01 December 2009

Snake Bite!

A photograph on page 50 of the New Jersey State Police 75th Anniversary Year History pictorial book shows Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf shaking hands with Governor A. Harry Moore. The caption reads, “1926 – Reappointment for 2nd term as Superintendent Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf #1 with Gov. A. Harry Moore.” This, it turns out, is incorrect.

While the photo does indeed show New Jersey Governor Moore and State Police Superintendent H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the date and event are not accurately described. The photograph is actually one of two known extant photographs taken on January 18, 1928 at an award ceremony for Troopers Charles Schwartz #262 and James McCormick #225. They, along with Keeper James Quigley of the Bronx Zoological Garden, received medals of valor from the Governor.

The three men earned the medal of valor when they saved the life of Titusville, New Jersey resident Louis Guarniere. Mr. Guarniere, who had been bitten by a rattlesnake, was near death and the only anti-venom serum available was over 80 miles away at the Bronx Zoo.

The State Troopers raced to the New York border where Zookeeper James Quigley met them with the antidote. The Troopers then sped across the State on their motorcycles “at a dangerous speed” through heavy traffic with the life saving serum to St. Francis Hospital in Trenton. The doctors administered the serum and Mr. Guarniere made a full recovery.

Governor Moore praised the Troopers, declaring that he was “proud of the State Police of New Jersey” and that he felt “that the State is safe in their hands because they embody all of the finest things that New Jersey stands for.”[1]

During the 1920s and 1930s, and even into the 1940s, New Jersey was still a very rural State and bites by these deadly vipers were not too uncommon. The State Police even received training in their Academy on how to deal with snakes and, in 1930, the State Police provided supplies of “snake serum” to hospitals and pharmacies in 23 communities around the State.[2]

Even with the availability of the serum throughout the State, the Troopers still had to come to the rescue of some snakebite victims. For example, in August 1934, Sergeant John Crawford #256 “traveled forty times on a motorcycle in less than forty-five minutes” to deliver serum to the Paul Kimball Hospital in Lakewood. Twenty-two-year-old Eugene Beyer was walking through a field near his Lakewood home when he was bitten in the leg by a rattlesnake. His condition was not as serious as Mr. Guarniere’s – after he was bitten, he “walked to his automobile and drove to the hospital where he received emergency treatment until the serum arrived.”[3]

Three years later, the State Police once again had to rush serum to a victim of snakebite. In August 1937, Troopers “raced fourteen and a half miles in fifteen minutes from the Netcong barracks to Newtown Memorial Hospital.”[4] Ralph Schmidt, a 16-year-old Boy Scout was in critical condition after having been bitten in the leg by a rattlesnake near Camp Mohican in Blairstown, New Jersey.

Although rattlesnakes are usually thought of as being found only in the desert southwest, the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is one of two deadly snakes that are native to New Jersey, the other being the infamous Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contorix mokasen).[5]

The Timber Rattlesnake was at one time thriving throughout New Jersey. However, a loss of habitat and “wanton killings” has reduced its population to the point that it has been listed by the State of New Jersey as an endangered species.[6]

[1] New York Times. Jersey Troopers Get Valor Medals. January 19, 1928.

[2] New York Times. Jersey Gets Snake Serum. February 11, 1930.

[3] New York Times. Rush Snake Serum to Man. August 10, 1934.

[4] New York Times. Serum Rushed to Snake Victim. August 7, 1937.

01 October 2009

Biker Chick?

How does one begin to write an article about tattooing chickens? After all, it is a rather unusual topic and as such there is not a lot of information about the subject. When the New Jersey State Police was established in 1921, the tattooing of chickens, and other poultry, was not part of their mandate. Back then, during the Prohibition Era, they were more concerned with enforcing traffic laws and chasing down rum runners. By the time Prohibition had ended in the early 1930s, the State Police was facing another problem: the Great Depression.

The Depression “…found many city families quitting the metropolitan areas for poultry raising.”[1] Desperate to find ways to feed their families, poultry farming was one of the easiest and least expensive options. But the rise in the number of poultry farmers led to a rise in the number of poultry thieves.

In 1930, the State Police made 65 arrests for stolen fowl. By 1932 that number had more than tripled with 204 arrests.[2] That year saw more arrests for stolen poultry than there were for stolen cars. “Gangs of chicken thieves organized like bootleggers and gangsters, stealing truckloads of fowl at a time. Sulfur candles were quietly set in chicken coops. Then the thieves would wait until the fumes slowly knocked out the chickens…the raiders just loaded the doped fowls on trucks.”[3]

Beginning around the turn of the century, before there even was a State Police force in New Jersey, rural communities had begun to organize Vigilante Societies. “Their main purpose was to organize local citizens and empower them to pursue those suspected of stealing horses, mules, livestock, wagons and other personal property. $100 rewards were posted for the capture of chicken thieves.”[4]

It was time for the State Police to step in try to come up with a solution to the poultry problem. It was the Grange, after all, that had pushed for the creation of the State Police in 1921 because the local city police and county sheriffs could not adequately protect the rural areas of the State. In 1933 State Police Superintendent Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, called together Lieutenant Walter Coughlin and two Federal/State farm experts, Wallace Moreland and J.C. Taylor, and they developed the idea of tattooing chickens. Actually, it was not just chickens that were tattooed. Pigeons, geese, turkeys, ducks, and guinea hens – any poultry kept by farmers were eligible for the tattoo.

