Home  

THE GHOST OF A TRAMP.—Frank Leslie's-April 2, 1881

IT WAS on my way from New York to Pittsburgh, by way of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and was lounging in my chair, lazily watching the beautiful blue Juniata as the train sped along the river-bank. It was a Summer evening, and the sun was sinking slowly behind the Western hills, as it it were loath to leave the scene of so much beauty. Floods of glorious golden light came pouring down upon the landscape, and the river, as if unwilling to be outdone in effulgence, gathered the burning rays in its broad bosom, and flashed them back to the sun in a blaze of splendor.

As the train rolled on, its iron path gradually led it to the mountain-side, and at last it burst into that charming valley known as the Lewistown Narrows. It was a scene of surprising loveliness and awful grandeur. The river blazed and sparkled, and glowed and dimpled, by turns, in response to each parting kiss from the sun but even the caresses of that luminary were not sufficient to stay its course, for it hastened on its appointed journey, now rustling furiously at the gray old rocks that had held their defiant heads above the surface for centuries; now embracing amorously some jutting cape, which, bolder than the rest, had extended itself into the stream; now roaring, gurgling, foaming, as it tumbled over tile inexorable rocks; now smiling, sparkling, whispering, as it kisses the verdure on the banks. But, faithful to the end, it penetrates all barriers, and finally merges into a beautiful stream, which stretches away to the east as far as the eye can reach.

The mountain rises loftily above the river, and bears suspended on its side the railroad and the, rushing train. Here it presents to the eye the appearance of a broad, forest clad plain, stretching obliquely from the earth to the skies; there it is a mass of granite, piled upon a larger mass, whose frowning aspect is unrelieved by a single tree. There, on the sister mountain, which rises almost perpendicularly on the opposite side of the river, midway up its steep ascent, a huge rock bangs threateningly over its base, and from its commanding portion one could easily imagine that it had originally been wrenched from its bed by some powerful convulsion of Nature and hurled down tire steep incline; but, having had time in its mad rush to see the surpassing loveliness of the valley, it had stopped suddenly half-way down, and remained there ever since. So I imagined, as I caught a glimpse of the charming scene through the car window. The train was moving toward the west in the face of the sun, now nearly set, but I could see the wondrous beauty of the sky from my chair. Steadily the great eye of day withdrew, and finally, after a longing, lingering look, it disappeared.


A perceptible change now came over the landscape. The dazzling brilliancy of the sun gave place to a mellow light, which rested lovingly upon the water and the mountain sides. The shadows deepened as the wondrous panorama went on, and the foliage assumed a darker hue.

Overhead the sky was softly tinted with the red and green which streamed out from the west, and the few clouds which gracefully draped the resting-place of the lord of day were pierced through and through, and yet bolted together by many fiery streaks of shining gold.

All who gazed upon this splendor felt its wondrous power over the human heart.

Scarcely a word was spoken. All were absorbed in contemplation of the ineffable grandeur of the dying sun.

Suddenly the spell was broken. A short, sharp whistle from the engine pierced the ear, and each passenger, thus quickly recalled to mundane affairs, grasped his chair and braced himself for a shock.

Then came a peculiar rubbing noise and a slight jarring sensation which assured the frightened travelers that the famed Mr. Westinghouse had, through the instrumentality of his air-brakes, clutched the car-wheels with a death-like grip, and was endeavoring to stop the train. A moment of dreadful expectancy ensued, and then, as the train was quickly stopped, the trembling passengers perceived that they were safe.

Of course, every one wanted to know the cause of the sudden stoppage. Happily for the anxious travelers, the conductor now appeared, and as he hastened through the car on his way to the rear platform, be was beset by eager questioners.

A short reply was vouchsafed. The engine had struck a man.

Three short blasts of the whistle followed, and the train slowly backed down the track. Only a few rods were traversed before the signal to stop was given. I looked out the window, and saw lying amongst the bushes a black object, which was readily recognized as a human form.

The train continued to move until the baggage-car came opposite to the body, when it stopped. Together with several passengers I stepped out of the car and approached the ghastly figure.

The trainmen had already gathered about it, and one man—the conductor—was turning the head around so as to expose the face.

"Is he dead?" asked one of the passengers, in a low voice.

"Dead!" said a man who was kneeling by the side of the body—dead! Well, I should may so! I don't believe he drew a breath after the engine struck him. Don't you see his head is all smashed in? If there is a bone in his body that ain't broke, then it ain't the fault of the engine."

I turned to look at the engine as it stood hissing and foaming near the spot where it had just dashed the life out of a human being, and I shuddered involuntarily as I saw the fireman, pour a bucket of water over the pilot, and carelessly wash away the blood and brains and hair with which the front of the locomotive was bespattered.

At this moment the safety-valve lifted, and a cloud of steam leaped into the air with a deafening noise, effectually precluding all further attempts at conversation. Casting one look at the horrible mass of quivering flesh which the trainmen were lifting into the baggage-car, I returned to my seat in the Pullman, sick with horror, and with nerves unstrung.

To be sure, it was only a man killed. Nearly everyday of my life I had noticed a two or three-line paragraph in my newspaper, announcing to the busy world that, another man had been, ran over and killed on the railroad; but I rarely gave it a moment's thought.

It was only another death—and surely deaths were not so uncommon as to call for a particular remark. But now I saw one face to face, and not as in a glass, darkly, and I felt as if a new world of thought had been suddenly disclosed to me.

Civilized men cannot bear to see the human body treated with indignity. They likewise cannot bear to see human life ruthlessly sacrificed. It has taken thousands of years to elevate men to this height; but now that they have reached it, they see that they owe their present high state of civilization to the respect with which human beings are now treated.

Love and admiration for mankind elevate men above the savages. The ancient Greeks thought so highly of men that they ascribed human bodies to their gods, and sought to represent the divine persons by means of statues.

Christianity would have failed had it not been that Christ was a God in a human body. His presence in the flesh dignified it, and has caused the human race to look upon their fellow-men with increased respect, knowing that the human body is indeed a "temple where a god may dwell."

The above thoughts passed through my mind as the train proceeded on the journey which had been so fatally interrupted. It was soon running at full speed, only to stop again at a small station at which the conductor had determined to leave the body.

This caused a delay of a few minutes, but the time lost was quickly regained after the train started, for in a very short time we were rolling over the rails at the rate of forty-five miles an hour.

In the meantime darkness had fallen upon the earth, and vailed the beauties of the landscape from my eyes. The lamps were now lighted, and they shed a soft, mellow light upon the interior of the car.

It was certainly a charming conveyance—this Pullman parlor I but I felt uncomfortable. Wherever I looked I saw in imagination the pale, still face of that poor wretch, who had been hurled so suddenly out of the world. Had he a wife somewhere, eagerly watching for his return, and anxiously asking, like the mother of Sisera, "Why is he so long in coming?" Had he children and a happy home, or was he an outcast, a pariah, a tramp, only a pauper whom nobody owns"?

My questions found no answer however, and I soon discovered that, try what I would, thoughts of the fatal event would flash through my mind, and, like Banquo's ghost, would not down. Wearied at last of my thoughts, I arose and left the luxurious parlor-car, and wended my way through the long train to the smoking-car. Here, thought I, I can at least enjoy a cigar and, perhaps, the fumes of the fragrant weed will wait away the visions I had conjured up of a home bereaved. So thinking, I looked about me for a seat, and, having found one. I sat down by the side of a nice-looking man, who was just finishing a cigar. As I drew out my case and selected a cigar, he courteously offered me his own to light mine by. I accepted it gratefully, and, being unwilling to be outdone in politeness, I offered him my cigar-case with an invitation to help himself. He did so, and in a moment we were both puffing away at our respective weeds. I now looked at my companion more closely, and discovered that he was a man who could bear examination. There was something In his manner that aroused my curiosity, for I thought I could detect in him the air of a man who was accustomed to danger. Be was apparently not more than forty years old, broad-shouldered, keen-eyed, and dressed like a well-to-do mechanic.

