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The Angola HorrorThe 1867 Train Wreck That Shocked the Nation and Transformed American Railroads$

Charity Vogel

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449086

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449086.001.0001

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(p.147) Chapter 12 Reports
The Angola Horror

Charity Vogel

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the first reports of the New York Express disaster at Angola that were carried by different newspapers on December 19 and 20, 1867. Men and women learned about the facts of the accident that had happened the previous afternoon from the morning dailies. Newspaper headlines trumpeted the derailment with exclamations and adjectives. News accounts were filled with descriptions of the scenes in the Big Sister Creek bridge, focusing on the inferno in the last car, the search for survivors, and the efforts of Angolan villagers to aid the injured. Journalists played a leading role in painting the disaster as the Angola Horror. This chapter considers the inaccuracies in the news reports about the Angola wreck as well as the challenges faced by Buffalo's daily newspapers in describing its aftermath.

Keywords:   newspapers, New York Express, Angola, derailment, Big Sister Creek bridge, news, journalists, Angola Horror, news reports, Buffalo

Thursday, December 19–Friday, December 20, 1867

EARLY THURSDAY MORNING, citizens in Buffalo and Cleveland left their homes to find sullen skies overhead, snow-dusted streets beneath their feet, and early-edition newspapers crammed with columns of dense black type: the first reports of the railroad disaster at Angola.

Men and women snatched up copies of the morning dailies to learn the facts of the accident that had happened the previous afternoon. Newspapers trumpeted the wreck of the New York Express in block headlines studded with exclamations and adjectives: “Appalling Disaster on the Buffalo & Erie Railway!” read one example. “Two Passenger Cars Thrown Down an Embankment Thirty Feet High! Twenty Three Burned to Death! Sickening and Heart-Rending Scenes and Incidents!”1 News accounts of the crash brimmed with descriptions of the scenes in Big Sister Creek, dwelling on the inferno in the last car, the hunt for survivors, and the efforts of Angolans to aid the injured. The news cast an immediate pall over residents of the two cities and places in between that had been touched by the route of the express—or that had sent men and women to board its cars as passengers. “It seemed as though all felt it sinful to smile,” one newspaper observed, of the demeanor of the public.2 As each new edition thumped onto the streets, residents in these communities scooped up the pages “with avidity,” seeking to learn every detail of the tragedy, down to the smallest anecdote. “People developed a morbid curiosity to hear the most minute particulars and sickening details,” one newspaper noted.3 And (p.148) then, as if by way of explanation, added this: “The curiosity of man follows the scent of blood like a hound.”4

It wasn’t just idle curiosity. People demanded to know who had been killed and who rescued because that was what mattered most to them in reading such accounts. Already, long lists of victims’ names—sorted into categories of dead, wounded, and missing—had been published alongside the news reports. These lists were not entirely accurate, but they gave readers something to hold on to. Newspaper editors knew enough by 1867 to know what the public wanted in the face of catastrophe, and that was the ability to quickly locate the name of a spouse, relative, or friend in a mortality list. This had been a lesson of the recent war, which had changed much about the gathering and dissemination of news. These tragedy-hardened editors often printed these lists on the front pages of their newspapers, or on the main news page inside the paper, and the lists were repeated from edition to edition. The lists allowed readers to scan the papers at speed for the names of those they knew, before turning to a full perusal of stories about the railroad wreck. Laura Rockefeller was undoubtedly among those who skimmed the mortality lists that Thursday morning—just to be sure.

Overnight, Angola had become “the Horror,” and that was the work of the period’s journalists as well. A Buffalo newspaper had been the first to give the derailment that title. In an edition put onto city streets the afternoon after the disaster, the Buffalo Post printed as a front-page headline the words “Lake Shore Horror!” in inch-high block letters; below the headline ran a story about the wreck of the express.5 (The Cleveland Herald came close to this mark, with the simple word “Horrible” as its headline for Angola coverage, but missed in its choice of an adjective the pithy concreteness of the Post’s noun—which resonated.) The label Horror, succinct and precise, stuck. It also fit into a larger pattern in the century, in which serious railroad wrecks were given dramatic titles such as “Disaster,” “Slaughter,” “Holocaust,” and the like. By the following week, newsmen as far away as Chicago would be using the term to describe what had happened at Angola—that city’s Tribune titled its front-page coverage “The Railroad Horror.”6 The village of Angola had become overnight a place that everybody knew—or felt they did. “The obscure village of Angola has suddenly become famous,” one newspaper stated. “The horrible disaster which occurred… on the Buffalo & Erie Railway, near that place, is the theme of universal comment, and the name of Angola is, and will forever be, associated with the most fearful railway slaughter on record.”7

