Jorgensen Music

Theodora's Life in Sacred Heart, and her train accident

 

Theodora Cormontan in Sacred Heart, Minnesota and in court (1887-1889)

 

Theodora arrived in Sacred Heart, Minnesota in the summer of 1887 with her father Even and older sister Eivinda.  The three stayed in the house of Theodora's younger sister Marie and her husband Edward Lyders.  Brother C.G.V. lived in Franklin, Minnesota where he owned and ran the Franklin Drug Store, the first pharmacy and first pharmacist in that town.  He was probably busy building the house in which his father Even and his sisters Eivinda and Theodora would live.  Their brother Hans, a carpenter, was likely helping C.G.V., though he didn't come to live in Franklin until sometime after the others.

The earliest newspaper references to Theodora Cormontan appear in the August 20th edition of the Granite Falls Tribune in a section called "Sacred Heart Gleanings."  The first noted that she "will give a Musical and Vocal Concert in the near future."  The second, amusingly corroborating her good physical health at the time, stated "Theodora, Bert [the relation of this person to Theodora is unknown] and Dr. Lyders [Theodora's brother in law], with the aid of a bowie knife, seven revolvers, a shot gun and a brick bat succeeded in bringing a skunk to grief on Main St. early Thursday morning."

In its November 8, 1887 edition, the Tribune reviewed a performance Cormontan gave a few weeks earlier.  "The concert given by Miss Theo. Cormontan Oct 21st, consisted of some fine music, vocal and instrumental.  She sang Norwegian, Swedish, English, German and Italian, some of these pieces being of her own composition.  She was encored several times and applauded, the audience appreciating her rendering of the fine music, and should she give another concert at this place, she would undoubtedly have a full house."

Theodora, Marie, and Marie's daughter Louisa presented a recital (as reported in the first issue of the Renville News Weekly) on November 4, 1887.   Later in November the Granite Falls Tribune reported that they planned to give a concert at Montevideo at a future date, and "we assure those who attend that they will be more than pleased with this favorite lady of music and song."

During this same month Theodora advertised in the Granite Falls Tribune: "Miss Theodora Cormontan.  Teacher in vocal and instrumental music.  A limited number of scholars wanted at Granite Falls.  Satisfaction guaranteed and terms moderate.  Address, Granite Falls Tribune."  On November 29, 1887 a second ad appeared on the front page: "MUSIC.  All wishing to take lessons in music, instrumental and vocal, will be received by Mrs. Bordewick.  I will be in Granite Falls every Saturday.  THEODORA CORMONTAN."

 

                                                                                                                                                   

 1898 Yellow Medicine County Railroad Map.  Granite Falls and Sacred Heart are in the upper right hand corner.

 

On the following fateful Saturday, December 3, Theodora waited at the Granite Falls railway station after a day of teaching for a Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company train to arrive to take her back to Sacred Heart.  The train was probably running about a 1/2 hour late, pulling into the station around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m.  and stopping to get water, load and unload baggage, and to take on passengers while others got off.  While conflicting testimony exists in the court documents, it appears the following took place:   

Since it was likely her first time taking this train, Theodora accidentally began boarding the "Smoker," the car for men.  The brakeman notified her that she was getting on the wrong car and beckoned for her to board the next car, sometimes called the first-class car but usually referred to in the court documents as the "ladies car."  The baggage man and the express man probably saw her trying to board the first time and then failed to see her being told to enter a different car, since the conductor testified in a deposition that they told him it was all clear to proceed.  As Theodora got on the steps, with the brakeman at the top of the steps into the car, the train began to move.  Theodora lost her balance.  The brakeman, probably in an effort to make sure she did not fall under the wheels of the train, but unable to fight gravity and pull her toward him, grabbed her by the arm and waist and tossed her away from the train back on the depot.  Thrown in such a manner, and wearing an ankle-length skirt, it is virtually certain that she ended up falling awkwardly on her back as the train continued down the tracks.  Shaken but probably not immediately feeling the adverse effects of the fall, she took a freight train back to Sacred Heart that evening.

In her deposition for the case, Marie Lyders reported that when Theodora returned home she "looked sick and excited.  She went to bed early, not long after coming home.  She did not sleep in the night from pains, and from that day she grew worse and worse, she could not walk without a cane around the house and could not go out.  She was confined to her bed two or three days as far as I remember at first, and from that time on she was confined to her bed a part of nearly every day, not coming from her bed until noon and some days not being able to at all.  She was not able to go out of the house from this time on as long as she was with me."  With her condition not improving, the family took Theodora to Minneapolis in February of 1888 to be examined by a specialist.  On March 1, 1888 Marie reported that Theodora was loaded on a sled, propped up by pillows so she could sit up, and driven 35 miles to Franklin to live with her brother C.G.V.

 

 Early postcard of Granite Falls, Minnesota

 

The Complaint filed by the plaintiff for her October, 1889 civil trial testified  that Theodora had suffered injuries to her spine, her spinal cord, and to nerves emanating from the spinal cord, and "That by reason of said injuries so received as aforesaid, she has ever since said day been, and still is, suffering great pains of body and mind, and has become partly paralyzed; and plaintiff is informed and believes and so charges the fact to be, that said injuries so by her received are of a permanent nature, and that she will always be and remain sick, sore, paralyzed and lame, and that the same are incurable and permanent injuries."  For these reasons, as well as lost wages from being unable to teach music for almost two years and the specter of maybe never teaching again, Theodora sued the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company in a case that went to the U. S. Circuit Court in St. Paul Minnesota on October 1, 1889.

 

 

 

 

"Vinterbillede" (Winter Scene), an incomplete composition from March 1889, the month Theodora learned her case was being removed from the District Court to the U.S. Circuit Court in St. Paul, Minnesota

 

After a jury of 12 men was selected, an interpreter for Theodora was sworn in. Theodora was likely somewhat fluent in English, but probably needed help to understand completely what was happening.  Theodora was the only witness that first day, and her sister Eivinda (also with the aid of an interpreter) was the only witness the second day.  C.G.V. Cormontan also testified for the plaintiff, as did Louisa Lyders, Dr. Jones (the specialist from Minneapolis), and Edward and Marie Lyders (via deposition, since Sacred Heart is over 100 miles from St. Paul).  The defense took less than a day to present its case.

On Saturday, October 5, Eivinda was recalled to the stand for the plaintiff, as was Theodora on her own behalf.  The attorneys summed up the case for their respective clients, and the jury was charged with determining a verdict.  It apparently did not take the jury long to deliberate, since they reached a decision that same day.  Since the next day was a Sunday, Theodora had to wait until Monday morning, October 7, to learn that the jury found in her favor and awarded her $5000 in damages.

It is unknown what long-term impact the injury had on Theodora.   By 1892 we note through newspaper accounts that Theodora was playing a reed pump organ, directing choirs, and teaching music lessons in a neighboring town.  Does this mean she completely recovered from her accident?  That is doubtful.  While there were reports of her singing in recital in 1887 before December 3, no reports have been found of her singing in public after that date.  She could sit and execute her other professional activities, but she would want to stand as a singer.  Joy S. Yakura writes in a 1996 report on spinal cord injuries in "American Rehabilitation" that "The greatest recovery occurs in the first 6 months following injury with a plateau in rate of recovery occurring at approximately 9 months post-injury.”  It was almost two years after her accident that Theodora appeared in court, and her Complaint testified that she continued to experience pain and partial paralysis.  It appears that for the rest of her life Theodora Cormontan endured some level of chronic pain and experienced significant mobility issues (at best, walking unaided with difficulty), and that with advancing age her condition deteriorated so that by the end of her life she was confined to a wheelchair.  

We believe the following three pictures are of Theodora Cormontan.  They were all taken at the Aase Haugen Home near Decorah, Iowa.  The first was found in an picture album given to Rev. Otto Schmidt for Christmas in 1917, the year Theodora and her sister arrived at the Home.  Written beneath the picture is the title "Cormontan sisters," so we have a positive identification for this photograph.  We clearly recognize Eivinda on the right, so it must be Theodora on the left.  This picture documents that Theodora can still stand under her own power in the fall of 1917.  

The second picture is taken on the front porch of the Home.  The picture is unidentified, but after careful scrutiny we believe it is Theodora.  We think this was taken later, around 1920.  Here she is seated, and we may be able to see the handle of a cane behind the chair, perhaps indicating that Theodora's mobility has declined since she entered the Home.

The picture on the bottom we believe is the last picture of Theodora--maybe taken the year she died--1922.  There is also no identification with this picture, but we are virtually certain that Theodora is the woman in the wheelchair.  Eivinda is standing directly behind Theodora.  (Notice, for example, how Eivinda is holding her hands in front of her just as she does in the picture from 1917).

