Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Death of a salesman

This will be a bit of an extended gloss on my previous post, which I devoted to an excerpt from Samuel H. Hadley's Down in Hadley Street, a record of his activities as the successor to Jerry McAuley's work at the Water Street Mission in lower Manhattan. In the excerpt, Hadley related the story of one James D. Underwood, commercial traveler and reformed drunkard, who met his end in a St. Louis jewelry store in 1898 as the result of inadvertently (or so it was said) drinking a glass of potassium cyanide.

Hadley made it clear that he considered Underwood's death to have been a horrible accident, and so it may have been; I am not particularly invested in proving otherwise. But the Underwood incident is a bit of a loose cannon, the one detail in Hadley's enjoyable but largely predictable volume that doesn't quite fit in comfortably with the rest. In chapter after chapter the book describes the redeeming work performed at the mission, how one desperate inebriate or career criminal after another was transformed into a useful and upright citizen. James D. Underwood's life had seemingly followed the same course; at one time a successful salesman for a jewelry company, he had fallen prey to alcoholism, lost his job, and had been repeatedly imprisoned for vagrancy. Set on his feet and shown the true Christian path by the mission, he had turned his life around, resumed his commercial travels (possibly for his old employer), and become a reliable provider for his sister and elderly mother. The stinger in the story was at the very end:
One hot day, May 21, 1898, he went into the jewelry store of F. H. Niehaus and Company, No. 312 North 6th Street, St. Louis, Mo., and in some unaccountable manner plunged a glass into a two-gallon crock of cyanide potassium, supposing it was water, and was dead in fifteen minutes.
Hadley's apparent defensiveness about the incident is reflected in the phrases in some unaccountable manner, supposing it was water; remove those words and the story takes on a very different color. Had Underwood fallen off the wagon again and killed himself in a fit of remorse, or succumbed to depression and the lonely life of a traveler? If so, his story would obviously not have suited Hadley's uplifting purpose, nor would it have reflected as positively on the mission's work.

I honestly don't know how plausible it is that one could drink a lethal solution of potassium cyanide without realizing it, or that a two-gallon crock of the poison would be so carelessly labeled and stored that a visiting salesman might accidentally serve himself a draught of it. (The chemical was in fact regularly used by jewelers, so its presence on the premises of Niehaus and Company is not remarkable.) I don't expect to find the answer, and as I said, I don't really care. Underwood appears to have been a good man, at bottom, and his end was ghastly whether he intended it or not. But because his life took such an unusual twist I decided to take a closer look at the circumstances of his end, and as it happens the life and death of this long forgotten man have left a few fleeting traces beyond what we know of him from Hadley's memoir.

First of all, there is the brief account in The New York Times of June 1, 1898:
ST. LOUIS, May 31. James Underwood, a traveling salesman for the Champenois Jewelry Company of Newark, N. J., drank a quantity of cyanide of potassium by mistake at the jewelry store of F. H. Niehaus, thinking it was water. He fell to the floor immediately and lived but ten minutes.
Except for the address of the store and the detail of the two-gallon crock, all of the essential elements of Hadley's account are already established; the date is different, but the article may have been posted some time after the accident. The language in some points is so similar ("thinking it was water") that Hadley may well have referred to the clipping when he wrote.

In the years when Underwood was making his rounds there was a trade journal called The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review, which among other things of interest to the jewelry business contained reports of the visits of commercial travelers to the various cities where they had customers. And sure enough, we find Underwood's name in those reports. In the issue of May 4, 1898, he is in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 11, 1898 -- just days before the poisoning -- he is already in Missouri, approaching his appointment with death:
The travelers in Kansas City, Mo., last week were: Thos. E. Rogers, Riker Bros.; S. W. Abbey, E. Ira Richards & Co.; Paul Fuesline, Bawo & Dotter; J. D. Underwood, Champenois & Co.; E. A. Reed, Reed & Barton.

Further along in the same column he is listed among the travelers visiting St. Louis, but after that the next mention of him is a posthumous one:

St. Louis, Mo., June 24.—At a meeting of the jewelers of St. Louis, held on Wednesday, June 1, the resolutions below were adopted. Publicity, however, was not given them until this week, when they were beautifully engrossed:

Whereas, it has pleased Almighty God to remove from our midst by death our most esteemed friend, Jas. D. Underwood, and, whereas, in his death we deplore the loss of a real friend, his mother and sister a true and affectionate son and brother. Therefore, be it resolved. That we tender our heartfelt sympathy to the bereaved mother and sister in their hour of grief for their irreparable loss; and be it further resolved, that a copy of these resolutions, suitably engrossed, be tendered to the bereaved mother and sister, and a copy thereof be published in the jewelry trade journals. F. W. Baier, F. W. Drosten, W. F. Kemper, committee.
But the eeriest notices in The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review don't concern Underwood at all, at least directly. In this single volume of the periodical there are no less than half a dozen mentions of suicides or attempted suicides involving members of the jewelry trade. (From a cursory glance through other volumes it seems that suicide may have been endemic to the profession.) Several of the incidents involve self-poisonings with chemicals used by jewelers, and in one case in particular the details are all too familiar:
William Lucas, a man well advanced in years, who was a jeweler by trade and employed in one of the shops in the Lederer building [in Providence, R. I.] some time during the night committed suicide last week by drinking cyanide of potassium.
Lucas's suicide was reported in the issue of June 28, 1898, meaning that his death followed Underwood's by only a matter of weeks. Had he heard of the latter's end and been inspired to imitate him? Or was death by cyanide poisoning the professional jeweler's little secret, something that everyone in the trade -- craftsmen and seasoned travelers alike -- knew was always at hand?

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