O Canada! Paul Huffman & Rebecca Crawford of Halton Co., Ontario / Loyalists Face a Disunited Empire / David Huffman & The Great Dunbar Nebraska Train Wreck of 1887 / Elizabeth (Finch) Huffman is Right On
Revised May 29, 2016
Here’s the solution to a family mystery that’s baffled everyone for decades:
Tyler Huffman, Federal Civil War veteran, was the son of Paul Huffman and Rebecca Crawford. They were my third great-grandparents. Rebecca is said to have died giving birth to Tyler.
It’s known that Paul Huffman was born in Canada on 4 Aug 1817, and died on 25 Jun 1892 in Rome, Henry Co., Iowa. In 1850 Paul Huffman was living in White Co., Indiana with his second wife, Azubah Washburn, whom he had married on 8 Apr 1841 in Fulton Co., Indiana.
But who were Paul and Rebecca (Crawford) Huffman? Where did they come from?
Paul Huffman married Rebecca Crawford in Halton Co., Ontario on 2 Feb 1837. The marriage bond is dated 25 Jan 1837. Paul Huffman was of Trafalgar Township and Rebecca Crawford is listed as of Esquesing Township. The marriage bond is found in “Upper and Lower Canada Marriage Bonds” at the Library and Archives Canada (Microfilm reel no. C-6786 Bond # 5791). Halton Co. is in southern Ontario.
This information enabled me to document the ancestry of Paul Huffman. Of Rebecca Crawford’s ancestry at present I have no information, but the name is Scottish.
Christopher Huffman, a loyalist of German descent, whose family had emigrated to NJ in the mid-18th century, initially settled in Sussex Co., NJ. Christopher Huffman married Anne Smith, daughter of Jacob Smith (UEL) and wife Elizabeth Lewis. He enlisted in the New Jersey (Loyalist) Volunteers on 26 Jan 1777 at Mansfield Township, Sussex Co. (now Warren Co.), seeing action as far south as South Carolina. In 1788 he removed to Canada, ultimately obtaining a land grant in Glanford Township, which is now in Wentworth Co., Ontario. Wentworth Co. is adjacent to Halton Co.
Christopher and Anne (Smith) Huffman had 6 children: Henry 2nd (1781–1862) m. Catherine — (1785–1858); Jacob (Jan 1786–4 May 1851) m. Elizabeth Finch (1786–1871); Elizabeth m. James Choat; Paul (ca. 1791–25 Jun 1869) m. Phoebe — (liv. 1851); Godfrey m. Eliza A. —; and Ann m. Elisha Bingham.
In the 1851 Halton Co. census, Christopher Huffman’s sons Henry Huffman and Paul Huffman were residing in Trafalgar Township. Henry was Episcopalian and Paul was Wesleyan Methodist. Their brother Jacob Huffman served as a private in the War of 1812, and also moved to Trafalgar Township where he assembled substantial holdings.
Wading through the offspring of the four sons of Christopher Huffman, and eliminating Godfrey as too young to have a son b. 1817, it became clear that the parents of Paul Huffman (1817–1892) of Henry Co., IA were Jacob and Elizabeth (Finch) Huffman. Jacob Huffman had a large family of 11 children and is credited with a son “Paul Godfrey Huffman.” Descendants of Paul Huffman of Henry Co., IA identify him as “Paul Godfrey Huffman.” Jacob Huffman’s large family explains why Paul Huffman left Canada in search of land on which to raise his own family.
Paul Huffman (1817–1892) was probably born in Glanford Township, Wentworth Co., Ontario. Upon relocating to the United States ca. 1838, he would have thought it politic not to mention his Loyalist ancestry. The Revolution had ended only 55 years earlier, and British outrages during the War of 1812 were still in the popular memory. The perception that the British favored the South during the Civil War, though in the event they remained neutral, did nothing to rehabilitate their reputation.
[Paul Huffman (4 Aug 1817—25 Jun 1892). Tombstone at White Oak Cemetery near Trenton, Henry Co., IA.]