Tattooing for identification was not a new idea. “Tattoos have been used as form of identification for centuries. One of the earliest examples of this is with the Maori of New Zealand. Lacking a written language, the Maori would use their facial tattoos, Moko, as identification…Tattooing or other body marking has been used to identify criminals for thousands of years. Branding of undesirables can be dated back to the ancient Egyptian and was common practice among the Greeks and Romans.”[5]

On farms, branding had been the common form of identification, however it is difficult to brand a bird. “In the place of the old-fashioned branding iron, a trick punch that looks something like a street-car conductor’s marks the chickens on their wings.”[6] This made it easy to identify stolen property.

It should be noted that it was not the State Police that did the actual tattooing. That was the responsibility of the farmer. The State Police only maintained the registry of tattoos. “The New Jersey State Police established the first public registry for tattooed poultry”[7] and this registry had to be maintained somehow. Two years earlier, Chapter 183, Laws of 1931 established the License Bureau within the Department of State Police. This bureau was responsible for the licensing of private detectives as well as handling applications for railroad police, firearms and beginning in 1933, poultry tattoos.[8]

According to the Twelfth Annual Report (1933), applications for the registration of tattoo marks for the identification of poultry were to be sent directly to State Police Headquarters in Trenton by the farmers. The information on the application included the name of the farmer and the name of his farm, the farm’s address, the breed of chickens raised by him and the average number of chickens normally maintained.

Upon receipt of the application, the official registry number, preceded by the letter designation for the county in which the poultry farm is located is sent to the poultry man making application and thereafter he may officially use that number in tattooing all of his poultry. Where turkeys, ducks or geese are also maintained on the same poultry farm, it will not be necessary to obtain a second registry number for such fowl, but it will be necessary in applying for the registry number to include in the application the approximate number of each of these fowl normally maintained.[9]

In the first year the registry was maintained, 85 registrations were issued and 84,759 birds were tattooed. The largest number of registrations and tattooing occurred in1941 when 815 registration numbers were issued and 792,898 birds received tattoos.

The poultry registry idea spread beyond the boarders of New Jersey into neighboring states. The Connecticut Poultry Association implemented their own system of tattoo marks that were registered with the Connecticut State Police.[10] According to the December 1939 issue of Popular Science, “tattooing numbers on the wings of poultry has proved a valuable aid to farmers in eastern states, as a means of foiling chicken thieves…In the event of theft, the number is reported and a watch is kept at produce markets for the stolen birds. Signs equipped with reflectors so they can be seen at night, are posted in front of each farm using the protective method, warning that the chickens are tattooed.” [11]

An example of the tattoo registry at work is the story of Farmer Cox. “A resident laborer on the farm of Charles Cox, at Cranberry, New Jersey, sold a turkey to his employer for $1.25. He said he got it from two hunters. But Mr. Cox took a look at the bird’s wing and discovered the telltale markings. He immediately summoned the State Police who, from the record rooms at the State Capitol, learned the turkey was the property of Spencer Perrine, a farmer about two miles distant…The thief was sentenced to the Middlesex County Workhouse.”[12]

The next logical question is, just how does one tattoo a chicken, or any other kind of poultry for that matter? Thanks to Gus Holt of Chicago, Illinois, it is easy! On August 16, 1938 Gus A. Holt, assignor to Prairie Farm Service Company of Illinois, received U.S. Patent Number 2, 126,777 for his Tattoo Marker. His invention was a new and improved tattoo marker used for tattooing identifying marks on an animal’s ear or poultry wing with indelible ink “…to cause the same to pass into the perforations formed during the manipulation of the marker proper so as to imprint a permanent mark for identification purposes.”[13]

The punch consisted of sharp needles arranged to form the numbers and letters of the registration. This was punched on the webbing of the wing, back of the bone, making a permanent park.[14] With Holt’s improved tattoo marker, “an irremovable mark without injury to the bird…is impressed without blemish to the flesh.”[15]

By 1947, when the registration of poultry ended, a total of 4,610 registrations were issued and 4,515,780 birds were tattooed. As ridiculous as chicken tattooing sounds, it is important to remember the era in which this occurred. Almost over night millions of people lost their jobs and their homes without warning when the stock market crashed in October 1929. “The Great Depression lasted 12 long years. That’s one eighth of the entire twentieth century. It was an unprecedented time in history. With one in four workers unemployed, families were forced to turn to bread and sup lines to keep from starving. The Great Depression [was] the longest and most devastating economic depression in modern history.”[16]

Chickens could provide both meat and eggs. They and other poultry were easy to raise, inexpensive to feed and could provide food for the farmer’s family or money if sold. Desperate times led to desperate crimes. The poultry registry devised by Colonel Schwarzkopf and the New Jersey State Police helped reduce “as many as twenty wholesale chicken thefts a night” down to an occasional one or two.[17]


[1]Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[2] Tenth Annual Report. 1931.

[3]Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[4]“History of the South Brunswick Police Department: The Formation of South Brunswick.” http://www.twp.south-brunswick.nj.us/. As of September 22, 2009.

[6]Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[7]David Morton. Invention & Technology Magazine. Winter 2002. Volume 17, Issue 3. http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/2002/3/2002_3_36.shtml

[8]Twelfth Annual Report, page 6-10. 1933. Later, in 1942, the Traffic and Safety Bureau assumed the responsibility of issuing poultry registrations.

[9]Twelfth Annual Report, page 6-10. 1933.

[10]Popular Science Monthly. Page 40. February 1936.

[11]Popular Science Monthly. December 1939.

[12] Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[13]Gus A. Holt. Patent 2,126,777. United States Patent Office. August 16, 1938.

[14]Popular Science Monthly. December 1939.

[15] Gus A. Holt. Patent 2,126,777. United States Patent Office. August 16, 1938.

[16]H. Paul Jeffers. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to The Great Depression”. Alpha, 2002. Page xxv.

[17] Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

17 September 2009

Mile High Cure?

Trooper Herbert Eugene Roland Olstead #72 was in a motorcycle accident on March 28, 1922 while on duty that resulted in a “fractured skull, partial paralysis of the face, and total deafness in both ears.”[1] He remained a Trooper, under expert care, and in 1925, Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf contacted J. Klein, Jr., Commander of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station asking for assistance in treating Trooper Olstead.

There is one thing that we have not been in a position to try, and which has been a cure in a number of reported cases. The remedy I refer to, is an Airplane Flight at high altitude, inasmuch, as we want the experiment and the efforts to regain for this man his hearing to be as exhaustive as possible, we are desirous of arranging for him to make such a flight, and he is not only willing but anxious to try it. Knowing that the Army and Naval Flying Corps have both co-operated in experiments of this kind all over the Country, I am communicating with you to determine what steps will be necessary to arrange such an experimental flight for Trooper Olstead, and whatever is necessary to accomplish this experiment we will be very glad to do.[2]

Schwarzkopf was directed to contact Major Hensley at Mitchel Field, Long Island, as Lakehurst was “not equipped with any Airplanes at the present time, and that the only ones that are contemplated bringing to the Station are two heavy bombing type for use in parachute jumping and tests.”[3]

Major Hensley replied to HNS favorably:

From your letter it seems to me that Trooper Olmstead’s case is one which might yield to the airplane treatment and therefore I suggest that you have him come to Mitchel Field some morning when weather conditions are favorable. I will have our specialist diagnose his case and then he can be given a flight or as many flights as appear to benefit him.[4]

Trooper Olstead reported to Mitchel Field as directed and on February 16, 1925 he wrote to Colonel Schwarzkopf to relate his experiences:

My Dear Colonel, I had a good flight to-day, was up eleven thousand and a few odd hundred feet and went thru about six loop the loops…When we landed I said to Captain Kessling we sure did travel. He said, “Oh 120 miles per hour is nothing…” Tomorrow, Tuesday, is when the real thrills start: A nosedive is on the program…I will say that the flight today sure did some good as Sergt. O’Connor spoke to me when we landed and it is the first time, since the unlucky day, that I could feel the pressure of a human voice against my ear drum…Major Hensley said to have confidence in the flights.[5]

Olstead was convinced that the flying treatments were helping to improve his hearing. For example, “this morning on the way over to Mitchel Field a car in back of me blew the horn and it almost scared me stiff. That is the first time I heard a horn so plain. I could always hear most of them, but they sounded as thou [sic] they were miles away.”[6]

Although his hearing had not yet been totally restored, Sergeant O’Connor, who was in charge of him, “told me this morning that Major Hensley said they will cure me if it take[s] a month, and I should not get discouraged. I told the Sergeant to tell Major Hensley they will have one big job on there [sic] hands if they try to discourage me, that [sic] impossible. I really know when I leave here I will [be] O.K. once more. I have a feeling that I never did have before, just don’t know how to explain it, but it must be a good sign.”[7]

It was about a month later that Major Hensley reported back to Colonel Schwarzkopf about Olstead’s progress. It was not looking good.

