Thursday, December 14, 2017

How it Happened: Version Two

In trying to piece together a cogent history of the life of the man whose picture I rescued from a local antique store, it turns out that, once again, we find that life stories seem always to include the unexpected. When we started, all we knew was that the subject's name was John Blain, and that he sat for his likeness at a photography studio in the small town of Walnut, Kansas, sometime during the 1880s.

More to the point, once we discovered the tragedy that had befallen this man in the prime of his life, we've been presented with two versions of just what happened to lead to his demise. You already know my bias against trusting, wholesale, contemporary newspaper reports. In John Blain's case, due to the nature of what befell him in 1908, we have the opportunity to examine two different versions of what actually happened.

From a summary of the appeals process, published in volume 184 of The Southwestern Reporter, we learn that John Blain's widow, serving as administratrix of his estate, had filed suit for $10,000 against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company for the death of her husband. While the summary, on page 1142 through 1143, mentioned that the suit was brought according to provisions under Kansas state statutes, the case was actually heard in the state of Missouri. No reason was given for this, though it appeared that, based on Missouri law, the outcome was not to be what the widow might have hoped.

Through the summary, we once again see details we've already learned through the newspaper report we discussed yesterday: that John Blain was a man of forty four years of age, that he was engaged in the lumber and furniture business in Centerville, Kansas, and that he received his fatal injuries in the city of Paola, Kansas.

That's pretty much where the similarities stop. The court cases, presumably extracting their evidence from witnesses on the stand, provided more detail about the incident—but also details that may or may not have lined up exactly with what we've learned from the Wichita newspaper account.

The summary in The Southwestern Reporter first included some background information, setting the scene:
Peoria street, in Paola, runs east and west across the tracks of three railroad systems all parallel and lying within a strip of about 200 feet. About 24 passenger trains on those roads cross that street within that many hours, and many more freights. As those tracks are approached from the east the first is a switch of the defendant [Missouri Pacific] running to an elevator standing just west of Peoria street and just east of the switch. Next comes the main track of defendant. Between it and said switch on the north side of the street is a cobhouse used in connection with the elevator. The main track spoken of above curves round that cobhouse to the eastward. About four blocks north of Peoria street is the defendant's station. The regular passenger train was due there at 11:40 a.m.

Now that the description has set the stage, the narrative went on to introduce the main player, our unfortunate John Blain.
Just at noon Blain was proceeding west on the sidewalk on the south side of that street. When he had crossed the switch track and got within 8 or 10 feet of defendant's main track, had he looked westward, he could have seen a train on that main track a distance of 400 or 500 feet. The regular passenger train south bound left the station just at noon, gave two long and two short whistles when about 400 feet from Peoria street, and continued ringing the engine bell from that point until it crossed the street....

This is where the description seemed incredible, making me wonder why it happened the way it did.
Blain proceeded straight ahead without looking for the approach of any train. He was in about two feet of the defendant's main track when someone called to him. He looked back, and, while doing so, was struck by the pilot beam of the engine and knocked about twenty feet.

Right there, at that point in the narrative, I find so many issues that prompt questions. Why, for instance, did he not look before crossing the tracks? Was he not responsive to all the din around him? Was it precisely for such a reason that his ears became deaf to the very signal that was supposed to warn him away? And why was someone calling to him at such a precarious point? Was it, ironically, to warn him to "Look out"?

As a sad postscript to the blow-by-blow, the case summary added,
For about two years there had been an electric bell at that crossing, but for a great portion of the time it had been out of repair, and was out of repair and not working on the day in question.

Although an oversight such as that, on the part of a defendant, would surely now have played a significant role in determining the outcome of the case, that was not so for Mrs. Blain's appeal. The $10,000 she was seeking—depending on which inflation calculator used, representing in today's economy anywhere from $239,000 to $261,000—was not to be awarded to her. The prime determining factor:
When a person, capable of seeing and hearing, in broad daylight, attempts to cross a railroad track in front of a rapidly moving train, without looking or listening for such train, and is struck by it and injured, his own negligence is the proximate cause of his injury....

Despite conceding, in the court's report, that "it was negligence in the defendant to allow the electric bell to be out of repair," that was not enough of a contributing factor to sway the court's decision. Apparently, the indiscretion of the victim of the injury trumped any negligence on the part of the corporation, according to the laws at that time in the state of Missouri, and the widow's appeal was unsuccessful.

That result, of course, put the mother of four young children in a precarious position of her own.   


  1. Replies
    1. It sure was. I certainly wasn't expecting to stumble upon this when I first started researching this man. It must have been devastating news to his family.

  2. Such a sad ending but I always enjoy the reading the unfolding, twisting stories you uncover. I have parts of an 1844 letter that was listed on eBay that confirmed the relationship of an ancestor, but left me with so many more questions. It's quite a letter, in which Avery Williams professes his love for Adeline Cornell of NY. I did find a newspaper mention of their wedding a year later. I have been unable to find Adeline's parents. This, too, is one of those sad stories. Adeline and Avery return to his hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, where they, along with 19 members of Avery's family died in the 1855 yellow fever epidemic. This story stunned me when I uncovered it. And I was so glad to have found parts of this letter proving how much in love they were. I'm going to go back and reread the letter to try to find a clue I've missed to finding Adeline's family.

    1. I remember your mentioning that letter, Winnie. Yes, the stories we uncover in our ancestors' lives--especially once we obtain the details--not only make them more alive to us, but draw us into their lives even more.

      I can totally understand how the story you found through that letter could stun you at the discovery of how they all died. I certainly hope you are able to find more about this couple and the family surrounding them--and be sure to write about it on your blog, too!

  3. Oh my...he must have been people are today with their phones.

    1. The "why" of that scenario fills me with loads of questions. Like you, Far Side, I keep wondering what caused him to be so distracted.


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