100 years ago, tainted olives felled a WWI veteran, 6 others at a welcome-home party
By MALCOLM HALL | The Repository, Canton, Ohio | Published: August 26, 2019
ALLIANCE, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — What was a grand and enjoyable dinner party honoring a returning World War I veteran a century ago turned into a deadly tragedy resulting in the deaths of seven people.
One of the victims was Col. Charles Weybrecht, who on the night of Aug. 23, 1919, was being honored by a host of his Alliance-area friends who held the affair at Lakeside Country Club in the Meyers Lake area.
However, olives served at the party were contaminated. As a result seven people, within days, in an insidious manner began succumbing to botulism. The event was commemorated by the Alliance Historical Society on Sunday afternoon during a observance in Alliance City Cemetery.
"This was big news back then," said Michelle Dillon of the Alliance Historical Society. "This was a homecoming party to celebrate our returning hero."
Weybrecht joined the Ohio National Guard after graduating from what was then called Mount Union College. He was with the 165th Regiment, Ohio Infantry. He rose up to the rank of colonel. Eventually, Weybrecht wound up in Europe during World War I.
"His leadership endeared him to his men," John Gross, a member of the Alliance Historical Society, said. "He lost a lot of men. A lot of men were wounded."
Weybrecht was among the last American military personnel to leave Europe at the conclusion of the war.
The other six that died of botulism from the tainted olives were Helen Gahris, Frank McAvoy, Robert Jennings, John Sharer, Katherine Sharer and Jessie Sanford. Some of these were said to be among the most influential people in Alliance at the time. It was Helen Gahris who hosted the event honoring Weybrecht. The colonel died died three days after the party on a Tuesday.
Days after the dinner party it was a mystery as to what caused the outbreak of botulism. Eventually, it was determined to be the olives. All those who died had eaten the olives.
"If not for a jar of olives how would Alliance have changed?" Mayor Alan Andreani said. "We had the leadership of Alliance struck down."
Andreani presented a proclamation at the event.
Weybrecht is buried in the Alliance City Cemetery along with three others who were at the party and died of botulism. Within the cemetery there is a bronze statue of Weybrecht in a military uniform. His likeness stands on a granite base.
"You know there still is no cure for botulism," said the Rev. Rick Sams, who recently retired from Alliance Friends Church. "You can treat it."
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