The Death of William Van Meter – Part One

I’m an amateur genealogist, and I know how to have a good time. Case in point: I was spending some time last December rooting around in old newspapers online like a wild man when something caught my eye:

The names got me. “John Van Meter” is the name of my great great grandfather, and I knew he had a son named “William Van Meter,” although I didn’t know anything about him. The article was published in Kansas City on June 9, 1881. The date and location lined up with what I knew about that family at the time.

My stupid, gullible lizard brain may also have been drawn to phrases like “legs were literally cooked” and “agony is terrible to behold.”

A few more searches around that date netted me a some more articles touching on the fate of William Van Meter. He died on Wednesday, July 13, 1881. He was about 22 years old. He was a worker in one of the Kansas City packing houses. He had a wife and an infant daughter.  Sometimes he went by Will.

Just like that, Will Van Meter wasn’t just a name and a date anymore. He was a young man, one of my great uncles, who had a new family and who died in a tragic accident.

This wasn’t just about morbid curiosity anymore. I needed to know more.

I had the name of the company he worked for: “Fowler Brothers.” So I did a search for his surname, “Van Meter,” and the name of the business, “Fowler,” limited to Kansas City newspapers in the 1880’s. I found this in the trial docket for the December 1881 term for the Wyandotte County, KS District Court:

A little more digging in the newspaper confirmed that Nancy Van Meter was Will’s widow, as well as the administrator of his estate. She was apparently suing the Fowler Brothers for, I presumed at the time, the wrongful death of her husband. Another blurb published in April 1882 stated that this case was transferred to the Circuit Court of the United States, and that’s when my antennae twitched.

See, I’m not in Kansas City, and to the best of my knowledge I can’t do business with Kansas county governments from a distance. Every time I’ve called in the past and asked for county-level records, the clerks have asked me to show up in person so they could help me. That’s a hell of a walk for me, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of local records yet. But I know Federal records. I’ve worked with Federal records. I can get Federal records.

So I did.

After confirming that the National Archives holds U.S. Circuit Court case files, I reached out to their Kansas City facility. I gave them the names of the plaintiffs and defendants, and the district court case number that I gleaned from the paper (2807). A few emails back and forth and a quick phone call later, and I had the case file in my inbox.

This was my first time recalling Federal records for genealogical purposes, and I was not disappointed. The case file was a beautiful thing; sixty-three faded, mostly handwritten pages detailing every nuance of this case. As an added bonus, it included the Wyandotte County District Court record as well as the U.S. Circuit Court record, so I finally had the full story of the death of William Van Meter.

I mean, after I deciphered it. The thing’s in bad shape, and it looks like the District Court files are copies of copies. Plus, everything’s in Legalese, specifically nineteenth century Legalese. I had to teach myself how to read the handwriting, then how to translate the language into standard English, and then I had to transcribe most of the handwritten text into a text file so I could finally absorb what it was saying without sweating over every individual word. I’m not a smart man. This took hours.

But I finally had the full story. The timeline, the setting, the cast of characters, everything. And so will you, in Part Two!

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