Satisfied as to his character, I began a conversation by addressing him as follows:

"That was a very sad accident, wasn't it?"

"Yes, indeed; it was an awful thing. But it was not an uncommon event."

"No," said I, "it is not uncommon. Somebody is ran over and killed nearly every day."

"It is hard on the engineer," said he, "particularly if the victim be the father of a family."

"Yes," replied I, as a sudden light dawned upon me, it must be hard on him. But are yon not a railroad man yourself?"

"Yes," said he with a quick look at me. "I am a locomotive engineer myself. What made you suspect that?"

"Why," said I, in some embarrassment. "I fancied it from your manner, for one thing; besides, you have the appearance of a man who is accustomed to danger."

"I understand." he remarked, slowly. "You can nearly always tell what a man is from his face."

"Do you run on this road?" I inquired.

"No, not on this road; but I am employed by the same company. I run on a branch road of the New Jersey division. I am going to Altoona now as a delegate to the convention of engineers. The Brotherhood, you know," said he.

"Ah, yes! You represent your friends on a New Jersey road. I presume you know from experience just how an engineer feels when he runs over a man?" questioned I.

"Yes," replied he, reluctantly, I thought. "I know what it is. I would rather lose a month's pay than run over even a man's arm. You see, you can't forget it, no matter how hard you may try. Once I struck a man near Milltown and killed him. For a long time after that I never could pass that place without shuddering, for I imagined that I could see the white, ghastly face rise up out of the ground and turn its stony eyes full upon me. But, then, that was an exceptional case. Perhaps you read of it in the newspapers?" continued he, interrogatively.

"No," said I, removing the cigar from my mouth, do not think so. At least, I do not remember it!"

"If, you had read of it you would certainly remember it. It was very strange thing indeed. My engine struck a tramp and killed him, you know. Well, a half-hour afterward the train was saved from destruction by that tramp's ghost."

"By a ghost!" ejaculated I, in surprise. "Why, you don't look like a men who believes in ghosts."

"I don't say that I do," replied he, with a twinkle in his eye. "However, I shall always stick to it that my train was saved from destruction that night by the ghost of a tramp."

"Do you mind to in me the story?" asked I, prompted by all the curiosity of my nature.

"I don't mind telling you the story, but I don't often tell it."

"Come, now, let me hear It. I just feel like listening to a good story, particularly if it has a ghost in it."

"I am afraid the ghost will disappoint you; still I will tell it to you. It occurred two years ago, on the Belleview Railroad. I ran an express-train from Lamberton to Belleview, and back again the same day, being a round trip of a little more than a hundred miles. My train left Lamberton, where I live, at one o'clock in the afternoon, and reached Belleview about a quarter to three. On the return trip I left the latter place at 7:30 p.m., and reached home at nine o'clock. It was a very nice run, you see. Well, sir, one day last Fall a year ago, I left home feeling very uneasy about my wife. You must understand, sir, that we were expecting a baby about that time, and Lucy kept saying over and over again that she was sure to die and leave the little one all alone in the world. Of course, that thing worried me considerably, for I was very fond of Lucy, but I tried to cheer her up by telling her that, since she had gone through with it before, she stood a good chance of having an easy time of it now. But no, she wouldn't be convinced. She felt sure that a shadow was hanging over us—those are her words, sir, not mine—and it was about to fall and cover us all with the darkness of grief.

