It never ceases to amaze me how the past can live on in the present and manifest itself in the most unexpected ways. On May 11, I struck up a conversation with an elderly lady at a local hair salon, whom one of the employees mentioned had lived in Milton for a very long time. I asked her what her name was, and she first mentioned her married name, which was not familiar to me, and then her maiden name, which was Reed. That family name has a long history in the Milton area, and I knew I had run across it many times during the course of my transcription work on the Milford Chronicle’s Milton News letter of the early twentieth century. She then went on to say that one of her ancestors, John Reed, was killed by a train passing through Milton.
My memory cannot always be relied upon, but at that moment I felt sure that I had run across the story of John Wesley Reed (1850 – 1901) in one of my transcriptions. She could not offer any more information about the year the accident occurred, but I thought I could find that information out for myself.
Sure enough, bits and pieces of information about the accident that caused John Reed’s death could be found in some of the transcriptions. The accident itself occurred on March 7, 1901 on Federal Street where the railroad track crosses over it. There was no mention of the initial accident in the Milford Chronicle at all, but correspondent David A. Conner wrote in his letter of September 27, 1901 that J. Coard Hazzard was surveying the area around the railroad track where it crossed Federal Street – the scene of the accident – in preparation for the filing of a lawsuit against the Queen Anne’s Railroad Co. by Reed’s widow Mary. In the October 11, 1901 letter, Conner writes that the lawsuit had been initiated in Georgetown by ex-Attorney General R. C. White – and then falls silent on the matter.
The outcome of the lawsuit might have remained lost in obscurity, but amazingly enough a full report on witness testimony and the plaintiff’s and defendant’s case summaries was available through Google Books, in three pages of a digitized version of the Atlantic Reporter, Volume 57, published January 1, 1904. The book contains hundreds of pages of court cases across several states, useful to attorneys researching precedents to support their arguments.
The first item of interest was that the suit brought before Delaware Superior Court in October of 1901 was not decided until October 14, 1903. The really riveting part, however, was the testimony of an eyewitness to the accident, called by the defense. The witness was an African American named Thomas Van, who lived about 200 feet from the crossing. Out of his window, Van saw Reed driving his horse and carriage heading at a trot toward the crossing on Federal Street. He stepped outside and, upon hearing the approaching train’s whistle, looked at Reed’s carriage to see if he would try to get across the tracks before the train reached the crossing. From then on, he had Reed in his sight continuously. He saw the horse was in a “dead level run” and did not stop at all. He testified that Reed had his head down and did not look to the side or listen, or take notice of anything at all. The horse jumped the tracks and the train struck the carriage when the rear wheels were squarely on the tracks.
The witness also testified that the horse survived relatively unhurt, while pieces of the carriage were scattered down the length of the track for about fifty or sixty yards – about the distance that John Reed’s body was thrown.
A witness for the plaintiff, civil engineer William Carswell, testified that a 250-foot embankment blocked Reed’s view of the approaching train, and that the train did not give sufficient warning of its presence commensurate with the speed at which it was traveling (about 40 mph).
Defense counsel Charles W. Cullen moved for a non-suit, arguing that the incident was pure accident, inevitable and unavoidable, and that John W. Reed’s actions just prior to the collision constituted contributory negligence. The judge declined the motion and sent the case to the jury.
Despite the evidence of Reed’s contributory negligence, the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded Mary Reed the sum of $5,000.