I’ve always been fascinated by the little stories, the ones that you never hear about in the history books.
While volumes have been written about the major people and big events of the world, not so much has been set down about the stories from the little people just out living their lives.
So, if they’re so interesting, then why isn’t there more written about them, you may ask. The sad fact is that there just wasn’t much written down or said about them. They have vanished back into the mists of time, walking like ghosts among our surviving written records.
We catch glimpses, like shadows, in the form of a stray name or date. If you’re lucky, major events in their lives show up randomly in a few places, like islands rising from the sea during a low tide. And then, in an instant, they’re gone, never to be mentioned again.
These stories fascinate me. I love to talk about them, but there just isn’t enough to make a whole episode about.
Still, I collect them as I come across them in my research. And, when I get enough, I like to share them with you. So, without any further, let’s get to the stories.
Anyone can have a bad day. Sometimes, a few someone’s can have a very bad day. This was very much the case at the Zimmerman Steel Company in the summer of 1920.
It was a typical July day along the river. The sun shone brightly over the beautiful Mississippi river valley between LeClaire, Iowa, and nearby Bettendorf. The water flowed lazily along, insects buzzing nosily along the banks.
Inside the Zimmerman Steel Company, the air was warm and stuffy. The sounds of machinery filled the area, punctuated by the yells of foreman shouting to be heard above the noise, giving orders, praise, and criticism in equal measure.
36-year-old LeRoy Stowell didn’t mind it, though. He was used to the sights and sounds of an industrial floor. As a matter of fact, he was grateful to be part of it.
When he had been laid off from his last job at the Rock Island Arsenal, LeRoy was instantly left without a paycheck. There was no unemployment, no kind of federal or state aid to draw from. The only kind of money he’d see was what was already in his wallet.
LeRoy had a wife and a small daughter to support at home, though. He wasn’t about to just go home and give up. Almost immediately he had gone out to find a new job. Luckily for him, Zimmerman had been hiring people with his set of skills.
That was a month ago, and Leroy had settled comfortably into his new job.
He focused on his work, carefully guiding the piece in his hand around the emory wheel, grinding away any rough spots or sharp edges.
When factory foreman and company officials talked to them later, the workers around Leroy that day said that everything had happened so fast that they barely had time to turn their heads, let alone intervene. They had heard Leroy scream, short and sharp, loud enough to be heard above the din of their own machinery.
Next thing they knew, Leroy was lying on the floor, blood streaming from a horrible gash in his head. They ran over to him, but it was already too late. Leroy Stowell was dead.
It was later determined that, as Leroy had been working, the Emory wheel had broken. A large piece had snapped off and went flying into his stomach, doubling him over with the force of the impact. As he lurched forward, his head went into the jagged remnants of the wheel attached to the still-moving machine, killing him.
About two hours later, as the company investigated Stowell’s death, a core-drying oven in a different part of the facility exploded without warning.
Henry Elkan, who had been standing nearby, was taken to the hospital and treated for what turned out to be a minor headwound caused by a piece of flying metal from the oven. Another man, Dan O’Connor, was treated for a badly cut and burned forearm.
That was too much for the officials at Zimmerman. They decided to shut down the factory until both of these incidents could be properly investigated. Ultimately, they concluded that both of these events, while highly unusual, were simply “unavoidable.” The factory resumed normal operations shortly thereafter.
Mary Watson glided through the halls of her boarding house, talking comfortably with the two young university students who had decided to room with her.
Since her Arthur had passed, Mary had to look after herself. In 1923, employment opportunities were limited for women in general, especially women her age. Running a boarding house gave Mary a much-needed income while allowing her a certain amount of freedom.
She took care of her own cooking and cleaning, and because it was her own home, she didn’t have to pay rent. All in all, things could have been much worse.
As they passed the bathroom, Mary thought she heard something strange. It sounded like something gurgling. With an inward groan, Mary was reminded of one of the downsides of being your own manager – you had to manage all the repairs and upkeep yourself.
Turning her attention back to her new boarders, she guided them back to the front door and bade them farewell. With them taken care of, Mary started walking back to the bathroom. She wondered about what could make that kind of sound.
A broken pipe? A clogged drain? If she didn’t know any better, she would have said that it sounded almost like someone was choking.
And then it hit her.
Mary’s nephew, a 21-year-old railroad worker named Glenn Hornbeck, was one of her boarders. He had mentioned going to take a bath in the communal bathroom earlier that day. My God, what if it was him?
Quickening her pace, Mary came to the bathroom door, calling Glenn’s name. Listening intently, all she heard was the same groaning, gurgling sound in reply. She tried the door; locked. She shouted again, listening. The only sound was the same gagging, strangling sound.
Someone in that bathroom needed her help, and nothing was going to keep them from Mary Watson, locked door or no locked door.
Steeling herself, she grabbed the knob and threw herself against the door. The old wood protested, but held fast. Mary hit it again, harder this time. She heard something give, something in the frame crack and split.
With one last heave, Mary threw everything she had into the bathroom door. It flew open, banging against the wall.
There on the floor was her nephew, naked and gagging. She took a few steps toward him, reaching down and grabbing him firmly under the arms.
As she did, Mary caught a faint whiff of rotten eggs. Gas – there must be a gas leak in the bathroom! With a heave, Mary dragged Glenn out into the hallway.
One of the students staying at the house ran out to see what all the commotion was. Seeing Glenn’s condition, he ran straight to the nearby university clinic to get a doctor. One of the physicians there, E.F. Schnieder, ran back with the student and immediately began treating Glenn.
An ambulance was called and Glenn was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, where his condition slowly improved.
When he gained consciousness, he explained that he had started to feel the effects of the gas while in the bathtub. Knowing he had to get out of the room, Glenn pushed himself out of the tub, but fell before he was able to get to the door.
Thanks to the efforts of his Aunt Mary, Glenn survived and went on to make a full recovery.
In 1907, trains crisscrossed the United States, stretching through plains, mountains and deserts, carrying both passengers and cargo to destinations both near and far. They were by far the fastest and most efficient method of overland travel during that era.
Every day, black steam locomotives thundered past the small town of Saunders, Wisconsin, plumes of smoke billowing out behind them. The shrill whistles and the scraping of train wheels along the steel rails all became part of the background noise of their world.
Not surprisingly, no one amongst the large crowd assembled near the tracks really paid any attention to the train about to come through town on that warm June day. They didn’t notice the man walking along the tracks, either. Well, at least at first, they didn’t.
His name was William Waite, a 45-year-old woodsman whose weathered face and calloused hands gave silent testimony to a life spent working outdoors.
A few people in the crowd took casual notice of him as he walked toward the oncoming train. As they watched, Waite got down on his knees and leaned forward until his neck lay across the rail. Their gasps of surprise and alarm made others turn their head and notice, too.
Some of them began to shout as he reached up and grabbed the track with his strong hands, bracing himself. Even for the few members of the crowd who had the presence of mind to start moving to grab Waite, it was already too late.
The train hit Waite with full-force, neatly severing the man’s head. Some people began to scream, drowned out by the even louder scream of the train screeching to a halt as the engineer applied the brake.
Ultimately the engineer was found innocent of any wrongdoing in the event.
As for William Waite, he left no suicide explaining his actions, nor did he tell anyone he knew about why he chose to take his own life. His reasons went with him to the grave, leaving the rest of the world none the wiser.
Millions of lives, millions of stories.
These are just a few. These are short tales that have come floating through to us through the depths of time, hidden gems that have been long-forgotten.
I hope that you have enjoyed these stories presented to you today. May they remind you of the triumphs and tragedies of the little guy in the background, just trying to make their way through life.
Leroy Sowell is Instantly Killed Today. The Daily Democrat and Leader, 1920
Leroy Stowell. www.findagrave.com
Woman Saves Nephew from Death by Gas. The Capital Times, 12/28/1923 p. 2
Crowd Sees Suicide. The Watertown News, 7/7/1907 p. 6