Police command personnel sent out messengers to warn the officers about the potential threat but many did not get the warning in time.  A lineman, who responded to police headquarters, was also badly shocked.

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Post -Dispatch Article about the incident from September 4, 1900

Most of the thirteen officers, who were injured, suffered burns to their hands or were knocked unconscious.  A couple suffered joint injuries from being thrown from the call boxes.  The most common burn injuries were to the hands from inserting keys into the call box or cranking the call box handle.

Patrolman John F. Killoren inserted his key into the call box at Fifteenth Street and Franklin Avenue and was blown back into the street.  Killoren staggered to his feet and tried to open the call box again before bystanders could stop him.  He was knocked back into the street with serious burns to his hands.

In addition to the injured officers, many of whom citizens transported to local hospitals, two officers would lose their lives.  The current killed young officer, Nicholas F. Beckmann, and veteran officer, John P. Looney.

Beckmann was a twenty-six year old police officer and veteran of the Spanish-American War.  Beckman fought at the battle of San Juan Hill, which made Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders famous.

Beckman used the call box on Eighteenth Street between Washington and Carr Avenue.  As Beckmann opened the call box, he screamed and fell backward.  Bystanders took him to the nearby Protestant Hospital, where he never regained consciousness.  The department had to break the news to his widowed mother, who lived with Beckmann.

James Looney was a 41-year-old husband and father, who had been on the force since 1893.  Looney was shocked trying to open the call box at Twelfth Street and Morgan Avenue.  He was taken to the dispensary but never regained consciousness and died 15 minutes after the initial shock.

City Lighting officials determined the culprit to be the power line from the Seckner Contracting Company.  According to city officials, the Seckner Company’s lines were supposed to be below ground but the company received a waiver from the Board of Public Improvements, which is why the lines were above ground.  The officials cut down the responsible lines and set about requiring Seckner to bury the lines.

In 2006, the St. Louis Police Department recognized that Michael P. Burke, who was one of the thirteen men shocked that night, died of those injuries 15 months later on December 13, 1901, making it only the second time in Police Department history when three St. Louis officers would lose their lives in the same incident.

The department shootouts get much more coverage but the deadliest night in St. Louis Police history was September 3, 1900, when electricity attacked an unsuspecting force.

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