One of my most memorable genealogical finds is in regards to newspaper accounts that verified some old family stories that have been passed around the kitchen table for years. My grandparents Wally & Esther Struck each had a story they loved to tell. Each story was later reinforced by a newspaper account I happened to stumble across during my family tree research. Finding the newsclippings was such a neat “a-ha!” moment, because they established a point of time and some relevant facts that only served to reinforce the tellings.
Esther’s story was about a cousin who was beheaded by a train. According to the story, which was passed down from her mother (Ida Krueger-Heling), the cousin was walking along the railroad tracks and, guessing he was either drunk or had fallen on the tracks, was hit by the train and killed instantly. The part of the story that always fascinated us children was that she said because his head was crushed by the train, and the tradition in those days was to hold an open casket viewing in the front parlor, they replaced his missing head with a large ball of cotton.
Esther’s grandmother was a Moede, and it was while researching her family line that I came across this story from February 7, 1907:
“Paul Moede Killed: Head Severed From His Body By Railway Train”
“Paul Moede’s body was found on the Central Railway track near the crossing of the Milwaukee Railway east of this city on Sunday, the head being entirely severed and lying some distance from the trunk. He was an employe of the Central Ry. Co., and when last seen alive was at work on the track near the crossing. The body was discovered by the crew of a freight train and Coroner Chas. E. Hill was at once notified. He caused a jury to be summoned and an adjournment was taken to this Thursday when evidence will be taken and a verdict returned.
The deceased was 29 years of age.”
Paul’s father, Carl F.W. Moede, was brother to Hulda Moede-Heling, Esther’s grandmother – thus, Paul was a first cousin to Esther’s mother Ida, who originally told her this story. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to prove that the family used a ball of cotton in place of his head at the funeral, but the evidence is certainly compelling.
Why does this find matter? It connects the family, both by identifying the subject of the family story as well as connecting future generations to the events that mattered in their ancestors’ lives. This story, as it has been passed down, captures attention because it is gruesome, and tragic, and at the same time holds a bit of dark humor in the image of the cottonball in the casket. Who doesn’t wonder how they would react if they attended a funeral such as this?
What is particularly tragic about this story is that Paul’s brother Herman had committed suicide less than 5 years before this. Could it be that their mother, in her grief over losing two sons at such a young age, made the unusual decision to hold an open-casket funeral despite Paul’s missing head?
That, incidentally, corroborates another Heling family story, told by Grandma’s brother Rudy – he said he had been riding beside his father in a wagon after taking their crops to market, and while passing a cemetery he noticed a headstone set apart from the others and bearing the familiar family surname. Rudy’s father explained that because Herman had taken his own life, he was not allowed to be buried in the same cemetery as his family. He added that the family did not speak of him any longer.
Herman Moede’s lonely marker remains to this day in a small cemetery on the outskirts of Sussex, while the remainder of the Moede family are buried in Pilgrim’s Rest Cemetery in Pewaukee. His headstone contains his name and dates of birth and death, as well as the statement “Simply to thy cross I cling”.