My dear Colonel, On Monday last Captain Keesling took Trooper Olstead up for the fifth time. Olstead, of whom we have become very fond, thinks that his hearing has improved. Personally I see very little evidence of it. He has received every kind of a loop, tail-spin, dive, barrel-roll and stall known to aviation. It is possible that it will bear fruit later but I am of the opinion that further flights would be useless.[8]
Schwarzkopf was deeply grateful for the assistance and courtesies Major Hensley extended to the Department of State Police and to Trooper Olstead, but he reluctantly agreed that, “the possibilities along the lines of benefiting Olstead by Aviation have been fully exhausted.”

Chapter 188 of the newly enacted Laws of 1925 created a Retirement and Benevolent Fund for the Department of State Police that provided for the retirement and pensioning of State Troopers. Herbert Olstead became one of the first, if not the first, New Jersey State Troopers to be pensioned. Department Physician Dr. Leo Haggerty certified that Trooper Olstead was “so injured while in the performance of his duty as a Trooper of the State Police, that he is totally incapacitated for further duty with said Organization”[9]

On April 14th, Special Order 118 was issued stating that “in accordance with instructions from the State House Commission, issued in compliance with Chapter 188, P.L. 1925, Trooper Herbert R. Olstead, #72, Troop “A” New Jersey State Police, is hereby placed on the Pension List starting April 1, 1925. Discharge from the New Jersey State Police will be issued Trooper Olstead dated March 31, 1925…citing reason of physical disability.”[10] Having earned $2,000 per year as a Trooper, he was granted a pension of $1,200 per year.[11]

Unfortunately, there are no further reports about Trooper Olstead and the state of his hearing in his file. All that is known is that he lived in New Jersey for the rest of his life and died in June 1983 in Livingston, Essex County, New Jersey at the age of 93.

[1] Leo Haggerty, M.D. Physician’s Statement. June 9, 1931.
[2] H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Letter to JH Klein, Jr., Commander, Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, NJ. January 14, 1925
[3] H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Letter to Maj. Hensley, Mitchel Field, Long Island. January 17,1925.
[4] W.N. Hensley, Jr., Major, Air Service, Commanding, Mitchel Field, Long Island. Letter to Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf. January 27, 1925
[5] Herbert R. Olstead. Letter to Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf. February 16, 1925.
[6] Herbert R. Olstead. Letter to Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf. February 16, 1925.
[7] Herbert R. Olstead. Letter to Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf. February 18, 1925.
[8] W.N. Hensley, Jr, Major, Mitchel Field, Long Island. Letter to Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf. March 12, 1925.
[9] Comptroller of the Treasury and Secretary of the State House Commission. Letter to Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf. April 13, 1925.
[10] Special Order 118. April 14, 1925.
[11] In 1923, a Trooper’s salary was $1,400 per year. They also received a food and lodging allowance of $600 per year for a total of $2,000.

17 February 2009

The Crash of the Nellie Bly

It took 80 days for Phineas Fogg to travel around the world in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, but in 1889 it took 21-year-old Elizabeth Cochran just 72.

Elizabeth was better known by her pen name, Nellie Bly. Nellie Bly was a famous (real life) reporter working for the New York World newspaper. “Nellie focused her attention on women’s rights issues, was the inventor of investigative reporting and became an expert at undercover work.”[1]

When Nellie returned from her trip around the world, “she was immediately catapulted into the world’s spotlight and was dubbed ‘the fastest reporter in America during her lifetime…’ In her honor, the Pennsylvania Railroad called its fastest train the Nellie Bly Express. The train traveled [daily] through New Jersey between New York City and Atlantic City.”[2]

It was this express train that William H. Kale, my great grandfather, would occasionally ride home from school after class. “He would ride in the first car behind the engine and coal car. But this time there was no room for him, it was full of [Italian] migrant workers, so he and the other students from Rider had to sit in one of the cars in the back.”[3]

The Nellie Bly express normally ran in two sections but February 21, 1901 was an exceptionally busy day because of people traveling for the Washington’s Birthday holiday, so a third section was added. It was this last section that carried William H. Kale and the Italian laborers.

In railroad operations in the 19th Century, if a train was overcrowded and there
were more passengers that needed to travel, railroad operators and managers
would simply add another train [called a “section”]. It followed behind
the other one, not too far distant…This doubling of trains often led to

This was the first time that the Nellie Bly ran in three sections – as three separate trains – instead of the usual two. Therefore, the railroad had to take precautions. For example, the second section of the Nellie Bly carried a signal; green flags on the engine, to indicate another section following. Orders were also issued to the conductors of all northbound train informing them that the Nellie Bly was in three sections.

19th Century train conductors – as well as modern day conductors – are considered the “captain” of the train. They, not the engineers, are responsible for train safety and punctuality. They have the final say as to when a train is able to move. “Responsibility for starting a train rested with the conductor” and not the engineer.[5]

Edward S. Sapp of Bordentown, New Jersey, was a conductor working for the Amboy Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. He had been in charge of an accommodation train (that is, a local commuter train) that ran from Camden to Trenton since 1895. [6]

On February 21, 1901 Conductor Sapp and Thomas Boulden, the engineer, were taking their accommodation train to Trenton. They had both received orders from the railroad dispatcher in Camden stating that the Nellie Bly would be traveling south in three sections that day.

