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The Great Train Accident of 1925

Image: Funeral notice for victims of the Great Train Accident. (Courtesy of Michael D. Wynne.)

Michael D. Wynne

What may have been the greatest tragedy in my ancestors’ history occurred in 1925 in the little community of Lawtell. The event made front page news coverage of most if not all of the newspapers in the state. If media coverage in 1925 was like it is now in the 21st century, this event might have made national news and maybe even international news. The following history of the event is compiled from the local newspaper coverage of this event, courthouse and church records and includes some reminisces of now deceased old family members from the mid 1970’s.

On Tuesday, June 11th, 1925, at 2:10 PM,  Mrs. Hermina Bordelon Bihm Gosselin, then age 75, her son and daughter, Joseph William “Willie Bihm, then age 44, and Ida Gosselin, then age 36, Willie’s only child, Joseph Lee Bihm, then age 7, and Hermina’s grandson (through her son Amos), 19 year old Clifford Joseph Bihm (1906-1987), were all riding in Willie’s 5 passenger Ford touring car. Willie was driving with his son Lee as the front passenger.

They had just left Hermina’s home in Lawtell and were heading to Mrs. John Boudreau’s home located on the south side of Lawtell. When they reached the end of the gravel road only a few hundred feet from Stanislaus and Hermina’s own home, Willie decided to travel to the Boudreau home by crossing the railroad tracks instead of going through Lawtell as the streets there were muddy from a recent rain, and he feared getting his car stuck in the mud.

At the time that Willie was crossing the railroad tracks, Clifford decided that he wanted to get out of the car and walk home. Clifford was standing on the running board of the right side of the car waiting till the car had crossed the tracks before he got off the car.

As Willie was crossing the tracks, a Gulf Coast Lines train #2 (named the “Orleanian”) was heading eastbound at 55 miles per hour. The train was in the control of train engineer Bruce and conductor Todd. They later reported that as the train was approaching the intersection with the road, they saw Willie’s car coming around what must have been a blind corner.

The gravel road at that time ended at the intersection and then made a right angle turn into the crossing. Engineer Bruce blew the train’s whistle, but it was impossible to slow the train down by this time. Some believed then that Clifford’s sudden exiting of the car onto the running board served as a distraction to the driver and the passengers of the car and they didn’t hear the whistle sound in time to stop the car before it crossed the tracks.

The train broadsided the car tearing it to shreds. Clifford was thrown from the car. The four remaining occupants of the car, Hermina, Willie, Ida, and Lee, were believed to have been killed instantly and their bodies were strewn along the tracks for many feet. It was believed then that since Clifford was outside of the car at the time of impact, he did not receive the brunt force of the collision and was not killed, but he did receive extensive cuts and bruises.

Initially, Clifford was in a coma and was not expected to live, but regained consciousness after a day. Hermina received a severe laceration to the back of her head, compound fracture near the abdomen, and cuts about the arms. Ida who was found lying near her mother, had her right arm broken, legs cut up and her overall body crushed. Willie was badly cut about the body and had a broken leg and fractured arms. Little Lee Bihm was found lying near his father and was badly crushed.

All the available doctors of St. Landry parish were called to the scene including the parish Coroner, Dr. R. M. Littell, who conducted the overall accident investigation. He declared the deaths were all due to physical traumas caused by the accident.

All four bodies were carried to Stanislaus’s and Hermina’s nearby home and placed in coffins. The bodies were kept at the residence until the joint funeral would be held from the residence two days later.

Hundreds of people from throughout St. Landry parish and surrounding parishes rushed to the scene as the word got out of the horrendous accident and all roads to Lawtell were blocked “for some time” (according to the newspapers). Clifford Bihm was rushed to the Opelousas Sanitarium (their local hospital) where he remained until he regained consciousness and recovered.

The quadruple funeral held on Thursday, June 13th, began at the Gosselin home at 2:30 PM, then slowly moved to St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Lawtell at 3:00 PM, and then finally the funeral cortege traveled all the way to Opelousas where the four were interred at St. Landry Catholic Church Cemetery at 4:00 PM. This funeral had one of the largest crowds that had ever assembled in St. Landry Parish history. It was the first time that 4 people were ever interred in one grave, at the same time, and was the largest “one layer” tomb ever built in Opelousas according to one report.

Headlines in the local newspaper read, “Four Killed at Grade Crossing By Fast Moving Train”. Henry Lee McClelland (born 1900) of Lawtell saw the accident at a distance and later said that at the instant prior to the collision, he saw the headlights of the car flash on for some reason. As far as this writer knows, (Uncle) Clifford Bihm never spoke about this tragic collision.

Almost all of the Coroner’s Inquest documents of this tragic accident are missing from the St. Landry Parish Courthouse, likely destroyed. The one ledger page that survives says that an inquisition was held June 10th & 12th of 1925. The jurors were Alcin Fontenot, Eugene Littell, P. C. Latiolais, J. D. Boudreau, Armand Lafleur, M. D. with the group headed by Coroner R. M. Littell.

The juror determined “That on June 10th, Mrs. S. J. Gosselin, Ida Gosselin, Willie Bihm, & Lee Bihm all came to their death at about 2:10 PM by being struck by passenger train No. 4 on the Gulf Coast Lines, in charge of Conductor A. B. Todd, & engineer A. E. Bruce (East Bound).”

The record from St. Bridget’s Catholic Church of Lawtell registry says: “On June 11th, 1925, Hermina Bordelon, wife of Judge Gosselin, 75 years old; Hilda Gosselin, 35 years old; Willie Bihm, 42 years old; Lee Bihm, 7 years old, victims of a terrible accident (their car was crushed in a collision with a train a the railroad crossing at Lawtell) were given a solemn funeral at Lawtell and buried in the cemetery at Opelousas.”

Hermina’s probated succession record is quite interesting as to how the court determined the method that her estate was going to be divided. The issue was in essence this: if Willie Bihm died AFTER his mother Hermina died, then he technically inherited part of her and Stanilaus’s estate which, in turn, his portion would then go to his wife Theotis Bihm as Willie and his only child Lee had died. But, if Willie’s death PRECEEDED Hermina’s death, then Hermina’s estate would be divided among the 3 surviving children (Amos Bihm, Octavie Gosselin Schwartzenburg, and Virginia Gosselin Schwartzenburg) rather than 4 children including Willie.

The court ultimately determined that Willie “….died SUBSEQUENT…” to Hermina, so Willie’s wife did not receive any of the Bihm-Gosselin estate. It was also determined, as law dictates then and now, that Stanislaus has usufruct on the estate, meaning that Stanislaus could continue to live and manage the Gosselin-Bihm home and property until his own death.

The inventory of Hermina’s estate also tells us that in 1925, Stanislaus and Hermina owned an 84-acre plantation with buildings and improvements, all appraised at $2940. They also owned 33 acres of woodland in the Mallet community. Some of their other possessions include:  2 old mares, 3 cows & calves, 2 1 year old heifers, 1 buggy with a top, 1 old surrey, 1 wagon, household furniture, kitchen utensils, 3 Liberty Bonds (from World War I), 3 shares of stock in the Lawtell State Bank valued at $100 each, etc… The total value of her estate was $6534.  The funeral & accessories cost $273.

Note: Excerpt from the book As I Was Told When I Was Young; The History of the Family and the Ancestry of Lessie Lee Whipp Wynne,1922- 2011 – by Michael D. Wynne, published in 2017.

Michael D. Wynn is a noted Louisiana historian and author. Please see the following list of his many books.