Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 15, 1854 --- Death in a 3rd Class Carriage

Colonel Charles Gordon, nearly 70 and retired after a career dating back to service with Wellington, boards the night train to Aberdeen leaving from Euston Station.  He shares a 3rd-class compartment with two other gentlemen.

As the train rolls north, a drunkard in another compartment makes himself most unpleasant. A Railway Inspector named Saunders boards the train in Stafford and decides to relocate the drunk, moving him away from a compartment shared by a family and placing him instead in the empty seat in Col. Gordon's carriage. Not unaccountably, there is a heated disagreement. When the colonel assumes a defensive position, arms outstretched in the doorway, the much younger Saunders simply shoves him aside. Beaten, Gordon slumps into his seat and sighs, "Let the man in."

The inebriate soon passes out and quiet, at last, reigns. But, when the trains halts briefly at the junction in Crewe, Col. Gordon cannot be roused. He is dead of a heart attack.

There is a great outcry. The Times, with pardonable hyperbole, declares "No officer in the British Army was more deservedly respected." After the inquest, Saunders was charged with manslaughter but soon acquitted. Medical experts testified that Gordon's heart was badly ossified and could have given out at any time and the poor man's life expectancy could not have been long. Representatives of the railway suggested that a man of Col. Gordon's health (and wealth) should have sought the quieter company in first class since "it is not unusual to find 3rd-class passengers who had taken a few glasses of liquor."

Despite the verdict, the trial judge thought the conduct of the railway inspector was "not justifiable." And the Press agreed, engaging in a favorite pastime, railroad-bashing: The Illustrated London News called the incident a classic example of "the systematic contempt with which railway officials, from directors down to porters, regard the feelings, the comfort and the health of those whom necessity forces to travel in a 3rd-class carriage."

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