"Fatally Mangled By Train" - James Hanley (1888-1908)

As I continue my 52 ancestors in 52 weeks blogging challenge (this is week 8) I find that I am drawn stories of shock and tragedy. Why are these stories new to me? What stories in your own family histories have been buried or repressed across generations?

These are some questions I encourage you to consider as you hear this story of my 2nd great uncle, James Hanley (1888-1908).

James Hanley (1888-1908)

Though likely not THE train that killed my 2nd great uncle, James Hanley (1888-1909), one like it from the same railroad company probably did. This is engine #56 of the Copper Range Railroad operating around Atlantic Mine, Michigan at the time of my uncle's death.

James Hanley was the older brother of my great grandfather, Michael John Hanley (1890-1964). James was young, unmarried, and worked as a train brakeman for the Copper Range Railroad at the time of his death.

He had 7 full siblings and 4 half siblings. You read about some of them here:

His death certificate was of particular interest. At first his "cause of death" was difficult to read. See for yourself:

James Hanley (1888-1908) Death Certificate

James Hanley (1888-1908) Death Certificate

After posting this death certificate to a Facebook Genealogy Group (closed) the general consensus was that the cause of death says: "Shock, was run over by Copper Range Switch Engine". Also listed under "contributory" is: "fract ribs both femurs and both ankles" which suggests his ankles, thigh bones, and some ribs were fractured. How horrific!

A helpful member of the Facebook group mentioned above also found the newspaper article detailing this accident in the Detroit Times on July 27, 1908.

Detroit Times July 27, 1908

Detroit Times July 27, 1908

James is buried with several other members of his family at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Houghton, Michigan. Here is his gravestone.

James Hanley - Forest Hill Cemetery in Houghton, MI

James Hanley - Forest Hill Cemetery in Houghton, MI

There are a few minor discrepancies in this story. James's indexed birth record indicates he was born on October 6, 1888. That matches the date on his death certificate listed above. His gravestone indicates that he was born in 1889. The newspaper article indicates he was 22 when he died. While all of these can't be true, I think we can safely chalk up the differences to typical variances that we often find in genealogical research. It is most likely the case that James was, in fact, only 19 years old when he died. 

The newspaper also indicates that he was taken to St. Mary's hospital while the death certificate states he died at St. Joseph Hospital. Was he transferred? Is this a mistake? Was this the same hospital? I am sure a little bit of googling could help me find out.

While we can't know for sure, it seems likely that James suffered tremendously. His injuries were gruesome and there were three days between his accident and his death. The injuries were so horrific that the newspaper was preemptively reporting that he was "fatally mangled".

As I think about James and my family tree I am reminded of the mission of The Psychologenealogist: Exploring the spaces where psychology, genealogy, and history converge - one story at a time. Here are some of the questions I have about my 2nd great uncle:


  • How long had James been working as a brakeman?
  • Do any pictures of James exist? Where can I find them?
  • How many other young men died in very similar accidents in what was apparently a VERY dangerous profession?


  • How do traumatic accidents and deaths impact family histories for generations?
  • How and why do families collectively repress memories of our most tragic losses? (Side note: coming back from vacation this week I watched a movie on the plane - "The Witness" - a fascinating documentary that speaks to this very idea. You should check it out!)
  • What was my great grandfather's relationship like with his older brother, James? 

This is the 8th of 52 weekly posts planned for 2018. It was inspired by the #52Ancestors writing challenge issued by professional genealogist, Amy Crow Johnson. The challenge: once a week, for all 52 weeks of the year, write about a relative in your family tree.