Family Lore: Fact vs Fiction

William Roderich Smith

William R. Smith

William R. Smith is another figure in my husband’s family that came with a family story. William was my husband’s great great grandfather on his father’s side. William was born in England in 1848 and came to the US with his family in 1851. The family settled in Milwaukee and William’s father, John Edward Smith, died in 1858 leaving William’s mother a widow with 7 children.

William found work as a newspaper printer for the “Sentinal” and was working in that capacity in 1870 when he married Elizabeth Jane “Lila” Thompson in Milwaukee. The couple moved to Illinois for a short time and were there during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. They had their first child in Chicago in February of 1872 and then were living in Minnesota by the birth of their next child in 1874. William and Lila lived in Minnesota until about 1879 when they moved back to Milwaukee. By 1883, the Smiths had 5 children – 4 living – and William was working for a newspaper and was member of the Milwaukee Pressman’s Union. Three years later, he was dead at the age of 38.

from The Wisconsin Weekly, Milwaukee, WI 23 Oct 1886, page 4

The story of his death as told to us by my husband’s grandmother (granddaughter of William and Lila) was that he was deaf and was walking along a railroad track and was killed by a train in Milwaukee. When I started looking for him in the newspapers, I was surprised and alarmed to find that in fact he had apparently committed suicide by laying on a railroad track. The report was in The Wisconsin Weekly newspaper in Milwaukee. I was unable to locate an obituary for him, however, any death that is not a natural death has to have a coroner’s inquest report. I contacted the Milwaukee Historical Society and received a copy of the whole report.

The coroner’s inquest report was very interesting and very informative in many ways. The names of all the jurors are recorded as well as the several people who provided testimony during the inquest. The witnesses gave names, occupations, and relationship to the deceased, as well as their description of the day’s events and even some happening of the days before.

The following is a transcription of the testimony from the coroner’s inquest:

“My occupation is a puddler.  I live at 1317 Kinnickinnic Ave.  I am the brother in law of the deceased Wm R Smith.  I knew him for very near 8 years. I saw him last alive on Monday eve. Oct 18, 1886 about 7 or 8 o’clock.  I was walking in front of his home up and down in company with him.  About 7 o’clock he wanted to go out of the house.  I would not let him excepting I would go with, and I went with him.  I had him by the arm and we walked to and fro and as we was going back he gave a jerk and I slipped towards the gutter. Then he took and run and I ran after him.  He turned around the Village Hall – Bay View and when I got to the corner I could not see him at all.  I heard people ahead of me and I ran after them but it was some other person going towards Bay View.  When I see I could not get him I went to my other brother in law and told him that Bill got away from me.  And then him and I searched for him for three hours.  Then I give it up and went to deceased house and stayed with them the rest of the night.  The reason I done that I was afraid he would do his family harm as he threatened to do several times before.  We stayed up then till 10 minutes to 12 o’clock waiting for him.  I layed down for about 15 minutes in the couch(?) when a wrap came.  At the door a man by the name of Hansen said to me Wm Smith had killed himself.  Then his wife says Sam what is the matter.  I says nothing, Bill is down here a piece and I am going down to get him.  From that I went to my brother in law and told him about it.  I saw him the next day in the morgue and it is Wm R. Smith.  He was not in his right mind.  He was ailing for about six months.  Dr. Dodge recommended him to be sent to the Hospital.  Dr. Dodge seen him last Monday.” -Sam Hickman

Dr. N. Dodge                                      sworn says:

“I am Physician and Surgeon.  I live 221 Grand Ave.  Wm R. Smiths wife come to(?) me about a week ago.  I told her then not to wait 1 minute and put him in the hospital.  Last Sunday I went to see him, that was the first time I see him.  I told the folks to keep a man with him all the time.  The next is Monday October 18, 1886.  I went then with Dr. Dorland officially appointed by the court to examine him.  We found him much worse than the day before.  I then told them to be very careful and keep some body with him, such cases are always suicidal.” -N. Dodge MD

Lyman A. Sales                                  sworn says:

“I am conductor on …(?) RR – Chicago Division.  I live 423 Park St.  I had a wild (?) but Monday eve. I left the stockyards about 8 o’clock on Monday eve.  When we came down (?) Minerva the Fireman thought there was a man laying on the track.  When we stopped and got order I met the engineer who told me we had run over a man.  I went then and saw him laying on his face.  It was freight train no 40 that run him over first.  I told a Watchman to go and get a Policeman who came and took charge of him.  I should think it was about 80 miles from Minerva Station where I found the man.” -L.A. Saule

David Brownell sworn says:

“I am a storekeeper.  I live on Kinnikinnic Ave in Bay View.  I seen deceased in the morgue Wm R. Smith and I recognized him as my brother in law.  I have known him for the last 20 yrs.  I seen him last alive Monday afternoon about 3 o’clock Oct. 18 1886.  I saw him then in a very bad state of mind.  I took care of him for 4 hours.  He was that way for the last 5 months.  We had Dr. Danforth in one time.  Dr. Dorland and Dr. Dodge another time.  Dr. Dodge told me he was insane and he said we should send him to the Insane Asylum.  We had arrangement already made to send him to the Insane Asylum on Tuesday Oct 19 1886 had he lived.  On Tuesday Oct 19 1886 I found him in the morgue and identified him as Wm R. Smith my brother in law.” -David Brownell

The jury in the coroner’s inquest determined that the death of William R. Smith was a suicide.

The newspaper article mentions that William had left his family well provided for financially and Lila lived in Milwaukee with her family and eventually ended her life at the age of 84 living with her daughter Maude and son-in-law Arthur Petrie and their family.

It is curious to me what William’s diagnoses would be today. There is reference to him threatening to do harm to his family and the mention that he had written letters to his family explaining that he understood that were he to live, he would have become a burden. To me, that sounds like a very sane and rational way of thinking, but I suppose that the very act of suicide in the 1880s automatically rendered a person “insane”. I can understand why the family changed the story of his death. His children were fairly small when he died and I wonder if any of them knew the true circumstance of their father’s death.

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