Death At The Turn Of The Century

I came across the Chautauqua County coroners report online covering local deaths from 1917 to 1926, and while it may seem morbid to some, I found it rather fascinating. The way in which people leave the earth has so much to do with the times one lives in. What’s interesting was that the coroner wrote little notes about each event, and they serve to tell a story about who we are and how we used to live.

Most interesting to me was the presence of so many different kinds of transportation back then all operating at the same time: cars, trolleys, trains, boats and buggies. The new modes of transportation coexisted with the old, sometimes creating havoc in our communities. It seemed a bit like the Wild West back then, with cars stalling on railroad tracks and trollies hitting buggies, and people and cars colliding, and people falling off of horses and out of boats.

In one incident, three women–Mrs. Gertrude Crowell, Edna Shelley, and Irma MacKain, were all instantly killed as they rode in a buggy which collided with a trolley car in the village of Sheridan on October 25, 1918. According to the coroner, the horse driven by Mrs. Crowell became unmanageable and beyond her control, and ran directly in front of the passing trolley car.

That is really a tragic story. As is this one: just two weeks before the above accident, a car with three people were hit by a passenger train in Ripley. Justin Aspden, his wife Emma, and Miss Esther Johnson, all of Jamestown, were instantly killed when their auto stalled on railroad tracks. Eric Johnson, the driver, and the two women got out of the auto to push the car off the tracks. Just before this, a train had passed on the West bound track and the three did not notice a train approaching from the west on the east bound track until it was too late.

Six people dying so tragically in two accidents spaced two weeks apart is really quite something, but sadly, this kind of thing was common. People versus trains was a predominant cause of death in those days, and a constant event in the coroner’s reports. Equally alarming was the number of people hit by cars. People weren’t as used to cars then as we are today, so looking out for them, and developing an awareness, in contrast to watching for a horse or a train, was something our central nervous systems had to develop in the years to come.

There was barely any cancer to speak of in the reports, although there were some cases listed. Heart disease and strokes were much more prevalent.

A man from China died of a stroke in his laundromat in Jamestown in 1918, which is interesting because they were very few people from China in Jamestown at the time. And the family of Astira Lindroth insisted her death was suspicious, but the coroner felt she had merely passed from heart disease. If only the walls could talk.

People killed themselves in various ways, like ingesting aresenic, setting their barn on fire without leaving, or walking in front of trains. Homicide was also a reality, with several people charged with murder and thrown in the slammer. Murder is nothing new, I suppose, even in a small town.

Being struck by lightning was mentioned twice. More than a few died at work, at places like the Jamestown Chair Factory. Some of the deaths were just termed “dropped dead” by the coroner, and most were considered young by today’s standards. But remember the average life expectancy at the turn of the century was 46 years. A Black man’s life expectancy was considerably less at 32 years.

The United States experienced an unprecedented decline in mortality during the twentieth century. Life expectancy at birth rose by more than 30 years between 1900 and 2013 as the overall death rate fell at a relatively constant rate of about 1 percent per year.

Accidental poisonings, electrocution, and asphyxiation popped up through the years on these reports, but it seems to my layman’s eye that staying away from trains and their tracks was probably your best bet for making it out of the early 1900’s intact. One little girl from Dunkirk died from playing with matches although no other details were given. That’s not something you see very often, although matches have become much safer than they used to be.

What do we take away from this? As time has marched on, we’ve enacted laws and new restrictions that have made the world a safer, better place. But we can also say that human error and inattention still play a factor in our earthly deaths. One thing this coroner liked to notate after writing up an incident was that “this person had no one to blame but himself.” That sounds a little judgmental, but being vigilant and aware back then was often a factor in how many years you graced the earth. It gives new meaning to “look both ways!”

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