Yet death tolls, as printed in these first accounts, were hardly accurate. In some cases, newspaper correspondents—who filtered into Angola and Buffalo over the next two days from locations in New York State and points to the east (p.149) and west—minced no words in giving assessments of the statuses of various victims. These journalists were not always correct in their estimations—some were careless; others tried to report accurately but found it difficult amid such chaotic conditions—and the result was confusion. In more than a few places, the conditions of injured but living victims were reported to be so bad they could not possibly recover. Portentous descriptors were attached to the conditions of other passengers: Dangerously. Fatally. Seriously. Nobody defined what these terms meant for the wounded, as reported in the pages of the news publications—in the formative stage at which journalism stood in 1867, no guidelines or rules of professionalism had been set down to govern the actions of reporters and editors, and associations that promoted ethics and accuracy in reporting were still in the future. Anna Chadeayne, the thirteen-year-old with the head wound, was widely reported to be without hope of survival; she lived. Some newspapers reported that her mother, Mary, died in Angola the day after the wreck; she, too, recovered from her injuries. In one paper, a single terse word—“mortally”—was used to describe the injuries to James and Mary Lang, the children of Christiana Gates Lang; the children were actually less hurt than their mother, and both survived.8 Mary Lang, ten years old, would be well enough to help nurse her mother back to health in the weeks after the wreck, in Angola and then Vermont. In later generations of the Lang family, a bit of treasured family lore would tell of Mary’s reward for her efforts to help her mother recover: a doll.9

Haste in putting out news stories, often for multiple daily editions and with little in the way of copyediting or proofreading, led to other inaccuracies in the newspapers that covered the Angola wreck. One of them was the mislabeling of people who had been aboard the train. One family group, comprising a father, mother, and child, was discovered fused together among the burned bodies. Upon the victims’ remains were tokens of Roman Catholicism—a crucifix and a “talisman” (possibly a medal of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine affirmed by the Catholic Church in 1854 and popular as a symbol of devotion among the faithful following the Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858)—as well as a blue veil, thimble, and delicate woman’s handkerchief reportedly embroidered with the words “Mary Freeman.”10 Journalists covering the disaster drew conclusions and widely reported the group as the “Freeman family,” possibly of Dunkirk, listing them as dead in casualty lists that were sent out over the telegraph to places all over the country.

It took a week for news gatherers to ferret out the truth. The “Freemans” were actually the Irish American O’Donnell family, including Patrick O’Donnell, a worker of “great sobriety and industry” at the Lake Superior Iron Docks in Cleveland, his wife, Bridget, and their son John.11 The O’Donnells had been traveling to visit friends for Christmas and had nothing to do with (p.150) anybody named Freeman. The embroidered handkerchief, if it existed at all, must have blown onto the body of Bridget O’Donnell in the train’s tumble into the creek—perhaps from the lap of a passenger named Clarissa Freeman, a young lady from Niagara County who was aboard the cars. Newspapers covering the Angola disaster, like those covering other major events of the period, reported first, made corrections later, and didn’t apologize for the fact.

Even so, confusion over the conditions and identities of the victims was nothing compared to that displayed over another aspect of the tragedy: the number of dead. Tallies reported by journalists and published in news outlets varied widely in the first forty-eight hours after the wreck, and continued to fluctuate as the week wore on. Some papers reported the death toll at forty; others said fifty. The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser set the dead at forty and the wounded at fifty, for a complete casualty list of ninety.12 The New York Times wrote that the total of killed alone must number sixty, and the Buffalo Post put the death list at more than that number.13 Another paper reported confidently that the dead numbered no fewer than eighty-one.14 The estimates varied so widely that newspapers began to argue with one another, in print, about whose counts were the most accurate—showing their work with columns of mathematical calculations.

After the New York Tribune published—as the view of one “who knows whereof he speaks”—the views of a concerned Pittsburgh resident claiming that the dead could not possibly have been fewer than forty from the end car and eighteen from the second car, for a total of fifty-eight, some Buffalo papers responded with scathing criticism.15 One editorial on the subject in the Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic argued that the burning of the bodies, while terrible, had not so completely obliterated the corpses that the rough number of human forms could not be counted. The paper’s editorial ran this way:

All the dead were brought to this city. There were twenty-three un-charred and twenty-one charred bodies, making forty-four in all the actual number of victims, as published in the Courier two days after the casualty. It will recommend itself to the common sense of every one, that the timber of a car could not furnish fuel enough to burn a skull or the trunk of a body beyond recognition as such. These portions of the human frame must and did so far retain their semblance that they could each be readily assigned to an individual. Who was the vital owner of their sad testimony of a departed life, will probably never be known in regard to the remains of eighteen persons. But the number of those who perished is certainly fixed at forty-four, despite the arithmetic and knowledge of the Tribune correspondent.16

(p.151) Two days later, the same newspaper revised its tally yet again. And the debate in print dragged on.

