Friday, April 28, 2023

What Happened to Elizabeth


Sometimes, there are family stories so horrible, so painful, that those who lived through the trauma cannot bear, even years after the fact, to pass the tale along to the next generation. I wonder whether Elizabeth Fenley's story might have been one such example.

Elizabeth was a young six years of age when her family planned a delightful summer outing. The plan was for the extended family to take the train from their home in Louisville, Kentucky, to a favorite summer vacation spot in New England: Nantucket. From there, they planned to stop in Boston before returning home at the end of the summer.

While the vacation at the seashore may have been lovely, especially for Elizabeth, her sisters, and her cousin, the short train ride to Boston didn't end quite as well. The flurry of news reports about the train derailment near Quincy, Massachusetts, included mentions of the tragic outcome for the extended Fenley family—but apparently in the rush to get the "scoop" on the story, journalists confused the many Fenley names among the casualties.

Though several newspapers across the midwest published lists of the deceased passengers, it appeared that Mrs. Oscar Fenley was listed as the grandmother, for instance, when she was actually the mother of the three Fenley daughters. The confusion was never so obvious as when the Indianapolis newspaper published—on the same date and page—two articles regarding young Elizabeth Fenley.

After stating that "Elizabeth Fenley, four years old, died at the hospital," only inches below that column, the paper reported that "Elizabeth Fenley, aged six" was not at the hospital—where space was limited due to the immense number of injuries after the crash—but at the home of one "Mrs. Carr on Hancock street." Furthermore, "the little girl is badly scalded, and the doctor says her condition is such that he does not think she can live."

While the two reports contained discrepancies on not only her condition but her age, there was only one child involved in that train wreck by the name of Elizabeth Fenley. That she did not die immediately after the crash can be corroborated by Elizabeth's Find a Grave memorial, which was dated years later. However, the 1915 date on her headstone reveals yet another tragedy for the Fenley family.

A Find a Grave volunteer posted an explanation of what had followed for Elizabeth after she survived the horrors of the Quincy train derailment. Though badly scalded on the lower half of her body—injuries which took two months to resolve before she was able to travel back home to Kentucky again—she did return to Louisville with her father, who had not been with the Fenley family for that summer excursion, but came north to be with his daughter during her two-month-long recuperation. Only after their arrival home again was a memorial service conducted for the six Fenley family members who had died.

After the November funeral, it was said that Elizabeth never fully recovered from the effects of the train wreck. Her father, then president of the National Bank of Kentucky and a board member of the United States Regional Reserve Bank, provided for her in every way he could, including arranging for private schooling in Philadelphia and New York, and attendance at Bryn Mawr. Despite all that could be done for Elizabeth, by about 1912, she had been in bad health and was said to have been "on the verge of a nervous breakdown" when she traveled to New York, seeking treatment from a "nerve specialist."

From a headline in the New York Tribune on September 15, 1915, stating "Woman Killed in 8-Story Leap," the sad story of the culmination of Elizabeth's anguish was detailed. Wearing a blue taffeta dress and a hat with an ostrich plume, which she laid at the top of the stairway before her jump, Elizabeth made her irrevocable choice.

An unnamed aunt had been the last known person to have been with Elizabeth, as Elizabeth had seen her off at the train station that very afternoon before her tragic decision. Receiving the news by telegram, Elizabeth's father Oscar Fenley "collapsed and required medical attention throughout the night." The burden of what the Tribune had noted as an "appalling" tragedy of years prior which the Fenley family had suffered through had claimed yet another victim so many years later.

So many times, when we learn of tragedies borne by our ancestors, we may telescope the events into points on a timeline, rather than see them as the ongoing burden borne by those who survived. But those who remained had to continue living life with the pain of the experience. It is experiences like those which change us, point our life's trajectory in a different direction. Though such stories may have been too painful for our ancestors to tell, that is the stuff that became their reality—and a lens through which we can only attempt to understand them by.     


  1. Replies
    1. I cannot begin to fathom all that this family endured over the years. It hurt just to read about it.


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