Chalfant: Who was to blame in fatal wreck? Railroad

September 14, 2010

The coroner’s jury convened to determine fault in the deaths of 27 people in the crash of an eastbound passenger train and a westbound freight train near Warrensburg on Oct. 10, 1904, determined that engineer J.D. Horton and conductor J.W. Preston were partially responsible for the accident.

The two men were arraigned on charges of manslaughter and held on $500 bond each. Their trial and the press commentary that followed revealed not only the nature of the railroads’ operation but also public opinion toward the railroads.

Both men had admitted in their testimony at the coroner’s jury that they might have been asleep, though Horton said he was unaware that he had been sleeping. Horton also testified that he was “pumped full of morphine to enable him to go out on that fatal run.” While the use of morphine was at that time legal, it was considered dangerous.

The press commented on the testimony and the coroner’s jury findings, directing questions at Missouri Pacific management. The Warrensburg Journal Democrat printed an editorial that raised the issue of why the men were asleep, wondering whether they were asleep “without cause” or whether they were asleep because “they had been overworked until nature could no longer resist.”

The Journal Democrat insisted the state pass laws governing how many hours a trainman could work without a period of rest. The Star vociferously condemned the “greed of corporations which sacrifice innocent lives to pay dividends on inflated stock.”

The Kansas City Star raised similar questions, but added an additional charge against the railroad. Its editorial noted the Missouri Pacific’s “parsimonious administration” was too cheap to spend the money necessary to create a “block system” that would prevent such accidents or to build a double track so trains running in opposite directions could run on separate tracks.

The Star made further charges against the railroad, claiming it was trying to save money at the price of safety. Passenger cars were poorly made, so “flimsy (that they) can be knocked into smithereens in a wreck.” Railroads could manufacture sturdier cars, as the Pullman Company did; however, passengers did not want to pay $2 more per ticket that safer cars would cost, and railroad investors did not want their potential dividends spent on improvements to the cars.  So cars remained unsafe.

The Star raised another issue of railroad “commercialism.” Passenger trains generally placed the baggage car between the engine and the first passenger car to absorb the damage in case of a collision. The wrecked train, an extra added at Pleasant Hill because the original train was overly full, ran without a baggage car.

The trial was delayed as defense attorneys filed for a change of venue, declaring that an impartial jury could not be found in Johnson County. The court denied this request. New information was introduced against Horton and Preston, and their attorneys again filed for a change of venue. The court approved, and the trial was moved to Harrisonville, in Cass County.

The trial finally took place in January 1906. Prosecuting Attorney Ewing Cockrell of Johnson County and Prosecuting Attorney D.C. Barnett represented the state. The Missouri Pacific Railroad hired what historian Lyndon Irwin called “an extremely strong defense team,” choosing lawyers who had also been judges — Judge Longan of Pettis County, Judge C.D. Curran of Cooper County and Judge W.L. Jarrott of Johnson County.

There seemed little doubt as to the men’s responsibility, but the jury found that the men, while probably asleep, had not been negligent. Nor had they disobeyed orders when they set the train back into motion before four passenger trains had passed.

Since Horton and Preston were not guilty, and the accident had caused the deaths of 29 people, two having died of their injuries since the initial arraignment, someone else had to be at fault. The newspapers directed blame at the railroad itself. The charges of company greed and lack or state or federal safety regulations surfaced again.

That the railroad had begun to pay damages to the families of the dead and injured within two weeks of the wreck seems to indicate at least some sense of culpability. As the Star said, “Those competent to judge were of the opinion that the wreck could cost the company not less than one-half million dollars.”

Next week’s column discusses the settlements the railroad made to the passengers and their families.