Man, wife and tramp killed by train (ca. 1900)

Robert Heinlein had a story that he told a few times in print, in both fiction and nonfiction.

  • A man and woman were walking through a park when the woman got her foot caught in a railway switch. The husband could not work her foot free, so another man, usually described as a hobo or a tramp but in any case a complete stranger, stopped to help. The train got closer; the woman remained stuck; the men continued their attempts… until all three were hit and killed. Heinlein’s point was that the actions of the tramp represent the highest form of heroism: he owed the woman nothing and absolutely no one would have faulted him for jumping clear, but he stayed in place until and beyond the final moment, trying to save a complete stranger’s life with utter disregard for his own.
    *Can anyone locate a source for this story, in reality or fiction? Heinlein told it as something that happened (or that he heard) as a boy, so it would have happened around 1900-1915, maybe. He set it in Swope Park in at least one telling, so it possibly happened in KC. However… a very good researcher has gone through the archives of the KC paper from 1880 to 1940 without success. It would be a couple of feathers in a Doper cap to locate the source, if it exists and if Heinlein weren’t simply making the story up or greatly rewriting some other real event.

I don’t know about Heinlein’s example, but a similar situation happenedlast month in Auckland. A woman got her wheel chair stuck in the tracks and two bystanders were almost killed whilst freeing her. The world isn’t as full as selfish people as it sometimes appears.

Damn, lisiate, you beat me to it.

Heh, maybe you could link to the Marine Parade human chain instead?

No impending train, dammit. The Bay’s doing well on the alturistic scale though, several people running into a burning building at 5am this morning to try and rescue (sadly unsuccessfully) the resident.

Human Chain


One place he told the story was in his speech as Guest of Honor at the 19th World Science Fiction Convention in 1961. The place, Swope Park in Kansas City, still exists and had active trains running through part of it for many years, though I don’t know if it still does. The entire speech is here:

It is perhaps a parable. It does contain a valuable lesson.

And he placed it in Swope Park when he retold it in Expanded Universe. I think it’s safe to say that ol’ Bob was a lot like G. Gordon Liddy. Take everything he says with a grain of salt, and wear hip-waders.

Assuming the story is true… Who told it? The only people involved, for most of the story, didn’t live to relate it. We’d have the forensic results, of course, and probably the engineer’s account, but would that have been enough information to reconstruct it?

Perhaps the cowardly Heinlein and his friend the scarecrow were standing by at a safe distance watching the action unfold.

It’s fairly easy to be close enough to watch something in detail without being close enough to do anything. Someone standing on a bridge or overpass, for example, may be just metres from an event as the crow flies, yet need 5 minutes or more to actually reach the scene. The observer may also have been unable to help, due to being an invalid, or they may have been unwilling to help, or maybe they *were *helping, but got out before they got killed.

There would seem to be lots of ways for this event to be observed and reported.

The story seems a bit questionable – “got her foot caught in a railway switch.” How did that happen?

  1. Switches aren’t located in walking paths, they are down the railway line. So how could she step into a switch, unless they were walking down the tracks?

  2. Switches pivot from a point, so where the switch rail meets the fixed rail is a v-shaped area, open at one end, and narrowing to a point. So they should have been able to just push her foot back toward the wide end to free it. Or the husband could have gone to the nearby switch control and thrown the lever to open the switch.

  3. Did she get caught when the switch suddenly closed on her foot? But in 1900-1915, switches were manual; some switchman had to be standing a few feet away and throw the lever to close that switch (unlike today, where switches are automatic and controlled remotely from miles away). He wouldn’t have done that if there was someone standing in the switch. (Instead, he would have been yelling “get off the track, you bloody fools!”)

  4. At the end, as the train approached, why did they stay standing in the way? And why did they leave her standing in the path? They could have just moved to the side, and laid her down alongside the track, even with her foot still stuck – the train’s steel wheels would have cut off her foot, but that isn’t fatal (not necessarily). And the two men would still have been alive to get her to a hospital. You have to be pretty dumb to just stand in front of an oncoming train.

So this whole story seems like a nice moral parable than an actual occurrence.

Aren’t they locked? Can anyone just throw switches on a track?

I think you’re over-analyzing the details, but I don’t disagree with the possible conclusion. The story is too polished and self-contained, though, for Heinlein to have made it up from whole cloth, so if it doesn’t stem from a real event, or a similar real event, then I suspect there is a fictional or faux-true telling of it somewhere. That’s what I’m hoping to find - any of those four potential sources.

Nitro Press:

Are we not talking about a professional author?

It sounds like one of those urban legends, like the $200 Cadillac or the 200mpg carburetor that escapes from the Ford/GM/Chrysler testing grounds. (Seriously, someone told me back in the 1970’s that happened to his uncle’s friend) - or George Washington and the cherry tree. In the days before and straightdope, sometimes people repeated stories they heard and believed to be true, and others weren’t above serious embellishment in the company of listeners.

Heinlein probably heard the story - either in the bar or in a sermon - and wanted it to be true because it fit the point he wanted to make.

Of course. But Heinlein-as-author and Heinlein-as-reteller is fairly distinguishable if you have sufficient familiarity with his works, especially working notes, letters, etc. I believe the tramp story is one Heinlein acquired from outside.

Who builds a railroad through a park?

Hastings New Zealand, that’s who. Not just through a park, right through the middle of a fountain.

Get the fuck out of a train’s way?

If a train is travelling at 40 mph and a woman on the same track is travelling at 0 mph, when is it pointlessly dangerous to position yourself over the tracks to help her:

  1. When the train is within earshot.
  2. When the train is in view.
  3. When the train is a few seconds away.
  4. When the train is about to kill all of you.

To paraphrase Gen. Patton: “Heroism isn’t dying for a stranger, it’s doing your best to save that stranger, then saving your own ass.”