The accommodation train was ordered to meet the first section of the Nellie Bly at Switch Number 3 at Bordentown, where they would pull to the side and allow it to pass. They were to continue north to the Shipyard Siding at Bordentown where they would take the siding and allow the second and third section of the Nellie Bly to pass. They could then continue on towards Trenton, and expect to meet local train #333 at “switch No. 2 at Rusling Siding”.[7]

All went according to plan. The accommodation train did, indeed, meet the first section of the Nellie Bly at “Switch Number 3 at Bordentown”, and they safely pulled aside allowing it to pass. They continued on to Shipyard Siding where they once again took the siding and allowed the second section of the Nellie Bly to pass. Conductor Sapp saw green flags on the engine of the Nellie Bly, a signal that another section was following behind. However, he mistook this to mean the local train that was following further behind that he was to meet at Rusling Siding. “All notice of the part of the orders referring to the third section of the Nellie Bly seemed to be overlooked.”[8]

Harry Price, a modeler in the Bordentown Pottery, was sitting in the rear of the accommodation train. When they pulled into the Shipyard siding, Conductor Sapp said to him, “We will have to wait here for the second section of the Nellie Bly.” At that moment a shrill whistle was heard and the conductor remarked, “The wait will not be very long for here she comes.” Although Conductor Sapp had not ordered the engineer to pull out onto the main track, when the engineer did so, “I thought it was all right” and he did not stop the train.[9]

Meanwhile, the Nellie Bly was running about 20 minutes behind schedule. Full of “excursionists and laborers” on their way from New York to Atlantic City, they had left Jersey City, where they picked up the Italian workers, at 3:14 pm. It was now 5:30 in the evening. “The express had made frequent stops on the run down from New York and was slowing up just north of Bordentown…At this point there is a curve.” However, According to Michael McGowen, the fireman on the Nellie Bly, “we were late and were going as fast as we knew how. As we rounded the curve near the Shipyard siding[10], I said to Engineer [Walter] Earle, ‘My God, here comes a train!’ Earle replied, ‘Jump and save yourself! Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!’” The last thing McGowen saw was Earle putting on the emergency break and making other hurried preparations for stopping.[11]

George Howard of Center Street, Trenton, stated that “‘after leaving Bordentown, we were side-tracked on the Shipyard siding in order to allow the second section of the Nellie Bly to pass. Immediately after this section had passed, our train pulled out on to the main track and proceeded at a good rate of speed toward Trenton.” As they rounded the curve…he saw the approaching headlight of the on-rushing express.[12]

The following description is from the February 22, 1901 Trenton Evening Times:
The wreck occurred just as the local Camden train had pulled around a bend, on the canal bank, after leaving the Bordentown Station. The shock came with such suddenness that many were sent hurling through the windows into the icy water of the canal. Luckily the canal was low at the time, or the death list would have been even greater…The cars piled up in all directions and two went over the bank into the canal bed…The most terrifying feature of the wreck was the fire that broke out immediately after the [collision]. The stoves were overturned and while the passengers in the new coaches looked on helpless and miles from aid of any kind, the wretches pinioned down beneath the burning cars lay and roasted to death. Others were crushed outright between the colliding cars. Walter Earle, the engineer of the Bly was caught beneath the tender of the accommodation train and…his head was found 20 feet from the place where his body lay. Thompson, the engineer of the accommodation train, jumped into the canal as he saw the headlight of the Nellie Bly rounding the corner and escaped with a few slight bruises.[13] It was on the Nelly Bly express, in the forward coach between the engine and the baggage car that the greatest number of fatalities occurred. These, crowded on the seats, were about 30 Italians, on their way from New York to begin construction work in Atlantic City. Few of these came out alive. The frail coach was crushed like an eggshell when the engine and baggage car closed in on it, and a moment later blazed up…when the stoves overturned. Behind the baggage car was a day coach crowded with excursionists on their way to spend Washington’s Birthday at Atlantic City. This car was overturned as if it were a feather and thrown into the canal, which runs on both sides of the high embankment. Behind the Nelly Bly baggage car, which was not badly damaged, lay an overturned passenger coach, which was riven and literally torn to shreds. These cars were thrown to the right of the track by the terrible force of the collision. One stood upright in the canal bed and the other lay overturned on the bank.[14]

According to the New York Times, “both engines were reduced to a mass of broken and twisted iron and the car containing the Italians was crushed to splinters and all its occupants were buried under the mass of wreckage. The second car piled up in the first, and the third car crashed into the mass and tumbled into the canal alongside the railroad. The remaining three cars [one of which carried William H. Kale] did not overturn.”[15]

