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Death By Fire: The Unsolved Case of the Rock Island Railroad Wreck of 1894

It was one of the the largest instances of mass murder in Nebraska ... and remains unsolved to this day.


The Rock Island train derailment of 1894 remains one of the deadliest unsolved crimes in the country, and one of the largest instances of mass murder in the state of Nebraska.

At 7:30 P.M. on August 9, 1894, Locomotive 213 left Fairbury, Nebraska, hauling two passenger cars carrying a total of 33 passengers. Almost two hours later, just before it was due to reach Lincoln, Nebraska, the train derailed from a 40-foot-high trestle just outside of town. When the train fell from the tracks, the engine burst open, spilling hot coals that set the whole train ablaze. Eleven of the passengers and crew were killed in the ensuing carnage and fire.

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The headlines in the following day’s Nebraska State Journal announced “Death by Fire,” and went on to describe the tragedy in almost poetic terms: “The flames mounted high in the heavens coloring the entire southern sky a brilliant carmine while moonbeams fell upon the glowing mass below from which mortal shrieks of agony and pain were heard to issue.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, three men worked diligently to save those they could from the burning wreckage. One of them, brakeman Harry Foote, climbed twice onto the blazing pile in spite of having suffered a broken leg in the accident. His bravery is noted on the historical marker that has since been erected to commemorate the event.

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Investigators found that the 400-foot-long trestle had been intentionally damaged, with pulled spikes, wrench marks found on the rail, and gouges in the ties. A 40-pound crowbar was found near the scene of the tragedy, and it didn’t take authorities long to declare the crash an act of sabotage. Newspapers of the time called it a “Holocaust Caused by Fiends.”

George Washington Davis Rock Island Railway Wreck
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though today the wreck is considered an unsolved crime, it didn’t remain unsolved for long in 1894. Within two days of the wreck, police had arrested George Washington Davis. Davis, who was African-American, had spent time in prison for theft, but there was little evidence to connect him to the crime, save that some of the survivors had seen him standing nearby in the aftermath of the wreck.

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That, along with the color of his skin, was enough for a jury to find Davis guilty of second-degree murder in the second of two trials against him, in 1895. Though Davis never admitted to any wrongdoing, he was nevertheless sentenced and sent to prison. For the next 10 years, advocates on Davis’s behalf who believed that he had been wrongly convicted worked to free him. In 1905, then-Governor John Mickey granted Davis his parole, stating that, “diligent and close consideration has led to the conviction that all ends of justice have been fully served and to grave doubts as to the guilt of said convict.” Davis was released and subsequently disappeared from the historical record.

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The derailment remains the worst mass murder in Nebraska history, up alongside the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather. And with Davis’ parole, the crime remains officially unsolved to this day. While there are some who still believe that Davis had something to do with the sabotage, others hold different theories, or at least suspect that he didn’t act alone.

Rock Island Railroad Wreck
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Today, the trestle passes above the Jamaica North Trail of Wilderness Park in Lincoln, where in 2010 a historical marker was erected to commemorate the wreck and those who died. The marker reads: “A northbound Rock Island train was derailed from this trestle on August 9, 1894, resulting in a crash, massive fire, and the deaths of eleven passengers and crew, despite the heroic action of Harry Foote, brakeman, who rescued many. G.W. Davis, convicted of the crime in 1895, was paroled ten years later by Governor John Mickey, who noted ‘grave doubts’ as to his guilt. Davis’s motive and whether he acted alone also remain matters of conjecture.

Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons