Losing Your Head, 19th Century Elevators That Decapitated People – 16 True Stories

Fatal Elevators In The 19th Century

In the late 19th century quite a number of people lost their heads in elevator accidents. Most press accounts of the incidents were thankfully short. But a few of the stories were described in sensationalist and sometimes sickening detail. The most common headline, “Decapitated By An Elevator,” as you’ll see, was not very original,

Modern ambulance chasing attorney’s might look at these stories as potential cases and drool over them.

But back then the mindset was, “it was an accident.” Usually the family received nothing at all except placing blame upon the victim. There was rarely any monetary compensation. Families got sympathy, but that was it.

Here are a 16 stories (many from the New York Times, unless noted)  about elevator accidents resulting in decapitation or near decapitation.


Milwaukee, May 8 –  Jimmy Bater (ed. note- Boler in other accounts) aged 11 years was instantly decapitated by the elevator in Martin block this morning. He put his head through the door of the elevator and was caught by the platform.  (May 9, 1880 page 1-  St. Paul Daily Globe)


Chicago, May 13 – A shocking and fatal accident occurred in the Sherman House elevator this afternoon, Anton Soogey the engineer of the house, having the upper portion of his head completely torn off  by being caught between the floor of the basement and the counter balance of the elevator. He was hunting for a missing wrench and had forgotten that the balance descended as the elevator went up.  (May 14, 1880 page 1-  St. Paul Daily Globe)


Worcester, Mass. June 1, – At North Brookfield this morning Mrs. Nellie Murphy had her head cut off in the elevator at Batchelor’s boot manufactory. (June 2, 1881 page 1)


Providence, July 10 – Harry Welch, fourteen years old an errand boy for a jeweler’s firm on Page street, this city, had his head caught under the elevator guard at the level of the fourth floor this morning. The elevator was moving upward and it drew his body across the bar, nearly severing his head from his neck. the body dropped to the ground floor and he was killed instantly. (July 11, 1882 page 3 – New Haven Morning  Journal and Courier)



A fatal elevator accident occurred yesterday morning in the new Bryant Building, at the
north-west corner of Nassau and Liberty streets,which resulted in the instant death of Gustav Schiff, a plate and window glass dealer. whose place of business is at No. 35 Murray street. Mr. Schiff had contracted to furnish the windows for the new building, and yesterday morning about 11 o’clock he visited the building in company with Fischer Grossman, a glazier, of No. 60 West Broadway, who was associated with him in the contract. 

The two men had occasion to go to the seventh story to measure some broken window panes, and for this purpose they stepped into the elevator fronting Liberty-street, one of the two new ones that had been running only a few days. The elevator man, about whose name everybody in the building professed the densest ignorance yesterday, pulled his rope, and the car began to ascend. It was evidently out of order, for it went by jerks, and at times would stop and descend a short distance, when it would make an upward leap again. The elevator became utterly unmanageable according to the story told by Grossman and the man engaged in running it lost his head.

Finally as the car reached the fifth floor he shouted to Mr. Schiff and Grossman to jump out, and, making a leap himself, alighted safely on the landing. Mr. Schiff leaned forward to jump, and in doing so put his head out of the door. The car had risen too far, however for him to jump. and before he could draw back his head, it was caught by the landing of the sixth floor, and he was thrown backward. The car pushed upward, crushing Mr. Schiff”s head and tearing the upperpart of it almost completely off. He must have died instantly. His head jammed between the car and the shaft, stopped the elevator, and his companion, half dead with fright and horror at the terrible spectacle which he had witnessed, crawled over the body of Mr. Schiff and escaped from the car on the sixth floor, whence his cries for help soon aroused the inmates of the building.

The car was pulled down to the fifth floor, and the body of Mr. Schiff was stretched in the balcony. His mangled head lying in a pool of blood, and concealed from view by an old newspaper which one workmen spread over it. Then Capt. Caffrey, of the New-Street Police station, was informed of the accident.

The elevator man had disappeared during the excitement, and no trace could be found of him, but Mr. Grossman told the story of the killing of Mr. Schiff as it is here related. He then started for Mr. Schiff’s place of business in Murray street, and upon reaching the store fainted away, and it was some time before he could tell his story. A son of the dead man, who lives in Denver, Col. took charge of the body which was removed by an undertaker early in the afternoon.

