“She Jumped from the Train”
It’s Wednesday, April 3, 1889, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Daniel Miller, Reno County sheriff, 45, returns home to the sheriff’s residence at 15 Avenue East. Cecelia Edmunds Miller—Mrs. Sheriff—41, spots a new gray hair on her husband’s head.
“Hello, honey, how are you and the children?” asked Dan, as he entered the sheriff’s residence, gave his wife a kiss, and hung up his hat.
“We’re fine,” answered Cecelia. “How did Sarah respond to the Topeka Insane Asylum once she got past the beautiful gardens?”
Dan took a deep breath, rubbed his jaw, and closed his eyes. “Sarah jumped out a train window,” said Dan. “She’s nearly dead.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Cecelia, as she held up a hand to her gasping mouth. “That poor girl!”
Dan slowly raised a hand and pressed four fingers to his lips.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Cecelia. “She was a troubled, young lady.”
“I’m a smart lawman,” said Dan. “I’ve tracked and captured many a criminal who thought they were home free, but I underestimated Sarah Kelley.”
“How did it happen?” asked Cecelia.
“Soon after the train left Osage City, Sarah requested the use of the water closet,” answered Dan. “I agreed and remained outside the door. When she didn’t come out, I opened the door and discovered she had jumped out the window while the train was moving at about 40 m.p.h.
“I had the train stopped. H. A. Chamberlain, special agent of the Santa Fe, and I, went back to find her. We discovered her about a mile west of the coal town, Peterton. Her body was bruised and mangled and she was unconscious. We had her taken to Osage City and placed in the care of physicians, but they advised us she wouldn’t see another sunrise.
“I knew Sarah was worried,” said Dan. “She was anxious, but for good reason. She was sane enough to be scared of going to the insane asylum.”
“We’ve seen men and women much worse than her be declared insane,” said Cecelia. “If only we had a sanitarium here in Reno County, we could have a safer and saner place for the less-troubled individuals.”
“It would make our job easier,” said Dan. “Reno County’s fortunate to have the state spend money on the Reformatory. A sanitarium is a private, for-profit business, but it would help alleviate some of the heartache of family members. If it was here in Hutchinson, visits could occur more often, when allowed. Sadly, for those destitute, they’d still end up at a state-run facility.”
“The Reformatory is for young criminals,” said Cecelia. “This is different. Sarah didn’t commit a crime. She deserved better. Sarah decided to try and escape from the train, or to kill herself quickly rather than face a lingering death at the asylum. We’ll never know her true intensions.”
“We know some individuals who have been released from the asylum and returned home,” said Dan, “but the fear of spending years there was too much for Sarah. In a way, I don’t blame her. Selfishly, I wish her fatal injuries hadn’t happened on my watch.”
“We’ve talked about this before,” said Cecelia, “the commissioners can pay for female prisoners to be escorted by a woman. I’m already caring for the female prisoners and cooking. I can’t be everywhere. In this situation, Sarah would be in the asylum today if she’d been allowed a proper escort.”
Dan listened. Treatment of women wasn’t a new topic of conversation. He knew what Cecelia would say next.
“And another thing,” said Cecelia, “the law states that adults should be judged by a jury of their peers. In probate court, Sarah Kelley was pronounced insane by a jury of men.
“Years before we arrived here in Kansas, the vote failed for impartial suffrage, but two years ago women gained the right to vote in city elections. Women captured several local offices, especially at Syracuse and Argonia. In Syracuse, women won all five positions on the city council. At Argonia, Susanna Madora Salter became the first woman mayor in the nation to be elected.
“In Wyoming, women vote for every office for which their brothers do and on the same terms.”
Dan was quiet, listening. Cecelia had forgotten to mention that Mayor Salter was only 27 years old when she was elected.
“In the two weeks Sarah was with us,” continued Cecelia, “her mind was comparatively clear, except for a few clouds now and then. If only she’d had the opportunity to be placed in a sanitarium, a pleasant home-like surrounding with the care of a good nurse and physician. Instead of having horrible nightmares of the lunatic asylum—which she feared more than death—she might have been saved.”
Dan heard the approaching whistle of an inbound train. He put his open hands together like a church with a steeple and thought to himself: What could I have done to prevent this tragedy?
The sheriff relived his train trip that morning. Knocking on the water closet’s door, hearing no response, calling out loudly: “Mrs. Kelley, can you hear me? Are you well?” Then, his hand slowly opening the door, the horror of a vacant water closet and open window, shocking his heart.
Dan’s body heated up. Drips of perspiration formed on his forehead. His stomach felt queasy. His head was spinning as he viewed Sarah’s deep wounds. She lay unconscious beside the railroad tracks.
“Mrs. Kelley was bright and sympathetic, and just entering the prime of her useful womanhood,” said Dan. “She will be dearly missed.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.