May 19th, 1902. All 216 miners working underground at the Fraterville Coal Mine in Tennessee, are killed by an explosion. For a while, 26 miners survive in a side passage. But they suffocate before rescue workers can reach them. Some of those 26 spend their final hours writing letters to loved ones.
Jacob Vowell opened his notebook and wrote to Sarah Ellen, his wife and mother to their 6 children. One child, 14-year-old Elbert, was by his side in the mine.
Ellen, darling, goodbye for us both. Elbert said the Lord has saved him. We are all praying for air to support us, but it is getting so bad without any air.
Ellen I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can. Oh how I wish to be with you, goodbye. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie. Godbye Ellen, goodbye Lily, goodbye Jemmie, goodbye Horace. We are together. Is 25 minutes after two. There is a few of us alive yet.
Jake and Elbert
Oh God for one more breath. Ellen remember me as long as you live Goodbye darling.
To My Wife: We are up at the head of the entry with a little air; but the bad air is closing in on us fast. It is now 12 o’clock, Monday.
I have to leave you in bad condition. Now, dear wife, put your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen, take care of my darling little Lillie. Ellen, little Elbert said that he trusts in the Lord. Charlie Wilkes said that he is safe in Heaven if he should never see the outside again.
If we should never get out we are not hurt, only perished. There are but a few of us here and I don’t know where the other men are. Elbert said for you to meet him in Heaven. Tell all the children to meet with us both there.
J. L. Vowell.
My Darling Mother and Sister: I am going to Heaven. I want you all to meet me in Heaven. Tell all your friends to meet me there; and tell your friends that I have gone to heaven. Tell my friends not to worry about me as I am now in sight of heaven. Tell father to pay all I owe, and you stay there at home or at my house, and bury me at Pleasant Hill, if it suits you all. Bury me in black clothes. This is about 1:30 o’clock Monday. So good-bye dear father and mother and friends, goodbye all. Your boy and brother.
From Henry Beach: Alice, do the best you can; I am going to rest. Good-bye dear.
Little Ellen darling, good-bye for us both. Elbert said the Lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all praying for air to support us; but it is getting so bad without any air. Howard, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 2:30 o’clock. Powell Harmon’s watch is in Audrey Wood’s hands. Ellen, I want you to live right and come to Heaven. Raise the children the best you can. Oh, how I wish to be with you. Good-bye all of you, good-bye. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave. My little Eddie, good-bye. Ellen, good-bye. Lillie, good-bye. Jimmie, good-bye. Horace. There are a few of us alive yet. Oh, God, for one more breath. Ellen remember me as long as you live. Good-bye darling.
To My Wife and Baby: My dear wife and baby, I want you to go back home and take the baby there, so good-bye. I am going to Heaven so meet me there.
James A. Brooks
To Everybody: I have found the Lord. Do change your way of living. God be with you. (No name).
To Geo. Hudson’s Wife: If I don’t see you any more, bury me in the clothing I have. I want you to meet me in heaven. Good-bye. Do as you wish.
Dear Wife and Children: My time has come. I trust in Jesus. He will save. It is now ten minutes to 10 o.clock, Monday morning, and we are almost smothered. May God bless you and the children, and may we all meet in Heaven. Good-bye till we meet to part no more.
To My Boys: Never work in coal mines. Henry, and you Condy, be good boys and stay with your mother and live for Jesus.
Lead Image: West Virginia coal miners and mules with open flame lamps, 1908.
Via: Tennessee State Library and Archives; United Mine Workers of America; Image above: Coal Creek.