When I was younger, I spent a year working for a big box retail chain.
One day, I noticed that one of my fellow employees (we’ll call her Mary) wasn’t feeling well. She was elderly, and I went over to see how she was doing.
I ended up sitting with her for an hour or two, a little afraid to leave her alone. Management had been contacted, but they hadn’t shown up yet. I thought that she might have a heart attack or a stroke or something, and I wanted to make sure that she had someone with her if she did.
Mary was very appreciative, and, as the time passed, she began to talk a little about herself.
One subject ran into another, and before long she was telling me about her experiences during World War II.
Mary said that she had been one member of a vast number of women that had gone to work during that time to help support the war effort. She worked on an assembly line at a munitions factory, making bullets. Even decades later, Mary still remembered the order that the specialized rounds were manufactured in.
It was a glimpse into an aspect of that time that I didn’t know much about. Sure, I had read about military strategy, battle accounts, and even Rosie the Riveter doing her part on the home front. But reading books and watching documentaries are different. Mary had actually lived it.
In researching larger stories, I frequently come across smaller stories that are no less interesting. The problem is that there just isn’t much to them. They’re like snapshots into someone’s life, like the time Mary spent on the assembly line during the war.
Frequently, there isn’t much insight into the people in the stories. They don’t have any back story, and they aren’t ever mentioned anywhere else again. They’re more like characters in a TV show – they’re a side character in one episode and they disappear again.
But how many people are like that in our own lives? How many people do we walk past in the grocery store or see in the movie theatre? They all have stories, but you’re probably never going to know about them. They’re just “Movie Attendant #1,” or “Grocery Store Girl.” Their faces surface briefly in our lives, and then fade back into the mists of time.
However, I don’t want these stories to go to waste. They’re still great tales that deserve to be told.
This week, I present to you three such stories chosen from my catalog. By themselves, they’re not a whole meal, but when combined can satisfy your cravings quite nicely.
So please, sit back, relax, and prepare to sample my first volume of table scraps.
“And you wanted to be a poet. So now you face death – and you are afraid of death. But you have been afraid of hunger, and you have starved. You have been afraid of cold, and of death. But you shall die. Inadequate fool! You wanted to be a genius. A poet, forsooth! A lap dog to the Muses. Bah! Curtain!”
Seventeen-year old Lily Olsen stood on the street car, thinking of the poem that she had written to express how she felt.
She was a good poet, and had even won an award for it. She must be good, because how many seventeen-year-olds could boast that they were an award-winning poet? For her, it was only natural for her to channel her despair and desperation through a pen and allow it flow out onto paper.
Lily was only vaguely aware of her surroundings as she stood, lost in her own thoughts.
It was New Year’s Day of 1926, and Chicago street cars were definitely not what they had been. But for someone like Lily with next to no money, they were readily available and, for a shiny nickel she could ride nearly anywhere in the city.
Street cars had been a staple of Chicago transportation since the mid-1800’s. The city had grown continuously since then, spreading further out and boasting an increasingly larger population with each passing decade. It became more and more important to find a way to move larger groups of people from place to place within the confines of the city.
Street cars filled the need.
The first ones were drawn by horses, large draft animals that pulled the cars full of people down the streets and avenues through the power of their heavily muscled frames. These were later replaced by electric cars.
None of that really mattered to Lily. She looked out at the people going about their everyday business on the busy Chicago streets. They didn’t care. They didn’t even know she existed. She was just another orphan girl blending into the anonymous crowd.
After her parents had died in Minneapolis, there was nothing left for her in Minnesota, so she decided to make a fresh start in Chicago.
Lily took a job as a filing clerk. Like so many people, she probably never planned on making it a career. It was only going to be a temporary thing until she made her big splash in the literary world. Also like so many others, her big break never came.
She managed to get a few of her poems published in a local poetry magazine, but she certainly wasn’t opening any doors or, more importantly, managing to keep food in her belly. When she had stepped on the street car that day, Lily only had about 13 cents to her name.
Lily was tired of it all. She took out the little vial of poison from her pocket and pulled out the stopper. If she was going to die alone and poor, it was better to just get it over with. Thinking of the poem again, Lily closed her eyes and slowly exhaled.
Before she could lose her nerve, Lily lifted the vial to her lips, tipped her head back, and began to drink.
It began to work almost instantly. She felt the liquid burn her mouth and throat as she swallowed. It hurt, but she knew it was temporary, and that very soon she’d never hurt ever again.
Lily’s vision began to blur as she felt her legs first weaken and then buckle completely under her own weight. By the time she hit the floor, it felt like it was happening to someone else. Faintly, she noticed that several people had rushed to her side to help before everything went dark.
Lily’s fellow passengers tried their best to render what help they could. The conductor stopped the car and someone got the attention of a traffic cop working nearby. The policeman ran in and found the girl unconscious on the floor. The passengers told him what had happened.
The car was stopped, and a nearby traffic cop heard the commotion. He rushed inside and was told what had happened. Thinking quickly, he grabbed the young girl and rushed her to Iroquois Memorial Hospital.
Her life was saved, and Lily had been granted what she had probably wanted all along – a second chance.
Creston, Iowa, the county seat of Union County in Southwest Iowa, could boast that upwards of fifty trains passed through it every single day. It was a major railroading center, and as such, deserved to have an equally grandiose station to reflect that.
In 1899, a large two-story station was constructed right by the railroad yard. It was made of light-yellow colored brick, punctuated by large arching windows. Railroad offices were housed on the second story, while the first floor was focused around a green-tiled waiting room where passengers could buy a ticket, grab something to eat at the lunch counter, or simply wait comfortably until their train arrived outside.