George Howard, survivor of the accommodation train stated, that “when the crash came, we were all thrown from our seats and Conductor Sapp was thrown nearly from one end of the car to the other. He was quite badly cut about the head. As soon as possible, we rushed out of the car and forward to the place where the damage was creates…the smoking car was almost immediately kindled in flames. This car was nearly reduced to kindling wood by the collision and the flames made such headway among the debris that it would hardly seem possible to find a trace of a human body there after the flames had consumed the woodwork. To give an accurate account of the terrible catastrophe is attempting the impossible as the scene that followed the crash was simply indescribable.”[16]

The next morning, daylight “only added to the horror of the terrible wreck. The moans of the injured and torn, the cries of the dying were stilled and the lurid, red glare of the burning wreckage had disappeared, but daylight revealed more clearly the mass of twisted iron and timbers smoldering and smoking, with here and there the remnants of what was only yesterday a human being, the owner of a soul, since sent to join its maker. To add to the horror, the smell of burning flesh…”[17]

Immediately railroad officials put the blame of the crash on the “crew of the local train which was in the charge of Conductor Sapp and Engineer Thompson, both of Camden. The railroad authorities say that the crew of this train had been given orders to meet the express at Bordentown – that is, to wait on a siding at that point until the express should have passed. Instead of doing this, however, they kept on up the road and met the express at Rusling’s Siding, above Bordentown, and a head-on collision occurred.”[18]

As one can imagine, Sapp was in a state of shock. John Thaler, of Trenton, who was an employee of the Ironsides Pottery in Bordentown, had missed the accommodation train that night, so he decided to walk home. “On the way up he met Conductor Sapp, half staggering and with a wild, haggard look on his face, going toward Bordentown.”[19] A headline ran showing concern that “Sapp May Lose His Mind – Feared That If Told He Caused Wreck He Will Go Insane.”[20]

John Macgee’s son, Thomas, was one of the victims of the wreck. The father and son both worked at the Ironsides Pottery in Bordentown. Thomas and some other co-workers left work to catch the accommodation train back home to Trenton. His father worked later than usual and so did not catch the train with the others.

Shortly after quitting work he heard about the wreck and started on a run for the scene. He was half-crazed at being unable to see his son in the crowd surrounding the wreck and then he ran up to the very verge of the furnace-like fire that was consuming the cars. Horror-stricken, he had to retreat, for the heat was unbearable. After seeing the wreck of the smoker car where he was told his son had been sitting, he was convinced his son was dead, for a glance at the twisted, splintered fragments of the smoker seemed proof positive that no human being could have escaped alive. After frantically searching for his son nearly all night he gave up out of sheer exhaustion until the next day. It was a couple of days later that his son’s coat was found in the canal. His son’s body was never recovered.[21]

One woman, from New York City, survived the wreck thanks to her hair. As reported in the New York Times on February 23, 1901,Miss Harry Lyon…was on the [Nellie Bly] express in company with her friend, Mrs. Belle Freeman, bound for Atlantic City to spend the holiday. When the crash came [Miss Lyon] was thrown through one of the windows of the car and hung on the outside by her hair until it settled down on the ice of the canal, enabling her to get a foothold. They both suffered from severe shock. Their car was the third from the locomotive and was an ordinary day car, as they had been unable to get parlor car seats. Miss Lyon occupied the aisle seat. She remembers that her friend was thrown forward as their seat was wrenched from its fastenings by the force of the collision, that the cushion on which they were sitting was hurled through the window, and her after it. As she went through she caught the sill with her hand, otherwise her hair, which caught on the sash, would probably have been torn out by the roots. Just how long she remained so she cannot tell, but after her feet touched the ice she was unable to disengage herself, and was only freed when one of her fellow-survivors, a man, cut her hair where it had caught and helped her to a place of safety. Miss Lyon is badly cut about the face and head, and there is a deep wound on one of her eyelids. She has severe bruises all over her body.

Doctors H.M. Beatty and Charles Mitchell of Trenton drove to the crash site. “The cries of the wounded and dying were simply awful. One man, who had a compound fracture of the jaw, was yelling at the top of his voice for help.” The injured were found on both sides of the canal that ran along side the railroad track. “After repeated calling from the opposite side of the canal they succeeded in getting someone to throw wreckage into the canal so they could cross upon it. Dr. Mitchell went across [but] Dr. Beatty found it impossible to cross at that time. Train hands did not assist the physicians to cross the canal; they seemed too busy looking after baggage.” Dr. Beatty’s impression was that “the railroad people were more anxious to save baggage than to get bodies from the wrecked cars.”[22]

Doctors MacKenzie, Mcgalliard and County Physician Rogers received word of the wreck and together started for the accident scene on a special train. “They only got as far as Broad Street Station when they received word that the train could go no farther and they returned to Clinton Street [Station] and subsequently went to St. Francis Hospital where a number of the injured had been taken.”[23]

