#52Ancestors, Blogging Prompts, Hoffmann Line, Research, Slagel

Curious: Killed in a Wagon Factory

For 2022, my goal is to post here weekly to share some of the interesting, tragic, and amusing stories I’ve discovered about ancestors and cousins on both sides of my family. In the past I’ve used both the 52 Ancestors prompts as well as the slew of prompts available at the Geneabloggers website, so we’ll see what will actually keep me blogging regularly this year.

Today’s post is inspired by this week’s 52 Ancestors prompt, “Curious.” I’ve always had a morbid streak (maybe it comes from growing up one alfalfa field away from a cemetery). I used to wander through said cemetery, jotting down tombstone inscriptions I found interesting. Usually “interesting” meant those where the deceased died at a young age, and, curious and wanting to learn more, I would drive down to the Caldwell Public Library (in Idaho at that time you could get a driver’s license at fourteen) and look up obituaries on microfilm. This same morbid curiosity continues now as part of my genealogical research. Thankfully there are now enough scanned newspapers available online that I am often able to find out how and why these ancestors and cousins met an untimely end, even when I am hundreds of miles away from a relevant public library.

One individual about whose death my curiosity was piqued was my second great-granduncle, Jacob “Jake” Slagel. The son of Samuel John Slegel (spellings of this surname are inconsistent) and his wife Mary Walty, and brother of my 2G-grandfather, Samuel Slagel, Jacob was born between 1850 and 1851 in Wisconsin. By 1856 Jacob’s parents had moved to Highland, Iowa; then by 1870 to Grove, Iowa. On October 7, 1877, in Livingston County, Illinois, where his brother Samuel had married two years before and would spend the rest of his life, Jacob married Katharina “Katie” Rapp. They would have a daughter Mary the following year, and a daughter Carrie two years after that. By that time the family was living in Morton, Illinois.

I knew Jacob had died young (though when I was 14, his age of 34 might not have made my list of “early deaths”), and scanned images of the Freeport [Illinois] Journal-Standard at Newspapers.com flesh out the story. Tragedy struck the Slagel family on 15 September1884 when Jacob and Katie had been married just shy of seven years. The newspaper article “Death in a Wagon Factory” tells us Jacob Slagel was an engineer manufacturing cider using a wagon factory’s steam machinery. The machinery’s boilers exploded violently, and then the remains of the factory caught fire and were completely destroyed. Jacob Slagel and “a boy named Briscler” died instantly, and two additional victims were thought to be buried in the building’s ashes. Several other individuals had suffered terrible injuries as well. The article states baldly that Jacob was to blame, as he allowed the boilers to run too low on water, then suddenly added cold water, “a mistake for which he paid with his life.”

I haven’t been able to identify the “boy named Briscler” any further, but one of the other severely-injured men was Christian Ackerman, who died three days later. According to the newspaper article, written while Mr. Ackerman’s life still hung in the balance, death most likely was a “merciful relief.” Even an article with this level of detail can’t satisfy all curiosity, however. Was Jacob supposed to be manufacturing cider in the factory and, if not, how serious was this infraction? What did happen to all the others injured in the incident, and to the families left behind by those who were killed? How did Katie cope with losing her husband and knowing that (apparently) he was responsible for his own death and those of several others?

I do know that nine years after Jacob’s death, Katie married William Voelpel, who had been born in Germany in 1842 (Katie had also been born in Germany). Katie died in 1910, and it appears that William Voelpel died in 1914. Both Katie and Jacob are buried in the Apostolic Christian Cemetery in Morton.

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