"Well, I went away that day feeling very uneasy; and it was no wonder I felt blue, considering the weather. Why, sir, it had been raining steadily for three days, and the air was as damp and chilly as it could be. The leaves were nearly all gone from the trees, and everything had assumed that cold, cheerless aspect which is peculiar to November. Well, sir, I climbed aboard the old lady—that's my engine, you know, sir, although I sometimes call her 'Susie'—496, sir, that's her number. Well, sir, I got on her, and pulled out of the house, feeling pretty gloomy. Then, besides, the train from Philadelphia was late, and I had to wait fifteen minutes, which made me feel mad. However, we got off at last, and inside of half an hour 'Susie' foamed over. Do you know what that is?"

Upon my replying in the negative, he endeavored to explain how the water in the boiler would sometimes boil so violently as to fill the space intended for steam with foam, which would work down into the cylinders and interfere with the stroke of the piston.

"As soon as I found that out, I foamed over, too. It's no joke to run a foaming engine when you are already behind time, I tell you. But, you see, sir, I got the old lady all right directly, and in a short time she was skimming along the metals at the rate of two miles in three minutes, which was faster than the schedule time. My train only stopped four times on the way up, so I succeeded in gaining a little, but the devil himself seemed to have a hand in managing our train that day, for when we got within five miles of Belleview I saw a red flag ahead. I put on the brakes and stopped suddenly, for, owing to the storm, I had not seen the flag until I was almost up to it. The flagman told me that a freight train was off the track right ahead, and that I was to wait until the rails were cleared. And, sir, we had to wait there for an hour before we could get past. Finally, we went on and reached the station.

"The rest of that afternoon I spent in misery. I was worried about my wife, for one thing, and for some reason or other I couldn't get warm. I was chilled through and through by that damp, raw November air, and, sir, if there ever was a man all in the downs with the bluest kind of blue devils, it was myself.

"Well, time went on, and at 7:30 p.m. sharp I pulled the throttle of Engine 496, and, picking up her train, sir, she swept out of the station like a lady leaving the ballroom.

"It was still raining, and I could not see very far. I don't know when I felt as nervous as I did that night. Yes see, sir, several things combined to make me so. Besides being in the blues myself, there was the fear that my wife might even then be dying, and also I was a little worried about the condition of the track.

The road ran right along the river bank, and I couldn't see that, owing to the heavy rains, the river had risen at least ten feet above low-water mark. On the other side of the track was a long line of hills which stretched nearly all the way from Belleview to Lamberton and I was very much afraid that the storm would cause landslides.

"Then, again, there were at various points along the line little streams which emptied into the river. Over these streams the road was carried on culverts, which were large enough in the dry season, but when the heavy storms caused the creeks to swell to five or six times their proper size, the Culverts were too small to allow the flood to pass through, and the result was that the water collected behind the railroad and formed quite a pond, which was prevented from joining the river only by the railway embankment.

"Still, I had to make time. I kept a sharp lookout for dangers ahead, but I could not see far. The storm blinded the light flung out in advance by the headlight, and the rain-drops clouded the glass in front of the cab, so it was very little use for me to keep straining my eyes. However, I did the best I could and left the rest to God..

"Everything went smoothly for an hour, only I steadily lost time, for it wasn't human nature to rush on through the darkness blindfolded.

"I had now reached Landsdale, where a my train stopped. At this point we passed the up-train. It was somewhat behind time, and I asked the engineer about the state of the track.

"'It's all right,' said he, I only I advise you to run slow over the culvert below Milltown.'

"I didn't have time to ask more questions, for the bell rang to start. I let on steam and pulled out rather lively, for there was a fine piece of track just below the station, and I knew that it was safe. It was about twenty miles from Landsdale to Lamberton, and twelve miles to the culvert before spoken of, and so I determined to risk the rate of a mile in two minutes. The engine was just then in fine trim, having a high-water level and making steam rapidly, and she made five miles in a trifle less than ten minutes.

"So far, nothing had happened. We were now only fifteen miles from Lamberton, and for the next two miles the track was laid on a solid rock foundation, at least two hundred yards from the river. Believing that accident was improbable on this tangent, I gave the throttle another jerk, and the engine jumped forward like a racer.