 

 

              

 

The most extensive American newspaper report of the results of the trial (discovered so far) appears in the Minneapolis North, a Scandinavian newspaper written in English that began publication a few months before the trial.  It reported :

"A hotly contested personal injury case a few days ago was won by Mr. Jno. Arctander, whose client Miss Theodora Cormontan sued the Ch. Milw. & St. P. R. R. Co. for injuries received by being pushed from one of the trains of the defendant.  The award was $5,000.  Miss Cormontan, who is an accomplished musician, several compositions of her own having been published in Norway, is a daughter of the venerable Rev. Cormontan, now 91 years old and living with a son in Renville Co. Minn., since his arrival in this country from Norway about two years ago."  

 

An article of similar length appeared in the November 11, 1889 edition of the Stavanger Amtstidende og Adresseavis, a  Norwegian newspaper.  An electronic translation reads:

"5000 Dollars Damages.

Miss Theodora Cormontan, daughter of former Provst Cormontan from Arendal, immigrated to America  and, according to a Norwegian-American newspaper there, established a reputation as a fine musical talent.  She settled in Sacred Heart [MN], where she quickly began teaching music lessons to many students. After she fell from a moving train,  she received a back injury that resulted in few days when she could walk without a cane.  On her behalf the Norwegian-born lawyer John W. Arctander brought action for damages against the railroad company, and after 8 days of litigation, the jury awarded Miss Cormontan the compensation of $5,000. A Norwegian who happened to be one of the jurymen was very happy that this showed how 'smart' American lawyers can quickly draw straws."

I'm not sure what that last statement means, but the jurist was clearly pleased with the results.

And here is how the case was reported in the November 15, 1889 edition of the the Bergens Tidende, again electronically translated:

Miss Cormontan from Arendal, living in America, was traveling on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, but as she was to step up into the coach, the train began to move and she fell.  At first she assumed she had escaped injury, but it turned out later that she had injured her back, so that she could not walk without a cane.  She turned to the attorney John W. Arctander, who brought a liability case against the railroad company.  The case was heard by the U. S. Circuit Court in St. Paul and ran for 8 days.  The railroad company, with its three lawyers and paid doctors as witnesses, did everything it could to win the case.  The defense used all possible legal ploys but Arctander, as usual, was more than equal to every situation.  He spoke with his usual vigor to the jury and they saw the truth he presented as opposed to the clearly biased defense.  The jury awarded Miss Cormontan damages amounting to $5000.

 

[The following items related to the Cormontan and Lyders families appeared in the Renville, MN Weekly News]

6/6/1888: Mr. [C. G. V.] Cormontan, of Franklin, is the guest of his sister Mrs. Lyders.

7/11/1888: Misses Inga Field and S. [Louisa?] Lyders will spend a couple days at Franklin and Beaver Falls this week.  

7/18/1888: Misses Lyders and Field have returned from their visit to Franklin and Beaver Falls.

8/8/1888: Mr. [C. G. V.] Cormontan, formerly of this place but now of Franklin, greeted old friends here one day last week.

9/5/1888: Messrs. Monson, [Hans] Cormontan and Owens have taken the contract to repair the Lutheran church which was struck by lightning some time since.

6/21/1889: Dr. Lyders of Sacred Heart was a Franklin visitor the forepart of this week.
C. V. Cormontan took a pleasure trip to St. Paul Thursday and returned Saturday.

7/6/1889: Mrs. Lyders has returned from her visit in Franklin.
Miss Louise Lyders is back from Minneapolis for a visit with her folks.  She is studying music there.

10/2/1889: Misses Evinda and Theodora Cormontan are in St. Paul attending court.  Theodora Cormontan has brought suit against the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company for damages on account of injuries received at Granite Falls about two years ago, when it is alleged she was pushed off the train by a brakeman.

[The following appeared in the St. Paul Daily Globe on 6/4/1889, p. 2]

Theodora Cormonran [sic] has begun suit in the United States district court against the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad company to recover $25,300 for personal injuries sustained while a passenger on the Milwaukee road.  On Dec. 3, 1887, Miss Cormontran, then a school teacher, attempted to board a train at Sacred Heart, Minn., [she actually was in Granite Falls] and while so doing the train started up and threw her violently to the platform, permanently injuring her spine and nerves.  She claims to be a permanent invalid and paralyzed, and asks $5,000 special damage for disability to pursue her profession and $20,000 for the injuries.

As noted in "The History of Franklin Minnesota 1880-1990 (compiled by Ruby Deming): "In March, 1888 a petition was granted for the incorporation of the Village of Franklin, which meant the forming of a government.  The first election of city officials was held in May, 1888.  The first meeting of the village council was held May 21, 1888."  C.G.V. Cormontan was one of three councilmen elected.  The village council met in Cormontan's drug store until 1890.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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