The Death of William Van Meter – Part Two

I had the U.S. Circuit Court files. I had the newspaper articles. I had census records and other background material. And now, I have the full story of William van Meter’s death.

William was born in 1859 in Illinois. His mother and father, John and Priscilla Van Meter, were born in Ohio and moved to what is now the Kansas City, Kansas area around that time, so I presume William was born during the journey.

The 1880 Census, taken in June of that year, indicates that William’s family was having a difficult time making ends meet. His father John, a day laborer, had been out of work since at least December. William himself was employed at a mill, presumably Skelton & Gille’s saw mill, which was close to the packing house he’d eventually be employed at in 1881. The Census states that he was out of work for two months in 1880. It also indicates that his two younger siblings, thirteen-year-old Mary and ten-year-old John, were working outside the home as well.

Will married Nancy Ellen Traver just across the border in Jackson County, Missouri on September 5, 1880. Nancy’s testimony in the Wyandotte County District Court states that the couple had a little girl named Rosa May. Assuming she was conceived in wedlock and wasn’t born premature, their daughter would have been less than a month old at the time of William’s accident.

Some time between June 1880 and June 1881, William got a job as a laborer at a meat packing plant operated by the Anglo-American Packing & Provision Company. This company was incorporated in Illinois on November 19, 1878, and operated meat packing plants in Chicago, Illinois and Atchison, Kansas, as well as a company warehouse in New York City and administrative offices in Liverpool, England. The Company’s sole stockholders were five Irish brothers and business partners:  George Fowler, Robert Fowler, Anderson Fowler, John Fowler, and William Fowler. Collectively, they did business as the Fowler Brothers.

The Kansas City packing plant was Anglo-American’s newest facility, and it was massive. It sprawled across 21 acres of land on the Kansas River, 14 of which consisted of hog and cattle pens, and the remainder occupied by the slaughter house and other buildings. Ground was broken in March 1880, and the plant was open for business by the beginning of September. At the height of production, Anglo-American employed about nine hundred people and processed over 4,000 hogs and several hundred cattle a day for export to British meat markets overseas.

In other words, this wasn’t a podunk operation.

On June 7, 1881, William Van Meter was employed as a laborer at the packing plant, and one of his duties was to stir and clean the lard rendering vats. In order to do this, he’d lay out a board across the top of the vat and walk to the center. Balancing on this board over the boiling lard, he’d use a tool with a long handle and a scraping blade at the end to scrape out the inside of the vat. That’s exactly what he was doing on the day of the accident when the blade of his scraper suddenly popped off the handle, sending him tumbling backwards off the board and into the vat.

William’s legs were badly scalded, and he was immediately rushed home and put under medical care by the packing plant’s resident doctor, John Van Allen. Later that day, a representative from Anglo-American visited William and had him sign a document acknowledging that the Company paid him $100  “in full settlement of any claims whatever against the Company”  and that the accident was due to his negligence alone, and not due to negligence on the part of the Company. William lingered in agony for six weeks until he finally died on July 13.

On September 10, 1881, his widow Nancy Van Meter, acting as the administrator of William’s estate, filed suit against the Fowler brothers in the Wyandotte County District Court. She claimed that the tools provided to the workers at the Anglo-American plant were not maintained properly, that the Fowler brothers were aware of that fact and did nothing, and because of this they were directly responsible for William’s death. She also stated that William’s death left her and her infant daughter without a means of support, and that she was unable to provide a security for the court costs due to her poverty. She sought $10,000 in damages.

The Fowler brothers, named collectively as the defendants, asserted that the document William signed on the day of his accident absolved them of any wrongdoing, and that William claimed sole responsibility for the accident. Nancy countered that William was in no condition to give his consent since he was in severe mental and physical anguish, that the Fowlers were aware of that, and that they tricked him into providing his signature.

The case was heard in the Wyandotte County District Court between December 7 and 18, 1881. Among the witnesses called to testify were William’s parents John and Priscilla, his brother Ammon Van Meter, their future son-in-law (and my great-granddad) George Jones, and his brother Wilson Jones.

From what I can tell, no ruling was reached before the court adjourned. However, things appear to have gone poorly for the Fowlers, as they petitioned the District Court on April 21, 1882, to remove the case to the U.S. Circuit Court. In their petition, they stated that all the defendants were residents of England, and as foreign nationals they didn’t feel that they would obtain a fair hearing in the District Court. In order to change venues, the Fowlers were required by law to pay Nancy Van Meter a penal sum of $500. The District Court accepted this petition, and the case was moved to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Kansas.

This is significant for two reasons. First, while the District Court met in Wyandotte County where most of the witnesses lived, the Circuit Court met further away, in Leavenworth and Topeka. That meant that any time the witnesses were subpoenaed , they’d have to take significant time away from their routines to travel across Kansas to testify.

Second, the change of venue meant that the judge hearing the case would be Morrison R. Waite, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. This is really more interesting than significant. I never figured I’d see a Supreme Court Chief Justice associated with my family. So, neat!

When this case was first convened in the Circuit Court in June 1883, the  Fowler brothers expanded their defense. They claimed that Nancy couldn’t possibly act as an administrator for William’s estate because William didn’t have an estate. Since, they argued, you can’t have an administrator without an estate to administer, Nancy didn’t have the right to sue.

There’s no telling how far this argument got, but the Circuit Court met again in Topeka, Kansas in December 1883 and November 1884, so the Court apparently thought it needed to hear more.

Finally, in November 1884, Nancy’s case was dismissed by the Court “for want of prosecution.” In other words, the case was dismissed because Nancy and her legal team didn’t show up. I have no idea why, but I can make a few educated guesses.

First, by this point the case had dragged on for three years. The defendants continued to call the full roster of witnesses that were called by the District Court in 1881. Every time they were subpoenaed, the witnesses had to travel a significant distance. The defendants also expanded the witness roster, calling William’s little sister Mary to Topeka in December 1883, one month after her sixteenth birthday (and presumably, the point where she reached the age of consent). This case was most likely becoming a hardship for everyone involved.

Second, by 1884 Nancy had remarried and had another daughter. Life had moved on for her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had just wanted to put the whole mess behind her and get on with living. Besides, between the initial agreement with William signed on the day of the accident and the penal costs paid by the change in venue for her case, she ended up getting $600 out of the Fowler brothers. She or her attorney may have thought she wasn’t going to get any more.

But this is all dangerous speculation and bad history, so I’ll just stop here and say that the case was closed as of November 29, 1884 because the prosecution didn’t show up.

So that’s what happened, as best as I can figure. William died, Nancy sued and didn’t get anywhere, and the case was closed three years later. Since I’ve gone on long enough for now, I’ll tie things up with an epilogue and a discussion of the genealogical significance of this case in the next (and final) part of the story.

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!