George Perec: The Author Who Left Out The Letter ‘E’
By Ken Zurski
Beginning with the first line of the first chapter, “Incurably insomniac Anton Vowl turns on a light,” and in every sentence thereafter, nearly 300 pages in all, there are no words with the letter “e” in the French novel, A Void.
Not just words that start with the letter “e,” mind you, but any word with the letter “e” in it.
Therefore, while words with an “e” are consciously left out, in the context of the text, they don’t actually exist.
…A rumour, that’s my initial thought as I switch off my radio, a rumour or possibly a hoax.
Propaganda, I murmur anxiously—as though, just by saying so, I might allay my doubts—typical politicians’ propaganda. But public opinion gradually absorbs it as a fact.
A Void was the brainchild of author George Perec, who wrote La disparition (disappearance) in 1969, and was later translated to English in 1994.
Why a writer would take on such an unusual challenge defies explanation. A good author should add to his repertoire of tools, not subtract them, right? So leaving out a vowel, especially the most popular one, just doesn’t make any sense.
To clarify, according to the book “From Cryptographical Mathematics,” the letter “e” is the most commonly used letter in the English language and nearly 13-percent of all words contain it, at least once.
For example, the first sentence of this very article has nearly 40 words in it; sixteen words containing at least one “e,” for a total of 22. So excluding it, even in French, which uses the same English letters, seemed to be an insurmountable task. (The French or Latin alphabet is similar to English and vowels are the same, expect written with accents like ê. So the prose is somewhat disjointed, especially in translation.)
But this is exactly the kind of discourse Perec reveled in.
Perec was born to Polish Jew immigrants, both victims of the war– his father died a soldier and his mother likely perished at Auschwitz. He started writing at the University of Paris and joined a fringe literary group named Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or “Oulipo,” for short.
The name means “literature potential,” but certainly not potential in the practical sense. “[We] seek new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” the group described. To achieve this, constraints (in writing) were encouraged, which was far more challenging. The group also included mathematicians since problem-solving was part of the writer’s methodology and often involved works that delved in complicated mathematical patterns. Suddenly Perec had a mission, as did the group, to experiment and twist the conventional rules of fiction.
A Void, therefore, is a lipogram, meaning a single letter is left out.
The protagonist of Perec’s story is a detective named Anton Vowl (Voyl in French) who must confront a missing void, possibly his own, in a world of impending doom. “I must admit right away that its origin was totally haphazard,” Perec writes in the book’s postscript, perhaps tongue in cheek. “I had no inkling at all, as an acorn contains an oak, that anything would come out of it.”
Some literary critics, however, have established a deeper implication. After all, Perec was a Holocaust orphan. Perhaps the loss of his mêre (mother), pêre (father) and familie, one modern day writer surmised, are words he cannot repeat. All have the letter “e” in them. The missing “e,” therefore, is his personal void.
“The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning,” author Warren Motte speculates in an article about Perec written in 2104.
Perec’s later work would be equally complicated and puzzling. He even wrote a novel where ê was the only vowel used.
Many feel his greatest literary contribution is a 700-page book titled Life a User’s Manual, another exercise of intricacies. “The sequence of chapters in the novel is determined by a figure from chess known as the “Knight’s Tour,” in which a knight visits every square of the chessboard once and only once,” Motte writes.
And If that wasn’t interesting enough, there is the constraint: ‘Perec used an algorithm, “orthogonal Latin bi-square order 10,’ to elaborate pre-established lists of the 42 different elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, and so forth), that would figure in each of the ninety-nine chapters of Life.”
In 1982, at the age of 45, Perec, a chain smoker, died of lung cancer.
Even sick, Perec continued to work at a feverish pace. “There was not a day gone by that he didn’t write,” a friend ascribed. Shortly before his death, Perec sent a letter to his publisher. It was reported to be a list of works he wanted to complete.
Sadly, we will never know what else he had in mind.
The Bee Man
By Ken Zurski
When Amos Root was a boy growing up on a farm in Medina, Ohio, instead of helping his father with the chores he stuck by his mother’s side and tended to the garden instead.
Root was small in size (only five-foot-three as an adult) and prone to sickness. The garden work suited him just fine. But in his teens, for money, Root took up jewelry as a trade and became quite good at it.
Then in 1865, at the age of 26, he found his calling – bees.
Root had offered a man a dollar if he could round up a swarm of bees outside the doors of his jewelry store. The man did and Root was hooked. But Root didn’t want to just harvest bees, he wanted to study them.
Eventually his work led to a national trade journal titled Gleaning’s in Bee Culture. Bees became his business and profitable too, but Root had other interests as well, specifically mechanical things, like the automobile, a blessing for someone who hated cleaning up after the horse. “I do not like the smell of the stables,” he once wrote.
But the automobile was different. “It never gets tired; it gets there quicker than any horse can possibly do.”
He bought an Oldsmobile Runabout, “for less than a horse” he bragged, and happily drove it near his home. Then in September 1904, at the age of 69, Root took his longest trip yet, a nearly 400-mile journey to Dayton, Ohio. Root had heard a couple of “minister’s sons” were making great strides in aviation, so he wrote them and asked if he could take a look. His enthusiasm was evident.
The two brothers granted his wish, but only if he promised not to reveal any secrets. In August of 1904, Root set off for his first trip to Dayton and the next month did the same. The first visit he watched in awe, but revealed nothing. The second time he was given permission to write about what he had seen. It was the first time the Wright brothers and their flying machine appeared in print.
“My dear friends,” Root gleefully wrote in his bee publication, “I have a wonderful story to tell you. “
As Christmas Crooners Go, Perry Como Was As ‘Pure As The Driven Snow’
By Ken Zurski
Perry Como may be the most popular Christmas performer of all time. Thanks to his long-standing annual holiday television specials and beloved Christmas album released in 1968, Como’s face and voice became synonymous with the sounds of the season.
Today, however, in a more crowded market for Christmas music and numerous more versions of favorite holiday classics (and new ones too) from more contemporary artists in all genres, Como’s versions might get lost in the mix.
But it’s still in there.
That said, as a performer, he may have been misunderstood as well.
Como was considered one of the “good guys” whose relaxed and laid-back demeanor came across as “lazy” to some, a misguided assessment, since Como was known to be a consummate professional who practiced and rehearsed incessantly.
“No performer in our memory rehearses his music with more careful dedication than Como.” a music critic once enthused.
Como also made sure each concert met his own personal and strict moral standards.
In November 1970, Como hosted a concert in Las Vegas, a comeback of sorts for the Christmas crooner, who hadn’t played a Vegas night club for over three decades. For his grand return, Como was paid a whopping $125-thousand a week, admittedly a large sum for a Vegas act at the time. Even Perry was surprised. “It’s more money than my father ever made in a lifetime,” he remarked.
But since it was Vegas and befitting the desert town’s reputation of gambling and prostituition, Como’s reputation as a straight-laced performer was questioned.
Como quelled any concerns, however, when he chose a safe, clean and relatively unknown English comic named Billy Baxter to warm up the audience before the show. Advisers suggested he pick an act more familiar to Vegas audiences, but Como said no.
A typical “Vegas comedian,” as he put it, was simply too dirty.
Keeping up the family friendly atmosphere accentuated in his TV specials, Como would lovingly introduced his wife Roselle during the “live” shows. Roselle, who was usually backstage and acknowledged the appreciative crowds, was just as adamant as her husband that his clean-cut image went untarnished. After one performance, Roselle received a fan’s note that pleased her immensely. “Not one smutty part, not even a hint,” the note read describing Como’s act in Vegas. “You should be very proud.”
Como’s cool temperament and sleepy manner was such a recognizable and enduring characteristic that many had to ask if it was real or just an act. Does he ever get upset? was one curious inquiry. “Perry has a temper,” his orchestra leader Mitchell Ayers answered. “He loses his temper at normal things. When were’ driving, for instance, and somebody cuts him off he really lets the offender have it.” However, Ayers added, “Como is the most charming gentleman I’ve ever met.”
Como’s popular Christmas television specials ran for three decades ending in 1994, seven years before his death from symptoms of Alzheimer’s in 2001. He was 88.
(Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal Nov 21 1970)
Baseball’s ‘Eating Champion’ Story is a Little Hard to Swallow, But…
Frank “Ping” Bodie, an Italian-American major league baseball player, once said that he could out eat anyone especially when it came to his favorite dish, pasta. So on April 3 1919, in Florida during a spring training break, Bodie and an ostrich (yes, an ostrich) went head-to-head in an all out, no holds barred, eating contest.
Or did they? That’s left for history to decide.
But it makes for a great story.
As a ballplayer and an outfielder, Bodie was a serviceable player, but a bit of an instigator. He was always up for a good argument and couldn’t help talking up his own merits. ”I could whale the old apple and smack the old onion,” he said about his batting prowess. While playing for a lowly Philadelphia A’s ball club, Bodie claimed there were only two things in the city worth seeing, himself, of course, and the Liberty Bell.
I can “hemstitch the spheroid,” he boasted, apparently talking about the ball.
Despite being a a bit of a braggart, the player’s loved Bodie’s positive attitude. But his expressive candor clashed with managers and he was traded to several teams before ending up with the New York Yankees where his road mate was the irrepressible Babe Ruth. When a reporter asked Bodie what it was like to room with baseball’s larger-than-life boozer, Bodie had the perfect answer. “I room with his suitcase,” he said.
Bodie was born Francesco Stephano (anglicized to Frank Stephen) Pezzello, but most people knew him by his more baseball player sounding nickname, Ping. He claimed “Ping” was from a cousin although many wished to believe it was after the sound of the ball hitting his bat. Bodie was the name of a bustling California silver mining town that his father and uncle lived for a time.
Bodie’s reputation as a big-time eater preceded him.
While in Jacksonville, Florida for spring training, the co-owner of the Yankees, Col T.L “Cap” Huston, heard about an ostrich at the local zoo named Percy who had an insatiable appetite. Huston told Bodie and the challenge was on. Whether it actually happened as reported however is up for debate. The accounts are so wildly embellished that the truth is muddled.
But who was questioning?
Fearing backlash from animal lovers (even those who loved ostrich’s, it seemed), the match was held at a secret location. Bodie reportedly won the contest, but only after Percy, who barely finished an eleventh plate, staggered off and died. Ostrich’s eat a lot, but Percy’s untimely demise was attributed to inadvertently swallowing the timekeeper’s watch. He expired with “sides swelled and bloodshot eyes.” one writer related.
For anyone who believed it that, the rest of the story was easy to digest. Bodie finished a twelfth plate of pasta and claimed the self-appointed title of “spaghetti eating champion of the world.”.
The next day, Bodie was in the newspaper for serving up a double play ball in the eighth inning and helping rival Brooklyn Dodgers secure a “slaughter” of the Yankees, 11-2.
There was no mention of the dead bird.
The ‘American Girl’ is Missing
By Ken Zurski
In the fall of 1927, Ruth Elder, a dental assistant from Lakeland, Florida, attempted to become the first woman to complete a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. “When [Charles] Lindbergh reached Paris (in May),” the 23-year-old Elder said announcing her intentions, “I made up my mind that I would be the first woman to make the trip.”
But unlike Lindy, who was an experienced pilot, Elder admitted having little acquaintance with airplanes. She was however an aspiring model and actress and if the flight helped her career, she exclaimed, so be it.
As expected, Elder’s daring-do was met with skepticism, even ridicule. “Men in the summer should strive to equal Lindbergh. Women should stay at home,” The Irish News snidely advised. Even Lindbergh, himself, without naming names, warned against dangerous missions without purpose.
Despite this, Elder had no reservations. “I was determined to go as a co-pilot, not a passenger,” she vowed. In Florida, she took lessons from an instructor named George Haldeman. Then on Tuesday, October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field in a specially built Stinson ‘Detroiter’ monoplane named American Girl.
Unlike Lindbergh, who became internationally famous after his successful flight, Elder’s popularity began the moment she announced her plan. Pretty with an infectious smile and a personality to match , Elder’s story and picture plastered the papers. Brightly colored scarfs she wore in her hair were mimicked by young girls who called them “Ruth Ribbons.”
To a hungry press she was also a willing participant. The instant hero Lindbergh was a challenge: shy, a bit aloof, and often irritated by all the attention. Elder relished it. She just hadn’t accomplished anything yet. On that October day at Roosevelt Field, the press was there to watch her give it a go.
“Well here goes nothing, that may turn up something,” Elder thought to herself as the “American Girl’s” wheels lifted from the ground.
Thirty six hours later, with over 2,000 miles logged and just a few hours short of Paris, the flight was over.
Caught in a sleet storm and taking on ice, the two pilots ditched the reserve fuel to lighten the load. But when an oil pipe busted, there was no other choice. The ocean would be their landing strip.
Around the same time, in Paris, at the Le Bouget airport, a smattering of press and a few well-wishers gathered for the welcoming party. Elder’s plane was late and her fate, sent by dispatches around the world, was unknown. “Last seen 500 out at sea,” the stories read.
The American Girl was missing.
In the Atlantic, however, Captain Goos of the Dutch tanker Barendrecht noticed a plane in distress: “She came rapidly up to us and flying over the ship threw down two messages.” One ended up on the deck. “How far are we from land and which way?” was the inscription. It was signed: Ruth Elder.
Several minutes later, the plane landed in the water next to the ship.
Soon enough the press got a telegram: “We are safe,” it read.
A Thomas Edison Protégé Might Be The Unsung Pioneer of Moving Pictures
By Ken Zurski
In 1879, at the age of 19, William Kennedy Dickson found himself in a burgeoning America with the promise of a good future for an aspiring entrepreneur who had just finished his education at England’s prestigious Cambridge University.
Dickson, who had a background in electrical invention, immediately sought work with an American scientist who was hiring a team of minds to do experiments on electricity at his lab in Menlo Park, California.
Go see Edison, Dickson was told.
So he did.
Just being a fine chemist and intellectual wasn’t enough for the demanding Edison. He fired several qualified men because they “didn’t get results.” But Edison liked Dickson right away and put him in charge of his metallurgy laboratory.
Dickson also had a knack for photography, and Edison needed someone to document his work in pictures. So in addition to his experiments in the lab, Dickson became a creative force behind the camera too. A mission that would eventually lead him to head Edison’s efforts in finding a way to make pictures move.
But the phonograph came first. With it, Edison had a business and a product to sell. Entertainment, however, was not Edison’s strong suit. Most of his products were focused on labor and used primarily for industry, like the diction phonograph. But leisure time was becoming important to Americans, and Edison saw a need to transition from production tools to consumer goods. The wax recording was a good example.
Alexander Graham Bell’s team came up with the original idea for the Graphophone, based on Edison’s previous phonograph design. It used wax over the cylinder and listening tubes for hearing. Bell’s group approached Edison for a partnership, but Edison refused. Instead he took their idea and perfected it, making a better and cleaner sounding phonograph, using the wax technology.
Before the turn of the century, the phonograph would be mass produced along with similar machines, including Bell’s. But even before the playback machines were ready for the market, Edison was sensing another profitable venture in the entertainment industry.
In 1888, he drew a sketch of a device he called the Kinetoscope, “an instrument which does for the eye, what the phonograph does for the ear.” This machine, he said, would “reproduce things in motion.” But added, “be cheap, practical and convenient.”
The man Edison chose to command this new venture was his chemist and photographer William Dickson.
It didn’t take long for Dickson and the team to come up with something functional. Applying the phonograph’s cylinder design and photographic celluloid Dickson was already using in his picture-making, within five months, a prototype emerged which showed considerable promise. Edison and Dickson tinkered with technology already established, like the telegraph, and applied it to their experiments. Dickson also used a Tachhyscope for inspiration. It used a series of pictures rotated and illuminated by a light and projected on a screen. Dickson hooked it up to the phonograph and produced what is in essence the first talking picture. He showed it to Edison. In the film, Dickson raises his hat and says “Good morning Mr. Edison, glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kinetograph.” Dickson then counts to ten on his fingers; the sound perfectly synced to the image.
Edison was impressed, but didn’t like the idea of a picture projected on the wall. He thought it was impractical. Further experiments, he directed, should be on movies for coin-slots, similar to the phonograph. Dickson clearly disappointed by Edison’s reaction, kept the projection idea in mind while setting his team to work on the next design: a box with a viewing slot.
By 1897, the phonograph business was booming and everyone wanted in. Columbia gained control of American Gramophone and promptly sued Edison for patent rights. The suit was dropped after Columbia discovered their machines also relied on Edison’s earlier technology. A bidding war began over pricing. Most phonograph models were around $30, but Edison built a cheaper model called the “Gem” for only ten bucks. Kinetoscopes were selling too, but it was a much different process. Edison could see the technology side of both of his entertainment machines, but not the art. He left that up to others, like Dickson, who made the films. Staged scenes of prize fights and vaudeville performers were the most popular.
Things were changing for Dickson, however. He grew tired of making the same movies and sought work elsewhere. He left Edison in 1895 and joined Woodville Latham owner of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company who was already experimenting with light-focused over-sized images projected on a screen.
Dickson soon found out he wasn’t the only one interested in the projection idea. Many others had researched it over the years, including Eadweard Muybridge, who projected drawings of animals in motion. At one point, Muybridge brought his Zoopraxiscope to Edison hoping to solve the problem of putting actual photographs on the cylinder, like the phonograph did with sound. Edison was interested only in the prospect of the invention, not the actual product. Again Edison thought he could improve on an original design. The problem was projection, something Edison had little interest in at the time.
But thanks to Muybridge and Dickson, the projection idea did not fade away. In fact it flourished under those who believed it was the future of moving pictures. By the time a projection system was ready for public use, Dickson’s new employer Latham had been been bought out by another company headed by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Both inventors and investors, Jenkins and Armat needed someone who could produce the machines and supply films. They asked Edison to join in. The projector, called the Vitascope would soon be changed to the Projectoscope, Edison’s improved design. When the first motion picture was shown to a New York theater audience in 1896, Edison would get credit for it. Dickson and other early pioneers of the projection system were left in the dark. Especially Dickson ,who would remain mostly anonymous.
But that would change.
Perhaps slighted by Edison’s unwillingness to share public credit with him, Dickson wrote a book titled “History of the Kinetoscope, Kinethograph, Kinetoscope & Kinetophonograph.” In it, Dickson gives himself credit for the work in Edison’s lab and claims “co-patentee” honors with Edison on the Kinetoscope design. Edsion objected, especially the part about Dickson being the co-inventor. “Mr. Dickson will get full credit for the work he has done without trying to ram it down people’s throats,” Edison angrily rebutted.
Through the years, historians have debated Dickson’s role in moving pictures. Some claim Dickson was a product of Edison’s meticulously controlled experiments and first rate facilities. Anyone with Dickson’s background would have made the best of it, they argue. Others believe Edison was ruthless and loved fame more than acknowledgment. He absolutely refused to share success with others.
Regardless of the discourse, Dickson eventually returned to London where he died in 1935 at the age of 75.
But all is not lost.
Today, Dickson is known exclusively for inventing one machine called the Mutoscope.
Slighted by Edison on the projection design, and receiving no attribution for his role in creating it, Dickson made another variation of the Kinetoscope using a simple “flip-book” design run by a crank rather than electricity. The Mutoscope soon found an appreciative audience. It began to appear in amusement parlors in the U.S. and pleasure piers throughout Europe. It served mostly one purpose: satisfying men’s desires to view busty ladies in various stages of undress.
“What the Butler Saw” is what they called the Mutoscope in England.
In America, it became more widely known as a “peep show.”
Dickson gets credit for that.
(A good portion of the retelling of this story comes from Edison: A life of Invention by Paul Israel).
The Man Who Put the Brick in ‘Brickyard’
By Ken Zurski
Carl G. Fisher was a bicycle enthusiast. He built them, he raced them, he even delicately guided one across a tightrope just to prove there versatility. He was nicknamed “Cripple,” or “Crip” for short, because his friends thought he was destined to suffer a permanent injury. As one worrisome acquaintance described: “He frequently, in bursts of speed, took spills and ended up with many bruises and cuts.”
Undeterred, after dusting off, Fisher would try it again.
That was his style.
Born in Greensburg, Indiana in 1874, as a young boy Fisher moved to Indianapolis with his mother after his parents separated. Due to a severe case of astigmatism, he dropped out of school early and worked odd jobs, like a grocery store clerk, to support his family. At age 17, along with his two brothers, Fisher opened a bicycle shop.
With the advent of the automobile, Fisher saw another business opportunity. “I don’t see why an automobile can’t be made to do anything a bicycle can do,” he told a friend. In 1904, Fisher converted his bicycle business into an automobile repair shop. To promote his new venture, he asked a crowd to gather at a downtown Indianapolis building. He then pushed a vehicle off the roof. The vehicle landed on its tires, still upright. The crowd roared its approval. It was showy and effective, similar in style to a more famously known promotional trickster named P.T. Barnum. Fisher later admitted he deflated the tires so the car wouldn’t bounce.
Despite his knack for self-promotion, Fisher had more serious concerns about the newfangled motor vehicle. First was being able to drive it safely in the dark. He invented a headlight that used compressed gas to light the way. It was a revolutionary idea. Soon, the Fisher-patented lights were being manufactured in plants throughout the Midwest. The process however was not safe for workers. The chemical tanks kept blowing up. “Omaha left at four-thirty,” one wire read announcing the unfortunate closing of another plant. The tanks were eventually lined with asbestos and the blasts stopped. The headlights became the standard and Fisher in turn became a very wealthy man.
With money and power in his hands, Fisher took to the automobile like he did the bicycle – with deering-do. He raced a modified Mohawk on small tracks at fairgrounds in Indiana mostly built with wooden boards. But Fisher wanted more. He wanted more speed. more thrills and more excitement. Inspired by European tracks that had long straightaways and sweeping curves, Fisher suggested a proving ground track in Indianapolis would be beneficial to the automobile industry as a whole, testing the limits of engines and body styles. Plus, the racing would be a hoot too.
He and other local financiers put up $250,000 in capital to build the track, a two-and a half mile oval, that became known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Aug 9 1909, the first car races took place. It was a disaster. Six drivers were killed along with two spectators. The race was scheduled for 300 miles, but Fisher mercifully stopped it at 235 miles. The drivers and their machines, Fisher explained, were not the issue. The problem was the track, made of crushed stone, was too rough. The frequent tire blow outs led to disastrous and deadly results. Fisher had to make a change.
He recommended they pave the tracks with bricks instead. But it was costly. So he convinced his investors to help pay for it. Over 3-million bricks were laid. On Memorial Day 1911, the first 500-mile race was run. Driver Ray Harroun in a vehicle named “Wasp” won the inaugural contest with an average speed of just over 74 mph. “There were but four tire changes,” the winning vehicle’s manufacturer boasted the next day. “Three of the original tires finished the race.” The bricks, they subtlety implied, made the difference.
The track later picked up the moniker, “Brickyard.”
Fisher didn’t stop with improvements to racetracks however. He felt everyday drivers were being shortchanged by the lack of public roadways. At the time, most roads were just dirt paths and few went long distances. In 1912, at a dinner party for automobile manufacturers, Fisher unveiled an ambitious plan to build a highway that would span the country, from New York to California. He urged the auto executives to come aboard. Within 30-minutes, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.
Ironically, the one man who refused to contribute was an automobile pioneer from Detroit who thought the automakers should stick to making automobiles, not roads. The government, he explained, should be responsible for that.
His name was Henry Ford.
Thanks to Fisher’s persistence, however, Lincoln Highway (today it’s portions are more formally aligned with the coast-to-coast Interstate 80), became the first transcontinental highway for motor vehicles.
But Fisher’s testament, such as it is, lie in the bricks. Still a fixture at the track’s finish line.
Two Trains, One Track: The Great Train Wreck of 1918
On July 9, 1918, near Nashville, Tennessee, in an area known as Dutchman’s curve, two trains collided head-on creating such a frightful noise that many claimed it could be “heard for miles.”
It was 7:00 on a warm summer morning and both trains on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis line were running late.
The westbound or outbound passenger train to Memphis had just pulled out of Nashville’s Union Station packed with passengers. The eastbound train was heading inbound to the Nashville station from Memphis. Both veteran engineers had orders. The inbound train had the right of way on the curve’s one-way track. The outbound train would have to wait at the double-tracks just outside of the station for the other train to pass. But something went horribly wrong. A green light was given to the outbound train to proceed, meaning someone had seen or heard the incoming train pass. But when the tower operator checked his papers, there was no record of the Nashville-bound train coming through.
In reality, the inbound train was running nearly 35 minutes behind schedule.
The operator frantically telegraphed the dispatcher who immediately sent an urgent message back. “Stop him” was his order. But how? At the time, there was no direct communication with the engineers in either train. Only a warning whistle was used for emergencies. The whistle blared, but the outbound train was too far along for anyone to hear it. By this time, the inbound train was chugging to the curve.
Both trains were moving at top speeds of 60 mph. Then a moment of sheer terror. The engineer of the outbound train caught a glimpse of the other train coming around the bend, directly in his path. He pulled the emergency brake, but there wasn’t enough time. Then that sound that could be heard for miles. “The ground quaked and the waters of nearby Richland Creek trembled,” one writer later described. “The wooden cars crumbled and hurled sideways, hanging over the embankment. One train telescoped the other.”
In all, 101 people were killed, mostly traveling soldiers and African-American laborers from Tennessee and Arkansas. Many were leaving or returning to work at a munitions plant in the Nashville area.
Besides what went wrong, there was more scrutiny.
After only a few days of front page news, the press was accused of being mostly dismissive. Perhaps it was due to the number of war stories that filled the papers at the time. But some believe the wreck itself, while tragic, just wasn’t exploitative enough. Most of the dead were minority migrants and laborers. Many were killed beyond recognition. Basically, it just wasn’t as easily sensationalized as other disasters at the time, like the wrecks involving circus trains…or the fate of a fun-filled chartered steamboat.
Four days before the Nashville train wreck another tragedy hit the papers that shook a nation. On July 5, a wooden steamboat named the Columbia collapsed and sank in middle of the Illinois River near Peoria, Illinois. The 87 dead were mostly women and children enjoying a holiday cruise to a local amusement park. The survivor stories that followed were stark and dramatic. “The only thing that kept me afloat,” one woman passenger reported, “were the bodies beneath me.”
The investigation that followed the train wreck, cited human error, specifically blaming the man who could not defend himself, the engineer of the outbound train, David Kennedy. Only speculation supports the theory that Kennedy mistook a switch engine hauling empty cars for the inbound train. Kennedy was killed instantly in the wreck. A folded “schedule” was reportedly found underneath his body.
The other engineer William Floyd was also killed. He was one day from retirement.
The Nashville wreck to this day is still the deadliest train accident in the history of the U.S.
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