Mr. Schiff was 50 years old, and a Frenchman by birth, Paris being his native place. He came to this country with his father when a small boy, the family settling in New Orleans. Here Mr. Schiff
was engaged for many years in the fruit business. He came to this City about 10 years ago. and established a  wholesale fruit business at No. 41 Water street. After a few years he became a flour merchant, and four years ago he began to deal in plate and window glass. He was a widower and leaves five daughters and two sons.  (May 5, 1883 page 1)


Baltimore, Dec. 14 – Emil Mueller, age 15, was caught and instantly killed this evening in the elevator at Lincoln’s furniture warehouse. He was found dead with his head lying in a box which he took up with him. He lived at the Boys Home. (December 15, 1883 page 1)



A mechanic who had been employed tor thirty-eight years at the Jackson Architectural Iron Works met with a shocking death In the Cambridge Flats at Fifth-ave. and Thirty-thlrd st. on Tuesday afternoon. He was Christian Drescher a German, sixty-two years of age, who was said to be a man of steady habits. He was sent to the fashionable flat-house to repair the ornamental iron door of the elevator shaft in the main hall on the ground floor.  John Barry
the elevator boy, was running the elevator at the time and Clerk Kellar was in the office close to the elevator shaft. Without saying a word to either Kellar or Barry, Drecscher procured a step-ladder and climbed up on it to the top of the door. Barry was in the car at the fifth story when Drescher put his head over the top of the door and began to examine the interior of the shaft. As the car descended Barry stopped it at the second floor to take on a passenger. A moment later the car shot down to the ground floor. Drescher’s head was caught between the bottom of
the car and the top of the sliding door and cut in half as it it had been severed with a pair of large shears.

Barry was not aware of what had happened until he saw Drescher’s lifeless body fall from the ladder upon the marble floor of the hall. A torrent of blood gushed from the body out upon the white tiles. The upper part of the mechanic’s head was found later at the bottom of the shaft. Death had been Instantaneous, but in the excitement which followed the discovery of Drescher’s headless body a physician was summoned. Permission was obtained to remove the body to the shop of Undertaker Murray in East twenty-ninth st.

Drecscher’s family did not hear of his death until yesterday morning. His wife was recovering from an attack of typhoid fever and his son was in a hospital sick with tho same disease. On account of a long siege of sickness in the family, Mrs. Drescher and her children have been left without any means for their support.

Mr. Reich, proprietor of the Cambridge Flats, said yesterday that he could not understand how a sober man could have permitted his head to be caught and crushed by tho elevator car. He had the car run up and down to show a reporter how much warning Drescher must have had of his danger. As the car descended, long rubber tubes fell inside the elevator shaft, and after they passed the top of the door there was time for a man to put his head into the shaft and draw it out again twice before the bottom of the car followed the tubes down. The car makes noise enough to attract the attention of a careful workman. Mr. Reich said the mechanic might have improved a good opportunity commit suicide, or, at best, he was guilty of great carelessness. (Feb. 7, 1889 page 10 – New York Tribune)


Philadelphia, Nov. 10 – Alexander Hexter senior member of the firm Hexter & Brothers clothing manufacturers 432 Market Street, met death in a horrible manner this afternoon. At 2:45 o’clock the unfortunate man, who had been working on the first floor,started to go to the fourth floor on the elevator, which was partly loaded with a lot of unfinished clothing. While the elevator was passing from the second to the third floor, he stooped over to speak to an employee and before he could escape, his head was caught between the elevator and the ceiling. Complete decapitation followed. The firm of Hexter & Brothers was formed of Alexander and his brother Samuel. Alexander was the senior member. He was married and resided at 1813 North Broad Street. (November 11, 1890 page 1)


A Boy’s Horrible Death In Colgate’s Soap Factory

Fifteen-year-old Abram Nuchensky, of 46 Broad street, Jersey City, met a horrible death at 11 o’clock this morning In the Colgate soap works on York street, in that city. During the temporary absence of the elevator man the boy Jumped on the elevator to take a ride. He did not understand the workIng of the elevator ropes and when he tried to stop the machine he pulled the wrong rope. This sent It up faster than ever.

Nuchensky stuck his head out and was caught between the floor above and the side of the machine.

In an instant Nuchensky’s head was cut clean off, and his left leg was badly mangled. The shock to the machinery attracted the employees, and when they arrived and the elevator was stopped they saw a horrible sight.

The headless body lay on the elevator. The head was lying at the bottom of the shaft.

The body and the head were sewed together and sent to the lad’s home. (May 29, 1891 page 1 – New York Evening World)


On Her Way to Supper Mrs. Shields of Arkansas is Practically Decapitated by a Descending Elevator but Lives Several Minutes After

[By Telegraph to the Evening Journal.]
St. Louts, Mo., Sept. 22.—Mrs. A. E. Shields, wife of a commercial traveler, was killed at the Richelieu hotel yesterday. Mrs. Shields went to the elevator to go down to the dining room. There is no glass in the door leading to the elevator, and Mrs. Shields, after ringing the bell, put her head through the opening to see if the elevator was coming up.

