Friday, July 20, 2012

DID SHE DIE IN VAIN? - Ethel Vivian Degerman

I have relatives buried in Section S of Rosehill Cemetery.  Every time I am in Rosehill I try to stop by their graves to say hello.  Last Saturday with a thunderstorm imminent I knew that I wouldn't have a lot of time to go "grave hunting" so after paying my respects I wandered around Section S.  Just before the storm started I spotted a tombstone with a porcelain photo set into it. 

Those of you who follow this blog know that these gravestone photos are very common in some cemeteries such as Jewish Waldheim, but this is the first one I had ever seen at Rosehill.  In fact, these gravestone photos were not permitted at Rosehill for many years.  So I figured that whoever was buried there probably had an interesting story and I was correct.  Here is the sad tale of Ethel Vivian Degerman.

Ethel Degerman Struck While On Way to High School.
Motor Truck Driver Held.

Ethel Degerman, 16 years old, daughter of a carpenter contractor at 1240 Lawrence Avenue, yesterday was killed under the wheels of an automobile.

The Degerman girl was run down by James R. Baker, a commission merchant at Leland Avenue at Clark Street and died an hour later at Ravenswood Hospital.

The victim, with three girl friends, was on her way to the Lake View High School when struck. The coroner's jury exonerated Baker at in inquest in the afternoon.
Chicago Daily Tribune - November 9, 1911

A girl gets hit by a car and killed.  Tragic, but it happens every day.  Life goes on.  But there was one person who, after hearing the story of Ethel Degerman's untimely death said "Enough!"

The Rev. J.W. Ainslie's Sermon May Be Followed By Action of the Congregation
Child's Death His Text

Pastor Says "Exonerated" Driver of Car That Killed Girl Violated Law in Three Ways

The killing of Ethel Degerman by an automobile at Leland Avenue and Clark Street on Wednesday was the subject of a sermon yesterday by The Rev. J.B. Ainslie, pastor of the North Shore Congregational church, Sheridan Road and Wilson Avenue.  The pastor mentioned that the 16 year old child was the second automobile victim out of members of the church's Sunday School in three months and the fifth fatality in the neighborhood of a half year.  An energetic campaign by the congregation against reckless automobile and motor truck drivers is expected to follow the pastor's stern arraignment.

All blame for the accident was placed on James R. Baker, driver of the car, who was exonerated by the coroner's jury.  Mr. Ainslie, after a personal investigation, said he found the driver was exceeding the speed limit, was on the wrong side of the road, and did not toot his horn to warn the children in the streets.

Says Verdict Alarms Him.

"It has been said that our Ethel as laughing and jesting with her girl friends when run over, " said Dr. Ainslie.  "Has our world grown so poor that a child may not laugh and more except at peril of life?  Is not mirth the divine birthright of every one of our children?

"In this case, as in the preceding, the coroner's jury exonerated the driver after a superficial interrogation.  It is this tendency to pass lightly on crimes of this magnitude which alarms me and ought to alarm every one of you parents of children who daily have to cross our streets on their way to school.

"In my mind there is no doubt that the entire blame for the destruction of our young hope belongs on the head of the reckless driver who usurped for his deadly machine the right of way.  From my personal investigation of the facts, I can state that the driver James R. Baker, violated the law by at least three transgressions-he was going too fast, he was on the wrong side of the road, and he did not blow his horn.

Sees Miracle In Escape of Three.

"And it was only due to the kind administration of fate and not to be credited to the alertness of the driver that one of four budding lives was snuffed out.  For the ill starred one walked between three girl companions and it was only a miraculous act of Providence that saved their lives.  

"Aside from the affliction of her parents, aside from the suffering caused to these and other relatives-analyzing our loss in a cold scientific way, I have to ask: "Who will indemnift the community for an economical loss of something like $10,000, a conservative value to be placed on an individual about t leave high school?"

Several women were sobbing in the congregation during the sermon.  the congregation is so concerned over the repeated automobile fatalities in the community that the board of trustees will meet tomorrow night to consider resolutions of protest.
Chicago Daily Tribune - November 13, 1911

And then the congregation of Congregationalists went a step further:

North Shore Congregational Urges Publicity of Reckless Autoists' Names.
Asks New Ordinance.
Scores Coroner for "Unfair Methods in Exonerating Occupants of Machines."

A church congregation yesterday recommended publicity as the surest cure of carelessness of automobilists.  A committee which penned the proposal was appointend by the board of trustees of the North Shore Congregational Church.

The action of the church follws a denunciation of reckless motor car drivers on Sunday Nov. 12, by the Rev. J. Stuart Ainslee, the pastor.

The committee asked that the city council pass an ordinance which will insure the daily publication in some newspaper for sixty days of the names and numbers of automobiles whose carelessness results in injury to some other person.  The resolution also condems the present methods of the coroner's office.

Dr, Ainslie's sermon a week ago has as irts text seven fatal automobile accidents on the North Shore.  The latest caused the death of Miss Ethel Degerman.  To the death of this girl Dr. Ainslie gave most of his sermon.

Congregations Hear Resolutions.

The resolutions were read twice during the day to the large congregation.  the preamble is:
"Deploring the low srtandard of value placed upon human life by a large and growing number of our citizens and the frightful loss of life in general, and in particular the seven persons killed and a number of others maimed for life during the last eight months in our immediate vicinity.  It is hereby resolved that the North Shore Congregational Church, as a body, deprecates and denounces this inhuman conduct on the part of many owners and drivers of automobiles and this unjust and presumptuous usurpation of our streets for a purpose that makes it positively dangerous to attempt to cross them."

Urge a City Ordinance.

Publicity, as a possible remedy, is set forth as follows:
"Believing greater publicity will operate as a deterrent to reckless and careless drivers, be it further
"Resolved, That we request the city council to pass an ordinance authorizing the publishing in a conspicuous place in one or more of the daily papers each day for a period of sixty days the name of the owner, driver, and the number of the machine in casualties resulting in loss or injury to life or limb received in automobile accidents."
The arraignment of the coroner's office reads:
"And be it further
"Resolved. That we view with amazement that form of legal inquiry which is so conducted as to conceal rather than to reveal the facts in cases of this kind, and that we censure and condemn the unfair methods often employed by the coroner and the gross injustice of the verdicts rendered exonerating the owners and occupants of the machines."
The resolutions were indorsed by the congregation.
Chicago Daily Tribune - November 20, 1911

Unfortunately there is no record of the Chicago City Council ever passing a resolution about the need for traffic safety. Although sometimes the names and addresses of are published in the newspapers, there is no "60 Day Dishonor List" as was envisioned by the well-meaning Congregationalists.

Was Ethel Degerman's death in vain? The latest traffic fatality statistics available are from 2009. In 2009, 4,092 pedestrians were killed and an estimated 59,000 were injured in traffic crashes in the United States. On average, a pedestrian was killed every two hours and injured every nine minutes in traffic crashes.

May Ethel Vivian Degerman rest in peace.


  1. I blogged about a 2nd great aunt of mine who died after being struck by an auto in Chicago in 1922 (she was 70 years old). See Thriller Thursday - Hit By Auto.

  2. Hi Elizabeth - fascinating reading from the archives. My grandmother's older sister was hit by a car and killed in New York in the 1940s. She was taken to the nearest hospital which was Bellevue. My grandmother was mortified that her sister was pronounced dead at the infamous Bellevue.

    Thanks you for being a faithful follower of "Under Every Stone".