"For about ten minutes I sat there like a statue, with both hands on the lever. The engine quivered like a leaf as she danced over the joints of the rails, and hurled herself through the darkness as if she, too, were anxious to get home.

"Presently I saw, the lights of Milltown appear in the distance. As this was a small village, my train was not scheduled to stop, and so I did not slacken up, but contented myself with ringing the bell. "'It chanced that the road was slightly down-grade, at this point—hence the speed of tile train was increased a little.

"On we dashed up to the station, and were just passing by, when I beheld a sight that fairly froze my heart's blood. It lasted only a second, but even that brief space of time served to photograph it on my mind forever.

Directly in front of the engine, distant only a few feet from where I sat, a human face grinned at me. And such a face! There was something indescribably horrible about it, and, in spite of myself, I screamed right out. You can't imagine, sir, what a fearful sight it was. You see, it just seemed to flash right out at me and then disappeared. It was fully ten feet above the ground, and directly in line with my face. The eyes were wide open, and they glared at me terribly. The mouth, too, was open, and the teeth were exposed; but, worst of all sir, right on the forehead was a gaping wound, and the blood was apparently flowing from it.

"All this I saw in a single second; it might possibly have been even less. However, I was paralyzed with horror by it, and it was half a minute before I recovered my senses. I quickly closed the throttle-valve and applied the brakes. After I had done this the thought flashed through my mind that I might have been mistaken; that, owing to the troubles pressing on my mind I might have imagined that which I thought was real. Then, again, I thought it might have been a ghost; for you must understand that, while I had never previous to this time believed in unearthly visitors, I was scared enough then to believe in anything.

"But the train came to a dead stop,

"'What's up,' asked Tom Ryan, my fireman. 'What did you holler for?'

"'Don't ask me, said I. 'Heaven alone knows what that thing was.'

"I did not wait for any more questions to be put, but jumped down from the engine and walked quickly to the pilot. I had a torch with me, and by its light I examined the front of the engine. Strange to relate, I saw no signs to indicate that the engine had struck a man.

"At this juncture the conductor came up to learn the cause of the stoppage.

"For a moment I knew not what to say. I was satisfied in my own mind that the engine had not struck a man, because the face I saw was that of a corpse, blanched and rigid. Besides, I could not conceive how the engine could have tossed a man in that strange position without the body falling back on the pilot. But there was no evidence of having struck a man on the front of the engine, and so I did not know what to say.

"'What is the matter?" asked the conductor; did you run over somebody ?'

"'I don't know,' said I; 'I saw something like a dead man's face right ahead, and so I stopped.'

"'A dead man's face!" said he, in surprise.

"'Yes,' said I, 'a dead man's lace. I'll swear to it in any court of justice.'

"'You must have hit a man and tossed him into the air just in front of the headlight, and you saw the light flash on his face,' suggested tire conductor, after a pause.

"'Where is the body?' asked I.

"'We must look for it,' said he, and he sent out all the trainmen, except the rear brakeman, to search the track. Several men who were at the depot assisted them in the search, but they seemed to put little confidence in my story.

"Well, sir, for ten minutes they wandered up and down in all that rain looking for the body. I climbed into the cab and staid there, feeling satisfied that there was no body. Yes, sir, I honestly believed I had seen a ghost. I thought that it had appeared to me to warn me of my wife's death, so, of course, there was no use for me to hunt for a body.

"At last the conductor got impatient.

"'You must have been dreaming, Jack Thorn1ey,' said he; 'there is no body here.'

"'No, I wasn't dreaming,' said I; 'I'll swear I saw a face right ahead.'

"'Call in the hind brakeman,' said he; 'we can't "stay here all night.'

"Well, sir, I whistled four times, and in few minutes the brakeman returned. The bell rang to go ahead, and I let on steam. 'Susie' made about three revolutions of her drivers, and then I stopped her.

