Sunday, March 20, 2011

Piercing Shrieks

Just how Martin Bierman, a cigarmaker, came to be crushed into atoms yesterday under the wheels of a Third-ave elevated railroad train may never positively be known. There are two stories of his terrible death. The first of these, told by the trainmen, is that he was helplessly drunk and fell on the rails. The second, put forth by his friends, none of whom was with him at the time, says that Bierman got into a quarrel with a gateman just as he was about to leave the train at Eighty-ninth-st, that he was brutally beaten, pushed off the car, and fell between the platform and the train. The ticket-chopper who was on duty when Bierman met his death mysteriously disappeared after the fatality, and could not be found.

December 14, 1891

Calling Mr Holmes!

But on further reading we learn that every person present said that the man was staggering drunk. The reporter just wanted to make it a good story. Well, I know how that is.

While checking facts for the Riding the El series in newspaper archives, I ran across some startling accounts of accidents. None of this vague "police activity" explanation that we get today. It was more like this:—

Piercing shrieks coming from the direction of the down-town platform of the Eighty-ninth-st station of the Third Avenue Elevated Railway, startled people who were on the street below at 8 o’clock yesterday morning. The next moment great splashes of blood spattered the pillar and fell upon the thin sheet of new-fallen snow which covered the pavement beneath.

December 31, 1886

What writing. What dramatic movement. There we are, walking along the street under the el on a cold morning, and then suddenly some disaster plays out above.

As he saw the first man fall to the track the ticket-chopper shrieked with terror, and ran toward the spot where he saw him disappear. The train had now come to a standstill. The engineer left his cab and hurried back to the first car. He looked down between the tracks and the edge of the platform, but could see nothing at first. He then secured a torch from the engine, and by its light the knot of spectators on the platform discovered the body of a man crushed against the iron girders under the platform. The man gave no sign of life, and it was decided that he was dead. He was so firmly wedged in between the track and girders that there was no apparent means of extricating him. The greatest excitement prevailed, and every one seemed at a loss what to do.

November 25, 1894

It says "first man" because his drunken friend had fallen too. They did of course manage to get both bodies out.

The man either fell or jumped in front of the train as it was entering the Twenty-third-st station. The platform was crowded with waiting passengers at the time, and a shriek of horror went up as the man’s body was crunched under the engine wheels. It presented a ghastly spectacle. The head was completely severed from the body, the heart and entrails were torn out, and the face was crushed in. To make the scene more horrible, a piece of the jawbone and one of the eyes fell into the street below.

March 21, 1897

We needed to know that.

In another incident a man was crushed by a locomotive but still alive, and some passengers ran off to get a priest. Here is the way the transit system handled things a hundred fourteen years ago:—

For an instant all was excitement. Then the horror of the scene drove many passengers away. The priest jumped quickly to the tracks and hurried to the side of the dying man. Father Cooney performed the rite of Extreme Unction. Many who stood around with uncovered heads wept; the crowds on the elevated station stood silent, and from the nearby houses people looked from every window. But even as the priest knelt beside the dying man the trains rushed past in either direction, for those of the uptown track had been switched so that they took the middle track and went around the delayed train.

April 3, 1897

Many of the accidents involved passengers who were not drunk or suicidal. They were instead victims of the gates. The elevated cars did not have side doors. Instead the car body had only end doors that led to open platforms protected only by iron railings and gates. A trainman was assigned between each pair of cars to open and close the gates by hand. The gates pivoted 90 degrees inward.

Today, there is a very clear and strict protocol that all doors must be closed before a train will start up. In so many accident reports, we hear of gates being closed after the train starts to move, of panicked gatemen pushing passengers back to get the gates closed quickly, and even of impatient passengers trying to jump over closed gates. Passengers left outside closed gates usually fell between the cars or to the street. Sometimes the gatemen would re-open the gate while the train was moving between stations to try to get the clinger into the platform, but it appears that that rarely was successful.

The National Police Gazette, quite a sensationalist paper, called it the premature closing of the gates, but evidence usually points to delayed closing, even in this very paragraph:—

The premature closing of the gates of the elevated railway cars is a fruitful source of peril to the public. Passengers frequently have them slammed just as they set foot on the slowly moving train and are carried out over the street, sometimes a block or more, before the train men condescend to stop swearing at them long enough to open the gate. One of the latest victims was a young lady who boarded a Sixth avenue train up-town just as it got in motion. The gateman slammed the wicket on her and she had made a trip of nearly an eighth of a mile before she was released. Several times she was on the point of falling, but fortunately for her her skirts had become fastened in the gate and she could not be released till they were set free.

August 6, 1881

That needs interpretation, but I don't think the train would have reached another station in only an eighth of a mile. I think the trainman opened the gates between stations and pulled her in. The caught skirts would have kept her foot from slipping off the car platform.

The picture above was supposed to illustrate this story but it does not show the skirts caught in the gate in the foreground, probably so that we'd see a nice line from her slim waist down the front of her leg.

It could have been worse:—

A dark mulatto was at this time sweeping the platform. He seized the man’s arm, exclaiming, "Taint no use, boss, you’s too late." "God damn you," cried he, "let me go," and he flung the negro aside and rushed to the edge of the platform. The negro asserts that he was intoxicated. The gates on the cars were closed. He got between them and clung to the railing on each side of him. Then suddenly he went down and the next instant he was under the wheels and instantly killed. His body was horribly mangled and was carried half a block before the train could be stopped. His head was split in two longitudinally, and one part fell to the street while the body remained under the wheels. The breast and abdomen were cut open and the heart and liver thrown to the sidewalk at the feet of passers-by.

October 26, 1878

Again, a little Too Much Information. And I'm sorry for the "negro dialect", but the man did try to stop the drunk.

The unwillingness of passengers to wait for the next train is amazing. Not so much the drunks, but the others. Elevated trains ran very frequently in the nineteenth century. Third Avenue, the busiest line, had off peak service every 2 minutes, and in rush hours an incredible less than 60 seconds between trains. No wonder they had to start away after a brief station stop and let the trainmen fend for themselves getting the gates closed.

Most of the gates were already closed but the woman saw that the gate of the second car was still open and she ran for it. The train was already moving and the conductor was closing the gate at the same moment. It shut with a crash as the woman placed her foot on the platform of the car. The passengers who were hurrying into the station saw the woman stagger for an instant. Then she appeared to be caught by the train which carried her along with it, crushing her against the platform. A cry of horror went up from the passengers who witnessed the accident but were unable to lend any aid. As the train cleared the platform the woman disappeared and was drawn beneath the car. In another instant the train had come to a dead stop, but the body of the woman had been dragged ten feet and was seen to be wedged in a crouched position between the forward trucks of the second car. She had uttered a single cry as the train caught her, but when the brakeman climbed down under the car after the train stopped she was already dead. A frosted cake that she carried in her arms had been broken and the crumbs were sprinkled in the street below.

January 11, 1888

That last sentence! Cut to street point of view: cake crumbs spiralling through the air ; a lump of frosting hits the pavement.

Saving the best for last. They just don't write news stories like this any more. I salute the nameless reporter who came up with this closer.

He was accompanied by a friend and a little girl seven years old. The two men had passed through the gate when the child, who was following them, dropped a package of candy which she carried in her hand. She stooped to pick up the candy, the train started, the father made an effort to grasp his child and to draw her upon the car, but she either misunderstood him or was unable to gain the platform, and she fell between the cars. At the sight the father fell backward into the arms of his friend and uttered a shriek which could be heard through the cars. Not until the train had moved out of the station a block and a half was it stopped and run slowly back. The child had fallen between the second and third cars, and her body lay upon the track opposite the gateman’s box. The wheels had crushed the skull transversely, and the body was cut in two longitudinally. The candy, which had been the cause of the accident, lay scattered in a pool of brains.

March 26, 1882



  1. I have not posted any El wreck images as yet, However, this image goes this edition of Riding the El.

    Three were killed when a Bronx Park Local struck an emty train at 177th St in the Bronx, 1919

  2. You had me laughing hard out loud at "we needed to know that." By the end of this post, I was far more pensive. This is a great post, thanks for sharing such great writing about past tragedies. That last is really touching.


  3. After collecting the news stories, I had second thoughts about using them. My first concept was going to be something about how people treat the facts of death then and now, how the same morbid curiosity we still have was more openly expressed in those days, maybe because death was more present, less hidden away. And I love the writing style of that era. But after a while I started thinking about the real people, and I ended up commenting less and letting the stories speak.

    PS- First story: Biermann means beer man. Whether it was misspelled by the reporter or Americanized at immigration, I don't know.

  4. Great post Joe! The long-ago-and-far-awayness plus the sensational writing give the stories an unreal feel. I can just picture women with parasols up to avoid falling gore and candy. But, by the end, the mangled bodies add up in a sobering way. I won't be in such a hurry to beat the light when I cross the street now. ~SHolsted