Paul Huffman’s son Tyler was named after prominent politician John Tyler (below), nominated in 1839 as the Whig Party candidate for Vice President. Tyler became President on the untimely death of William Henry Harrison in 1841. “Tippicanoe and Tyler Too” was a popular jingle of the day. This suggests that Paul Huffman moved to the United States not long after his marriage.
(Detail of 1850 White Co., IN Federal Census, District No. 130, p. 798. Here Paul Huffman correctly gives his birthplace as Canada, but in other enumerations he claimed to be born in PA. Click on image to enlarge.)
The early 1850s found Paul Huffman living in Crawford Township, Washington Co., IA.
(Detail of 1854 Iowa State Census Roll IA-122 Line 17 showing Paul Huffman living in Crawford Township, Washington Co., IA, with 2 males and 4 females in household.)
I found this material on Crawford Township in an 1880 history of Washington Co.
DAVID HUFFMAN & THE GREAT DUNBAR NEBRASKA TRAIN WRECK OF 1887
Here’s a truly obscure item. Paul Huffman briefly left IA and in 1885 was located in Delaware Precinct, Otoe Co., Nebraska (NE). Otoe Co. is in the eastern part of NE adjacent to the IA border.
(Detail of 1885 Otoe Co., NE State Census, ED 567, Page 8. David Huffman is “head of household” and the stated relationships are to him. William Casey is his nephew. Click on image to enlarge.)
The above record, of Paul Huffman the father, and David Huffman the son, recalls a family tale so tragic it must have broke Paul Huffman’s heart. It’s a case of reality eclipsing a Hollywood western. Paul Huffman left NE for Decatur Co., KS, and ultimately returned to Henry Co., IA.
What follows are published accounts of David Huffman and The Great Dunbar Nebraska Train Wreck of 1887. The case attracted national attention in newspapers from San Francisco to Chicago to New York City. I’ve separated the items to make following the coverage easier. The newspapers spelled the family name as “Hoffman,” although it was actually “Huffman.”
[(1888). Defenders And Offenders. New York: D. Buchner & Co.]
We begin our narrative with this piece in The New York Times of 13 Jan 1887:
(The Kankakee wreck was not connected to the wreck at Dunbar, Nebraska.)
(Photograph of the train wreck sent to me by Tim Dempsey. Although it’s low-res, it’s possible to make out the general scene. It’s winter, and snow is on the ground. It appears the track was laid at the top of an embankment at far right. In the right center the locomotive, with its cowcatcher, is resting on its side. Above the locomotive is a car also resting on its side. In the left center is another car resting on its side. A large group of people are viewing the wreck. It’s amazing more people weren’t killed.)
(Missouri Pacific Locomotive No. 152. The locomotive in the Dunbar wreck must have resembled this. Missouri State Archives.)
(Forepaugh’s Circus was a major attraction. The poster illustrates why Paul Huffman fibbed about his background. In fashionable Manhattan a British aristocrat might be patent medicine for feelings of social inferiority, but in “real” America, patrons of a Forepaugh show expected to see the British rudely humiliated.)
The Perrysburg Journal, Wood Co., Ohio on Friday 21 Jan 1887 published a story adding some details to The New York Times account. Friends of the engineer Dewitt blamed the wreck on labor unrest, but that proved to be untrue:
“S.D. Wilson, conductor of the wrecked train, says that fifty-two passengers were aboard of the train, and that their escape from death was almost miraculous. The engine landed fifty feet from the track, and the baggage-car, strangely, was carried as far beyond the engine. The throttle lever was forced through Dewitt’s right lung, and his face was scalded black. The express messenger is frightfully wounded. His skull is badly fractured and every bone in his face broken. A dispatch from Nebraska City to the Times advances the theory that the motive of the crime was robbery, there being $17,000 worth of bullion on the train. This theory is discredited here, however. An official of the road at this point says there is no evidence that the work was instigated by any Knights of Labor organization, but that the animosity of the ex-strikers toward Dewitt was well known. A special from Wyandotte, Kan., the home of the dead engineer, says Dewitt’s friends openly charge his death to the Knights of Labor. It appears that he was a delegate to a convention held at St. Louis last spring during the great Southwestern strike to determine whether the engineers should go out or support the strikers. Dewitt represented two districts, and cast two votes against the strikers. If he had voted for them it would have turned the scale. Subsequently he received several warnings not to run his engine, but he disregarded them. “
In what must seem like a 19th century version of CSI, The Omaha Daily Bee of Saturday Morning 23 Jul 1887 recapped the evidence that condemned David Huffman:
“THE NEWS OF THE DISASTER next morning sent a thrill of horror through this and neighboring states and prompt and energetic measures were taken to hunt down the perpetrators. Superintendent Dalby and Sheriff McCallum made an examination of the track and discovered clews that eventually led to the arrest of David Hoffman and James Bell. The spikes and fishplates of the rail had been drawn and the rail pushed in so that the flange of the wheels must strike it and throw it out of place. A crowbar was found near the track and a broken tool house some distance away furnished convincing proof that the disaster was deliberately planned and executed.
FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW lead directly to the house of John Hoffman, a few hundred yards from the track. Coroner Brauer, Sheriff McCallum, Thomas Hanion, Thomas Dunbar and others traced these footprints from the tool house to the wreck, thence through a corn field to Hoffman’s house. David Hoffman and Bell were found in the house and subjected to a rigid questioning about the wreck. Their stories were so conflicting and palpably false that they were placed under arrest. Their footgear was then fitted to the tracks in the snow, and found to be an exact imprint—even to the patch on Hoffman’s rubber boot.”
To wreck the train, Huffman and Bell removed the spikes and fishplates. A fishplate (below) is a metal bar bolted to the rails to join the track together.
Once the spikes and fishplates were removed, the track was bent inward so when the flange of the locomotive’s wheels struck the damaged portion the locomotive would be thrown from the track. There’s no doubt the crime was premeditated as Huffman and Bell fully understood the consequences of tampering with the track. Judging by the photograph of the wreck, the engine struck the sabotaged track and was thrown, skidding down the embankment on its side to the engineer’s right, with the cars, which were lighter than the engine, being thrown behind it.
The Gazette: Fort Worth, Texas on Friday 14 Jan 1887 carried an account of the arrests:
“Two Arrests Made.
Nebraska City, Neb., Jan. 13.–David W. Hoffman of Dunbar and James W. Bell of Unadilla, Neb., were arrested at Dunbar yesterday afternoon, charged with having caused the wreck Tuesday night. Hoffman was recently a brake-man of the Burlington and Missouri road, while little is known of Bell. Both have been idling about for some time. Neither one is a member of the local Knights of Labor. Both were somewhat intoxicated when arrested, and Hoffman was badly frightened. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict this morning to the effect that the wreck was caused by Hoffman, Bell and others.”
According to the Sedalia Weekly Bazoo, Tuesday 18 Jan 1887, published at Sedalia, Missouri, the Dunbar train wreck had incited a mob:
It is learned that a body of men had organized at an early hour this morning to break the jail at Nebraska City and lynch the villains. Public sentiment was very much wrought up, and if reports are true, the necessity and cost of a trial will be dispensed with
The gentleman who participated in exacting the confessions from the accused, describes the mob as one that was worked up to such a pitch of fury that if they had caught sight of the prisoners, they would have made short work of them. The mob gathered around the jail and furiously demanded the surrender of the self-confessed villains, and threatened, in case of refusal, to break and burn the jail. The sheriff appeared in front of the jail and attempted to mitigate the rage of the mob, but his words only increased their fury. He was met with jeers and curses and missiles were thrown at him. In the meantime the prisoners had been removed and taken in a sleigh to Nebraska City. It is not improbable, however, that the transfer may result only in changing the locality of, and not prevent, the lynching, as the feeling of the people of Nebraska City is at fever heat.”
David Huffman and James Bell were removed from the jail at Nebraska City and taken to an undisclosed location elsewhere in the town.
Justice in Nebraska took no liberties with time. The Omaha Daily World for Thursday Evening, 7 Apr 1887 ran this:
“A Forced Confession.
Train Wrecker Hoffman Claims He ‘Fessed’ Only at the Point of a Revolver.
