Whose Story Is It Anyway?

August 8, 1999

Next Sunday marks the centennial of an event perhaps only I will observe, and even I “observed” it last week, since I won’t be able to travel to the actual site on the very day.

On August 15, 1899, a Tuesday, Gertrude and Hilda Fleishman embarked on a carriage ride from the hilltop resort where they were guests down into the village of Wernersville, Pennsylvania, for the purpose of catching a trolley to the nearby city of Reading in order to have lunch with some young men of their acquaintance. Their driver was Franklin Hassler, a partner with his father in the hotel known as The Highland House.

The journey carried them down South Mountain which was studded with similar guest houses and sanitariums. The air and the water there was believed to have both relaxing and curative powers, and for about a fifty-year period ending in the 1920’s the area was a popular destination for wealthy city dwellers from Philadelphia and New York. The Fleischmann girls, both in their twenties, were from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and were rounding out an extended vacation at the New Jersey seashore with a stop at The Highland.

Their route would take them across the Lebanon Valley railroad tracks just a block south of the main street, at the site of a large grain mill. It was an ordinary but pleasant morning, with the mill owner busy in his office and several men playing quoits while they awaited a delivery.

Witnesses remembered seeing the carriage just as they heard the whistle of the train bearing down from the west — No. 205 out of Harrisburg, bound for Reading, ten minutes late. For reasons that can never be known, Franklin Hassler, who was known to be deaf, checked his horse as it stepped onto the tracks, and turned to speak to the young women. The engine struck the carriage between the horse and the front wheel and, as the Reading Eagle reported it, the carriage, the horse, and the three occupants were “hurled into eternity.”

I first learned this story from a newspaper account I found at the Heidelberg Heritage Society in Wernersville (of which, be it noted, I am a lifetime member). The clipping had been laminated onto a piece of poster board but was not part of any display — it was propped between a wall and a filing cabinet in an upstairs storage room. I’d gone there to look for material about domestic life in 19th-century Berks County, for my Katherine Project.

It is exactly the kind of story that captures my imagination as a fiction writer and a historian — young lives tragically cut short, the railroad blamed for negligence, lurid reporting (one story described the appearance of Miss Hilda’s brains as they lay strewn about the track). In fact, I am developing my research into an article to be entered in this year’s Hiester Manuscript Contest sponsored by the Berks County Historical Society.

But the historical significance of the story and what telling it might do for my writing career is only one aspect of my interest in the Fleishman sisters and their hapless driver. As usual, I am engaged by their personalities, and feel a desire to honor their memories. And I would do this in my usual fashion. I would visit their gravesites.

According to the newspapers, Franklin is buried in Hain’s Cemetery, a site well-known and beloved by me. But although I’ve found many Hassler plots and have studied the area commonly used in 1899, I haven’t found Franklin’s. The Fleischman sisters are buried in “the Hebrew burying ground” in Harrisburg. There are four such, all of them much smaller than the vast acreage of Hain’s. I’ve walked the whole of Mount Moriah, the area used by the girls’ congregation, with no success.

I inquired at the Dauphin County Historical Society (where I am a member but not a lifetime one) about a history of the Jewish community. The librarian there, who is known to be very knowledgeable but equally difficult, was not helpful, and even discouraged me, on two accounts: the tragedy occurred in Berks County, not Dauphin, so it is of no interest to him, and anyway, what right have I to go poking into the stories of people I don’t even know. Let them rest in peace! (This, I think, is an odd stance for a historian.)

As it happens, the question of whose story is it anyway has been raised before about my writing, with the validity of my interpretation called into question and a request to desist from writing further about a 60-year-old story that is none of my business anyway. (My facts in this matter, I might point out, were accurate, and while I did engage in some interpretation, it was entirely positive.) That criticism stung me, and kept me from writing for two weeks while I questioned my motivations and my skills.

In the end, my love of local history and my desire to see that people who are gone are truly not forgotten transcend my fears of giving offense and being criticized. I’ve written a letter to the current rabbi of the girls’ community as well as to a woman known to be the unofficial congregation historian (who happens to be the grandmother of one of my daughter’s friends).

In the meantime, I’ve honored the departed in a fashion that has become popular in our time. I visited last week to take pictures of the site as it looks today. (Contemporary newspaper drawings show the mill and a house that still stands. Only the trees have changed.) At the local flower shop I bought a small bouquet and placed it near the southeast corner of the crossing. After I took the shot, I thought better of leaving the arrangement intact like that, in case it should pose a traffic hazard. So I pulled it apart, crumbled the petals already wilting in our fierce August humidity, and scattered them among the stones.

Rest in peace, Hilda, Gertrude, and Franklin. You have not been forgotten.

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