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Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

Grave Sightings: Kate Shelley

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

It was 11 p.m. on July 6, 1881, when 15-year-old Kate Shelley heard a terrible noise amid a violent storm that was raging in central Iowa.

Kate quickly realized the noise was the result of the collapse of a railroad bridge that spanned nearby Honey Creek. The bridge gave out when a work locomotive carrying four men passed over. Any train that followed would careen over the edge into the swollen creek—and Kate knew that a passenger train, the Midnight Limited, was due in less than an hour. The only way to get to the other side in time to warn the depot was to cross a 50-foot-tall wooden trestle bridge that was hundreds of feet long.

Undaunted, Kate grabbed a lantern and started crawling. The storm was still raging, and some of the railroad ties on the bridge were up to 3 feet apart. To make matters worse, as Kate made her way inch by inch, her lantern blew out. Nonetheless, the teen persevered—but even when she reached the other side, her job wasn’t done. After her harrowing experience on the bridge, Kate had to run a half-mile to reach the Moingona depot.

Stories from the Railroad // Public Domain

She was successful, saving the lives of more than 200 passengers on the midnight train—and she still had more left to give. The exhausted girl managed to lead a rescue party to the site of the crash, where two men from the locomotive that had crashed were still clinging to trees in the water. The body of a third worker was later found in a cornfield, washed there by the swirling flood waters. The fourth man was never found.

Her incredible tale spread quickly. People wrote poems about her. Donations rolled in to pay off the Shelley mortgage. Gifts included a lifetime rail pass, $200 cash, a gold watch, a gold medal made by Tiffany & Co., and even a job—years later, the Chicago & Northwestern (C&NW) Railroad made her station master at the depot she had raced to that stormy night [PDF].

Sadly, though Kate survived that night, she died at the young age of 47, succumbing to Bright’s Disease in 1912. While her health was failing, the C&NW division superintendent provided his private railroad car so Kate could travel in comfort. In 1956, the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen donated a plaque to honor the 75th anniversary of her deed. It was erected behind her tombstone at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Boone, Iowa.

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A new bridge replaced the old trestle 20 years after that stormy night; still-grateful citizens named it after her, if unofficially. And while Kate may have died more than a century ago, her deed is still the stuff of legend: In 2009, Union Pacific opened a more modern bridge that runs parallel to the now-decommissioned one named after Kate in 1901. The company insisted on honoring the namesake of the original, and thus, the Kate Shelley Bridge still stands today. Check out this cool drone footage of the dual bridges:

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History
The Curse on Shakespeare's Grave
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images

It's a pretty good practice to avoid incurring the wrath of the dead in general, but if there's a ghost you really don't want to upset, it's probably William Shakespeare's. Just think of the many inventive ways he killed people in his plays. That's why the curse on his grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon should be taken seriously:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

It's thought that the warning was penned by Shakespeare himself. In his day, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research purposes or even just to make room for more burials, and the Bard did not want that to happen to his remains. So far, his warning seems to have worked. Even when the grave received some repairs in 2008, workers said the stones would not actually be moved and the bones certainly would not be disturbed. 

It has recently been suggested that Shakespeare's remains be exhumed and studied using the same techniques that allowed us to learn more about King Richard III, so we may soon find out how effective that curse really is. Professor Francis Thackeray from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who wants to exhume the bones, seems to be pushing his luck. "We could possibly get around [the curse] by at least exposing the bones and doing high-resolution, non-destructive laser surface scanning for forensic analyses without moving a single bone," he said. "Besides, Shakespeare said nothing about teeth in that epitaph."

Will it be enough to avoid the Bard's wrath? Only time will tell.

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politics
Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


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The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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