Nebraska City, April 7.–The trial of David Hoffman, one of the two Missouri Pacific train wreckers of Dunbar, began yesterday before Judge Chapman. Attorneys A.S. Cole and C.W. Seymour are defending and John C. Watson prosecuting. Hoffman’s counsel created a sensation by producing an affidavit signed by Hoffman, in which he claims that the so-called confession was forced from him in the Grand Pacific Hotel in this city at night by Missouri Pacific Detective Tutt and his associate; that Sheriff McCollum and his deputy, Joseph Huberle, took him to the Grand Pacific Hotel at night, where there were two or three strange men supposed to be Missouri Pacific detectives; that one of them held a cocked revolver to his head, a watch in his hand, saying that he would give him (Hoffman) just two minutes to tell about how the trains were wrecked at Dunbar; that all of the time the Sheriff and deputy were present and did not attempt to stop these men in any manner …; this ground the attorneys asked the judge to discharge the jury, as it had been drawn by a prejudiced Sheriff. The motion was overruled. They then asked for a separate trial, which was granted, and David Hoffman was put on trial. A jury was secured at 6 o’clock last night.”
This item from the Omaha Daily World for Saturday Evening, 9 Apr 1887 relates some testimony in the case:
“TURNED AGAINST HIM.
Hoffman’s Brother Does Not Shield the Train Wrecker—Startling Testimony.
Nebraska City, April 9—The sensation of the trial of David Hoffman, the Dunbar train wrecker yesterday, was the testifying of his accomplice Bell, who, as predicted, turned state’s evidence. He testified that he was in Dunbar the day of the wreck on business; got drunk, was arrested, and fined; he appealed to Hoffman, who was present, to pay the fine; Hoffman said he did not have any money, but would have enough the next day; Bell put up his team as security for the fine, and followed Hoffman around the town. He drank considerable, but Hoffman did not; Hoffman asked witness to go along down the railroad track; Hoffman broke open the Burlington & Missouri tool house and secured a crowbar and wrenches; both men proceeded up the Missouri Pacific track; when they arrived at the place where the wreck subsequently occurred, Bell sat down on the track and Hoffman proceeded to remove the rails; witness asked him what he was doing, and he replied that he was going to wreck the train and rob the express car; Bell remonstrated, and said that many people would get killed. Hoffman said he didn’t give a d–n, he had made up his mind and would carry it out; Hoffman removed the spikes and rail; saw the train approaching, when Hoffman pulled him down in the ravine; when the train jumped the track both ran.
The counsel for the defense endeavored unsuccessfully to break down Bell’s testimony. John Hoffman, a brother of David, testified that when he ran to the wreck he saw a man jump out of a ravine west of the track and run, he could not tell who it was, but it looked like Dave Hoffman’s form. The Missouri Pacific detectives testified that Hoffman made a voluntary confession to them without inducement, threats or force.
The citizens of Dunbar testified that Hoffman promised them that he would pay money due them next day; this on the day of the wreck. Hoffman was cool and unconcerned until Bell testified, and then uneasy.”
The Newark Daily Advocate of Newark, Ohio for Tuesday, 12 Apr 1887 printed this:
“Train Wrecker to Hang.
Nebraska City, Neb., April 12.–The case of the state against David Hoffman for wrecking the Missouri Pacific passenger train at Dunbar, in January last, closed Saturday in the district court. The jury found a verdict of murder in the first degree, and Hoffman will swing about July 20. Bell, his partner, turned states evidence, and made a clean confession of the whole affair. Robbery was the motive. Bell will get a life sentence.”
James Bell actually received a 10 year sentence.
The Omaha Daily World for Tuesday Evening, 12 Apr 1887 carried this brief notice:
“Hoffman Hangs July 22
NEBRASKA CITY, April 12.–David Hoffman, the Missouri Pacific train wrecker, has been sentenced to hang on July 22, for the murder of Engineer DeWitt. Hoffman, who has appeared somewhat indifferent during the trial, broke down when sentenced was passed, and wept like a child. The Sheriff and deputy were obliged to support him to his cell.”
