Monday, October 21, 2013

Up, Up Again

Was it a friendly journalistic rivalry that entered the fray as everyone awaited the decision in the Mary Kelly Phillips case back in May, 1914?

Patrick Phillips had lost his life on the bad end of a man versus machine encounter at work one night. That was back in May of 1912. Nearly two years later, his widow was still seeking justice. It was not an easy bid for redress, as the case had had a change of venue to a small town twenty five miles removed from Fort Wayne, the city where Mary lived and where the tragedy occurred.

While not much had been mentioned in the newspapers in the interim, we’ve already discussed my hunch that public opinion—at least south of the tracks in neighborhoods like Mary’s—held strong in the widow’s favor. A vote for Mary was a vote for railroad employees everywhere—for better working conditions, or at least more respect for human dignity from their far-removed employers.

“Out of sight means out of mind” may have been the hope for the representatives of the Wabash Railroad whom Mary Phillips was suing. It was they who had requested the change of venue from the Allen County court system.

Following the granting of their request, there was hardly a word printed in the Fort Wayne newspapers about the case until just before its conclusion was reached. Of course, there can be any number of reasons for this state. One might be that there was some sort of court order demanding silence on the part of the journalists until the case was resolved. Another might have been some heavy-handed muscle flexing on the part of the big business player in town, threatening to stifle advertising income for any papers continuing to carry news on the story.

Of course, those are the dramatic symptoms of an imagination gone wild. The more likely reason for lack of further reports on the case’s progress is that there are so many holes in the historic newspaper collections available to us today. Mary's story may have sold plenty of newspapers—just none that I could access online.

Whatever the reason for the year-long journalistic silence, once that silence was breached, a curious detail emerged.

First, if you recall, the initial announcement in February,1913, cited the amount sought for damages as $10,000. I have that number courtesy of The Fort Wayne Daily News. When the editors saw fit to take up the tale again in May, 1914, the amount had escalated to $20,000—at least, according to copy in The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

Not to be outdone, one day after the Journal-Gazette report, the rival Fort Wayne Sentinel upped the amount another five grand.

Something about all these inconsistencies—not to mention the VIP panel of players—makes me realize that it might be worth my while to actually obtain a copy of the court proceedings for this particular case. While gory as a coroner’s report, it might make for some informative reading.
Bluffton, Ind., May 8.—The big damage suit, in which Mrs. Mary Phillips, of Fort Wayne, is suing the Wabash Railroad company for damages in the sum of $25,000 for the death of her husband, Patrick Phillips, continues on trial in the circuit court, with the defense introducing evidence. Attorneys stated that the evidence in the case probably cannot be completed until some time today. As there will be long arguments, the case probably will not get to the jury before Saturday.


  1. Sounds like a bad case of inflation to me... or perhaps the media was "hyping" the story (per usual) :P

    1. What I'm curious to find out: whether the smaller number was just what Mary would be awarded, and the larger numbers the full amount sought--to pay for court costs, legal fees, etc.


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