Richard M. O’Donnell

Genesis of the Easter Seals Society

The Memorial Day Trolley Car Disaster

Thursday May 30, 1907

Elyria, Ohio

A dog yelped in pain and died along the trolley car tracks between Fifth and Sixth Streets on Middle Avenue. Since it was the Memorial Day holiday, nobody thought to pull the dog off the side of the tracks. A city worker would probably remove it tomorrow. Today was a day for fun and picnics.

After Rev. Johnson’s one o’clock prayer service, a parade marched from the Baptist church to the Elyria Cemetery where veterans and the ladies of the Relief Corps decorated the graves with American flags. At three o’clock, the Elyria baseball team battled Collinwood, while out at the fair grounds there was a picnic and dancing at the ice-skating rink. The Dreamland Theatre was opened all day, and the Elyria Theatre presented at 3 p.m. Silora, the Fire Dancer, along with illustrated songs and moving pictures for ten to twenty cents.

In the Elyria Chronicle, there were two main headlines. The first read, “Mrs. McKinley Laid to Rest At Side of Martyred President,” and the second said, “Hospital Association Discussed the Outlook.”

The hospital issue was of particular local interest, because Mr. Tyson, the manger of the small private hospital on West Avenue, had told the Chamber of Commerce that the hospital was not making a profit; therefore, he was resigning as of June First, which was in two days.

The prominent men in the community had met the night before, and they came to the conclusion that the small hospital was totally inadequate for such a large growing community. It was decided that an association would be formed for the purpose of building a modern hospital large enough to attract qualified professionals to run it.

Mr. Edward O’Donnell, although a prosperous businessman, had not attended the meeting. He was the proprietor of the Elyria Bazar, a wallpaper and crockery shop. At 67 years old, Edward had reached that stage in his life when he could take it easy and let the eldest of his eleven children, especially Arthur and Alfred, work the business. Still, each day he dressed in his Prince Albert Suit and top hat and walked to his store on Broad Street in the Elyria Block. There he would sit in the front of the store by the display window where he “directed” the work. He was particularly demanding of his three daughters and youngest son, Richard, who was only eight years old. It was their job to wash the china everyday while all Edward really had to do was to order them about. The sisters, Marcella, Anna and Catherine, conspired behind his back to eliminate the china from the store at the first opportunity, and they vowed to avoid washing any dishes for the rest of their lives.

Edward was also a Democrat in a largely Republican town, and he was a staunch supporter of William Jennings Bryan. He even put up a “Bryan For President” poster in his store window, but a delegation of concerned Republican citizens paid him a friendly visit to convince him to remove the sign. They explained that most Elyrians would not step through the door of the store with Bryan’s face on it. Edward told them in no uncertain terms to “Go to hell!” But after reconsidering, he did remove the poster.

Edward spent Decoration Day, as many still called the holiday, with his family. It was a very hot, but pleasant afternoon. Later, he and his 26-year-old daughter, Marcella, rode a trolley car to Eleventh Street so they could view a house Marcella’s current boyfriend was considering buying. Satisfied, they walked back to Middle Avenue to catch the next trolley to their home on Fourth Street.

It was now about 5:45 p.m.

But when the trolley car #123 stopped, it was already packed with nearly fifty passengers, most of whom had attended the picnic at the fair grounds just a couple of blocks away. Instead of waiting for the next car, Edward and Marcella chose to stand on the rear platform by the vestibule with at least 12 other riders including the trolley’s young conductor, 23-year-old Wayne Avery. As the trolley started north up Middle Avenue, a gentleman offered Marcella a seat in the very rear of the car and he took her place on the platform.

Among those standing on the back platform were three Elyria High School students. Mabel Dehn and Eunice Wurst were freshman, while Homer Allen was a senior. He was scheduled to graduate in a few days. Looking down the center aisle into the car, Allen could see another student, Margaret Butler. She was a very pretty sophomore, and she also did part-time bookkeeping at the O’Donnell’s store.

At Ninth Street, the trolley stopped and picked up two policemen, Officers Plank Burkline and Fred Zarnke, but there was not a single space left on board, nor could they squeeze onto the platform. So instead, they rode on the steps and held onto the railings to keep from falling.

It never occurred to Conductor Avery not to let passengers ride on the platform or the steps because it was dangerous. It was a holiday and all the cars that day had been crowded.