Efforts to persuade the governor of Nebraska to spare David Hoffman were fruitless. The following story ran in The Omaha Daily Bee of Saturday Morning 23 Jul 1887:
“One sister, Mrs. Mattie Fitch of Elmwood, Neb., has been most untiring in her efforts in his behalf. She circulated a petition, to which she got a large number of signatures, asking the commutation of his sentence to imprisonment for life, which she presented to Governor Thayer with her prayers, but her efforts were in vain. Aside from this one sister, none of his relatives seemed to concern themselves in the least about his fate, and apparently he had not a friend on earth.”
The Chicago Tribune of Saturday 23 Jul 1887 had this to say about David Huffman’s final moments:
“He passed a comfortable night, retiring about 10:30 and sleeping soundly until 6:30. His breakfast was of fruit, of which he ate sparingly. Then he smoked a cigar, and was still smoking unmoved while the death warrant was read to him a short time afterwards. He had never shown any weakness, and was perfectly composed until he was led out to the scaffold at 10:21, when he became weak in the knees and had to be supported, but his step was more firm as he ascended the scaffold.
When he stepped upon the platform his face wore a pitiful and haggard expression, and when he cast a look at the rope dangling near his right shoulder his body shook. A short prayer was offered by the Rev. R. Pierson, when he was asked if he had anything to say. He cast his eyes upward, then over the crowd of spectators around the scaffold, and then they wandered to the trap-door beneath his feet, when he burst into tears and sobbed like a child. By a strong effort he regained his composure, and replied that he had nothing to say. His legs and arms were quickly bound, the noose adjusted, the black cap drawn, and the trap was sprung.”
The public’s fascination with David Huffman is illustrated by this headline from The Boston Daily Globe of Saturday, 23 Jul 1887:
The Weekly Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln, Nebraska on Friday, 29 July 1887 described the scene at the hanging:
“The Hanging at Nebraska City – Thousands of People Gather to Witness the Execution – Only Two Hundred Admitted Within the Enclosure – The Prisoner Breaks Down Completely Before Being Led to the Scaffold – The Court House Guarded By Military – Scenes in the Condemned Man’s Cell – A History of the Crime and Sketch of Hoffman’s Life.
Nebraska City, Neb., July 22. – [Special]
Early this morning the city was crowded with strangers from all directions, all eager to witness the hanging of David W. Hoffman. There was some talk in the early morning of tearing down the enclosure and having a public execution, but the appearance of Company C, Second Regiment, which arrived at the court house about 8 o’clock, quickly put down all such schemes. About 8,000 people were around the court house square, but no one except those who had permits were allowed inside. Tickets to the execution sold as high as $15.
At 9:30 a.m. the doors were opened and the fortunate ones were admitted.”
Authorities had erected an enclosure around the court house and gallows. Some people wanted the enclosure removed so the entire crowd could witness the execution, but this was prevented by the militia company for fear it would precipitate a riot. Entry into the enclosure required a ticket, of which only 200 were issued. Scalpers sold tickets for as much as $15.00.
According to the St. Paul Daily Globe of St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday Morning, 23 Jul 1887:
Execution of a Train Wrecker at Nebraska City.
Nebraska City, Neb., July 22.–David Hoffman was hanged here to-day for wrecking a Missouri Pacific passenger train on the night of the 11th of January last, at Dunbar, a small station on the Missouri Pacific, ten miles west of this place. At the time of the wreck Engineer Dewitt was instantly killed, and a number of passengers were seriously injured. Hoffman ascended the scaffold with a firm tread. He made an effort to say something, but broke down. The trap was sprung at 10:24, and he was strangled to death in eight minutes. His body was cut down and turned over to the county coroner. His confederate in the train wrecking is serving a ten years’ sentence in the penitentiary, having turned state’s evidence. The militia company was called out to keep order, but everything passed off quietly.”
(The Chicago Tribune account above added: “The body was exposed to the public for one hour, after which it was turned over to relatives.”)
