Arborvitae: Cousin Oscar’s Surprising End

As you know by now, it’s the people who die surprisingly young who most often surprise me on their death certificates or, in states failing to have useful records that Ancestry or FamilySearch have managed to wangle out of them, news stories. And they’re the ones I generally go hunting for in terms of cause of death. In the case of women, it’s usually sadly predictable; for instance, in a tree I’m working on, I recently spotted a woman who’d died in 1944 in her 30s. Then I found that a child of hers was born in 1944. I compared his birthday to her death day and… yeah, she’d died 2 days after he was born. Puerperal fever got a LOT of women before the general availability of really effective antibiotics. Now, I don’t have her death certificate — thanks, Michigan — so it could have been eclampsia, since there were antibiotics at this point that generally put down puerperal fever, and eclampsia is harder to put down; or it could have been a hemorrhage, or any of a handful of other causes of mortality in new mothers.

When men die super-young, it’s either disease or something more interesting than puerperal fever. For instance, I’ve got one guy who died within a month of his wedding of meningitis. That said, it’s often worth hunting for news stories if there’s no death certificate, because small towns and the demise of a promising young man often equal Big News (see also Cousin Frank’s Sudden Death).

As it was in the case of Oscar Beauregarde Russell.

Disclaimer: O B Russell is part of a tree that is not mine, but that I’ve been working on. Permission granted by the person whose tree it is for me to write about interesting things I find in the tree.

Oscar was born on August 31, 1861, in Verona, Mississippi, just a few months after the opening of the Civil War (and he, of course, lived in a place that probably refers to it as the War Between The States, but this is my version of the story, so you get my [accurate] Yankee predilections for terminology). He was the ninth child of George Daniel Russell and Emily Menville Stovall, grandson of George Russell, who was a close friend of Davy Crockett and played by Buddy Ebsen in Disney’s Davy Crockett television series.

Buddy Ebsen as George Russell

On May 18, 1882, in Bell, Texas, Oscar married Leila Eubank, daughter of John Thomas Eubank and Julia Jackson Eubank. As he proceeded into what was apparently a promising career in the dairy business, he and Leila had 7 children.

On March 20, 1897, however, Oscar made a Bad Choice.

BAIRD STAR – FRIDAY Mar 26, 1897, CRUSHED TO DEATH: There was a horrible accident in the railroad yards here last Saturday night in which Mr. O B Russell, brother of our County Attorney, B L Russell, and partner with Mr. H G Parker, dairyman, was instantly killed.
Mr. Russell came up town after supper on some business and returning in company with Arthur Waldrou they went down through the T&P Ry yards on their way to the dairy farm just south of the depot. There were several freight cars standing on the main line and they walked to a point just east of the telegraph office where they found an opening between the cars. Arthur Waldrou crossed the track in safety, but the space between the cars from some cause closed up suddenly and caught Mr. Russell between the draw heads and crushed him to death instantly; a coupling link having passed entirely through his body just above the hips. Mr. Russell had a lamp chimney in his hand when struck and when found the chimney was still in his hand unbroken.
Mr. Russell leaves a wife and seven children to mourn his loss, besides several brothers and sisters and his aged mother who lives at Putnam. Two sisters, Mrs. M E Surles, of Putnam and Mrs. R Day of Abilene, came in Sunday to attend the funeral at Baird Cemetery. Mr Frank Russell of Sipe Springs was telegraphed the sad news at once but did not receive it until too late to be present at the funeral; but came in on Monday.
It was a sad affair and THE STAR extends sincere sympathy to the widow and orphan children so suddenly robbed of husband and father. Mr. Russell was born in 1861 and was therefore about 36 years of age. In the mourning of life, while the shadows still falling towards the west, suddenly and without a moments warning the summons came and he passed over the river.
Mr. Russell we understand carried a small amount of life insurance $1000 in the Royal Union Co. of Des Moines.

Yes, you read that correctly: he walked through a train yard as a short cut. He walked between 2 train cars that his friend had just successfully walked between. One of the cars moved for an unknown reason and he was transfixed by the coupling between the cars, instantly killed, and found still standing with his lamp in his hand.

For more information on how dangerous railyards were at the time, check out this Atlas Obscura article.

The United States was in transition between train couplers at that point. Originally, they used link-and-pin couplers, which required a human to be between moving train cars in order to lock those cars together, and maimed or killed a LOT of railway workers.

By Ben Franske – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6359889

In order to address the safety concerns, the US mandated a transition from these link and pin couplers to automatic knuckle or Janney couplers over the course of about 5 years. So there were transition couplers that could accept either type.

By Huduuthink – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32241707

And then there were just the knuckle couplers.

By ArnoldReihold – En:Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1481469

Because 1897 was squarely in the transition period, we can’t know which type of coupler went entirely through Oscar above the hips, but we can be… pretty glad he apparently died instantly. And very sorry for Mr. Waldrou, who presumably turned back when his friend wasn’t immediately behind him and found some serious nightmare fuel instead.

The obituary notes that his sudden death left his widow and 7 children… but actually it was 8, because Leila gave birth to their last child 6 months later. Those 8 children were:

  • Edith Mae Russell (1884–1974)
  • Oscar Burton Russell (1886–1954)
  • Emily C Russell (1888–1913)
  • John T Russell (1889–1925)
  • William Stovall Russell (1891–1972)
  • Robert Lee Russell (1893–1951)
  • Clarence Tatom Russell (1895–1964)
  • Eunice Vivian Russell (1897–1980)

Leila took the children and presumably the insurance settlement away from Baird, Texas, to Lampasas, Texas, where her father lived. They were living in a house she owned in Lampasas in 1900. However, her father died in late 1900, and perhaps there was a motivation to move closer to her husband’s family again, since she moved the family back to Callahan County by 1910. By 1920, it appears that all her children had moved out to their own lives, and she moved back closer to her roots, to Bertram, Texas, where she lived with one of her nieces. While I can’t find her in 1930, by 1935 she was living with her youngest daughter Vivian and her family in Forth Worth, Texas, and by 1940, they were in Arlington, Texas, (near Austin). Leila lived until 1953, and died in San Luis Obispo, California, age 88, still apparently living with Vivian and her family (since Vivian’s husband died in the same city in 1960).

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