As Buffalo’s seven daily newspapers cranked out stories for every new edition, the task of describing the aftermath of the wreck became taxing, even for the city’s most experienced newspaper types. Buffalo newsmen were, in general, a hardy lot. These were men who had experienced the war; they had covered the Erie Canal and the crime and vice that the canal district had inflicted on the city. Now some of these journalists stayed in Angola to update the status of victims; others haunted the places where the burned bodies were kept, seeking to be on hand in the event that a family member or friend made a successful identification of a body. Still others shadowed the coroner, following his every move so as not to miss any development in the investigation and labeling of the corpses. These men were used to scenes that were rough, even disturbing, but they found themselves stretched to the limit by the Horror. Each news-gathering job related to the wreck seemed worse than the last. “No reporter’s pen has been found adequate to a description of the event,” one newspaper stated. “The bare facts of the disaster, the harrowing incidents, the fearful scenes from which spectators have recoiled in mingled terror and disgust—have all been so painfully real, so simply horrible, that the most sober and accurate statements unrelieved by a single bit of imagination have proved the best and most effective way of telling the story.”17

Among these journalists was John Harrison Mills, an ambitious young man from Buffalo. Mills, who nursed dreams of becoming a professional artist and newspaper journalist, would within two years be working under Samuel Langhorne Clemens at the Buffalo Express. Now, seizing his chance to cover a disaster with national significance unfolding in front of him, Mills filled notebooks with his observations, including drawings and reporting on the scenes related to the wreck. One of his illustrations, “Scene at the Soldiers’ Rest, Buffalo, N.Y.,” showed the inside of the makeshift morgue for the Angola dead, with burned corpses piled on the tables, and plain wooden coffins with openings for the victims’ faces to be glimpsed. Mills’s haunting image would appear on the front page of a widely circulated national news magazine, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and four more of his illustrations of the scenes of the wreck’s aftermath would be published in that magazine. For Mills, and many other young reporters of his generation, a disaster on the scale of the Angola wreck was an exciting opportunity to draw eyes and attention to their work—in a crowded and sensationalistic field, in which it could often be difficult to make a name for oneself or stand out from the crowd. (Most newspaper stories in the late 1860s, as well as editorials, were not bylined, and illustrations sometimes had credit lines but other times did not.) Mills’s (p.152) pictures would become an important visual record of the train wreck, which was not photographed by any of the news reporters at the scene.

By 1867, Mills, a Civil War veteran who had been seriously wounded at the second battle of Bull Run and who had written a book about his regiment’s experiences, had already won some degree of fame for a sculpture bust he had made of Abraham Lincoln—in part based on studies he had made of the slain president’s body while standing honor guard over Lincoln’s casket when the president was laid out for public viewing in Buffalo in 1865.18 Mills may now have reflected on his wartime experiences while taking in the scenes of the train wreck. Later in life, he would write a prize-winning poem about the battle of Gettysburg that would end on a note not of battlefield glory or bitter defeat, but of the pain and quiet that comes after any great and traumatic event, in a hospital-house type of setting. The poem’s conclusion would include these lines, which would seem reminiscent not only of


This scene of the makeshift morgue set up inside the Soldiers’ Rest in Buffalo in the days after the Angola wreck appeared on the front page of a national news magazine in January 1868. The sketch was by John Harrison Mills, a young Buffalo veteran trying to make a career as a journalist and artist. The image was labeled “Scene at the Soldiers’ Rest, Buffalo, N.Y.” and noted the “Charred and Unrecognized Remains of the Victims.”

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 11, 1868.

