The Aftermath of the Hatfield Train Wreck of 1900
The Hatfield Train wreck of Hatfield, Pennsylvania ultimately killed seventeen people and injured fifty others on 2 September 1900. For more on this wreck, click here.
Engineer John Davis, Train Dispatcher William S. Groves, Conductor Thomas Shelby and Operator D. B. Beidler were all accused of gross criminal negligence in the wreck by a coroner's inquest done just a week after the accident. Groves, Shelby and Beidler immediately surrendered for arrest two weeks after the accident occurred and were held on $1000 bonds each. John Davis was not arrested at the time of the indictment, as he was still recovering from injuries he received in the wreck.Davis would not be seen in public until December, when he would testify at William Groves' trial, though he would stand a grand jury trial in October.
Ultimately, the charges against Conductor Shelby, Operator Beidler and Engineer Davis were ignored, as no punishments came from the coroner's inquest, though the grand jury at Groves' trial in early October 1900 had the opinion that Shelby had his hands full in handling the passengers of the express train. The same grand jury could not understand why Engineer Davis should be censured. Groves was indicted the first week of October in Norristown for his role in the accident. His trial was set for early December.
On 6 December 1900, after two days of testimony and trial, W. S. Groves walked out of the courtroom in Norristown, Pennsylvania as an acquitted man. Even though a flagman by the name of James Benner swore under oath that he had put a flag up signalling for the express train to stop, no one was punished for the train wreck. The jury at Groves' trial found that under the evidence that had been submitted the trains had been kept apart with ample town to stop until both trains had reached Souderton, which was a few miles north of the wreck at Hatfield. When the trains reached Souderton, there was not enough time for William Groves to possibly notify either train of the eminent wreck when he recieved the times of the trains at his office. He was found not guilty and the costs of the court were placed upon Montgomery county.
Ultimately the ones who were punished were the victims. Fourteen people lost their lives that day, and three others apparently died from their injuries. The family of Godfried and Mamie Kahlen, father and young daughter who were on the milk train at the time of the accident, had to bury them both. The Ehret brothers, William and Ira, were on their way to the beach but ended up in a morgue instead. Annie Sherry was buried in her wedding gown, as she was to be married shortly after her excursion to the beach and would never see that day. William C. Blackburn, the proprietor of the Ambler Inn in Ambler, Pennsylvania and a prominent businessman in the area, was intending to come home after being in Telford on business for a few days. He was survived by his widow and one son, as well as his sister.
My great-great-grandfather, Florian Waldspurger, a farmer from Tylersport with a wife and four children dependent on him, would be buried in Saint Stanislaus cemetery in Landale, just a few miles from the crash. He had on him money intended to be used towards the purchase of the farm he was renting, as well as the paperwork for the sale of a business he used to own in Philadelphia. All of that would disappear at the hands of thieves,
Florian's eldest daughter, Mary, would later write a poem:
THE HATFIELD DISASTER
A party of both young and old were on their pleasant trip,
To enjoy a Happy Holiday by the sea was their intent.
From Allentown and Bethlehem bound for the Atlantic shore,
They have left loved ones at their homes who will never
See them anymore.
For without a moment's warning on that train, a grim of death appeared
And almost a score of lives were lost.
From that fatal train endeared a scream, a crash, an awful cry,
Then a rushing to the spot The Reading Road has again
Received another awful plot.
As I gazed upon heart-bleeding scenes on that fatal morning,
We rushed to help the living ones out in most souls were torn.
A wife embraced her husband dear from underneath the train
And back to help to save the remained,
She went once more again.
My father present underneath the wreck, a daughter cried.
The debris could not be removed; she stood by till he died.
Great praise is due to Hatfield town, for their great and noble deed.
With the help of good physicians, they saved many from the grave.
The scene is one I'll never forget as long as I may live.
To return those loved ones to their friends all early power to give.
The mothers gazing on their sons, the husbands on their wives;
Can Monopoly with all its power pay those who lost their lives?
Bean Post Office
Bucks County, Pa.
Stevens, Lawrence G. The Hatfield Horror: The Story of the Great Hatfield Train Wreck of 1900. Hatfield Museum and History Society: Hatfield, 2011. (can be purchased through the Hatfield Museum and History Society's website)
Newspaper clippings from the time period transcribed at these sites:
As well as various interviews with the grandchildren of Florian Waldspurger