A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did anyone really ever get tied to railroad tracks?

October 9, 2007

Dear Straight Dope:

It happens in cartoons, it happens in early movie serials, and it happens in Victorian stage plays: villain ties girl to railroad tracks in hopes of seeing her squashed to bits; hero rescues girl just in time, leaving villain to curse that he was foiled yet again. But did this ever really happen? Did someone really kill someone else by tying them onto the rails and hoping the 5:20 from Chicago would do the rest? Or was it a metaphor for Industry crushing agricultural society?

SDStaff Gfactor replies:

It really happened, Liz, but it probably happened in fiction first, and its metaphorical content is open to debate.

The earliest real-life incident I could find was from 1874, when on August 31 the New York Times reported that a Frenchman named Gardner had been robbed and tied to railroad tracks. He managed to loosen all the ropes but the one that secured his left foot, and the train cut off his leg below the knee. Though he survived to describe the attack, he soon died of his injuries.

There are other examples, including cases involving a kidnapped 13-year-old boy (1881), a 40-year-old mechanic (the article actually uses the word "dastardly" to describe the crime), a college freshman (part of a 1905 fraternity initiation; he died), a 10-year-old boy (1906), and a 19-year-old man (1907).

But all these may well have been copycat crimes, in a sense, as some very widely known fictional examples predated them. The first American work to feature "the railroad scene," as critics and courts came to call it, was the short story "Captain Tom's Fright," which ran in the March 13, 1867 issue of the Galaxy magazine.

An even earlier version of the scene comes from an English play by Charles Bolton called The Engineer (1863). The special effects may have been rudimentary – the train was typically painted onto a wood flat, which was then mounted on rails – but audiences loved it, says Nicholas Daly in "Sensation Drama, the Railway, and Modernity," an essay republished in his 2004 book Literature, Technology, and Modernity.

The railroad scene was popularized in the U.S. by a play by Augustin Daly (no relation, apparently) called Under the Gaslight (1867). Daly claimed the scene as his own, quite literally. In 1868 he sued theatrical promoters who were trying to put on a play by Dion Boucicault called After Dark that included its own railroad scene. The defendants pointed to "Captain Tom's Fright" as evidence that Daly's story wasn't original, but the court gave this argument short shrift and enjoined production of their play. Daly sued a few more times and wound up before the Supreme Court in 1899; the Court affirmed an award of statutory damages for violations of Daly's copyright.

Whatever its legal status, clearly the idea wasn't Augustin Daly's alone. Nicholas Daly notes that in October 1868 the railroad scene could be witnessed in five different plays at five different London theaters. It's immaterial whether the authors were borrowing from each other, Daly argues; what's significant "is that the railway rescue was so popular, thrilling audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and at both fashionable and cheap houses. Such popularity suggests that the scene was putting in play some very pressing cultural fears, anxieties, or indeed longings." Railroads had become integral to modern life ("the people who came to see the 'railway terror', in 1868," he points out, "would in many instances have come by train") but still seemed dangerous and frightening – the UK had experienced one of the worst train wrecks of the century, the Abergele disaster, in August of that year. Daly also suggests that the railroad scene spoke to audiences because it depicted people triumphing over machines, certainly a common theme before and since.

Thanks to fellow SDSAB members samclem and Una Persson for their research help and comments.

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