Col. Charles C. Weybrecht survived World War I, the Spanish-American War and the Mexican Border War, but he did not survive dinner.
The 50-year-old decorated officer was the guest of honor Aug. 23, 1919, at the Lakeside Club on Meyers Lake in Canton when a terrible calamity befell his welcome-home party 100 years ago.
Sebring residents Willard and Helen Gahris had invited a small group of Alliance friends to the private club to celebrate Weybrecht’s return from the Great War, where he had commanded U.S. troops in France for two years.
He had been home for only a month.
Weybrecht was a jovial, burly man who had spent 30 years in the military and had served as adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard. Beloved by his troops, he was known for bravery, generosity and kindness.
He and his wife, Emily Brosius Weybrecht, attended the Gahris party that Saturday evening with six other couples: industrialist William Henry Morgan and Annette Sharer Morgan; jeweler John C. Sharer and Katherine “Kit” Ballou Sharer; executive A. Fred Morris and Ella Bullock Morris; Salem newspaper publisher Louis H. Brush and Maude Snowden Brush; Dr. Willis Sanford and Jessie Williams Sanford; and iron magnate Clem Bates and Mary Bates.
The affluent guests chatted at a large table while the club held a dinner dance for 200 patrons. The menu included roast turkey, dressing, browned potatoes, green corn, salad, cantaloupe, cake and ice cream. As an extra touch, Helen Gahris had the table decorated with candy, nuts and olives.
It was a lovely dinner and the guests enjoyed themselves, although Colonel Weybrecht fell ill at the end of the evening and had to be excused. The party broke up and the friends bid each other farewell.
The next day, life began to unravel in Alliance.
The Morgans' son, William H. Morgan, was only 15 in 1919 but vividly recalled the week's events for the rest of his life. His uncle John Sharer visited the Morgan mansion, Glamorgan Castle, that Sunday and walked to the nearby home of his mother, Mary Louise Sharer.
“Uncle John, sitting where he could look out of the window asked his mother whether there were two girls walking up Union Avenue,” Morgan recalled in a 1982 report on file at Rodman Public Library in Alliance. “It seemed strange to him that they were dressed exactly alike and moved in unison. Grandmother assured him that there was only one, to which John replied that he had better have his eyes checked.
“We later learned that Helen Gahris had played golf on that Sunday and had also experienced double vision. We learned too that Charlie Weybrecht had experienced double vision.”
Concerned calls went back and forth Monday among the party guests. More than half felt sick. It began with double vision and led to impaired speech, shallow breathing and difficulty swallowing. Then paralysis took hold.
Family doctors rushed to the homes of the afflicted, but there was little they could do. The patients’ health declined rapidly.
Helen Gahris died Monday night. Charles Weybrecht died Tuesday morning. John Sharer died Tuesday night. Kit Sharer died Wednesday morning. Jessie Sanford died Saturday night.
The party guests weren’t alone. Lakeside Club waiter Robert Jennings died Tuesday and chef Fred McAvoy died Wednesday.
Seven deaths in one week! Several guests slowly recovered from illness. A few did not get sick.
As health officials tried to determine the cause, early suspicion centered on the roast turkey served at the dinner. Yet nearly 200 club patrons had turkey that night and did not fall ill. Only those in Weybrecht’s party were affected.
Wild theories arose. Some wondered if the guests had consumed illegal alcohol. Others theorized Bolshevik spies had infiltrated the club.
Finally, the culprit was identified. Investigators found that everyone who got sick had sampled the olives. Those who escaped illness hadn't eaten any.
At L.M. Barth’s grocery in Alliance, Helen Gahris had bought a 16-ounce glass jar of Mammoth Ripe Olives that had been packed by the Curtiss Olive Corp. in Los Angeles.
“I have some nice ripe olives,” she had told Lakeside Club official W.P. Kuhne. “May I bring them as well as the candy?”
Kuhne took the olives to the club’s kitchen, but waiter Charles Otey didn’t think they smelled right. Co-workers Jennings and McAvoy sampled a few and died within days.
Annette Morgan nibbled a single olive and was sick for a week, but she was lucky. She recovered.
“Mother liked ripe olives and took one, but said many times afterward that the olive was soft, and not black as it should have been, but a mottled brown,” son William H. Morgan later recalled. “She took one bite, and since it did not taste right, put it down and did not touch it again.”
The jar was still in the club refrigerator. Health experts studied the olives under a microscope and noted rod-shaped bacteria: Clostridium botulinum. The victims had botulism.
“The bacillus is a motile spore-forming anaerobic bacterium which grows at room temperature,” Stark County Coroner T.C. McQuate explained. “The toxin is readily produced in anaerobic alkaline bouillon culture from 24 to 48 hours and sometimes longer, as one of the victims in this case went as long as 75 hours before the preliminary symptoms came on.
“The chief symptoms are due to toxic interference with the cranial nerves, drooping of eyelids, loss of speech and difficulty in swallowing in general, a paralysis of the muscles of the mouth and throat.”
Other olive poisonings occurred in Michigan and Pennsylvania, bringing the death toll to 19. The Curtiss Olive Corp. shut down.
More than 10,000 people viewed Weybrecht’s funeral procession in Alliance. Ohio veterans mourned their leader who died far from the battlefield. Soldiers fired a volley over the colonel's grave and a bugler sounded taps.
Today, a World War I doughboy statue stands over the Weybrecht family plot in Alliance City Cemetery.
Historians refer to the 1919 tragedy as “The Great Olive Poisoning.”
Survivors lived the rest of their lives with the memory.
Morgan’s father died in 1928. His mother lived until 1960.
“She never tasted another ripe olive after the Gahris party, nor could I blame her,” he recalled.
Mark J. Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3850.