Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Gruesome Tale

Working with large machines has always presented its challenges. Anyone remembering those segments of school-day history classes covering the Industrial Revolution can attest that it was not a bloodless revolution.

How easy it is, though, to gloss over such tragic confrontations—man versus machine—despite the deplorable losses, when those tragedies involved nameless, faceless statistics.

How different it becomes when that tragedy happens to someone you not only know, but someone you love—someone whose presence in your life makes all the difference in the world.

For four little girls—“aged ten, eight, seven and five years, respectively,” as The Fort Wayne Sentinel put it later that morning on May 18, 1912—it meant an irreplaceable loss. For the unnamed widow, it meant a lifelong companionship-to-be cut prematurely short. It fingered a future of financial and emotional uncertainty—a problem compounded in an era in which even a woman’s name ought not to appear in public, let alone her working hands or entrepreneurial spirit.

It was surprising to see how many details the newspapers carried of Patrick Phillips’ instantaneous death. Though the Sentinel buried the report on page eleven under the “Shop and Railroad News” column, the Journal-Gazette brought the story front and center on their edition that same day.

Patrick Phillips may have been a common laborer, but he apparently was widely known. Partly, this is hard to discern, for the overly-kind obituary language of the time often painted saint and scoundrel alike with the lingering ambience of Victorian gentility. His history of employment in two different railroad companies most likely added to the widespread respect accorded to him.
The deceased was popular among a wide circle of friends and during his twenty years of railroad service he became a great favorite with many of the trainmen in this city. He was formerly a conductor on the Grand Rapids and Indiana road, with a run out of this city, but two years ago he severed his connection with that company and entered the employ of the Wabash company in the local yards. The news of his tragic death was a shock to many of the G. R. & I. men with whom he was formerly associated, and the men in the Wabash service speak of him in the highest terms of praise and greatly deplore the fact that one so popular should be so suddenly removed from their midst.

I can’t help but wonder if the thought of continuing employment as a conductor on a “run” to Grand Rapids made this Fort Wayne father of four young daughters reconsider the demands his job placed upon his family time. A local position might have made more sense to him, considering the changes to his growing family. Perhaps the loss of two of his children became another dynamic convincing him it was time for a change.

I can hardly imagine how the news of Patrick’s death would have been conveyed to his widow. The shock of the instant loss would be one thing—mercifully, the event seemed to have immediately killed him—but the many details printed for all to see would have been unbearable for a widow to realize.

Apparently, Patrick worked a night shift. His instructions, early that morning of May 18, 1912, were to go with his crew to switch some cars on Walton Avenue, where he worked in the city.
A local freight train was being made up and Mr. Phillips, together with his crew, composed of Engineer John Koehler, Fireman John Majors and Switchmen Ben Elliott and B. Worman, was engaged in switching cars at the point where the accident occurred. From information received at the Wabash yard-master’s office, it seems that a cut of cars had been set out on one track and while Mr. Phillips was engaged in checking them up, another cut of two cars was kicked down upon him while he was standing on another track, unconscious of the approach of the cars. He was knocked down and the two cars passed over his body…

From that point, the Sentinel proceeded to explain in detail what happened to each specific limb of the now-deceased man’s body. (For those unaffected by reading such proceedings as coroner’s reports, you may follow the rest of the story by scrolling down the website here to the top left corner of the newspaper page with Patrick's photograph; allows one complimentary view per day.)

With that one instantaneous stroke, a machine built to carry staggering loads the span of a continent overcame one man whose entire life was spent within the radius of a small circle of family and friends on the south side of downtown Fort Wayne.

Postcard, above: The Wabash Banner Limited, July 1912; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.  


  1. How horrible.

    He seems to have had a premonition too -

    Of some interest to me - after I digested the gruesome story were the "Industrial Notes" column adjacent. Lots of RR news going on in that town.

    1. Ah! You did take a look at the gruesome details, I see. Yes...that premonition...I'll get to that in a few days.

      Fort Wayne was a railroad-rich environment! You can tell from the very fact that the newspapers of Patrick's time dedicated a column just to "shop" news of the railroads.

  2. What a horrible death! Very sad for his children.

    1. Yes, Betty, I imagine so...though I don't know any of the children or their descendants. The girls were so young. I wonder if the youngest even remembered her father...

  3. Good golly! I'm speechless. What a horrible way to go.

    1. Yes, it must have been, Wendy. I hated reading through those details. If it weren't for the fact that I had already discovered that someone in my mother's family also suffered one of those gruesome instant railroad deaths, it would have been even harder to read about it.

  4. That is quite an account, not very sensitive to family were they:(

    1. Yes, I was astounded to see so much detail included in the newspaper. Not very comfortable for family, indeed--although, if there were a coroner's report, I assume that would be public record as well. However, I am beginning to wonder if this might have been a case calling for reading between the lines. Something might have been brewing at that time--something a lot of people might have been distressed about. After all, Fort Wayne was quite a railroad town. There were sure to be a lot of employees--and their families--thinking, "This could have been me."


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