The survivors of the Nellie Bly were taken to Camden, NJ in a special train. Also, “the wounded were distributed among the three Trenton hospitals…” Six of the injured were taken to Cooper Hospital and the others who could stand the journey continued on to Atlantic City. The ones taken to Cooper Hospital were all Italians. The train arrived in Camden not long after 9:00pm. “The passengers were a pitiful-looking company. Many of the women had either their heads or arms tied up and were badly bespattered with blood. A number of men were also bandaged.”[24]
Coroner Bower of Trenton arranged to have the railroad company erect dams in the canal on each side of the wreck. Water was to be pumped out to permit a thorough search for missing bodies, “or parts of them”.[25] Railroad employees “dug up the canal bed and embankment at the side of the wreck to the depth of several feet. The result was that several little heaps of ashes and charred bones were brought to light. This indicates that at least four bodies were incinerated. In one heap was a rib and portion of a shoe; while near the other was a portion of a hat, the inner band bearing the initials W.C. These correspond to the initials of William Cochran, one of the missing Trentonians.”[26]

One scene that horrified the workers searching for remains occurred on the afternoon of February 25th. Workers had found a few bones, “all that is mortal of one who was a passenger on the local train.” The bones were gathered and placed in a small pile on the side of the road away from the wreckage while they awaited the arrival of the coroner. “Then to their horror a prowling dog discovered the bones and began to gnaw them with all the ravishness of his savage nature.” The workmen all froze in horror but then began to yell and throw rocks at the dog chasing him away.[27]

“During the day one of the searchers found a gold watch, pocketbook and a revolver…The searcher declined to give his name or turn the articles over to the coroner…The person that found the articles left the spot soon after.”[28]

Among other artifacts discovered in the wreckage were clothing, coats, hats, “a collar from a coat, together with the rim and portion of a derby hat and two sleeves, torn from a coat.” All of the items collected were kept at Taylor’s Morgue in Trenton in hopes that they might help find the missing or identify the dead.[29]

As soon as word of the accident had reached Bordentown, P.F.H. Brakeley, foreman of the Chemical Engine Company, made his way to the scene.

From the brow of a hill in Bordentown he saw the flames and thought the fire apparatus would be of some service…the [chemical] engine was taken to the wreck aboard a flat car. It was about 7:30 when the chemical started for the wreck. On the way up the track a train coming from the wreck was met and the chemical engine was run back to Bordentown to allow the other train to pass. It was 8:00 before the chemical finally got to the wreck and then it was found impossible to get within 280 feet of the demolished cars. The engine did not go into service because it had only 200 feet of hose and [the] stream could not be gotten upon the flames. Mr. Brakeley said he did not think the chemical engine could have done anything but extinguish a few burning embers. Even if there had been sufficient hose to reach the main part of the fire it would be almost impossible to unload the chemical engine on account of the condition of the surrounding country.[30]

According to Joseph Osmond, chief engineer of the Bordentown Fire Department, “if a steam engine, instead of the chemical, had been sent to the wreck it might have done some good…but on account of there being little water available and the almost utter impossibility of getting the engine into position for service at that place, it was not deemed advisable to send the steamer at that time.”[31]

Mr. Osmond said that “to the casual observer it would appear there was needless delay in getting the chemical to the scene, but such was not the case.” The time it had reached the wreck, “the flames had been burning long and fiercely enough to consume any bodies that might be in it and, therefore, to put the fire out would only mean the saving of the wreckage.[32]

However, John Matthews and H.G. Wright, both of the Bordentown Fire Department, felt that in their judgement the chemical engine “could easily have been unloaded from the flat car and been put in position to extinguish the flames.” Matthews “considered it a lack of duty on the part of those in charge that it was not put in service.”[33]

Astonishingly, the horrible wreck of the Nelly Bly could have been much worse than it was. “A package of a particular aspect was taken from the ruins and when it was examined later in Camden…it was found to contain dynamite.” The only explanation for the presence of dynamite on the Nellie Bly is that it was being carried by some of the Italian laborers who were on their way to a job of excavating near Atlantic City. “They would have use for the stuff in their work and it is thought some of them were carrying it as baggage to save expense and to avoid the difficulty attending the shipment of explosives. It is said there is nothing unusual about these men carrying dynamite in this way and it seems to be the only reasonable explanation of the question…Coroner Bower says there was fifteen pounds of the stuff in the package.”[34]

Mercer County Physician R.R. Rogers Jr. ordered Coroner J.R.D. Bower to “conduct a searching inquest into the wreck.” The jury only needed to view one of the “torn and charred bodies…and not all, as…all the persons killed came to their end by reason of the same cause and in the eyes of the law the verdict will be the same in each case.”[35]

“Both General Superintendent Sheppard of the United Railway of New Jersey and Division Superintendent Abercrombie admitted…that the crew of the accommodation train disobeyed the train orders.”[36] C.W. Kunzi, the telegraph operator in the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Bordentown said that the orders received from the Camden train dispatcher “were faithfully executed by him but disobeyed by Engineer Thompson and Conductor Sapp of the local train.”[37]