To meet the need of so many holiday passengers, Motorman Fuerndiener had been called to drive Trolley Car #129 from the Green Line warehouse near Twelfth Street in Elyria to Cleveland. He left with Conductor Williams just before 6 p.m. and he was driving empty up the tracks north on Middle Avenue just a few seconds behind the trolley car Edward and his daughter were on. Although he had only worked for the Green Line for six weeks, Fuerndiener had proved to be one of their best drivers, and he was well thought of by his dispatcher.

Mrs. Fuerndiener was very proud of her husband, too. He had been employed for seven years as a stock keeper for Bingham Hardware Company before going into railway work, and he was a good provider for her and their children. She knew he was a very conscientious driver, because he often expressed to her his concern on how horrible it would be to have an accident and hurt someone.

And that was how Fuerndiener felt as he drove up Middle Avenue. He just saw the dead dog lying along the tracks, and he wondered if it was his car that had hit it. He experienced a sudden pang of sorrow. Never in his life did he wish to harm a living thing. So as his car passed the body of the dead dog, he paused to look back at it, wondering how it had died and hoping it was not him who had hurt it.

Conductor Avery in Trolley Car #123 should have had Motorman Varney stop at Sixth Street longer to let more passengers off, but the noise was so loud he could not hear them hailing him, and the press of people was so packed together they couldn’t get out in time on their own. Instead, they would have to wait to get off on Fifth Street. But once again Avery did not wait long enough to let everyone who wanted to get off disembark before he signaled Varney to continue, and the trolley began to pull away.

Inside the car near the back vestibule, Reverend Sala was trying to get out of the car with his wife and their two children. The Reverend carried their infant baby in his arms, while Mrs. Sala lead Donald, their five-year-old son, by the hand out onto the platform. As the car began to tug forward, Reverend Sala reached over to pull the cord to signal the driver to stop.

It was Officers Burkline and Zarnke who first realized something was wrong. Car #129 was barreling down on them at what they thought must be 30 MPH, and to their disbelief, the motorman was looking backwards in the wrong direction. They screamed and shouted and waved, but Fuerndiener could not hear them over the noise of the trolley or see them because he was staring back at the dead dog.

Mrs. Sala also saw the train coming, and she attempted to jump off the platform with Donald, but she could not get by the two officers on the steps.

At the same time, fifteen year old Margaret Butler also saw the trolley racing towards them. She jumped passed her Aunt Fulton and ran into the rear vestibule. Whether she was trying to warn her friends or escape the car would never be known.

Just then, Fuerndiener looked back up the tracks. To his horror, he saw a trolley car filled with people only twenty feet in front of him. He cut the electric power and threw the brake, but it was too late to avoid a collision. He leapt clear of his car, and then stood by the tracks as his worst nightmare came true before his eyes.

On the other trolley, Officers Burkline and Zarnke also jumped clear of the steps, followed by Mrs. Sala, who yanked Donald after her.

She almost made it.

The front board of trolley car #129 was about six inches higher than the back platform. Because of this, Fuerndiener’s car telescoped across the rear of the train like a pair of scissors snapping shut. Instantly, most of the feet or legs of the people standing on the platform were sliced off or smashed. Mr. Edward O’Donnell’s feet were cut off at the ankles as cleanly as if a surgeon had amputated them with a saw. As Mrs. Sala leaped, the trolley car caught her arm and severed it between her and her son, Donald, who was dragged back into the wreckage.

The trolley continued forward crashing into the back vestibule and pushing the front car 200 feet north before it stopped. The riders on the back platform screamed and groaned in terror, but the people inside the car only felt a jolt, and none were seriously injured. Marcella, Edward’s daughter, received only a sprained ankle, while the man who had given up his seat to her a few moment minutes before was crushed between the cars. Many people in the front of the car didn’t even realize there had been a collision, while others, in their hurry to escape, rushed out the back exit and trampled over the victims until one injured person cried out, “Don’t come this way, for God’s sake!”

Lyman Knowles, a veteran, had watched the wreck from the sidewalk, but nothing on the battlefield had prepared him for the sight of people dropping off from between the trolley cars with their legs or feet missing while blood flowed everywhere. Although repulsed, he went to help as best he could.

But the sight of the injured was more than Fuerndiener’s mind could take. He ran off towards Broad Street; his only thought was to get home to his wife and forget the horror he had caused.

