Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Coroner's Report for 1889

For the final post of the decade we’re stepping back 130 years to check out the coroner’s year-end report for 1889. Coroner Neven C. Gamble and the Deputy Coroner was George T. Barnhill released their report explaining that their office handled about 145 cases, the various causes, and the names of the victims.

This does not mean only 145 people died in New Castle County that year. It means they were called upon to determine the cause of death and if criminal circumstances or negligence played a role in the deaths of 145 people. To do so they formed a jury that looked at the facts related to the death and assigned an official cause and determined if was the result of criminal or negligent actions.  Of those 145 deaths, 68 were considered violent deaths with the greatest number of people, 30 in all, met their fate from railroad accidents.

Railroad switching yards were dangerous places and Wilmington’s West Yard was the largest and busiest in Delaware. These switching yards were not fenced off, locals would often cut through when walking, kids would go to watch trains, and people would board freight trains to travel. Additionally, people used the tracks as walking paths and being on the right of way was not considered trespassing.

The stories of the dead are often horrific and newspapers of the day went into very graphic detail, providing a glimpse of both the danger and the vastly different way the departed were handled at the time. A sample of their stories include the following.

Ernst Gabriel, age 15, was on his way to work at Edge Moor on January 10, 1889. He was hit by a train at Landlith when he ran across the tracks attempting to catch the workmen’s train and was hit by a passing freight train. The coroner’s jury censured the railroad and engineer because they felt the freight train was running too fast. No charges were made but the censure open the path for civil action against the railroad be Gabriel’s family.

Charles E. Spencer, 30-years old, were working as the conductor of a northbound freight train at New Castle on February 1 when he fell under the wheels and was cut in half. His remains were carefully gathered up and conveyed to Wilmington by train and then transferred to his home at 707 Spruce Street. At his memorial service a railroad friend recalled Spencer once commented about the dangers of railroading, “I want a through ticket when I go, and I think I have one.” Spencer left behind a wife and child.

Roger Bayne, track worker was found dead at West Yard on March 9.  He was apparently struck by a train but no train crew never noticed striking anyone. Bayne lived at 1111 Chestnut Street and his body was brought to his house.

Michael Madden, age 25, was killed at West Yard on March 12 as he attempted to hop onboard a moving freight, slipped, fell under the wheels, and was run over by 30 cars.

Two men were struck and killed by a train at West Yard while walking the tracks on September 30. One had papers in his pocket identifying him as Patrick Ryan and the second man was unidentified. Both though to be in their forties and recent immigrants from Ireland. Many people stopped by the morgue to have a look, but neither body was ever claimed.

In that era, so many people were killed on the railroad that the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad had both a hospital and morgue at its station in Wilmington. If you read the article you will also notice that amongst the 145 deaths investigated in New Castle County, there were 4 people killed by gunshot wounds, 2 stabbed, 13 drowned, 5 suicides, and 12 other types of accidents.

Anyone working for the railroad had to have known more than one coworker who was killed and could very well have picked up the remains and transported them to the station onboard the train. The notion of delivering a person's remains to their late home is just not anything that has happened in many decades. The situation at the house on Charles E. Spencer must have been beyond anything imaginable when his remains were returned to his late residence at 707 Spruce Street.


  1. Wow, their grammar sucked back then too. I guess nothing has really changed in that regard...

  2. My father Thomas F. Armstrong, and his brothers worked for the Pennsylvania R.R. In September, 1969, he was in a train wreck, around Lancaster, PA. Another train, hit the train he was on. I remember When we went to see him in St. Joseph's Hospital in Lancaster, his head was bigger than a basketball. We didn't know if he was going to live or not. He was in the caboose, and thankfully, it was in Sept., because he was caught between the wall, and the stove. They had to cut a hole in the top of the caboose to get to him. And, if I remember correctly (and I think I do), they brought him out of the caboose through the hole, then accidently dropped the stretcher with him on it. Just another memory of my family.


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