Tag Archives: family tree

Arborvitae: Cousin Samuel and the Train

Samuel F Simmons was born in July 1877 in Maryland.  He married Hannah P Ward (born about 1877 in Delaware) on March 27, 1902, in Delaware.  They had at least one child, Samuel Ward, who was born around 1910. Samuel Sr died on June 21, 1917, at the age of 39, along with his wife and son, in an automobile versus train accident.  The family was buried in Bethel Cemetery in Chesapeake City.

Common disasters happen, as I mentioned in my last post on the subject. Sometimes, though, it takes some work to tease the information out.

I was tracking Samuel Sr. from his parents’ family record, and therefore had his approximate birth year. On Ancestry, I found his marriage record to Hannah in 1902, and then found the 1910 census record showing the pair and their son Ward, born 1910. (Probably, there were more children between 1902 and 1910, but Maryland’s death records are slim and it’s difficult to find the children who die in the gaps.) But then all records petered out.

I did what I usually do in that case: hop over to FamilySearch.org and poke around in their databases. And there I found Maryland probate records for Samuel F Simmons from 1917. Since I couldn’t find him in the 1920 census, that seemed very likely. So I popped it open.

First thing I saw was that it was filed on June 25, 1917 — so now I knew that he’d died before then, in the first half of the year. Page 2, though, was the kicker.

Page 2 was the kicker.

What do we see here?

  • Date and time of death: Thursday, June 21, 1917, at 8 pm.
  • Hannah Simmons is not listed among the heirs-at-law, nor is she the executrix — the executor is the brother of the deceased.
  • Neither is Ward Simmons.
  • Oh, and I now had the married names for the 3 sisters I’d despaired of finding. That was awesome.

Pages 3-6 are signatures and other housekeeping; page 7 begins the inventory of the estate. Beyond that was information that Samuel had been a tenant farmer, and his brother Isaac was ordered to take up his lease and fulfill the conditions of the lease, selling milk from the cows and tending and harvesting the farm, in order to benefit the estate. The original lease from 1910 was included, with all its terms. And then the final account of the estate was included with all items sold at public and private sale.

In the account were more items of interest, including:

  • Benefits due the deceased from the Patriotic Order Sons of America: $299.00
  • Benefits due the deceased from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company: $985.06
  • Benefits due from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company on death of son: $85.30
  • Amount received from sale of wrecked automobile: $10.00
  • Amount received from suit against the Railroad Company for damage to the automobile: $232.95
  • Amount received from PW&B RR (Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad) for funeral expenses: $529.35

And then in the outlay from the estate:

  • For amt paid, funeral expenses for Samuel F Simmons: $157.75
  • Mrs. Samuel F Simmons: $158.35
  • Ward Simmons: $60.25
  • Burial plot: $61.50

A common disaster indeed!

With the date in hand, I went delving into newspaper archives online, but to no avail. I did, however, discover an obliging historical society in the area, with online payment for searching and scanning their newspaper archive. I wrote them with the following result.

Cecil Whig, June 23, 1917

Shortly after 8 o’clock Thursday night, four persons were killed at the Bridge street crossing of P, B. & W. Railroad in Elkton. They were Samuel Simmons, a farmer near Elkton; Mrs. Hannah Simmons, his wife; Ward Simmons, aged about 8 years, their son, and Geo. Foster, a farm hand in Mr. Simmons employ. The accident wiped out Mr. Simmons’s entire family.
The Bridge street crossing where the accident occurred has been the scene of several sad affairs, but none in magnitude compared with the latest one.
Completing his day’s work on the farm, Mr. Simmons accompanied by his wife, child and hired man started in his new Ford automobile for the farm of Frank B. Evans, just north of Elkton, to spend a short time with the family of Joseph McKinney. Everything went well all the way to the railroad. Upon approaching the railroad crossing, the driver of the car noticed the safety gates were still up and he undertook to go across the tracks. Just as the machine was about in the middle of the northbound track, the locomotive attached to train No. 432, New York and Washington express, running at a speed of about 60 miles an hour, crashed into it, and the car, together with the four occupants, was whirled through the air. The body of Mr. Foster lodged on the pilot* of the locomotive and remained there until the train was stopped. The bodies of all four of the victims were [unreadable] mutilated, and the automobile was broken into thousands of pieces.
Coroner Herbert D. Litzenberg had the bodies removed to the undertaking establishment of Vinsinger & Pipple, and he summoned the following jury of inquest over the remains, which viewed the bodies that night and met yesterday to hear testimony: Taylor W McKenney, C.P. Bartley, Fred H. Leffler, Charles S. Boulden, Daniel Henry, Edward M. Johnson, Harry R. Boulden, A Alexander, George Potts, Alfred Taylor, Harry Buckworth, Wm. Henry Biddle.
The jury rendered the following verdict: That Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Simmons, Ward Simmons and George Foster came to the death by being struck by train No 432 on the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thursday evening, June 21; that the cause of death was carelessness and negligence of John Lotman, the gate-keeper employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad, at this point, at that time, and to the criminal carelessness and neglect of the said Pennsylvania Railroad Company in its failure to secure and train competent employees to attend the dangerous grade crossings in this town. This jury wishes to point out and to emphasize the grave danger of these crossings to the traveling public an the continued indifference of the Railroad Company in failing to take the necessary precautions in spite of the large number of accidents that have occurred at these points in this town. We respectfully request that the States Attorney of this county take criminal action against the Pennsylvania Railroad Company whom we consider primarily responsible for the criminal carelessness in failing to properly safeguard the traveling public
Funeral services of Mr. and Mrs. Simmons and son will be held at their late residence Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock; interment at Bethel Cemetery. The funeral services of George Foster will be held in the Elkton M.E. Church on Sunday at 1230 o’clock, with interment in Elkton Cemetery.
John Lotman, the watchman, was placed under arrest yesterday, Friday afternoon.

*The pilot of the locomotive is also known as the cowcatcher — it’s that plow-shaped bit on the front.

Of interest, Wikipedia supplies that the PW&B Railroad moved the line north of Elkton to eliminate the grade crossings in the town in 1934 — the original line ran on a tight curve through town, which I imagine is how the train was hidden from view as Samuel began crossing the tracks.

Also of interest, a little poking around in the newspapers online reveal that John Lotman was released from Elkton jail in July, and his case was supposed to be heard in September. An article from December 1917 shows that not only was Lotman indicted for manslaughter, but also the track foreman, Malachi Rafferty, and Supervisor English were also indicted for manslaughter for knowingly retaining Lotman despite knowing he was incompetent. Sadly, I have been unable to discover the final judgments against the three.

So that is my slightly more complicated story of genealogical detective work for the week. I’ll see if I can root out something else interesting for next week.

Arborvitae: Cousin Myrtle and the 1918 Flu


Myrtle Naylor was born March 18, 1893, in Delaware. On February 10, 1912, she married Pierson Briggs Stevens (born July 8, 1889, in Odessa, Delaware) in Townsend, Delaware. On September 29, 1918, both Myrtle and Pierson died in Philadelphia, and were buried in St Paul’s Cemetery in Odessa on October 2nd. She was 25, he was 29.

This short paragraph sums up a surprising lot of information I waded through to come to an understanding of the end of cousin Myrtle’s short life.

The first things I found were census records for her parents, Charles and Flora, because I had Flora’s name from a document one of my great-uncles shared with me, and her husband’s from a marriage record. The censuses provided me with Myrtle and her 6 siblings, and then the Delaware Birth Records provided their birth dates. Her marriage record was also readily at hand.

… and then they died on the same day.

Well, all right, I had already hit the cousins who had all been wiped out, along with their farmhand, by a train colliding with their car. Common disasters happen, unfortunately. So now to look at the death certificates, if I could find them.

Luck was with me: they’d died in Philadelphia after 1906 — Ancestry had them.

I opened up Myrtle’s certificate first.

Date of death: September 29, 1918. Time of death: 12:30 PM. Cause of death: lobar pneumonia. Duration 4 days. Contributory: influenza. She died at home, at 104 Jackson St, Philadelphia, and was buried on October 2, 1918, in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Odessa, Delaware. The information about her parents, etc, were provided by Alfred R Stevens of Collingswood, NJ, who was most likely her father-in-law. She’d been attended by her doctor from September 21st until her death on the 29th, so she’d had flu for 8 days, pneumonia for the last 4 days.

Then I cracked open Pierson’s certificate. Different pen (blue instead of black), different handwriting. He was located at St Agnes’ Hospital, not his home address. This is where I found he was a Delaware River pilot, and yes, there’s Alfred R Stevens of Collingswood again — his father. Pierson had been attended by the doctor since September 26th until his death on the 29th, but that meant he’d been hospitalized for 3 days — we don’t know how long he’d been sick. Time of death: 7 AM. So poor Myrtle had been a widow when she died at 12:30 PM — no way of knowing whether she’d known or not. Pierson’s cause of death is listed as lobar pneumonia with a duration of 4 days. This doctor did not supply a contributory disease, but we can guess that Pierson also had influenza. A different pen and handwriting (likely the same undertaker, J L Wildey of 103 E Lehigh Ave) supplies that he too was buried on October 2nd in St Paul’s Cemetery, Odessa.

And here is a key point about death certificates: the doctor generally lists the precise cause of death. If we’re lucky, the doctor supplies a contributory disorder, as in the case of Myrtle. If not, we’re left to guess. In this case, we could probably guess fairly accurately, given that Philadelphia was one of the hardest-hit cities in the US by the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Philadelphia Committee of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Tuberculosis – Publisher, New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (N.Y.A.I.C.P). Protect the Public from Disease Use your Hankerchief When You Sneeze. [Posters]. Retrieved from https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/65052

Looking at a chronology of the epidemic in Philadelphia provided by the University of Pennsylvania, we can easily see the probable line of infection: on September 7, 1918, 300 sailors from Boston arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and by September 11, 19 sailors were reported ill. By the 15th, 600 sailors and marines reported ill at the Navy Hospital. On the 19th, 2 sailors died of the flu, and on the 20th, 15 more died, as well as 1 civilian. On the 21st, 24 more were killed by the flu, including a nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital. We know that by the 21st, Myrtle had well and truly contracted the illness, enough that the doctor was called.

Pierson, our Delaware River pilot, may have run afoul of infected sailors in the course of his work and brought it home. Or, well, 104 Jackson St was about 7 blocks from the docks on the Delaware; Myrtle could have run into someone’s sneeze while out marketing for all we know. Either way, the couple was a pair of early, tragic casualties in what became far far worse, just a day before they died, when the obtuse douchecanoe in charge of the city’s Department of Public Health and Charities let the Liberty Bond Parade go on, with an attendance of several hundred thousand people.

By the end of the epidemic, about 12,000 of the ~1.8 million people in Philadelphia had died of influenza.

This is a glimpse into the process I use for ferreting out information when I’m working on genealogies, and why I finally started writing books about these people’s lives in order to capture as much as I could about the minutiae available in the records. Maybe I’ll do a more complicated one next — perhaps the family who died in the train-versus-car wreck, because that was a fascinating and very satisfying bit of detective work.