Mr. Faxton, who lived on the corner of Fifth and Middle Avenue, was the next person on the scene. His first impulse was to run back into the house and shut out the sight, but like Mr. Knowles, he knew he must stay and help.

Within minutes, hundreds of people converged on the wreck. The injured were laid out on the lawn, which soon became muddy with blood. Many witnesses remember that there was at first an “uncanny quiet”. That there were no shrieks from the victims, most of whom would not even know the extent of their injuries until they reached the hospital. To transport them, every ambulance in the city was called, but they were so few many private automobiles were put into service. Meanwhile, men found timbers and began to pry the cars apart in an attempt to rescue those still trapped between the trolleys.

Throughout the crash, Reverend Sala had somehow managed to hold onto his infant child, but when he climbed out of the car, he discovered his wife near death and son, Donald, still trapped. Adding to his sorrow was that he had lost another son, Walter, to diphtheria the year before. Now the rest of his family was in danger. He had attended the hospital association meeting the night before, and he knew the facilities his wife was being taken to were totally inadequate to handle this terrible disaster.

Of the victims, Mabel Dehn and Eunice Wurst were set side by side on the tree lawn of the Fell house. Eunice looked over at Mabel and observed, “See the poor girl with her feet cut off?” She did not realize she suffered from the same injuries.

Mabel told her rescuer, “Please don’t tell mamma I am hurt, it will break her heart.” But after a while, the pain became so excruciating that she asked, the Telegram’s reporter, who was helping her, to call her mother and father. Then she passed into unconsciousness, and most people thought she was dead.

Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Wurst had been driving near by when they heard about the wreck, so they drove over to see if Mr. Wurst could help. He had been gone only a few moments when he returned to his wife. “My God,” he said. “Eunice is over there with both legs crushed off.”

Mr. Dehn was also out driving in his car, but as he drove down Middle Avenue, he was surprised to observe several hundred people blocking the road. He got out to see what had happened only to discover his 15-year-old daughter, Mabel, lying on the lawn with her legs cut off. He did not know whether she was still alive, but he realized she would bleed to death in a matter of seconds if he did nothing. So to stop the bleeding, Mr. Dehn picked his daughter up, set her severed stumps down on the hot sidewalk, and held her there. It had been a very hot day, and the sidewalks were “steamy”. The heat and the pressure acted together to stop the bleeding.

It turned out that Mabel was not dead, and her father’s quick thinking saved her life.

Other victims would not be so lucky.

As the men wedged the two cars apart with timbers, Motorman Patrick Crowe found little Donald Sala.

“Please Mister,” the boy said in a calm voice. “Won’t you pull me out?”

Quickly, with the help of Dr. Jackson, a dentist, Mr. Crowe pulled Donald out.

“I am not hurt, am I?” observed Donald. “My face is all right.”

And Donald rubbed his hands over his checks to show that there was no blood on them.

Mr. Crowe tried to reassure the boy, but all the time he could see that Donald’s legs had been crushed to jelly.

As quickly as possible, the victims were moved to the hospital just a few blocks away on West Avenue, but there was not enough beds for the injured and many had to be placed on the floor. Most, whose legs were crushed, needed to have them amputated immediately, but there was not enough operating room space. For this reason, Eunice Wurst was moved to her home so she could be operated on there. Since Edward O’Donnell’s home was on Fourth Street just a block from the wreck, he was carried there. He was laid out on the kitchen table to wait for the doctor who came as soon as possible. Meanwhile, his wife, Annie, and their eleven children gathered around only to watch helplessly as Edward slowly bled to death.

Outside the hospital, thousands of people gathered to keep vigil and the eight man police force was hard pressed to keep sightseers away.

The first victim to die from the accident was W. C. Allen, a sixty-five year old Lakeshore claims agent who had been traveling to a prayer service at the Church of Christ where Reverend Sala was the pastor.

Next was Mr. Henry M. Billings, a retired harness maker and Civil War veteran from Company D 41st Ohio whose legs were crushed. He lived just long enough to die in his wife’s arms.

The third to die was little Donald Sala at about 8:30 p.m.

Four others would die before the sunrise.

Edward O’Donnell died about 11:00 p.m. with his family by his side. His case had been considered hopeless from the start, but Dr. E. E. Sheffield stayed with him until he passed away. Since Edward had come home with only one shoe, his son, Bernie, was sent out to find the other one so his father could be buried with it. He found it with four other shoes at the wreck sight when the trolley cars were separated. They still had the severed feet inside them.