The Coroner’s Jury found both Engineer Benjamin Thompson and Conductor Edward Sapp of the local accommodation train guilty of negligence in failing to obey orders. The verdict also censured the Pennsylvania Railroad Company for not having a double track between Trenton and Burlington.[38]

On May 14, 1901, Justice Gummere charged the Grand Jury to find on indictment against Conductor Sapp. In his charge to the jury he said, “Sapp is guilty of manslaughter and should be indicted.”[39] However, on June 10th, the Grand Jury failed to indict Sapp. Instead, he was censured for “failing to read correctly the orders intended to control movement of his train.” Fortunately for him, mitigating circumstances relieved him of criminal liability.[40]

Edward Sapp continued to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad until the morning of April 19, 1906 when he dropped dead at his post in the Camden terminal of a massive heart attack. He was only 55 years old and he left behind a wife and two adult children. The Rev. E.F. Garrett, Pastor of the Baptist Church in Bordentown, held his funeral on April 22, 1906, and six fellow train conductors served as pallbearers. He was buried in the Bordentown Cemetery.

Seventeen people were killed and at least 21 were severely injured in the wreck o the Nellie Bly. However, the Trenton Times wrote on March 2, 1901 that, “the death list will never be fully known, as the hungry flames…may have consumed many whose absence may never be accounted for.” The Nellie Bly express continued to run from New York to Atlantic City until the early 1960s. Today, New Jersey Transit’s River Line runs along the same tracks as the Nellie Bly, taking commuters once again from Trenton to Camden. At the Riverton Station, passengers can cross the street to the Nellie Bly Olde Tyme Ice Cream Parlour and order a “Train Wreck” Banana Split.

Period Photographs of the Wreck (click to enlarge)

The Nellie Bly Ice Cream Parlour and the "Train Wreck" Banana Split


[1] History of Nellie Bly. (Menu)
[2] History of Nellie Bly. (Menu).
[3] Neva Bainbridge. Interview with author. June 28, 2008.
[4] Robert C. Reed. Trains Unlimited. History Channel International. Aired July 31, 2008.
[5] Trenton Times, March 28, 1901.
[6] Trenton Times. April 4, 1901.
[7] Trenton Times. March 28, 1901.
[8] Trenton Times, March 28, 1901.
[9] Trenton Times, March 19, 1901.
[10] It was actually at Rusling’s Siding, a few miles south of Trenton.
[11] Trenton Times, April 4, 1901.
[12] Trenton Times, February 26, 1901.
[13] Benjamin Thompson died at St. Francis Hospital on the morning of March 27, 1901. When he saw the collision with the Nelly Bly was inevitable, he jumped from the train to the canal bed. “He sustained a compound fracture of the leg, a broken arm and was otherwise lacerated and bruised.” He was recovering well until erysipelas developed. Erysipelas, from the Greek for red skin is an acute skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. The infection enters the skin causing redness and inflammation. Today, this kind of infection is easily treated with penicillin, but Alexander Fleming did not discover this wonder drug until 1928. In Thompson’s case, the infection was initially confined to his head and face but, without the availability of penicillin, it eventually began to spread. He fell in and out of consciousness and finally succumbed to the infection, becoming the seventeenth victim of the train wreck. (Trenton Times, March 27, 1901 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erysipelas as of January 4, 2009).
[14] Trenton Times, February 22, 1901.
[15] New York Times, February 22, 1901.
[16] Trenton Times, February 26, 1901.
[17] Trenton Times, February 22, 1901.
[18] New York Times, February 22, 1901.
[19] Trenton Times, March 29, 1901.
[20] Trenton Times, February 22, 1901.
[21] Trenton Times, March 29, 1901.
[22] Trenton Times, March 18, 1901.
[23] Trenton Times, March 19, 1901.
[24] New York Times, February 22, 1901
[25] Trenton Times, February 26, 1901.
[26] Trenton Times, March 2, 1901.
[27] Trenton Times, February 26, 1901.
[28] Trenton Times, February 26, 1901.
[29] Trenton Times, February 26, 1901.
[30] Trenton Times, March 18, 1901.
[31] Trenton Times, March 18, 1901.
[32] Trenton Times, March 18, 1901.
[33] Trenton Times, March 19, 1901.
[34] Trenton Times, February 26, 1901.
[35] Trenton Times, February 23, 1901.
[36] New York Times, February 23, 1901.
[37] New York Times, February 24, 1901.
[38] Trenton Times, April 5, 1901.
[39] New York Times, May 15, 1901.
[40] Trenton Times, June 10, 1901.

The crash photographs are from the Trentoniana Collection at the Free Public Library in Trenton, NJ. The ice cream parlor and ice cream photographs are from the author's visit in 2008.