I happened to be examining the records relating to the deaths of police officers in the line of duty and came across this bizarre instance, for the killer was not human. But before I continue I'll explain something about the technology that was employed one hundred and eighteen years ago by the police in order to maintain communication links between beat officers and their headquarters; for although officers back in the year 1900 were pretty tough types who could hand out some judicial excess when the situation called for it, they were armed with a stick and a sidearm because it was expected that they could and often were attacked by persons unknown and either harmed or killed outright so the police departments back then in cities like Saint Louis, Missouri, had the telephone company rig up special police telephones at virtually every intersection so a police officer was never far from a phone. Because this was well before the introduction of radios (the first police radio was used in April 1928 with two-way radios coming into use in 1933) an officer was required to call in once an hour and state their location, status and if necessary to give an account of their current actions or they would be in trouble with their sergeant. Failure to call in would be met with an immediate investigation, a stern talking too and possibly demerits against the officer unless there was a good reason for their doing so. Failure for an expected call to be missed would also trigger a police alarm and officers would be dispatched to the section the absent officer was patrolling to see if they were in trouble or worse.
Now that I've explained that, we can go straight to the case in question.
At around 19:30 hours on the night of September 3rd 1900 in Saint Louis, Officer John Dineen arrived at the corner of 12th and Morgan Streets and opening the small hatch on the box which contained the police only telephone mounted on a telephone pole he took hold of the handset and was instantly electrocuted by what was estimated as being thirty-two hundred volts direct current, and although he was only in contact with the handset for a second, if that, the handset (which was live) turned the flesh on his hand black and he was rendered unconscious. Fortunately a passing citizen witnessed the incident and quickly raised the alarm, and while other people came to see what had happened (for this was a time when any incident out of the ordinary was considered entertainment) one of them who had their own telephone called in to the police headquarters in the Fourth District that a police officer was down and this led to reinforcements being dispatched to his location, and Officer Dineen was taken away to the nearest hospital for treatment by the citizen who had seen him felled.
Now unknown to anyone at this point a heavy current cable had fallen and was now laid across the cables used by the police at 8th and Carr Streets and this acted to make every police telephone connection a potential death trap and an accident just waiting to happen. And then it started. As police officers patrolling the Fourth District called in as required they were systematically electrocuted exactly as Officer Dineen had been; some of them received severe burns as he did, some of them died at the scene due to heart attacks for the most part and were found by concerned citizenry. More concerned calls came in, and this time the police headquarters dispatched a patrol wagon and three special officers (essentially tougher cops who by today's standards would be S.W.A.T.) to investigate and on seeing their fellow officers on patrol verbally warned them not to call in, not to use the telephone boxes.
However, this warning came too late for many officers who suffered the same fate.
Two police officers died from electrocution, another thirteen others in the Downtown area were seriously injured by it. Among the dead was Officer Nicolas Beckman who had only been on the streets a year. He was rendered unconscious and experienced severe burning when he attempted to call in using the police box on 18th Street between Washington and Carr Streets. A passing citizen on seeing him thrown from the box carried him across the road to the Protestant Hospital where he died a mere fifteen minutes later from his injuries. At 20:00 hours that same evening, Officer John Looney (41), of Irish ancestry, went to call in. He opened the hatch, reached in and on contact with the handset he received the fatal shock and was thrown to the ground. A veteran of the department, he had served for seven years and was married with two children. He had a brother who was with the mounted division, Patrick Looney. Recognized as one of the hardest men the department had, he walked what was then a rough neighborhood with relative ease, and was both respected and feared by the local underworld because of it.
It took the electric company five hours to find the fault and fix it. Come daybreak the newspapers and wire services were awash with the story, noting that some of the officers had the skin burned to the bone and that their hands would have to be amputated because of it. Given that on that night in September 1900 no less than seventy police officers were out making sure the city was safe, its a wonder that not more met their death due to the fallen power cable.