At about midnight Charles V. Porter, a twenty-four year old clerk in the tailoring department of the Rackett Store and a Spanish American War veteran who had both legs cut off, died. He left a wife and young child. Before he died, he requested a Priest and accepted the Catholic faith and so received the Last Sacraments of the church.

Homer Allen, who had one leg cut off and a fractured arm, had been doing well. He was an exceptional boy who loved horseback riding and sports. He had been Captain of the High School basketball team and had led them to the championship. But near midnight he had a relapse and died at around 3:45 a.m.

Miss Eunice Wurst died at their home at about the same time as Homer Allen passed away.

Of those injured, Mrs. Sala was not expected to live out the night, but she would survive after a long convalescence. On the other hand, Margaret Butler was thought to be doing better than anyone else and was expected to survive. She had had one foot cut off and the other heel smashed, but over the next week, the poor septic conditions at the hospital and at her home resulted in gangrene. She had two operations, but both failed. She died one week after the wreck. During all this time, she was never told how sick she was or that her feet had been amputated. More people attended her funeral than any other in Elyria’s history up to that time.

This brought the total number of the dead to eight.

Of the other survivors, Jack Leslie, a machinist, had one leg cut off and the other smashed, but his brother, who was standing right next to him escaped unharmed. Mr. Arthur Hooley and George W. Chamberlain had both of their feet cut off, while Mabel Dehn lost both of her legs.

Wayne Avery had both feet amputated at the instep. In 1957, he told the Chronicle-Telegram reporter, June Faulds, that the accident knocked him unconscious and he knew nothing until someone picked him up from the street. “I heard someone say, ‘let’s get him to the hospital as soon as we can.’ The next time I awoke I was laying in a basket on the hospital floor. “

The most remarkable escape was that of Arthur Jones, a Civil War veteran who was returning home to Pittsfield. He had been standing on the rear platform when the crash occurred and he was thrown up and between several men. He was knocked off his feet a few inches just as the car severed everyone else’s legs and feet. He believed that having his feet raised up those few inches off the floor was what saved his life.

Fuerndiener was indicted for manslaughter.

He had managed to flee home to Lakewood where he spent the night pacing and moaning and crying and telling his wife he wished he were dead. He was so distraught, his wife feared for his sanity. Ironically, charges would later be dropped against the motorman. Previous court rulings had established that riding on the back platform of a trolley car was dangerous and that passengers did so at their own risk. The Cleveland, Southwestern & Columbus Railway Co., the owners of The Green Line, did make settlement payments to the families of the victims, and it almost bankrupted the company. Probate Court records show that Annie O’Donnell received $5,250.00.

The real tragedy of the Memorial Day disaster was that most, if not all, of the injured passengers need not have died. As gory as the wreck had been, few of the passengers actually sustained any injuries to their vital organs. They died simply because there was not good medical care available.

The community was outraged.

Within the next few of days, the new Hospital Association had no trouble soliciting funds to build a new modern facility. The results were that on October 30, 1908 the Elyria Memorial Hospital was dedicated in the memory of those who had died needlessly on Memorial Day 1907.

But for one father, this was not enough.

Mr. Edgar F. Allen had been told that his son, Homer Allen, was one of the victims who should have survived his injuries. Edgar Allen was dumbfounded, and he decided to dedicate his life to helping other children, so no parents would have to go through what he and his wife had suffered.

To this end, he sold his Tie and Telegraph Pole business and devoted all his time to the hospital project without pay. After the hospital was built, he found a new mission to direct his energies to when he discovered that there was inadequate care for crippled children. He helped found and build Gates Memorial Hospital for Crippled Children. Then he founded the Ohio Society for Crippled Children.

In 1933, President Roosevelt, himself a cripple, approved the Society’s idea to sell seals as a way to raise money, and it was discovered that the seals sold best around Easter time.

Today the Easter Seals Society is a household name and millions of children have been helped through Edgar “Daddy” Allen’s selfless work, including my own son, Sean O’Donnell, who has clubfeet.

And this all happened because one man decided to bring triumph out of tragedy. In doing so, he gave all the survivors of the Memorial Day disaster the gift that their loved ones did not die in vain.

Sources: The Elyria newspapers of the day, the Telegram and the Elyria Chronicle.

The May 31, 1957 Chronicle-Telegram article “1907 Memorial Day Remembered” by June Faulds.

And from the O’Donnell family’s oral history.