Henderson County, Kentucky


Female hobo dressed as man among victims

It was a locomotive engineer's worst nightmare. Failure of the air brakes as the train was approaching an open drawbridge.

But that's exactly what happened to the "Texas" freight train August 8, 1904, at the Spottsville Bridge over the Green River. At least six people were killed, including the engineer and the fire stoker; the exact figure is unknown because a number of hobos were riding on the train, and some of the bodies were not recovered.

Investigators got a shock when they brought what they thought was the body of the fire stoker to the embalmers. The body turned out to be that of a female hobo, dressed as a man apparently so she could ride the rails with fewer problems.

The drawbridge was a single-span that turned on a pivot to allow river traffic to pass. John RICHARDSON, watchman at the Spottsville Bridge, told the Henderson Morning Gleaner the following story:

"I was on the drawbridge and it had been turned six minutes before the train came in order to let the steamer Park City through, she being on her way to Bowling Green. The train came on at the rate of about 15 miles an hour. It looked as if the engineer had put on the air (brakes) about 250 years from the draw.

"It was an awful sight - the engine seemed to tremble on the edge of the bridge and take a down shoot, and seemingly turned a somersault.

"A few seconds earlier that train would have struck the Park City, as she had just gotten from under the bridge and was only a few hundred feet past the bridge."

Two bodies were recovered from the river the morning after the plunge. One was the engineer (Riedel) and the other was originally presumed to be the fire stoker but turned out to be a woman in man's clothing.

"There was nothing about the remains before disrobing to give suspicion that it was other than that of a man," The Daily Gleaner reported. But when the "startling denouement resulted," a railroad doctor "was called in at once to certify as to the sex.

"The woman was apparently 24 to 28 years of age, of fine physique but rather coarse, heavy features." She wore shoes that indicated they had been bought in Evansville.

Her hair had been closely cropped and apparently ended up in the pocket of her male traveling companion, whose body was found later. "On the inside pocket of the man's coat was found about a foot and a half of woman's hair. The color of the hair was dark brown and was the same shade as that of the woman's.

"It is the supposition that this woman was masquerading as a man to tramp over the country with greater ease. Two white tramps who escaped miraculously from the wreckage said that there were four other white tramps in the car with them. (Two black hobos boarded the train at Baskett and were apparently killed.) It is believed that the woman was in this car, and if the story told by the two who escaped it true, the others doubtless went down also. The woman's identity will probably never be established, but railroad authorities ordered her body held pending further investigation."

The train was made up of the engine and 19 cars, eight of which went into the river, and one of which contained a load of hogs. "The horror of the wreck was intensified by the squealing of the carload of hogs, destined for the western markets, that was drawn into the river," the paper reported.

"Most of the animals were drowned, but quite a number of them escaped from the car, swam to the bank and scattered in every direction. Some of the poor animals had broken backs and legs or were frightfully injured in other ways. Their squeals added to the distress of the scene. Two or three with broken spines were put out of their misery by humane spectators."

Despite the drama of the disaster, not everyone was able to fully experience it. One man in particular had a close call with death and never realized it until later. One railroad car did not go into the river, but it was precariously poised on the edge of the precipice, according to the newspaper report.

"The car left hanging on the bridge contained shelled corn and a soundly sleeping hobo, the terrible jolt not being sufficient to awaken him."

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Frank Boyett

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS