Friday, September 13, 2013


Several weeks ago I told the story of Jacob Raffsky, who lies under a unique tree tombstone at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.  To refresh your memory, here are some photos of the tree tombstone:

I mentioned at the time I wrote the article that I was unable to locate the death certificate, but "it is certain he died from one of the myriad of diseases that killed young people at the end of the nineteenth century."

Much to my surprise, a little over one week after I published the story an angel emailed me Jacob Raffsky's death certificate.  It was a Coroner's Death Certificate, and therefore was not indexed like the regular death certificates.  After reading the Coroner's Death Certificate, the story changed significantly.  Here's the certificate:

The cause of death was "From shock and injuries received by being run over by an unknown train belonging to the Chicago and North Western Railway Company on their tracks near Elston Ave Sept 13th 1889." 

Here is a Google Maps photo of the site where the Chicago and Northwestern railroad tracks cross Elston Avenue.  Today, the tracks are elevated above grade; in 1889 they may well have been at street level.

There is another interesting fact buried on the death certificate. Fourteen year old Jacob Raffsky was employed - as a clothing cutter. He was not in school as other fourteen year old boys were, he was already working.  In 1889 there was no requirement to remain in school until the age of sixteen as there is today.  

Once I knew the particulars of the accident I was able to find a mention of it in the Chicago Daily Tribune of September 14, 1889:

At 8:15 o'clock last night a youth about 18 years old was found on the Northwestern Railway tracks near Elston avenue with both legs cut off. He was taken to the county hospital in an unconscious condition and died an hour later.  

I often say that for every question your genealogy research answers, five new questions pop up.  That is certainly the case here:

1.  What was Jacob Raffsky doing on the Northwestern train tracks when he was killed?  Was he trying to hitch a ride?

2.  Was Jacob Raffsky running away from home?  If he was, the Northwestern was a poor choice - it is a commuter train - not a long distance carrier.

3.  Was he alone, or with friends when he was killed?

4.  Could he have been intending to commit suicide?

5.  How long had he been working as a clothing cutter?

We will probably never know the answers to these questions.  They, like Jacob Raffsky, have been lost in the mists of time.

The lesson for researchers here is never assume you know the whole story until you have all the facts. 

So, let's pause for a minute to think of the fourteen year old boy who got too close to a train (intentionally or unintentionally) and paid the consequences one hundred twenty-four years ago today.

May Jacob Raffsky rest in peace.

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