At that moment it was descending and struck the back of her head, crushing it badly, Strange to say, she was not knocked down the shaft, but staggered back into the hallway. Then ensued a most horrible scene. A chambermaid and porter had witnessed the accident and ran to her. She fled from them and notwithstanding that she was practically decapitated, ran to a speaking tube and apparently tried to call to some one below. Then she ran or rather staggered to her room a few feet away, and fell dead. Mrs. Shields was only 23 years old and a daughter of Colonel Campbell, clerk of the court of appeals of Arkansas. Her home was in Little Rock. (September 22, 1892 page 1 – Wilmington Evening Journal)


Chicago, Mar. 2 – Christ Sherwin a porter at Reid, Murdoch & Co.’s wholesale grocery house was decapitated Saturday morning. Death was instantaneous.Sherwin was washing windows on the second floor of the building next to the elevator shaft. While his head was protruding through the window the elevator struck him and almost completely severed his head off. His body was also crushed and nearly every rib was broken. (March 12, 1896 page 1 – Calumet Michigan, Cooper Country Evening News)



Frederick Hoffman, of No. 360 South Fourth st., Brooklyn, an elevator man employed in Samuel Baumann & Bro.’s furniture store at No, 235 Sixth-ave., got caught between the elevator and the side of the shaft yesterday morning, in such a manner that a part of his head was sheared off. He died instantly, and his body fell to the bottom of the shaft. Exactly how the accident happened is not clear. It was not witnessed by anyone, and as Hoffman had always appeared to be experienced in the management of an elevator, his death in such a manner is somewhat mysterious to the managers or the store.

The shipping clerk and engineer were the last to see the man alive. The shipping clerk told him early in the morning to take a case of goods up to the top floor of the building. Hoffman started up on the elevator with the goods. He had also a case to deliver on the second floor. He was not seen alive again. A few minutes after the elevator started upward a grinding noise was heard at the second floor, and the next Instant Hoffman’s mangled body fell to the bottom of the shaft. A shipping clerk employed by Heather & Co., whose drygoods establishment adjoins Baumann’s place, saw the body fall. He gave a shriek of horror that attracted all the other men in the place. Several of them went down to the bottom of the shaft, while some one sent a call to the New-York Hospital for an ambulance. It was not needed. The man’s body was so badly mangled that his fellow-employees shuddered as they bent over it.

The police are unable to learn how the accident happened, but it is thought that while Hoffman was dragging the case off the elevator, he accidentally touched the rope that controls it, and caused It to shoot upward. He probably made a spring, either to jump on the elevator or seize the rope, and his head was thus caught between the floor of the elevator and the ceiling of the second floor. (September 19, 1896  page 11 – New York Tribune)


Elevator Serves as a Guillotine and Cuts Off Her Head

Niagara Falls, N.Y.,  July 31 – Fannie J. Gaffin, aged thirteen met with a horrible death at 2:15 this afternoon. With her father she was ascending in the elevator of the Pettibone-Cataract Paper Company. Upon reaching the second floor the child stuck her head out. It was caught between the beam and the floor of the elevator, decapitating her head, which fell to the basement below. (August 1, 1897 page 1 – Washington Times)


Pasquale Palerno, 14, Killed in an Elevator Where He Worked

Pasquale Palerno, fourteen-years-old living on Moon st., North end, met with a terrible death in an elevator in the store of James U. Eustis, 101 North st., early yesterday morning.

The lad had been working in the place only two days, and had been cautioned to keep away from the elevator, as he had been noticed fooling about it.

He arrived at the store before the clerks yesterday. About 8:30 a man employed to do the sweeping in the place heard a scream and found the boy’s body in the bottom of the well and his head on the third floor, it having been severed from his body by the elevator. It is supposed that the boy was running the car up and down the second and third floors, and was caught in trying to leap from the car. (May 5, 1898 page 3 – Boston Daily Globe)


Buffalo, N.Y. June 25. – Fred G. Perrigo an elevator operator in the Prudential Building was decapitated this morning. his head fell down the shaft to the basement, while his body remained on top of the elevator. How the accident happened is not known. (June 26, 1898 page 11)



A falling elevator in the building at No. 2 Irving Place completely severed the head of William McElveen, thirty years old, of No. 840 East One-hundred-and-thirty-seventh-st., from his body shortly before 1 o’clock yesterday noon. The building is being entirely remodeled in the interior. The walls are being pulled down and iron girders and iron beams are being substituted. The Cornell Iron Works are making the changes, and a large number of workmen are employed in the building. McElveen had been out of work for three months, and yesterday was the first day that he began working.

There was an elevator In the building that was not being used. MeElveen was working on the ground floor near the elevator shaft. He was standing with his head inclined within the line of descent of the car. He unwittingly happened to touch a rope that re released the car, it is said, and it fell, the edge striking him on the back of the neck. The iron bracing of the car acted like a ponderous knife, and McElveen’s head was cut off. The police of the East Twenty-second-st. station took the body. McElveen left a wife and three children. The regular elevator runner, Frank Ancum, colored, had left the car in charge of Frank Monday, a messenger of the Consolidated Gas Company.

Policeman Dunn of the East Twenty-second-st. station, arrested Monday, charging him with having been in the elevator at the time of the accident. He arraigned him in Yorkville Court, alleging homicide, and Magistrate Pool remanded Monday to the Coroner, who paroled him in the custody of his counsel. (November 29, 1900 page 1 – New York Tribune)

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