Thursday, December 5, 2013

"My escape is little short of miraculous..."

"My escape is little short of miraculous. As I cannot swim, I held onto a piece of wreckage until a man pulled me out."

Frank Cullen, September 1906

Frank Cullen (right) & brother Elmer (left) in 1904.
When I was in the 7th grade, I was given an assignment to write about an ancestor in my family. I wrote about my great-great grandfather, Frank Cullen, and his experience in a train wreck. Frank is the family member who has most dramatically influenced my desire to research my family history. Frank lived more of a life in his first 25 years than most people do their entire lives.

In the years between 1904 & 1909, Frank traveled the entire country, as well as parts of Canada, as a bill poster for various performing acts - Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, Forepaugh & Sells Bros. Circus, Isle of Spice Company, Palmer's Uncle Tom's Cabin Company,and possibly Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Frank had worked in 1900-1903 for E.D. Stair who was a prominent newspaper & theater man (the eventual owner of the Detroit Free Press & the Lyceum Theatre in Detroit). 

Frank documented & saved bits of memorabilia from his career, which has helped my family piece together his story. Frank kept detailed travel journals for the years of 1904-1909, which show the location of every route stop. He also kept names & addresses & a financial ledger in the same journals, which contributes greatly to my research of his life. He also bought postcards at nearly every one of his route stops, and mailed many of them to his mother & his beloved Viola (who he later married in 1918). Our family has a collection of hundreds upon hundreds of postcards bought by Frank. Frank also saved glowing recommendation letters from most of his employers, which are just as interesting as the letterhead & envelopes that contain them.

When I was in 7th grade, I called my grandmother to hear her recount the story of Frank Cullen and the train crash. I don't remember much of that conversatin, and I don't know if I still have the paper or not (I will be looking for that this week!), but I do remember the impact that her story left on me. What I didn't know at the time was that 15+ years later, I would still be discovering bits of Frank's life...

Frank Cullen was born 130 years ago today - December 5, 1883 (& incidentally so was his wife Viola Marmaduke). I called my Grandma yesterday to talk about Frank & Viola, and she began to tell the story of the train wreck to me. She said that she wasn't sure when or where the accident occurred, but that it was the story that Frank told over & over in her childhood. She said that she had friends who loved to listen to her grandpa Frank tell his stories, particularly the one about his train wreck. Grandma told me the parts that she remembered: The accident was somewhere mid-west like Oklahoma... Frank's mother (Mary Jane Quinn Cullen) didn't know for weeks if her son had survived or not... A bridge gave out & the train went in... Frank floated for hours on pieces of scrap... The tow of the river was so strong that it ripped his clothes from his body. A farmer & his daughter rescued him on the bank of the river & gave him a blanket to cover up. She also mentioned the name of Frank's friend, Hank Littlefield, who was with Frank on the train. 

After our phone call, I started to think about Frank & his travels. I got out his travel journals - small date books that could've easily been discarded over the years. Yet, here they are over 100 years later... I was looking for clues in the books - dates, locations, mention of an accident, names of people... I didn't see what I was looking for. What I should've noticed is that the 1906 date book has the name & address for a N. N. Littlefield in Gainesville, GA & also a C. S. Kitch in Kingfisher, Oklahoma...

Then I "googled" his friend's name: "Hank Littlefield." 

There it is! "While it is believed that several lives were lost, only one person is known positively to have perished. He was Hank Littlefield, an employee of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus..." (New York Times,  Sept 19, 1906).

The accident occurred the morning of September 18, 1906 on a train en route to Chicago in Oklahoma. Here is the New York Times article from September 19, 1906.

(The sun. (New York [N.Y.]), 19 Sept. 1906. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>)
Frank's account of the accident is recorded in the New York Sun as shown above. It isn't very clear, so I've transcribed the portion concerning Frank: 
Frank Cullen, one of the advance crew of the Forepaugh-Sells circus, was one of those picked up by a farmer several miles below the wreck. He said:  "I was in the smoker, and the first thing I knew there was a grinding sound, as of something falling. In a second we were in the water with the coach turned on its side and I crawled out of a window. The car was whirled around and around by the water, but we managed to hang on. In a few minutes we grounded in midstream and we tried to pull off our clothing. The waves were so high that it was all we could do to hold on.
We had been there about half and hour when the whole bridge fell. The big waves and wreckage struck us, throwing us all into the water. The car was overturned and completely submerged. Several of us had been sitting on top of the car trying to figure out some means of escape.  

My partner, Hank Littlefield, was about all in when the wreckage struck us. I saw him go down and I am sure he was drowned. How I was saved I don't know, as I cannot swim. The water was full of floating heads and bodies all around me, and I am sure that not many of them escaped. It was a hard matter to get out of the window and help Littlefield through. The coach was so full that it is almost inconceivable that so many got out. The chair car and two Pullmans remained on the track.
(The sun. (New York [N.Y.]), 19 Sept. 1906. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>)

First of all, it is amazing to me that Grandma (or anyone for that matter) remembers the name of a man who lived over 100 years ago. A man that she never knew, but only heard about in her grandpa's story... Well, his name turned out to be the key to our family mystery. Not only did my Grandma remember his name, but she remembered the facts of the story incredibly accurately! 

When I called Grandma with the news of finding the story of the train accident, she told me a follow up story from her grandpa Frank.

When Frank was down the road a few years, he went to a seance. Being a Bible believing man of God, he was not prepared to hear the woman say that someone named Hank was trying to get in touch with him. She said something to the effect that Hank wanted to tell Frank that he was better off in his own watery grave than Frank. Boy did this freak him out! 

I am incredibly proud to be the Great-Great Granddaughter of Frank Cullen and the granddaughter of his granddaughter! Thank you Grandma for instilling your love of family into my life! I love you!