"'Did you hear that noise?' I asked I of the fireman.

"'No. What noise?' questioned he.

"I made no reply. I heard the shout of a man directly ahead, and something warned me to stop.

"I leaned out of the window and listened.

"I heard a shrill cry very distinctly. Involuntarily I shuddered, and drew in my head.

"'There,' said Tom—'I heard that.'

"Again the cry was repeated. This time I thought I could distinguish the word:

"'Stop!'

"'What on earth is the matter with you, Jack Thornley?' asked the conductor, who had again come to the engine.

"'Listen!' said I." Don't you hear?'

"At that moment the cry once more rang out:

'Stop, stop—for God's sake, stop!'

"We three man turned and looked sit each other.

Suddenly Tom whispered:

"'Here comes some one running up the track.'

"In a moment more a figure emerged from the darkness, and waved its arms violently.

"'Stop, stop!' he Shouted.

"'The train is not moving!' shouted I, in return.

"'The culvert! the culvert!' gasped he, as he staggered up to the engine. 'It has caved in, and the track is washed away!'

"' The track washed away! Ah!' thought I, 'I understand it now. My wife is dead, and her spirit appeared in front of the engine to warn me of approaching danger.'

"To be sure, the ghost had a man's face; but you see, sir, I was so scared by our narrow escape that I scarcely knew what I thought.

"Well, Sir, I won't tire you out by making the story too long. The rest can be told in a few words. It seemed that the water had accumulated behind the embankment until it was powerful enough to make a crevasse. As soon as this was done, the entire embankment rapidly disintegrated, and was swept away into the river. A man living near by saw the disaster, and knowing that a train was due, he ran up the track to stop it.

"However, as he had no lantern, his attempt would have been in vain; but fortunately, thanks to that ghost, I had already stopped the train, and the fifteen minutes we spent in looking for the body gave him time to reach us. That is all."

"But the ghost," said I—"the ghost, Mr. Thornley. How do you account for that?"

"Well," said he, with a peculiar smile, "this is the truth of the matter. Of course, since the track was washed away, the train could not go on. The conductor telegraphed the news to Lamberton, and he was ordered to remain at Milltown overnight. So I backed slowly up to the station, and the engine came to a stop right by a large reflecting-lamp at the lower end of the station.

"Just as I stopped the train, a cry of horror arose from the men on the platform. I looked at them and saw that they were staring at the front of the engine. My eyes naturally turned in the same direction, and, sir, I saw by the blaze of the depot-lamp, a corpse tightly wedged in between the smoke-stack and the headlight of the engine—a corpse, sir, and the face was turned toward me. I understood it all then. There had been no ghost at all. What I saw was the face of that dead man which was suddenly illuminated by the depot-lamp as the train rushed by."

"But how did the corpse get there!" asked I, in amazement.

"I can't say for certain," replied he, since I did not see the occurrence. An examination of the body revealed the fact that he had been dead for some time—possibly half an hour. His clothes indicated that he was a tramp, and I presume the accident happened this way: The night was so dark that it was impossible for me to see any distance ahead; so I am inclined to think that the tramp was walking along the track when the engine struck him. As the train was moving quite fast, the poor tallow was knocked high in the air, and it chanced that the body fell in between the smoke-stack and the headlight, where it remained for half an hour tightly wedged in. The face was turned toward me, and as the train passed the Milltown station, the large lamp there flashed for a single second upon the face, and I just caught a glimpse of it. Well, Sir, when I reached home next day, I found my family increased by the arrival of a very young boy; and, sir, he was born about the time when I first caught sight of the ghost of a tramp."

"And how about your wife—was she dead?"

"Oh, no, sir, she wasn't dead. She is alive and well to-day."

"That is one of the strangest stories I ever heard," remarked I, as I threw away the stump of my cigar.

"It is true, sir, every word of it," said he, quietly.


Stories Page | Contents Page

Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery