Publication: The New York Times
New York, NY, United States
TWO DEATHS IN A CISTERN.
A WOMAN AND HER SON PERISH BY SUFFICATION.
A DEADLY DEPOSIT OF MALT — THE BOY, OVERCOME BY FOUL GASES, FALLS IN, AND HIS MOTHER LOSES HER LIFE IN TRYING TO RESCUE HIM.
Two Streamers of crape, one black and the other white, yesterday hung from the front door of a little two-story white house not far from Flushing Avenue, Williamsburg, where the avenue is crossed by the Manhattan Beach Railroad. The house was a rather poor one to look at, being cheaply constructed and badly neglected by its occupants. At one side was a dingy barn, or cattle shed, and behind it another barn, and the air about the place was heavy with the odors of muck-heaps. Within the house two packing coffins, one large and the other small, stood on stools in the center of a front room that was almost barren of furniture. White coverings were thrown over each of these coffins, and those coverings were elevated at the heads by the sharply marked features of the two dead faces. A little girl, who opened the door, in answer to the rap of the reporter, entered the room with soft steps, and, going to each of the coffins, reverently drew down the coverings and exposed two faces. That in the larger coffin was the face of a woman sallow, with dark hair and eyebrows, and with an expression of pain about the firm-set mouth. The other face was that of a boy, robust and freckled. A man who had risen from a table in a back room, where half a dozen persons were seated around a rudely spread meal, came into the room and stood there for a few moments without speaking, no sound breaking the stillness of the room except the sharp spatter of water as it dropped from the ice in the coffins and fell into the pails that stood to catch it. The man motioned to the girl, after a short time, to cover the face again, and then stepped outside the room, and beckoned the reporter into the yard behind the house. Here he told how the two corpses came to be laying in the little front room.
The bodies were those of Mary Miller and her son John, a boy just 8 years old yesterday. At 7 o'clock in the morning both were in the best of health, and at 8 o'clock they were dead. Soon after 7 o'clock Johnny was in the little yard, and was busying himself about the cover of an old cistern, which was pointed out to the reporter. This cistern is a cemented one, almost nine feet deep, arched over the top with brick, and having a curb about two feet square. The only covering of the hole was of loose narrow planks, partly stowed with earth. The cistern had not for two years been used to hold water, the family having utilized it as a place for storing malt for use during the winter, the malt being fed from time to time to cows. The malt in the cistern yesterday morning was about two feet deep, and Johnny wanted to go down to clear it out. He took off the bits of wood that covered the hole, and leaned over to look down. His mother stood at the door of the house, about 20 feet away. The boy peered into the opening, and partly raised his head as if to draw back. Then his head fell forward, his hands lost their hold on the curb, and he tottered headlong into the cistern. Mrs. Miller ran to the edge and looked down, wringing her hands frantically and calling for help. Her daughter Katie ran out and the anxious mother told her to hurry across the way, as there were no men at home, an obtain assistance. As the girl ran away her mother hastily put a ladder through the opening and with difficulty clambered down into the cistern. The neighbors who had been sent for were some minutes in reaching the spot. When they arrived they found the children of Mrs. Miller clustered around the top of the ladder. No sound came from the dark vault. George Conn, who had come to the cistern when the alarm was given, quickly descended, no one supposing for an instant that there was any danger in the act. He soon came out again, gasping for breath, pale with horror, and almost speechless. Mrs. Miller lay on her back at the bottom of the vault, apparently dead, and near her was Johnnie, who was unconscious. The men quickly tore away the brick-work, removing enough of it to permit them to take out the woman and boy, and then descended the ladder.
The air was evidently densely impregnated with poisonous gas, for the men found it almost impossible to remain in the vault long enough to lift the two senseless forms to the opening above, where they were received by the persons who had gathered about, and then to pull themselves up the ladder in a fainting condition. The mother and her boy were taken into the house. Johnnie was dead and Mrs. Miller's breathing had ceased. Her heart still beat faintly, and the distracted man and women around her made such poor efforts as they could resuscitate her, chaffing her hands, loosening her clothing, and bathing her face in cold water. A messenger was sent for a physician, but he was scarcely out of sight when the heart beats stopped and all was over. After a time Dr. Liebanstein arrived, only to pronounce the woman and the boy dead, and to advise the family to notify the Coroner. The news of the melancholy occurrence spread abroad in the sparsely populated neighborhood, and the little house was soon filled with wailing women and sympathizing men of the working class. The husband of the dead woman, George S. Miller, had gone away from home early in the morning on an errand, and did not return until midday. The sight of the dead bodies of his wife and child, which met him as he entered the house made him first speechless with horror and then almost frantic with grief. He stood for hours looking at the distorted faces without shedding a tear. When he was finally led away to an upper room his grief found vent in weeping and pitiful exclamations. Mr. Miller is a potter, employed in Brookfield's glass works, and dependent for his livelihood upon small earnings. His wife left him a family of six children, the eldest a girl 14 years of age, and the youngest a baby just 6 weeks old. The infant has already been provided for. The Corner visited the house during the day, and impaneled a jury, which quickly rendered a verdict of accidental death from poisoning by the gases contained in the cistern. Mr. George Cinser, the brother of Mrs. Miller, said that most of the malt in the cistern had long been stored there, and he believed that the poison had been thrown off by the fermenting mass, which was warm when thrown in. A quantity of new malt had also been emptied into the cistern within a week.