How did a fifty year old husband and father of seven end up dead on a railroad track in such a gruesome condition that it was lucky he was identified for a proper burial? Was he a victim of a robbery? Or was he so impaired that he had little awareness of his surroundings and the danger he was about to experience? His family was left to just speculate what the last moments of Frank Koehler's life were like.
Frank was born to parents Andreas (Andrew) and Catharina Emilie (Geisse) Koehler in or near the town of Germersheim, Rhineland-Pfalz, Germany. He was baptized Francicsus about June 8, 1862 in the Roman Catholic Church in the same town. According to the information given to the enumerator for the 1900 United States Federal Census on Ancestry, he immigrated to the United States in 1880 and was a naturalized citizen. In that census, he is also recorded as being a farmer in the Mays Lick, Mason County, Kentucky precinct and was living with his wife, Anna and six children.
When he was living, Frank's grandson, John Koehler, told the story of how Frank would disappear for periods of time and it was thought that he would be in Cincinnati. The thought was that Frank enjoyed his alcohol and Cincinnati was his favorite drinking spot. John's stories of his grandfather were secondhand as he was not quite three years old when Frank met his horrible end. Was the drinking explanation for Frank's disappearances the product of a resentful family or was there more to the story than that? The hunt is on for answers and they may never be found, but some of the mystery of Frank's life is coming to light with the help of current genealogical documents found online!
I already had the family's 1900 Mason County, Kentucky census information, and I knew from John's stories that Frank had died from a railroad accident in Cincinnati so the first thing I looked for and found was a death certificate. The name was correct. The cause of death was correct, however his age was reported as only 40 years old and his calculated birth year from the census data showed him to be born about 1861-62. If the death certificate was correct, this Frank Koehler would have been born about 1872. The other odd thing about the certificate was the listed occupation - butcher! That was not something that was expected, however the one clue that made me fairly sure I had the correct certificate was the burial information. This man's body was removed to Maysville, Kentucky for burial and that was a pretty big coincidence to overlook so I took the date of death, March 6, 1912, and looked further.
One of my favorite web sites, Newspapers.com, has the Cincinnati Enquirer as part of its collection so that was my next stop. Just as I had hoped, on page 3 of the March 7, 1912 issue, there was a short article titled Killed By Train. Readers of that day's issue newspaper learned of Frank's death. They discovered he was a butcher living on Lehman Road and was found on the tracks of the C., H., and R. railroad at Carll Street in North Fairmont early in the morning of March 6. The article also indicated that relatives had identified the body and that a coroner's inquest was to be held. A similar article was also found on page 5 in the Cincinnati German language newspaper, Tägliches Cincinnatier Volksblatt (Chronicling America) and also dated March 7. These were great finds, but only added to my questions. Who were the relatives and how were they found? I also wanted to know what the coroner's inquest decided about the supposed accident. I could find no other articles about Frank, his death, or the inquest.
I had been sharing all these discoveries with John's daughter whose curiosity about Frank had started me back on his trail after several years of letting it just sit in a file folder. She recalled her father telling her that there had been a Christmas card with his children's names on it in Frank's pocket which was how the authorities knew who to contact. With that question possibly answered, I turned my attention to the coroner's report and how to locate it. I was attempting to figure that out when I typed the three words, Cincinnati coroner records, into Google and hit the Search button. I totally expected to find the Cincinnati or Hamilton County government pages, but amazingly, I found a link to the Hamilton County, Ohio Morgue Records! I had already been using the online University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons, Birth and Death Records for several years, but had no idea that they had also put the morgue records on their site. I quickly clicked on the link and went to the page where I read about the collection and what all could be found in the records. Excited about what I might find about Frank, I clicked the big red button labeled Visit Digital Collection and proceeded to type Koehler into the search box. Three Koehler entries popped up and there it was, a copy of the original record created when Frank's mutilated body was brought to the morgue by Police Patrol 5! While the document doesn't answer all of the questions about Frank's life, it does give us some about his death. It shows that the age on the death certificate was mistakenly written as 40. This record has his age at death as 50 years old which is what I was expecting. He is still listed as a butcher, but I realized that Frank had to make money in some way in order to live and meet his expenses in Cincinnati. There were no farms in the city so maybe he did work for a butcher or some type of meat company.
I had been wondering about where Frank might have stayed while in Cincinnati and found out that at the time of his death, at least, he was boarding at the home of a man named August Fischer. I have some research to do to see if his boarding there was just one of convenience and availability or one of some type of family relationship.
The person with the gruesome task of identifying the body was Frank's oldest child, Dan M. Koehler who, in 1912, was twenty-five years old and living in Flemingsburg, Kentucky. I found it odd that if the coroner relied on Dan's information to complete his form, then why is Frank is listed as a widower? Or just who did give him that information and why? Anna was definitely alive in 1912. She didn't pass away until 1946.
One of the biggest questions is still left to speculation. Was Frank robbed and then placed on the tracks or was he just so severely inebriated from a night of drinking? One clue is that the only personal effects found with his body were a pair of glasses and a beer check. I don't know what a beer check might have been, but I did notice that no money or wallet or purse was listed as being found. Looking at other reports in this collection, men's purses and money are listed on a large number of them so the lack of Frank's might indeed mean something. He could have been robbed before his death or, possibly, after. If he had been killed before being hit by the train, the condition of his body afterward would most likely have hidden any evidence of that crime. The other thing that is missing from his personal effects is the mention of a Christmas card or any other means of identification so that still makes me wonder how the coroner discovered who this poor mutilated man was and how did he know who to contact.
I still don't know why Frank disappeared to Cincinnati every so often leaving a wife and children on a farm in Kentucky. I would like to think that he wanted to provide his family with more than the farm could provide and he saw an opportunity to work in the city. But, it could be that he and his wife just decided to separate. Anna is listed as head of household in the 1910 census so he may have been in Cincinnati for more than just a short period of time. It may also be entirely possible that the family's speculation of him having a second family is true, although I haven't seen any evidence of that except for him being listed as a widower. One of these days, there might be something that surfaces to help figure out what Frank was thinking and why he did what he did. I have done genealogy research long enough to know that you just never know what will pop up in the most unexpected places. The trick is to just keep looking and I plan on doing just that!
*To see the original morgue record, click on the "original record" link found in paragraph 6.