There are two sides to every story. In the case of one Frederick Cook, there was the lying, cowardly, stupid douchebag version of the story…and the truth.
Cook was a guard on a special train that ran from Wolverhampton to Worcester in the 1850s. The train featured incredibly low fares (the equivalent of £3.70 for an adult ticket and £1.85 for a child’s ticket in today’s money) and was supposed to be an excursion train for Sunday school children only. But, you know, money talks and the station masters started selling tickets to anyone who wanted one. As a result, on 23 August 1858, the train arrived in Worcester with more than 1500 people on board.
The trip from Wolverhampton to Worcester was not without incident that day. The couplings and/or side chains between cars broke three times during the trip, despite the fact the train was going mostly downhill the whole time. An investigator later surmised that the only way these couplings could have broken going downhill was if someone was mucking around with the brakes at the back of the train.
Guess where Cook was? Yep, in the back, with several other people who were forced to ride in the rear car because the train was standing-room-only. Cook decided, at one point, to take a smoke break and asked a 17-year-old passenger to work the brakes of the train for him. A train hauling more than 40 carriages stuffed with people. Smart!
At Worcester, the broken couplings were reported but nobody did anything about it (because the things holding train cars together don’t need to be reliable, right?). The powers that be did, however, sensibly decide to split the train up on the way back, so there wouldn’t be so much strain on the couplings for what would be a mostly uphill journey. The first train, with 28 carriages and two brake vans and Cook working the brakes, left Worcester at 6:30 p.m. The second train departed 15 minutes later.
The journey was fairly unremarkable, until the first rain reached Round Oak station. As the train pulled into the station, the couplings snapped on the cars just behind the engine, and 17 of them, as well as Cook’s brake van, went careening back down the track and crashed into the second train, killing 14 people and injuring many more.
Since this was, in the words of the Board of Trade inspector, “the worst railway accident that has ever occurred in this country,” people naturally wanted answers. They held an inquest and appointed one Captain Tyler to conduct a series of tests to find out why the couplings had snapped and why the train couldn’t be stopped.
Here’s where things got interesting. According to Cook’s testimony (yes, he survived, despite being in the rear car, which would have been the first and hardest to hit the train behind), he tried really, really hard to apply the brake, but it wouldn’t hold. He yelled at the passengers to jump from a moving train before leaping himself and managing to escape unscathed.
But Tyler’s experiments revealed a different story. He loaded a similar train with the same weight as the passengers would have been and ran it at different speeds over the scene of the disaster. Each and every time, applying the brakes stopped the train far before the point of impact. So, either Cook hadn’t applied the brake, or there was something wrong with it (something Cook should have noticed and mentioned). Either way, Cook was lying. Tyler surmised, based on the evidence and his experiments, that Cook hadn’t applied the brake at all, and probably wasn’t even in the brake van at the time.
So, where was he? Safely back at the Round Oak station. Apparently, when the train stopped at the station Cook hopped out without bothering to put the brake on the train. The coupling snapped, and the unbraked cars were allowed to roll freely back down the track. An inquest jury later found him guilty of manslaughter and handed him over to the criminal courts. The railway company was also accused of negligence and had to pay out hundreds of pounds in compensation to the victims.
While he didn’t get away scot free, Cook was clearly a negligent, cowardly moron who outrageously tried to make himself sound like a hero. For that, I consign him to a special section of the Idiot Brigade, devoted to the truly repulsive types whose astonishing stupidity actually kills innocent people.