Tobacconist’s Leg Crushed to Jelly by Trolley (1889)

The entry in Green Hill Cemetery’s Mortuary Report for William Hastings Trowbridge reads, “…he died on the 22nd day of Dec 1889 and that the cause of his death was shocked received and peritonitis…”

William, a 47-year-old bachelor tobacconist, died a particularly gruesome death at the wheels of an electric car just a few days before Christmas. Trolley railway systems were first used in 1887 in Richmond, Virginia, and just two years later (give or take a few months), a similar system was being used in Danville. The technology, as with the introduction of most technology, probably took citizens some time to get used to. While a trolley couldn’t nearly travel with the speed of today’s automobiles, they were probably a little faster than the horse-and-wagon system that had been the typical mode of transportation.

In the late afternoon on December 18 William was walking across the tracks on Craghead Street as he probably did daily, working and living in the downtown area. The trolley operator said that he saw Trowbridge when he was about ten feet away from him, but he was looking towards the direction opposite of the trolley. In an effort to avoid running over him, the operator rang the bell and tried to stop the car, a task made nearly impossible as they were going at a downward slope. The noise of wagons on the cobblestone street most likely muffled the noise of the oncoming train and the alarm bell. The driver’s efforts were in vain, as William was knocked to the ground and then run over by the trolley. Witnesses raced to the scene of the accident and were able to free the managed tobacco manufacturer from the wreckage, where the horrible extent of the damage to his body was visible. “Mr. Trowbridge’s left leg had been crushed into a jelly and the thighbone, which had been broken, was protruding through his trousers.” 1

William was taken to the Home for the Sick where it was thought that he was certain to lose his leg, if not his life due to the shock of being crushed by the electric car.2

After his death his estate sued the Danville Street Car Company but lost. In the decision, more details about the accident are revealed. William had tried to dodge traffic in front of the trolley to wind up behind a wagon or dray also traveling down the road, but miscalculated the timing and as a result was hit. The trolley contined to travel for nearly 14 feet before it was able to stop and at the scene William took responsibility for his injuries.3

William Trowbridge died a gruesome death as a result of being careless. I’m sure that the next time I give my “safety first” speech to a child I’ll use it as an example of making sure traffic is clear before attempting to cross a road.



1 “Badly Crushed.” The Richmond Dispatch 19 Dec. 1889.
2 “Run Over By An Electric Car.” The Daily Times, [Richmond, VA] 19 Dec. 1889.
3 Virginia Decisions: A Collection of Virginia Cases Not Officially Reported, Vol. 1. Michie Co., 1902.

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