In a truly bizarre twist to this story, the Butler [MO] Weekly Times of Wednesday, July 27, 1887 contributed this item:
“David Hoffman, the Nebraska train wrecker, was hung at Nebraska City last Friday. Just before the execution took place he handed the Kansas City Times correspondent the following note which should be read and carefully heeded by our young men: ‘A warning of the first Glass, warning to all young men:—I write these few lines; hoping that some young man, whom I have played with may read them and a warning take from me and never tip the poison bowl to your lips. Young man, when you fill the first glass set it down and think—O! think deep in your hearts how many graves it has filled. O! how many children’s fathers it has torn from them and how many poor wives are left alone in sorrow, grief for the loss of their dear, beloved husbands, how many poor mother’s hearts it has broken. O! young men; turn from that broad and sinful path. O! stop and think of one who was free and happy, whose heart is overflowed with sorrow and grief—almost laid in his lonely grave—all for that miserable liquor. O! young men, take warning from them before it is too late is my prayer.’
The note appears to place responsibility for David Huffman’s plight on John Barleycorn, but is probably a pious fraud as he was said to be illiterate.
This terse account from The Railroad Gazette of 5 Aug 1887 makes Huffman and Bell’s motive even more sinister:
Although train robbers did relieve passengers of their valuables, The Railroad Gazette is in error regarding Huffman and Bell’s intentions, as neither was reported to be armed. In fact, the whole enterprise was incompetently planned, for they had no means of transporting such a large amount of silver bullion, had they managed to get their hands on it. The copious amount of alcohol they had imbibed both defeated their inhibitions and dulled what intelligence they ordinarily possessed, which seems minimal.
“Estimates of those who were actual witnesses to the hanging were 50 by one news account and 200 by another. The body was taken down by coroner Brauer and turned over to the family. A funeral procession consisting of several buggies headed for Unadilla, 13 miles west of Dunbar, where Hoffman was buried.
Authorities worked quickly to remove the scaffold and perimeter fencing.” (Dempsey, p. 73.)
Undoubtedly one of the buggies in the funeral procession was that of his sister, Mattie (Huffman) Fitch.
The Omaha Daily Bee of Saturday Morning, 23 Jul 1887 added this:
“His [David Huffman] pulse ceased to beat at 10:33, and his body was cut down and turned over to Coroner Brauer, who left with it this afternoon overland for Unadilla for burial.”
According to Barbara Boardman Wilhelm of the Otoe County Genealogical Society, David Huffman was probably buried in the “Potter’s Field” section at the north end of Unadilla cemetery.
That Coroner Brauer accompanied the body gives a clue as to what may have happened: that David Huffman’s family refused to pay for the burial, and he was buried at county expense, but not at Nebraska City, for fear the grave would be vandalized. It’s unlikely there was ever a grave marker.
In its coverage of David Huffman’s hanging, the Omaha Daily World of 22 Jul 1887 gave an account of his family:
“David Hoffman was born near Trenton, Henry county, Ia., on April 8, 1864. He resided on a farm with his parents until he was thirteen years of age, when he went to Fremont county, Ia., and worked for a farmer near Randolph for some time. He was in Fremont county off and on for nearly five years. After remaining in Fremont for about a year and a half he went to Phillips county, Kan., where he and one of his brothers farmed some, but most of the two years that he was there he worked for other farmers in Phillips and Decatur counties. He went from there to York and Filmore counties, Nebraska, where he and his brother John Hoffman farmed for nearly two years. Tiring of farming he drifted westward as far as Denver, where he worked one winter for a horse trainer named Hurne. Here is a period of his life he fails to fully detail …. [Huffman was thought to be implicated in cattle rustling.] After tiring of Denver he went back to Randolph where he remained until three years ago, when he came to Dunbar, Neb., and rented a farm with his brother John, and remained nearly two years. He went back last spring to Creston. Ia., and, with the aid of two brothers who were working on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, secured a position as brakeman on that road, which he retained but a short time. He then went to Taylor Station, eighteen miles east of Council Bluffs, Ia., where he clerked in a store and also worked on a farm about two months. On July 8, 1886, he came to Unadilla, this county, and began work on a farm with his brother-in-law, Taylor Fitch, near that place, where he remained until he went to Dunbar the day that the train was wrecked. His father and mother reside in Decatur county, Kansas. He has four brothers and four sisters living. Paul and Thomas Jefferson Hoffman are employees of the C. B. & Q. at Creston, Ia., and are highly esteemed by all who know them. Tyler Hoffman resides on the old homestead in Henry county, Ia., while John Hoffman, near whose house the wreck occurred at Dunbar, is now residing on farm in Nelson county, Neb. His sisters are Mrs. Mattie Fitch, Elmwood, Neb.; Mrs. Rachel Norton, Randolph county, Ia.; Mrs. Mary Corney, Decatur Co., Kan., and Mrs. Rebecca Messer, Henry county, Ia.
His father wrote him shortly after his sentence that he would much prefer to see him hung than have him go to jail for ten years like his partner, James Bell. Hoffman claimed to have a sweetheart residing at Hamburg, but she never visited him or wrote him letters…. He stoutly denied that he was guilty of the crime for which he was punished, and said that Bell was the one who removed the rail while he stood by and watched him, and that he was innocent of any wrong, but was too drunk at the time to take any part or fully realize what was being done.”
David Huffman’s claim “to have a sweetheart residing at Hamburg” is quite possibly true. Hamburg is in Fremont Co., IA, which borders MO to the south and NE to the west.
I suppose Paul Huffman’s words that “he would much prefer to see [David] hung than have him go to jail for ten years like his partner, James Bell,” is both a comment on what the father thought was David’s debt to society, and the evil of James Bell, whose role in the crime was greater than he admitted.
This article from the San Francisco Chronicle of Saturday 23 Jul 1887 fills in some details about David Huffman’s previous criminal activity:
“About five years ago Hoffman was in the cattle-stealing business near Ayer, Neb., in the Republican valley, and is credited with being one of a gang who drove off an entire herd, for which a mob lynched an old man named Weatherdyke. He is also said to have been mixed up in a number of other horse and cattle thefts in Northern Nebraska and Eastern Colorado.”
And what of James Bell?
The Omaha Daily World of Thursday Evening 14 Apr 1887 ran this item:
“Bell Gets Ten Years.
Nebraska City, April 13.–James Bell, the accomplice of David Hoffman, pleaded guilty yesterday to train-wrecking at Dunbar and was sentenced to ten years in the Penitentiary. Bell seemed relieved when sentence was passed, particularly as Hoffman is sentenced to be hanged. The popular feeling was such that the Sheriff took him at once to Lincoln without trying to keep him over night.”
The Penitentiary at Lincoln was until after WWI the only adult correctional facility in Nebraska. In 1889, it housed about 400 inmates, of whom James Bell was Prisoner No. 1203. The Nebraska State Historical Society has a copy of his “Descriptive Record.”
“James Bell, Hoffman’s accomplice, was released from the Nebraska Penitentiary in May of 1894 after serving 7 years.” (Dempsey, p. 73.)
And to refute the twin misconceptions that the English ignore we colonials and nothing exciting ever happens in my family, there’s this from the Yorkshire Gazette of York, England, dated Saturday, 13 Aug 1887:
“At Nebraska city, Neb., the other day, it took eight minutes to ‘strangle to death’ David Hoffman, who had wrecked a passenger train, with fatal results. In the matter of executions, therefore, the Americans are fearfully slow. Had Berry, of Bradford, been commissioned to deal with Mr Hoffman, he would have effectually completed his ghastly task in about eight seconds. The execution of Hoffman reminds one of the scenes which took place on Knavesmire and Clifton Ings a couple of centuries ago, when criminals led to execution were strangled to death. Thousands of persons object to capital punishment—Mr Lockwood, Q.C., M.P., however, is one of those who consider that it acts as a check on crime—but they must at any rate be gratified to know that our wretched culprits are sent out of this world in the most humane way yet known to science.”
The article refers to “Berry of Bradford.” James Berry (1852–1913) was Public Executioner in Britain, author of My Experiences as an Executioner. He’s best known for refining the “long drop” method of hanging. The English are better than we are at everything. One wonders if Rumpole would have shared Mr. Lockwood’s opinion.
Dempsey, Tim. (2014). Well I’ll Be Hanged Early Capital Punishment In Nebraska. Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press, Inc. (Chapter VI, pp. 67–78 “David Hoffman A Real Train Wreck” is an account of the Dunbar, NE train wreck and its aftermath. On p. 76 is a photograph of the wreck, which is seen above.)
This all sounds quite lurid, but it was the era before radio and TV. To visualize the crime, imagine yourself riding a skateboard down an incline and tied to your skateboard is a string of tin cans. You wipe out and the cans are flying everywhere. Train wrecking was a common method of robbing a train, and in this case it proved deadly for both the engineer and the robber.
The railroads were lifelines for a community. In addition to anger about the crime, concern for the economic health of the area undoubtedly played a role in the fury vented upon David Huffman.
The following biographical sketch of Elisha B. Huffman, son of Jacob and Elizabeth (Finch) Huffman, gives a detailed family history of the descendants of Jacob and Elizabeth (Finch) Huffman (click on images to enlarge). Homer, MN is in the far southeast of the state, on the bank of the Mississippi River.
(1895). Portrait And Biographical Record Of Winona County, Minnesota Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens of the County, Together with Biographies and Portraits of all the Presidents of the United States. Lake City Publishing Co. Chicago: Chapman Publishing Company, Printers And Binders. pp. 294–295
There is, in connection with Jacob Huffman, a lawsuit which provides contemporary evidence concerning his family, in:
Jones Esq., Edward C. (1853). Reports Of Cases Decided In The Court Of Common Pleas of Upper Canada; From Trinity Term 15 Victoria, To Trinity Term 16 Victoria Volume II. Toronto: Henry Rowsell, King-Street, pp.423–430.
It was a messy affair: Elizabeth (Finch) Huffman, widow of Jacob, asserted her dower rights to a property then occupied by James Finch, which property had been acquired during her marriage to Jacob Huffman. The property was extensive, consisting of a large tract of land and improvements, in Trafalgar, Halton Co., Ontario. For his part, Finch claimed to have had a deed dated 28 Apr 1815 from Jacob Huffman, now lost, in which Elizabeth duly relinquished her dower. The court ruled for Elizabeth as Finch could produce no evidence. There’s nothing stating the relationship of Elizabeth (Finch) Huffman to James Finch, but surely they were related. It’s a case with implications on both sides of the Canada/USA border, because it illustrates what could happen when a wife didn’t legally alienate her dower. In this instance, James Finch had to satisfy Elizabeth (Finch) Huffman’s dower portion.
This passage, found on p. 425, proves the identity of Jacob Huffman, and his real date of death:
There are discrepancies in the available information regarding the descendants of Christopher Huffman. The broader outline seems correct, while some details are conflicting. Some of the dates in the Elisha B. Huffman sketch don’t match other data. One can only work with the facts at hand while being careful to correct the record with more accurate material as it’s unearthed. However, Elisha B. Huffman can be expected to have intimate knowledge of his parents and siblings.
As I examined the lives of Christopher Huffman and his family in Halton Co., Ontario, I realized how closely they resembled pioneers in the United States. These were the people who were the backbone of nations, who cleared the land, built roads, established courts of justice, and erected houses to their faith. In this there was more that bound together Christopher Huffman and Virginia pioneers like Abraham Fulkerson than set them apart.
The following marriages are also found in Halton Co, Ontario:
Charlotte Huffman to Alexander McKenzie, both of Trafalgar Township, 26 Dec 1835 (Charlotte was the dau. of Henry Huffman)
Susan Crawford to Charles Coote, both of Esquessing Township, 23 Mar 1831
Patrick Crawford to Elizabeth Madden, both of Trafalgar Township, 5 Apr 1833
Thomas Crawford (carpenter), of Trafalgar Township, to Barbara Watkins, of Esquessing Township, 1 Nov 1837 (Barbara was the dau. of Samuel Watkins)
To celebrate my Canadian heritage, these are the lyrics to the Canadian national anthem:
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
Newspapers can be crucial in reconstructing family history. “Chronicling America” is a free newspaper database operated by the Library of Congress. Check their website first before subscribing to a paid service.
An excellent resource for Canadian genealogical research is Library and Archives Canada website:
Another useful website is United Empire Loyalists: