"Heroism Unto Death." The Congregationalist, 12 April 1888.

Dublin Core


"Heroism Unto Death." The Congregationalist, 12 April 1888.


railroad accident; temperance; heroism




Among the reports of havoc and suffering caused by the great storm, our readers may not have noted a piteous little incident which occurred on the Pennsylvania Railway. An express train, rushing through the blinding blizzard, ran into a derailed car near Huntington. The engine was crushed as if it had been glass, and the engineer, Robert Gardner, was wedged immovably between the tender and boiler, the brass cocks of the latter being deeply bedded in the flesh of his thigh. His first words, when discovered, were, “Is Jim [the fireman] safe? Are any of my passengers killed?” 

For nearly three hours he remained thus, held motionless, his leg slowly burning. He was an old man, past the first strength of manhood; but during these three hours of torture he did not utter a single cry or groan. Once he said, “Why don’t they hurry up and pull back the tender? My leg is burning and I can’t stand it much longer.” Somebody offered him liquor to stimulate him, but he pushed it back, saying, “I never touch that.”

The passengers stood in the darkness and furious storm, helplessly watching him burn to death, until another engine arrived and dragged away the tender. They carried him to one of the cars, but he was dead before he reached it.

We repeat this story to our readers in order to call their attention to the fact that such heroism unto death in the discharge of plain, everyday duties for which men receive wages, is growing more common among us with every year. It is so common that we scarcely notice it. 

Knights in the old times fought bravely to win renown, to gain a woman’s love or a neighbor’s land, for a good cause or for a bad one. Their object was glory, and the world has given it to them liberally. Even now we think of the men of the chivalric day as of a race more heroic and loftier in aim than a drudging, dollar earning American.

Yet there is not a grimy engineer who puts his hand on the lever of an engine, that does not feel that his duty includes the risking of his own life, if needs be, for his passengers; and not once in a thousand times when the emergency comes does he shirk that duty. How many doctors, nurses or clergymen, shrink from the perils of a great epidemic? It is a significant fact that, since the organization in 1871 of the Life-Saving Service that guards our entire coasts, there have been but two instances in which a man refused to risk his own life to save a shipwrecked crew.

There is no élan,[1] no passion, no fervid clutch at glory in this kind of courage, which is becoming a marked feature of American character. It is the quiet, calm, obstinate performance of duty—however commonplace—once undertaken, in the teeth of death itself.

It is a kind of courage, too, which can be taught. You cannot give a child, at will, the vivid, enthusiastic temperament which will make him a leader on an improbable battlefield. But you can inoculate him from his cradle with that loyal, instant obedience to conscience, that habit of self-denial, which will make him hold to his daily, commonplace duty as faithfully as did Christian to his roll while the fiends clutched at it.

The engineer who, while burning to death, stuck fast to his resolve to touch no liquor, and who tried, even then, to care for his passengers, had never, we may be sure, been made a selfish, frivolous child by a silly mother.

[1] French for energy, style, and enthusiasm.


Laney Jolley Smith


Updated May 15, 2020


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Laney Jolley Smith, “"Heroism Unto Death." The Congregationalist, 12 April 1888.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/213.

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