The railroad companies of the 19th and early 20th centuries were notorious for the manner in which they settled claims for injuries or deaths caused by railroad company negligence.
The railroad representative might appear while the injury victim was still in a great deal of pain or while the family’s grief was fresh. While the victims were not fully aware of the implications of a settlement, the representative might pressure the victim or family to take a small settlement immediately rather than work through the court system where the amount of damages assessed against the railroad might be substantially higher.
Should the case actually be filed, railroad attorneys might pressure the victims to accept a smaller settlement than asked for with the rationale that acceptance of the settlement would save time and be a sure thing, rather than be left to the discretion of the court. Should the case actually come to trial, railroad attorneys presented defenses that attempted to diminish the railroad’s responsibility and thus the amount of settlement.
All these practices were apparent in the months following the explosion at the MK&T Railroad Depot in Windsor on Sept. 15, 1908.
Although the railroad claimed it never acknowledged Freight Conductor Herschburger was guilty of igniting the match that caused cans of powder to explode, a coroner’s jury determined that he was responsible. The explosion ultimately killed 17 people, some of whom lingered in agony at the Katy Hospital in Sedalia for days before their deaths. The last victim to die was Walter Harvey, who died in December 1908.
Reports from the Windsor Review reprinted in the Sedalia Democrat note some of the settlements. On Oct. 9, 1908, the press reported the claim of John Walker, a 28-year-old black hotel porter who was badly burned and died Sept. 15, the day of the explosion. His family received $500. That same day, the newspapers reported several other claims had been settled, but they had been unable to find the amounts of the settlements or the names of those involved.
The widow of one of the victims, Mrs. Pansy Hall, filed suit against the railroads in circuit court in January 1909. Her husband, James Hall, a 70-year-old transfer driver and one of Windsor’s beloved, long-time residents, had driven a stagecoach between Sedalia and Windsor in the days before the railroad and with his sons had established a transfer company after the railroad arrived in Windsor. He had been injured in the explosion and died at the Katy Hospital in Sedalia the next day. Mrs. Hall was represented by C.C. Kelly, a Sedalia attorney.
In March 1909, the Democrat reported Mrs. Hall had settled for $2,200, considerably less than she had requested. At that time, it was the largest settlement given to the family of any victim.
Kelly also represented Mrs. Eva Harvey, the widow of William Harvey, who died at the Katy Hospital in December 1908. Mrs. Harvey, who filed suit in June 1909, also asked for $10,000 in damages. In the days following the accident, the press didn’t identify Harvey as one of the injured, but the report of her lawsuit indicates his death was a result of the explosion. The result of the suit is not known at this time.
Next week’s column will, I hope, be able to report on the results of Mrs. Harvey’s suit.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.