(p.153) Gettysburg but of Angola: “They laid the wounded on the floor, / The little house would hold no more.”19

Like news of the Civil War two years before, news of the Angola Horror traveled both quickly and shockingly slowly. In the late 1860s, news was moving around the country by telegraphed bulletins, but wire services to create a structure for the organized dissemination of news were still in infancy. Initially, the rapid though less than wholly accurate transmission of information from the wreck site meant that headlines, news reports, and death lists could appear in major newspapers in cities along the train’s route—Cleveland, Buffalo, Erie—by the next morning, Thursday, December 19. That they did. “Telegraph operators are seldom ever called upon to ‘click’ a more serious batch of news over the wires,” the Cleveland Herald wrote, explaining its use of wire transmissions in its front-page coverage.20 The telegraph had made possible a transfer of news that—in its best-case applications—was “faster than the swiftest locomotive,” making for a country united in a “common, progressive, transnational enterprise as never before.”21 But while this sort of news communication was a technical possibility in 1867, it was not yet a regular practical accomplishment. Though news certainly traveled much faster than it had even a decade before, it was far from instantaneous.

Coverage of news events, including catastrophes like the Angola Horror, was still a parochial occurrence in the United States in the period after the Civil War. Bulletins sent by wire, even when transmitted at regular intervals from the scene of a disaster, were no good without savvy editors in faraway cities to pay attention to them, see their value, and print them in a timely fashion—and then add to their value by assigning local reporters to find hometown angles on the stories. And so, cities along the route of the New York Express printed stories of the Angola crash immediately after it happened. Some of the country’s major metropolitan dailies on the East Coast, such as the Baltimore Sun, New York Times, and Boston Herald, followed suit, printing wire coverage of the wreck on the day after it happened.22 Newspapers in Wisconsin, where Charles Lobdell had been a journalist in La Crosse and where newsmen were sensitive to his death, also provided immediate, in-depth coverage of the wreck. (Editors in that city blacked the borders of their papers on the day after Lobdell’s death was confirmed, and—in an old newspaper tradition—some papers “turned their rules” sideways for a day, shifting the layout of their pages to mourn Lobdell’s passing.)23 After that, news coverage was less immediate—if equally intense. News of the Angola crash flowed outward across the country over the next two weeks in widening arcs, as editors in various cities read the coverage other papers were giving to the wreck, and printed their own lengthy articles and spirited editorial analyses in response.

(p.154) In Philadelphia, for instance, readers of the Inquirer on the morning after the wreck found the barest mention of the disaster—three sentences’ worth of summary—in a news roundup on the fourth page of the paper; they had to wait until later in the week for more information.24 Readers in St. Louis, meantime, waited weeks to read first-day reportage on the wreck in their local papers. The Chicago Tribune’s front-page story ran a week and a day after the incident, on December 26, and that was far from atypical. The way news moved in the winter of 1867–1868 was quicker than it had been, but it was far from systematic—or even predictable.

That meant, in turn, the unfolding of a curious phenomenon. Angola remained, because of this pattern of gradually widening impact, a “developing” story in the mind of the public for weeks, if not months, after the wreck occurred. That in its own way became a factor in how the wreck took hold of the public imagination. The way that stories about the disaster washed from one coast to another, then back again, overlapping and echoing the fresh news that was steadily emerging from Buffalo on such topics as coroners’ reports, inquest findings, and railroad company payouts, helped to remind people, over and over, of the Horror.

THAT THURSDAY MORNING, in the opalescent glow of daybreak on newly fallen snow, they came: fathers and mothers who had never gone to bed the night before; bleary-eyed husbands and wives; tearful children. The first to arrive, these Buffalonians pushed through the heavy doors on the city’s Exchange Street depot and into the frosty interior of Buffalo’s central railroad station, home to the Buffalo and Erie, the New York Central, and other rail lines. They pressed close to the tracks—as close as they could; to where the toes of their boots scraped the rails—and settled in to wait.

As the sun crept higher into the sky, other mourners followed. Siblings, classmates, friends. Gray-haired family patriarchs, and old women clutching shawls around their shoulders. Heads were bent, eyes lowered. Children who had been brought along for the significance of the occasion—or because there was nothing else to do with them—darted inquisitive glances this way and that, taking in the scene; no one had the heart to scold them for staring. Women in black cloaks and hats tugged toddlers by the hands; others clasped babies to their chests. Under their feet, as they trudged through the watery morning light to the front doors of the station, the wooden plank walkways that served as the city’s sidewalks throbbed with the tread of grief. Their footfalls echoed hollowly, sounding like the drumbeat of war, or the beating of their hearts—hearts that many of them were sure had been broken. Steps away, the city’s (p.155) infamous canal district, the place where sailors and canal-boat men came to let off steam in taverns, gambling houses, and brothels, was just closing its eyes after a long night of rowdiness; the disjunction was palpable. By ten o’clock that morning, two thousand mourners and other witnesses had come.

Three percent of the population of Buffalo, finally, stood assembled inside the Exchange Street station, or just outside its doors, by mid-morning.25 Most of them had walked distances through the snow to get there. A few had risked driving sleighs or carriages through some of the city’s 288 miles of muddy, mostly unpaved streets.26 No matter how far they had come, these mourners approached the station quietly. They hadn’t slept. Much of the city hadn’t slept. Together, those who had come to bear witness to the arrival of the Angola corpses in Buffalo stood mutely under the building’s great rafters, which arched into the air above them like the folded wings of angels.

They were waiting for the dead. At forty minutes past the hour, Captain John Nicholson of the Niagara Frontier Police cried out the arrival of the Erie Accommodation, which was making its approach to the station.27 The train, on its way to Buffalo from the west, had stopped in Angola that morning, where it had been loaded with cars containing likely in the range of fifty bodies. This load comprised the remaining victims of the wreck, whom the Buffalo and Erie had decided to ship to Buffalo last, after the less seriously injured people had been transported to the city in two groups the previous evening. The Erie Accommodation carried the victims who had been killed and burned, crushed and badly disfigured. These were corpses in rough condition; among them were the bodies crunched into fetal poses that had so shocked observers on the Cincinnati express the previous day. These were the forms—of John W. Chapman, Charles Lobdell, Elam Porter, and others—that it had also proven hard to identify.

The time for tackling that task—the identification and dissemination of bodies—could no longer be put off. The only place to do it was Buffalo, with its doctors and hospitals, its soldiers’ respite homes and morgue facilities. Angola and its people had done all they could. So the Erie Accommodation streamed into the Exchange Street station, straining with extra cars containing the wreck’s cargo. Across the street from the main entrance to the station, the Buffalo Soldiers’ Rest Home—a tidy building that had been opened three years before by the women of Buffalo’s Sanitary Commission and General Aid Society as a way station for military men—had been thrown open in preparation to receive the bodies of the dead.

Captain Nicholson shouted orders to the ranks of officers who stood fanned out along the edge of the press of people, telling them to move the crowd along. Citizens were still trying to push their way into the station, (p.156) despite the mass of people gathered there. No one had room to move. As with any crowd feeling pent-up emotion, there were likely several moments in which control of the gathering might have slipped away; that it didn’t was due to the presence of police, and their grim professionalism in handling the situation.

As Nicholson surveyed the scene, he had reason to be worried. The area around the tracks teemed with people who were too distracted by grief to pay attention. Besides those that had come to view the dead or claim the body of a relative, there were crowds of people trying to maneuver their way to the ticket windows and telegraph office, since William Williams, president of the Buffalo and Erie, had let it be known that free passes would be available to anyone who needed to travel to Angola or Buffalo to retrieve an injured or killed passenger. Williams had also given word that the telegraph instrument might be used by family members and friends of the victims, at the railroad’s expense, to send messages back to their homes with news of loved ones. “The railroad telegraph was… placed at the disposal of the relatives and every possible facility was given for obtaining information,” one newspaper noted.28 As a result, both the ticket sellers and telegraph operators in Buffalo and Angola had been overwhelmed by crowds of “frantic” residents looking for help locating loved ones or getting information to or from the scene of the wreck.29

The situation had run none too smoothly. In Cleveland, some people complained that private citizens were being given access to the telegraph machines that should have gone toward news transmissions and the most up-to-date casualty lists.30 The Civil War had been, for many people, the first time in which average Americans had used the telegraph and newspapers for announcements about the deaths and injuries of their family and friends.31 Now, people turned to these instruments again, to seek—or send—what solace they could, in the aftermath of Angola. “To know that a father, husband or brother was on the train, and be unable to obtain tidings of his safety, or of his being maimed,” one newspaper wrote, to describe the emotions of the families left waiting and wondering, “left no chance for hope against the conviction that his shapeless form was smoking in the undistinguishable mass.”32 In cases like this, the only balm at times was information—and that was hard to come by.

