“Truth gets well if she is run over by a locomotive, while error dies of lockjaw if she scratches her finger” – William Cullen Bryant
Whenever we invent a new technology, we have an alarming tendency to anthropomorphize it, or rather, anthropomorphize what can go wrong with it. And no sooner do we endow it with human traits, than we start to wonder how it’s going to kill us. Kind of tells you how we think of ourselves. Airplanes have their gremlins. Artificial intelligence has its singularity. The technicians on the first atom bomb were taking bets as to whether it would light the atmosphere on fire in some sort of catastrophic chain reaction. And Twitter? Well, that will probably be the death of us all, the way things are going.
If you look around your home, you are awash in technology. Smart phones, smart refrigerators, fancy climate control devices, and all manner of devices designed to make your life easier, but in the grand scheme of things it’s all relatively new, thus we haven’t had enough time to invent horrors associated with them (although some may be horrible enough that they need no additional monstrosity – nothing worse than a nagging refrigerator sending me texts that I need to send an order to Peapod because I’m out of milk). Although, I’m surprised nobody has tried to use Siri to contact the dead. Maybe I’m just being premature. And maybe, it’s just that these technologies that have become so ubiquitous actually ease our busy lives (I don’t have to go to the grocery store anymore, and can maintain my hermit lifestyle), but perhaps the overuse of the term “disruptive” has every app lauding itself as the catalyst for a change in the social order, a change which falls short of expectations.
Now trains are a technology that truly altered the fabric of society – the way we perceived time, distance, and geography all changed. The way in which large amounts of goods, materials, and passengers could be moved around quickly truly made the world a smaller place. Our communities became more interconnected. The available market for local goods expanded enormously, making cottage industries without a sufficient local market viable enterprises. We were able to settle in areas that had previously been regarded as too inhospitable or inaccessible. On the scary side, we could move troops around a lot faster. Trains change the social order. Some might argue that smart phones are changing the social order, and while this is an arguable point, my personal opinion is despite the centrality of mobile devices in most of our lives, if they have a deep effect on the social order it is primarily to make us more anti-social. But let’s get back to trains, which undeniably rocked our world. And having done so, the “Iron Horse” slipped into the clutches of liminality. Now if you can wake an anthropologist up at the party, they’ll explain to you that “during liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt” (Horvath, 2009). And when future outcomes become uncertain, that’s where we start encountering monsters.
Now, we’ve had our share of phantom trains since they were invented, but an entire phantom train is usually associated with some major historical trauma (e.g. the phantom train that was supposedly the ghost of the train that carried President Lincoln’s body after his assassination). Big social events tend to engender these sorts of things. When it came to anthropomorphizing trains and making ourselves a monster, we tended to focus on the locomotive, the “brains” of the train. After all, the rest of the train is just a bunch of empty boxes. Is it any wonder that our railway monstrosities tend to be the locomotives? For instance, and engine called the “Matt Morgan,” belonging to the Shore line and running from New Haven to Boston, by way of Providence began her career with a homicide around 1880.
Ten years ago she blew up while standing on the track near the station in Providence, killing the engineer. She was promptly rebuilt and sent back to service. On the first trip that she made after being rebuilt she went tearing into Providence in the night, with the train swinging behind, and the sleeping town echoing to the shrill whistle. On approaching the station the engineer leaned forward to shut off the steam, but to his horror a ghostly form appeared at his side, and a ghostly hand grasped his hand and held him fast. When the station was reached the ghost disappeared, and the engineer stopped the train some distance beyond. At least this is what the engineer tells. He says the same thing still happens at intervals (Frith, 1893, p282-283).
In 1883, Engine No. 20 of the Detroit, Lansing & Northern Railroad yard had quite a reputation for being haunted, and after killing a few people in apparent accidents, kept up an interminable cry of distress that no amount of repairs seemed to alleviate.
The engine (No. 20) is run at Edmore as a yard engine, by Cal Platt, from whom it was learned that the locomotive has been the means of causing the death of several people, and only last spring ran over and killed a man near Portland. The side which has run over the bodies keeps up a constant groaning, and moans like a human being in distress. It has been oiled, and everything done to stop this noise, but it has no effect whatever. The latest freak in which it has indulged occurred one day last week. The engine was standing on the track and the engineer standing beside it, but no one touching any part of the machinery, when the bell commenced ringing and continued for several seconds. Several persons standing by witnessed this, and say they would swear that it was a fact. Engineer Platt says he is not naturally superstitious, but he doesn’t know what to make of it (Railroad Gazette, 1883, p625).
I suppose we could take some solace from the fact that the locomotive appears to feel some regret at its string of murders, which of course makes it no less creepy and worrisome, but perhaps its bloodthirstiness may fall more in the realm of manslaughter than straight up homicide. When an engineer named Giles in Richmond, Virginia was gruesomely impaled by his engine’s throttle lever, it’s almost a touching story, that is as horrible deaths and the living dead go.
Many people have not forgotten the terrible Richmond switch disaster, several years ago, on the Providence and Stonington road. A little brook became swollen by the rain, and carried a rail road bridge. The train came rushing along that night, and was hurled into the chasm, Giles, the engineer, when he saw the danger ahead, instead of leaping from the engine as his fireman did, grasped the lever and reversed the engine. But it was too late. The train was going at such speed that the loco motive leaped clear across the stream, and they found Giles lying under his overturned engine, with the lever driven through his body and one hand clutching the throttle-valve with the grasp of death. Giles, when he came into Providence, was accustomed to give two peculiar whistles as a signal to his wife, who lived near the railroad where it enters the suburbs of the city, that he was all right and would soon be home. The absence of those whistles was the first intimation which was received at Providence of the disaster. When the engine which made the terrible leap on that stormy night was, rebuilt and put on the road again, there was at first great trouble in getting engineers for it, with such a superstitious horror was it regarded. To-day there are people ready to swear that they have heard whistles, such as Giles used to blow as signals to his wife, sound through the suburbs of Providence, when no train was coming up the road (Switchmen’s Journal, 1886, p136).
Consider these tales next time you board your commuter train or hop an Amtrak, for there are always those monsters lurking in the liminality. Mostly, just hope that you don’t have a pissed off locomotive looking to get even, or bemoaning its history as a killer. Henry David Thoreau best captured both the anthropomorphic regard of trains as well as the need to deal with the monsters associated with them when he said, “That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, has muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot, and he it is that has browsed off all the woods on Walden shore, that Trojan horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by mercenary Greeks! Where is the country’s champion, the Moore of Moore Hall, to meet him at the Deep Cut and thrust an avenging lance between the ribs of the bloated pest?”
Frith, Henry, 1840-. The Flying Horse, the Story of the Locomotive and the Railway. London: Griffith, Farran, Browne, 1893.
Horvath, Agnes, et al. “Introduction: Liminality and Cultures of Change”. International Political Anthropology, 2009.
“A Haunted Locomotive”. Railroad Gazette v15. New York: Railroad Gazette, 1883.
“Haunted Locomotive”. Switchmen’s Journal v1. Chicago, 1886.