Some passengers could be trouble, and railyards everywhere invited unwanted – and unpaying – passengers who were more than happy to stow away in a boxcar. To combat this, railroad companies would hire private detectives to police the property.
J.W. Stanbridge was one such detective at Creston, and perhaps the best known.
On a cold January night in 1909, Stanbridge was approached by a local farmer named Charles Rowe. Earlier that day, the two men had a minor argument over something, but everything had been resolved, at least for Stanbridge.
Rowe, however, was absolutely convinced that Stanbridge had pulled a gun on him, and that just would not stand. Now, much later, Rowe was at the station to confront Stanbridge about it. The detective vehemently denied the accusation, but Rowe insisted.
The two began to argue, and Rowe accused the detective of being everything but a fine, upstanding citizen. Now it was Stanbridge’s turn to take exception. Temper flaring, the detective lunged at Rowe, grabbing him by the throat, trying to squeeze the life out of the angry farmer.
Rowe tried to break free, but couldn’t. Thinking quickly, he took out his pocket knife, the only weapon available to him. Putting the blade up to the thick overcoat material that covered Stanbridge’s neck, Rowe began to cut. The knife was sharp and went through the coat and deep into the detective’s neck.
Letting Rowe go, Standbridge put his hands to his own throat, trying to stem the flow of blood. He was taken to a local hospital, where he recovered from his wounds. Doctors said that if it hadn’t of been for his coat, then the wound would have probably been fatal.
Rowe was taken in custody and indicted for attempted murder.
In 1927, just as they are today, trains were an essential method of transporting large amounts of goods all over the United States. Long chains of boxcars stuffed with cargo were pulled by locomotive engines from place to place around the clock in a seemingly endless migration.
That October, B.E. Mathews, a train conductor, and two workers named Rube Halverson and William Kahle were all hard at work loading cattle into a rail car in Phillip, South Dakota.
Wherever you go, there’s always someone willing to tell you how to do something. Sometimes the advice is welcome, others not so much. That day, it was definitely unwelcome.
While they worked, Halverson took exception to the way Kahle was doing his work and began to complain about it. Mathews got involved shortly thereafter. The frustration began to rise inside Kahle, and soon, like a balloon swollen with too much water, his temper burst.
Kahle’s rage seemed to know no bounds as he produced a knife and attacked the others.
He slashed the conductor in the mouth, bright red blood blossoming from the thin line made by the knife. Kahle swung again, cutting across Mathews chest. The conductor, who had been caught by surprise with these first two blows, quickly regained his senses and began to run. Halverson wasn’t so fortunate.
Kahle swung the knife low and upward into Halverson’s groin. Yanking it free, he viciously stabbed his victim twice more in the back. Halverson fell to the ground like a stone. Satisfied that he had taken care of one man, Kahle began to run after Mathews.
He caught up with the conductor just as Mathews was climbing up and into the engine room at the front of the train. His upper body was inside, but his legs were still exposed. Kahle began to slash at them madly, cutting deep over and over again.
By this time, other workers came over and stopped Kahle, restraining him. Mathews and Halverson, seriously injured, were taken to receive surgery at a hospital in nearby Pierre, while Kahle was arrested and taken to the jail.
While things were uncertain at first, both Mathews and Halverson survived, while Kahle awaited trial.
History is, in essence, a collection of stories. What’s more is that everyone has one.
It’s easy to think about these things as we watch our favorite documentaries or read about the historical events that we are most fascinated by.
In the case of the larger events, like World War II, certain individuals stand out and are discussed, but more frequently whole, nameless throngs of people are glossed over. Each and every one of those faces had a name and a life, and at that moment in time were caught in up in something bigger than they ever expected to part of.
What does it matter that someone got into a fight at a train station or railyard, or tried to commit suicide on a street car? Think back on your own life.
Remember that time when everyone got drunk at a party, then came back home and ordered pizza? It’s a little fuzzy because while you were waiting, you all passed out. Someone else had to come in and wake you all up so that the poor delivery man could get paid.
Or how about when you fell out of the tree in Grandma’s back yard and broke your arm? In the scheme of these things, neither of these stories would seem to matter much. However, they were a part of your life, even if you don’t think about them very often. They are a single stitch in the warp and weft of the fabric that is your life.
I hope that you don’t see these table scraps that I’ve given you today as something less than you deserve. Rather, I hope that you see each story as a small, delicious bite of history meant to be appreciated and savored.
You have been listening to John Brassard Jr, the Kitchen Table Historian.
I thank you all for coming out this week, and I sincerely hope that you’ll make your way back next time to hear another strange tale that your grandma didn’t want you to hear.
This podcast was written and performed by yours truly, with the title music performed by Bo Moonlight, and additional music provided by Audioblocks.
Until next time, remember that no matter how calm things seem in the Midwest, there’s always someone out there making things just a little weirder.
Girl Poet Ends Old Year by Taking Poison. Chicago Tribune, 1/1/1926
Pneumonia Threatens Girl Poet Taking Poison. The Des Moines Register, 1/4/1926
Poetess-Waif’s Wish for Death May be Granted. Sioux City Journal, 1/4/1926
Lily Olsen, Girl Poet, Is Arrested in New York City. Star Tribune, 12/1/1926
Saved By His Overcoat. Sioux City Journal, 1/6/1909
Two Railway Men Stabbed. Sioux City Journal, 10/8/1927
Railroad Men Hurt in Fight. The Daily Argus-Leader, 10/8/1927
Railroad Yards At Philip Scene of Knife Affray. Rapid City Journal, 10/8/1927