One who took advantage of the Buffalo and Erie’s offer of telegraph missives was Andrew Fisher, Emma’s husband, who had arrived in Angola from the West on the day after the wreck to seek his injured wife among the wounded. At about the same time that Nicholson was trying to restore order inside the Exchange Street station, twenty miles away in Angola, Andrew Fisher was standing in the village’s telegraph office, wiring word back home to Owatonna, Minnesota, that his brother Alexander had been killed in the crash and Emma injured badly—but that baby Minnie had been spared.33

(p.157) The hum of panic-laced, whispered conversation; the glint of fear in strangers’ eyes as they scuttled past; the press of a crowd eager for the least scrap of news: these were sights, sounds, and feelings they knew well, the men and women who found themselves carried along with so many of their fellow citizens to Buffalo’s depot on the day after the Angola disaster. Less than three years before, in a country at war, many of these same people—mothers and fathers, wives and friends—had experienced the flutter of anguish and fear that resulted from hearing news that a loved one was in harm’s way, in the danger of battle or lying in a sickbed in a military hospital. Worse yet were the grief and shock that followed word of a death or mortal injury. In a short story called “The Story of an Hour,” writer Kate Chopin would turn this idea on its head—depicting a young wife who learns of her husband’s death in a railway smash-up and feels liberated rather than bereft—but her use of the formula showed how common the reverse was. People did get bad news very suddenly for much of the Civil War era and afterward. For the Kedzie family in Rochester, news of the Angola wreck came in this way, in a telegram delivered to John Kedzie on Friday morning, two days after the wreck, stating that “the body of his son… was at Buffalo.”34 “The news was sharp,” the newspapers stated, “sudden and unexpected, and the shock to the bereaved family can be more easily imagined than described.”35 For Buffalo’s populace in the years after the war, as elsewhere around the country, these were scenes engraved on their memories: the sight of civilians crowded around a telegraph operator, or pressing closely upon the railway tracks that would carry home a loved one’s corpse. Angola’s aftermath called to mind the “railroad junctions crowded with frantic relatives in pursuit of information about loved ones” the war had caused them to witness.36

In the midst of this trauma and recollection, their minds sought hope and comfort. Chief among the ideas that consoled these citizens was the thought that perhaps some of the wreck’s victims had died peacefully, without suffering any final pain or terror. On the face of it, the chances of this seemed remote. Everyone knew about the charred state of the victims recovered from the Toledo car. Many had also heard or read in newspaper accounts that “surgical examination” was being used by doctors to attach identities to various remains.37 And yet, despite these facts, myths sprang to life—some as soon as the day after the wreck—about the manner of death inside the last car, and about the condition of the bodies found there. One story, printed in Cleveland newspapers and circulated around the country, described the death of a nameless “babe” that had supposedly been aboard one of the cars. The infant was picked up from the ground by a brakeman, the story went, and then died in a fashion that seemed nearly fairy-tale: “The moment that it discovered that an arm encircled (p.158) its waist,” the newspaper account read, “it nestled up closely to the man, uttered the words ‘papa,’ ‘mamma,’ and died without the contraction of a muscle.”38

The same imaginations that dwelt on the idea of a baby dying happily in the arms of a brakeman also perpetuated another of Angola’s myths—that of the unscathed virgin. According to this story, which surfaced soon after the wreck and would be included by 1871 in ballad form in a collection of verse and prose “for railway men and travelers,” the body of a young woman was found, seated alone, in the remains of the burned car—wholly untouched by the flames except for some scorching upon her costly bonnet and richly embellished dress.39 The “rare beauty” of the person of the dead virgin of Angola was preserved even in the chaos and immolation of the wreck, the story went; the conclusion was therefore reached that she likely died from fright rather than from actual injury. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Victorian setting, it was also whispered that the girl may instead have died from terrorized virtue, in response to violations waged upon her person by “some villain, taking advantage of the excitement and confusion,” who may have “attempted a nameless crime” during the events at the bottom of Big Sister gorge.

In that case, it went without saying, “she died through fear of a worse fate than death by fire.”40 The closing stanzas of the ballad of the virgin of Angola, pithily called “Dead—and No Name,” could not blot out the lingering dread of a death that stripped one’s very identity away:

  • Years now have passed;
  • And her sad history remains yet a mystery,
  • Attempts to obtain some clue, were in vain,
  • Till hope died at last.
  • Dead—and no name!
  • Was it some sorrow, the dread of tomorrow,
  • Or was there foul play? There is no one to say,
  • And no one to blame.41

The poetry wasn’t perfect, but it was meaningful. Stories like those of the contented babe and the unscathed virgin spread after Angola—and were read and discussed by Victorian-era publics—because they reinforced the cultural trope of the “good death,” the ars moriendi, that had so permeated the age, despite four years of Civil War. Put simply, train wrecks, like military battles, left behind grieving families and friends who wanted to believe that their loved ones had not suffered as much as they obviously had.

(p.159) The myths also subtly reinforced the period’s prevailing view that the best sort of death was one met at home, surrounded by loved ones, with a peaceful expression upon one’s face. That is why, in accounts of the apocryphal Angola babe, newspapers hastened to assure readers that the child’s death was so violence-free as to be nearly domestic: “A beautiful smile encircled the lips, after death, so life-like, such as would have been the case had its last sweet words upon earth been uttered in the quiet and happy family circle at home.”42 Death conquered where and when he would, Victorians well knew; but home and hearth offered at least some buffer—even if imaginary—against the darkness.

NOW, STANDING in the middle of the teeming Exchange Street station, gazing upon tension-filled people who were looking for any scrap of comfort they could find—imaginary or not—Nicholson would have known there was nothing to be done but clear the building. If the bodies of the wreck victims were damaged any more, in their transit to the Soldiers’ Rest, it would be on his watch and that of the other police officers—and it would be nothing short of desecration. Nicholson was not going to be the man who allowed that to happen. He raised his arms and began to gesture toward the doors, bellowing as loudly as he could.

Nicholson no doubt expected the crowd to grumble at that action, and he wouldn’t have been disappointed. Some of the people in the railway station, he would have known, were unhappy with the Buffalo and Erie Railroad Company, now that they had had the time to digest the terrible news of the previous evening. By extension, that feeling applied to other authority figures, including him and the other members of the Niagara Frontier force, the city’s one-hundred-strong police department, which had only recently been made a uniformed and badge-adorned outfit by the state legislature.43 Nicholson and the other officers would have realized that some of these citizens gathered in the station were among those who believed the Angola dead to be, from railroad negligence and carelessness of one sort or another, nothing less than “murdered victims.”44

There was nothing Nicholson could do about that. He had one problem to handle, for the present, and that was the safe transmission of the corpses. The captain would have waved his arms again, and motioned to his officers to begin pressing the crowd back, toward the Exchange Street doors. At last, with a shuffling of feet, the mass of people began to move.

But they didn’t go far. Once outside the station, the crowd halted, then turned. They moved, slowly and quietly, into two long rows. The columns of people lined the path from the doors of the terminal to the arched portico (p.160) of the Soldiers’ Home: the path the victims’ bodies would take on their way to the temporary morgue.45 Above the doors of the classically styled building, the words “Soldiers’ Rest” shone in glistening “letters of gold.”46 Beyond, a spacious ward built to accommodate thirty soldiers had been fitted out with bedsteads, mattresses, chairs, washbasins, and spittoons.

As midday approached, the doors of the terminal swung open. Nicholson came out, accompanied by David S. Reynolds, the city’s police superintendent. With them, his black coat swinging and his hands clutching the papers and workbag that defined his trade, came the city’s coroner, Dr. J. I. Richards. Normally at this time on a weekday morning, Dr. Richards would have been downtown in his office at 148 Main Street, poring over police reports on the stabbing of a harbor delinquent, the drowning of an immigrant in the canal, the burning of an old woman like one Mary Smith, a city resident who had accidentally set fire to her hoopskirts the previous day and been burned alive. Now Richards was handling forty-to fifty-odd corpses—Richards himself wasn’t yet sure of the number—and the entire city, maybe the nation, was looking to him. It was not going to be an easy few days, and already Richards’s face would have showed the strain.

Last of all came the bodies. In unvarnished pine boxes, yellow and raw-looking in the winter light, the corpses were carried from the terminal out into the street, one by one. Thirty-nine boxes, according to some reporters who looked on; others counted forty-one.47 As the coffins were carried past, across Exchange Street and through the doors of the Soldiers’ Home, the long rows of journalists and civilian observers grew hushed and watchful. “A most respectful silence was preserved,” one eyewitness noted.48 Others observed a different note in the atmosphere. “Death was an almost visible presence,” one witness wrote. “His dark wings cast a gloomy shadow over the city.”49

ROCKEFELLER HAD made his connection in Buffalo to the New York Central train that would drop him in Manhattan early that Thursday morning. He would arrive in New York City in time to shop for clothes to replace the ones that had burned in his bags, and to visit his brother William for a stay that would go “very pleasantly.”50 Rockefeller would tell William’s family that the “Christmas presents were burned with the valice [sic] and umbrella,” but his relatives would not mind the loss. “Our friends appreciate them as though recd and join in expressions of gratitude that I did not remain in the car with the baggage,” Rockefeller wrote to Laura, underlining words for emphasis.51

Once settled in New York, Rockefeller would also compose a more detailed account of his trip. “My dear wife,” he wrote Laura, in a letter mailed on (p.161) Friday, two days after the wreck, “I do (and did when I learned that the first train left) regard the thing as the Providence of God.52 What had frightened him especially, Rockefeller wrote, was the thought that he could have taken Laura and Bessie with him on the trip, and the entire family could have been killed. “I[t] was well that a good work kept you and Bessie at home,” Rockefeller wrote. “We certainly should have been in the burned car as it was the only one that went that we could have entered at the time we would have arrived at the station.”53

Rockefeller signed off with another expression of gratitude. “I am thankful, thankful thankful.”54


(1.) Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 3.

