October 27 - A Dangerous Occupation

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On October 27, 1892, an elevator boy near Dayton was killed while performing his job.  Elevators of the period were controlled manually, and operators were at risk of injury from the machinery or by falling down the shaft.

William Hilton, aged 15, an elevator boy at the King & Gotwald building was fatally hurt Thursday morning.  He was caught between the elevator and floor, and before the machinery could be stopped life was all but extinct.  He was the only support of a widowed mother.

"An Elevator Boy in Springfield Fatally Hurt Thursday Morning."  Dayton Daily Journal (Dayton, Ohio).  October 28, 1892.  Page 2.

At the time, Paul Laurence Dunbar was 20 years old and working a low-paying job as an elevator operator in a high rise office building in downtown Dayton.  A few days after the Springfield elevator operator died, Paul experienced a minor workplace injury.

A ring called me upstairs to roll up some windows for a lady.  Got my finger caught and crushed, have not been able to write any until today.  This missive is written with pain and difficulty.  My employer is trying to make me swallow all the insults he can, and will discharge me as soon as he can find another man to work eleven hours a day for $4.00 a week.  If I saw chance to get other work within two or three weeks I would quit immediately.  When my thumb is better, I will write more.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, November 4, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Newspaper reports from the same year were full of grim reminders about the hazards of being an elevator operator.

Louis Lyman, an elevator operator, was badly injured yesterday afternoon by the accidental falling of the elevator at S. E. Olson's overall factory.

"Paragraphic News."  The Minneapolis Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota).  January 13, 1892.  Page 5.

An elevator accident occurred yesterday morning which resulted in serious injuries to two men.  Robert McCormick, conductor on one of the freight elevators, stopped at the fifth floor to admit John F. Whitmore.  The descent was begun and when about midway between the fourth and fifth floors the elevator suddenly dropped to the basement.

"Fuller and Fuller's Elevator Falls."  The Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois).  April 22, 1892.  Page 3.

John Klute, the elevator boy at the dry good store, fell through the elevator shaft from the fourth floor to the cellar and lived but a few minutes after the accident.  He was 16 years old.

"Friday's Elevator Accident."  The Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri).  May 8, 1892.  Page 17.

Ed Galbreath was a laborer in the capacity of elevator operator;  the rope or cable used in operating the elevator broke, which caused a "smashup" at the bottom of the shaft, in which he took a principal part, and in which he sustained injuries that will last during his natural life.

"A Big Damage Suit."  The Kansas City Gazette (Kansas City, Kansas).  May 10, 1892.  Page 3.

Jimmie Carr, a young fourteen-year-old boy, met with a sad accident yesterday.  He had been at work only a week to run an elevator.

"Elevator Accident."  The Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio).  August 28, 1892.  Page 12.

Cleveland, O. - The elevator cable at the Doan apartment house broke this afternoon, and the cage was broken into fragments in the basement, four stories below.  Willie Kelly, the elevator boy, was seriously injured internally.

"A Terrible Fall."  The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California).  October 8, 1892.  Page 1.

Many years later, Charlotte Reeve Conover, one of Paul's friends from Dayton, wrote an essay described his working conditions.

In 1891 - 92, the patrons of a certain dress-making establishment, in one of our public buildings, noticed that the elevator boy was always reading.  This is not, in itself, remarkable.  The yellow literature of the day finds its widest field among the employed boys in downtown offices.  But this elevator boy was reading Tennyson and Shakespeare, and he was black.  In the dim light that came down the shaft, with his hands at work on the ropes, and the throb of the engine in his ears, he was feeding his soul.  All other avenues of work were closed to him.  With a good common-school education, and a diploma from the high school, no clerical work was open to Paul Dunbar.  His race shut him out.  Time and again he was recommended for clerical positions to be refused because office men would not associate with a negro;  time and again was he turned away from the manual work, because he was told that he was "fit for something better."  In the meantime there was the elevator, and it helped to make a living for himself and his mother.

Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, by Charlotte Reeve Conover.  United Brethren Publishing House (Dayton, Ohio).  1907.  Pages 182 - 183.