Eulogy for a Night Soil Man

James T. Herron, Jr.


The Canonsburg Daily Notes ran two editorials in its January 5, 1934 issue. The first was about voting machines, the second was a tribute to a prominent local citizen, David J. P. McCartney, on the day of his funeral.

Prominence tends to be relative. There is the big fish in a small pond type as compared to a person of international repute. Some prominent people began as nobodies and became known through their deeds, for good or ill. Some have prominence thrust upon them suddenly by chance, others are born with the silver spoon. For many, prominence is fleeting, whether it be adulatorious or notorious.

Only the people around Canonsburg would have known Dave McCartney. He wasn't a prosperous businessman, a philanthropist, a big-time politician, an influential clergyman or educator. Like an old tree or a building that has seemingly always been present, he was not appreciated until he was gone.

The Daily Notes commented in his obituary: "Every community has its local characters and its institutions. Canonsburg has just lost one of these in the death of Dave McCartney at his home in North Strabane township."

  • "Passing of Dave McCartney" (editorial), Daily Notes, Jan. 5, 1934.

McCartney lived just to the east of town in the area that has been redeveloped to the extent he wouldn't recognize it. The streets have been changed, the creek straightened, Philadelphia Patch leveled, and a gaggle of fast-food places have been built where baseball used to be played on a grassless diamond.

He wouldn't recognize it because he was a man of another era. "He never attained the heights of eminence," the editorial said, "he never accumulated any money, he was forced to take every opportunity to earn a dollar that might come his way and there were times when few came. Yet he enjoyed a legion of friends of which any man could be justly proud."

The editorial eulogized a man who had overcome disadvantage to a modest degree. "Afflicted by impaired sight and hearing, deprived of opportunity of education or advantages that would broaden his intellect, he was a plodder from early boyhood until the day of his death."

The newspaper told of his ability to "make calculations by simple rules of rote and reason that would require slide rules and high mathematics for the graduate engineer." He once "estimated, within a few hundred, the number of bricks necessary to erect a large three-story building now standing in the community."

The editorial tribute to Dave McCartney spiraled to an end: "Dave McCartney will soon be forgotten by most people; no doubt his grave will be unmarked and unattended, but to many he will remain a tradition of the past and the proverbial being who ‘lived in the house by the side of the road’ and was a friend to man."

McCartney's obituary had appeared on the front page of the Notes two days before. He was 73 years old when he died and had been in failing health for three years. He hadn't married; a sister was keeping house for him when he died. It was the custom at the time for a body to be laid out at home rather than in a funeral parlor, but Dave McCartney's circumstances were more meager than modest, so the body was taken to the home of a nephew until the funeral.

The Rev. Ralph T. Kemper of the South Canonsburg Church conducted the services; burial was in Speer Spring Cemetery. He was survived by three brothers and four sisters.

  • "Dave McCartney Dies Suddenly," Notes, Jan. 3, 1934.

  Dave McCartney's obituary was the typical statement of biographical details, and the editorial praised the essence of the man. The people who read the newspaper knew him and could fill in what the Notes did not mention. Dave McCartney, among his other abilities and accomplishments, was a honey-dipper. Before the days of indoor plumbing and sanitary sewers, men like Dave McCartney provided an essential service. No privy pit could be dug so deep that it did not need to be cleaned out every so often.

Today, where sanitary sewers are lacking, a tank truck with a vacuum hose does the job. Dave McCartney used a bucket and a honey wagon. Though his occupation was not mentioned at the time of his death, the Notes remembered him a few years later.

Dave conducted a business of his own, a business which had to do with much night work and which usually was carried on when there was a good wind, in order not to cause evil smells and discomfort to the neighborhood where he was operating. Dave was a sanitary engineer in a way, that is he engineered removal of waste that accumulated in those two and three seaters which Chic Sale and James Whitcomb Riley immortalized. In fact, Dave McCartney did more to bring the old back house to the front than any man in town--and many times he scattered the contents all over the town.
  • "McCartney One of Characters In Early Days," Notes, June 21, 1937. If Chic Sale's The Specialist is unfamiliar, your literary education is incomplete. As for James Whitcomb Riley's work about outhouses, it doesn’t appear in any of his anthologies. In an effort to quench the thirst for knowledge of the JCTimes readers, the works are reprinted in this issue.

All the contents weren’t scattered, though. Disposal must have been a problem; there were no bulldozers to bury the material in those days. In 1899, McCartney approached the borough council and "requested to secure ground for burying matter from privy vaults, stating that he would be willing to pay for each vault cleaned one dollar."

  • Canonsburg Borough Council Minutes, March 6, 1899.

The story was told that in the wee hours of a spring night about 1910 a young fellow and two friends were returning to town. Clarke Greer was driving the new Maxwell his father had bought him and had just topped Curry Hill when he saw Dave McCartney's honey wagon just ahead. There was no time to stop and the Maxwell ploughed into the wagon.

The impact threw Charlie Skirble, one of the passengers, some thirty feet and didn't do the horses or Dave McCartney much good either. The effluvium that erupted from the splintered wagon coated one and all. A rescuer came upon Skirble as he was regaining consciousness and wasn't sure whether he was alive or dead. He was told he was alive, but, "You smell like you had been dead a year."

  • "McCartney...," Notes, June 21, 1937.

In addition to cleaning privy pits and estimating construction materials, Dave McCartney took on a variety of tasks to earn a living. In 1910 the Canonsburg school board accepted his bid to tear down what was left of the old Black Horse Tavern. The school district was planning to build a high school on the site. He signed the proposal with his mark.

  • Canonsburg School Board Minutes, Nov. 3, 1910 and Jan. 3, 1911.

Dave McCartney also was known as a water witch, a dowser who used a forked peach twig to identify likely locations for wells. However, his ability to find water paled in comparison to his successes during the oil boom of the late 1800s. The method he used to locate profitable oil wells should have been similar to his water witching, but it wasn't. It makes one wonder if Dave McCartney was really a dowser, or maybe he was just using the forked twig because it was expected of him. A local man who had seen him work described his method of locating oil.

Dave would lie down on the ground and examine it very carefully. He would examine the slant and the pitch of the rocks...and after studying everything, he would make his decision. And many men got rich on these decisions.
  • "McCartney...," Notes, June 21, 1937.

Dave McCartney didn't get rich, and toward the end of his life he was on relief. It was during the Depression and he was eligible to pick up a supply of food weekly. A few weeks before he died he told the secretary of the agency that "he thought he had enough to tide him over for another week" so he'd skip his allotment that week.

  • "Passing of Dave McCartney," Notes, Jan. 5, 1934.

There's a lot to be said in favor of culture and refinement, and of drive and financial success. But those people often aren't honored with the sincerity of Dave McCartney's eulogy in the Daily Notes, which said, "He was endowed with an uncompromising sense of right and wrong which guided him through his long life."