The Pearl-handled Pistol: A Rail-way Horror: 1870s


The ghastly "World Fair" train wreck, 1904. See

The ghastly “World Fair” train wreck, 1904. See


Some years ago I was riding along this road on my return from a trip into Virginia, where I had a business mission. On the way, and in fact just after we left Pittsburg, I fell in with a young fellow who was on his way to the Rocky Mountains—I think Denver was his objective point. He was a young Virginia lawyer who had been educated at the University of Pennsylvania.

  During one of our chats the boy—for he was scarcely more than a boy, being probably 23 years of age—took me into his confidence considerably and showed me a photograph of a beautiful girl of whom he seemed exceedingly proud and told me she was his sweetheart, to whom he was engaged and whom he expected to marry as soon as he could become established in practice.

  Along about five miles back, where you noticed that old mill down by the creek, is a smooth piece of track for nearly two miles and upon reaching that little stretch the engineer usually pulls his throttle open a little wider and lets the train run at a very lively rate. It is a very level piece of track, and there is not much danger in fast running there.

  Suddenly, however, and without any warning, the engine left the rails and the long train of coaches followed. There was no embankment, only a flat piece of country, and so it was not so disastrous as it otherwise would have been. I was so bruised and stunned that I scarcely realized what had occurred. It was after 9 o’clock in the evening and I had scarcely more than extricated myself from the car, which was literally torn to pieces, when the wreck caught on fire. Most of the passengers, however, had been rescued, but a few of them were still in the wreck, and so we started at once to assist the trainmen in doing what we could. I lost sight of my companion as soon as the car went over, but after I got out of the car I wondered where he was.

  Just then the flames shot into the air and we heard a shriek. Rushing to the other side of the car I beheld my young friend underneath a heavy beam—in fact, the lower half of his body was under the debris of the wreck, and he was jammed in so tight that we could not possibly remove him without more assistance. We had nothing to work with, only one ax having been taken out of the cars, and that was broken and of little use. The flames had already reached his feet, and his cries for help were heartrending, I can assure you. There was absolutely nothing we could do to help him—not a thing in which we could get any water and if there had been there was not a drop nearer than a mile, for the creek at that point was at least that far away. I pulled at the debris until I burned my left hand so severely that I have used it but very little since, and, as you see, it is badly scarred.

  We worked trying to save him until the fire drove us back. His appeals were something terrible to hear, and he begged us again and again to shoot him. This, of course, no one would do, although it would have been the thing to put him out of his misery.

  But just then help came to him.

  From the side of the track in the darkness—for it was an inky night—appeared a slender figure in white. It came up without a sound. I stood where I could see her very plainly, for the figure was that of a young woman. Her face was ashen, her features perfect, and I recognized at once in her features the photograph my young friend had shown me on the train. She glided up to where the victim lay. We heard the sharp report of a pistol, and the apparition vanished instantly. I just had time to see the poor fellow before the flames closed over him, and there was a bullet hole in his forehead. He was dead. The flames rushed over him, and I turned away.

  The next day from out of the ruins we took his remains. The skull was badly charred, but in it was a hole like that made by a ball, and inside of the remains of the skull was a small piece of molten lead. I went to the telegraph office only a few miles down the track and telegraphed to the girl, whose name and address he had fortunately given me. An answer came from the girl’s father stating that steps would at once be taken for the proper care of the remains, and that they would be taken back to the Old Dominion.

  From there I went home. Only a short while after that, I was compelled to make another trip to Virginia. While in the state I chanced to pass through the town where the prospective father-in-law of the young man resided, and so I took the liberty of calling at his home, knowing that they would no doubt like to hear about the accident in which the young man met so untimely an end.

  The old gentleman was at home and very glad to see me. I told him all the circumstances of the strange event that had taken place. When I was through he went into another room and brought out a small pistol and said he had no doubt that was the weapon that put Harry as he called him, out of misery. He said that the night before the accident occurred his daughter, the lady to whom my young acquaintance was engaged, was taken suddenly ill, and died before morning. On the table in her room was this small ivory handled pistol which her fiancé had presented to her before he left. It was loaded.

  The morning after the accident one cartridge was found to have been exploded and no one could possibly account for the curious happening, as the pistol had not been touched by any one after the young lady’s death. I had the little lump of lead which I found in the unfortunate young man’s skull and we weighed it and also one of the pistol balls, and after careful examination they were found to be of exactly the same calibre. I am firmly of the belief that the spirit of that young woman came that dark and awful night to the relief of her intended husband.   Philadelphia Times. Marion [OH] Star 6 March 1895: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While the preceding tale has a rather literary tone and wraps up more tidily than most “true” ghost stories, it still Grips. One detail, at least, is utterly realistic: the newspapers were full of stories of horrible train wrecks, the ensuing fires, and trapped, doomed passengers who begged for a merciful death.

This story and others in a similarly blood-curdling vein may be found in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales From the Past, by Chris Woodyard. You may peruse a table of contents here. If you enjoy historical ghost and horror stories, you might also enjoy Mrs Woodyard’s The Face in the Window and The Headless Horror.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.


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