(2.) Buffalo Courier and Republic, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 3.

(p.264) (3.) Ibid.

(5.) Buffalo Post, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1.

(6.) Chicago Tribune, Dec. 26, 1867, p. 1.

(8.) Buffalo Post, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1.

(9.) The story of Mary Lang’s reward of a doll after the Angola train wreck, as a memento and also to thank her for her work caring for her injured mother, was passed down for generations through descendants of the Lang and Friend families, including Nelda Harris. Nelda, the granddaughter of Mary Lang Friend, passed on the story of the doll to the author during research for this book.

(10.) New York Times, Dec. 22, 1867, p. 5.

(12.) Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 3.

(13.) New York Times, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 4.

(14.) Vermont Chronicle, Jan. 4, 1868, p. 4.

(15.) Letter and editorial comment from the New York Tribune, as reprinted in the Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic, Jan. 11, 1868, p. 3.

(16.) Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic, Jan. 11, 1868, p. 3.

(17.) Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Jan. 1, 1868, p. 1.

(18.) Buffalo Express, Nov. 6, 1916, page unavailable.

(19.) Buffalo News, July 21, 1906, page unavailable.

(20.) Cleveland Herald, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1.

(22.) Baltimore Sun, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1, and Boston Herald, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 2. The Sun used wire reports from Buffalo, sent in two dispatches, for its front-page coverage; the Herald offered slightly more information, also wired from Buffalo.

(23.) For a note about the “turned rules” at Lobdell’s passing, see the Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Jan. 1, 1868, p. 1.

(24.) Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 4.

(25.) Crowd estimate from the Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Dec. 25, 1867, p. 1. Buffalo population tallies taken from J. H. French, Erie County, N.Y.: History, Statistics, Etc., from the State Gazetteer of 1860, compiled by Wayne E. Morrison, p. 17.

(26.) Ibid., 6.

(27.) For the role of Captain Nicholson of the Buffalo police during this event, see the Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Dec. 25, 1867, p. 1.

(28.) Buffalo Post, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1.

(29.) Chicago Tribune, Dec. 26, 1867, p. 1.

(30.) Cleveland Herald, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1.

(32.) Chicago Tribune, Dec. 26, 1867, p. 1.

(33.) Andrew Fisher’s use of the telegraph to transmit this sad news made news of its own back in Minnesota. See the Rochester (Minn.) Federal Union for an item about his telegraph transmission, Jan. 11, 1868, p. 3.

(37.) Buffalo Courier and Republic, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 3.

(38.) Rochester (Minn.) Federal Union, Jan. 4, 1868, p. 3.

(39.) For the poem “Dead—and No Name” and a brief description of its genesis, see Smith, Romance and Humor of the Road, 215–16. The ten-stanza poem is accompanied by an introduction that gets some particulars of the Angola wreck wrong (such as the conductor’s name) but is worth reading for its brilliant window into Victorian thinking on mortality and gender.

(40.) Ibid., quotes p. 215.

(p.265) (41.) Ibid., 216.

(42.) Rochester (Minn.) Federal Union, Jan. 4, 1868, p. 3.

(43.) For a history of the early years of the Buffalo police, see http://www.bpdthenandnow.com/historypage01.html. Authors of the page on the earliest years of the force are Cindy Diem and Michael Kaska.

(44.) New York Times, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 4.

(45.) Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Dec. 25, 1867, p. 1.

(46.) A description of the Soldiers’ Rest Home is given in coverage of the grand opening of the new facility in Buffalo during the summer of 1864; see the Buffalo Daily Courier, June 8, 1864, p. 3.

(47.) Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Dec. 25, 1867, p. 1.

(49.) Buffalo Courier and Republic, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 3.

(50.) Rockefeller’s activities after arriving in New York City on December 19, 1867, including his shopping trip and visit to William and Mira Rockefeller, are outlined in his letter to Laura of December 20, 1867. John D. Rockefeller to Laura Spelman Rockefeller, December 20, 1867, folder 270, box 36, Correspondence—Office, Record Group 1—JDR Papers, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC.