Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Marshall Fields Elevator Fall -- November 5, 1902

Marshall Field's in 1902
Big cities were dangerous places as the twentieth century began.  Maybe that is still true, but we can’t imagine the daily onslaught of train fatalities, unfortunate falls beneath streetcar wheels, poisonings, diseases and fires that besieged the average citizen as the 1900’s began.

One event that clearly shows the truth of that statement occurred on this date, November 5, of 1902.  It happened in the brand new store of Marshall Field when an elevator and its two passengers fell from the ninth floor to the basement of the building.  The 25-year-old elevator operator, Thomas Byrne, was killed in the accident.  His passenger, John Steiskal, suffered injuries and was removed to the Presbyterian Hospital.


Harry G. Selfridge, the manager of the store, was also injured as he was cut by falling glass as he helped to clear away the wreckage.  You may recognize Mr. Selfridge’s name.  He worked his way up the ladder at Field’s and left in 1906 for London where he spent an extraordinary sum to open a department store on the west end of Oxford Street. 

It was a dramatic accident at Marshall Field’s as the entire building shook when the car landed, and the sound of the crash reverberated throughout the interior of the store.  The car fell with such speed that the counterweights were hurled through the roof of the building.  That was unfortunate because much of the cabling came back down the elevator shaft, and that seems to have been the cause of young Mr. Byrne’s death.

Harry Selfridge
Said Mr. Selfridge, “The cause of the accident is unknown to me, but is being investigated as rapidly as possible.  The car did not fall precipitately, but gradually, comparatively, as shown by the safety apparatus.  Our employee would not have been killed but for the fall of the cables.”

Just a cursory look at newspaper accounts of 1902 show that elevator injuries and deaths occurred with regularity with nearly one incident per month.  I think that if I were living back in 1902, I might be inclined to take the stairs.

Chicago Elevator Mishaps in 1902 – A Partial List

• January 11 – Elevator falls in Chamber of Commerce Building, the third mishap in the same building in a month, killing a workman.
• January 27 – Two workmen escape death when an elevator falls at Openheim’s General Store at Forty-Seventh and Ashland.
• March 10 – Mrs. Anna Schneider is killed in a West Side Hospital elevator as she is being transferred on a wheeled cart from one ward to another.
• April 14 – 16-year-old George Calbach is killed as he is caught between the weights of two elevators while riding in a freight elevator at 128 Franklin Street.
• May 12 – Seven men and two women escape from an elevator in the Marquette Building after it falls three floors.
• May 15 – Joseph Brown, a teamster, is injured as an elevator falls at 170 Clinton Street, the second such mishap in a year.
• June 4 – A young boy, identified, is killed in an elevator at 221 State Street.
• June 6 – An elevator drops from the sixth story of the Warren Springer Building at 199 South Canal Street, injuring three.
• July 15 – Frank H. Griswold, president of the Northwestern Storage Company, the Newberry Storage and Warehouse Company, and the Griswold Storage and Tansfer Company is killed by a falling elevator at 280 Michigan Avenue.
• July 28 – 14-year-old Tolif Buchkowski, is maimed as a he is wedged between a heavy freight elevator and a stone wall.
• November 7 – L. D. Johnson, a clerk, is crushed between an elevator cage and the shaft of the Schlesinger & Mayer’s store.
• December 6 – Emil Ryandorf, 17-years-old, has his skull fractured when he falls down an elevator shaft at the Warren Springer Company, 231 South Canal Street.

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