Sometimes, while looking for one thing, you happen upon something else — something too interesting to ignore. That was the case yesterday, when I learned about the shocking death of Pennsylvania teenager Conrad Cramer.

I was reading old newspapers at Jones Memorial Library, researching something I’ll write about later this year, when I happened upon this fascinating headline on page two of the October 19, 1878, Lynchburg Virginian:

A TERRIBLE DEATH
A LAD TORN IN PIECES BY A VICIOUS MULE

Well, I had to find out what that was all about. How could I not?

Turns out, the story of Cramer’s gruesome death made numerous newspapers — not only in Virginia and Pennsylvania, but also in Maryland, New York, Ohio and likely other places.

So here’s what happened to poor Conrad Cramer:

On October 15, 1878, 15-year-old Conrad Cramer was working at a coal mine in Luzerne County, Penn. It was his job to carry coal dirt from something called a “culm pile” to a boiler room. He did this using a mule-drawn cart.

miner and mule - loc photo
A boy and mule in a Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, coal mine, 1911. Hine, L.W., photographer.

According to an article in The Carbon Advocate, of Lehighton, Penn., “It was the habit of the boy to jump upon the mule’s back, after dumping the load, and ride over the return trip.”

On this day, however, the mule was having none of it and tried repeatedly to throw Cramer. This cantankerous behavior amused the other mine workers, who reportedly “laughed heartily at what they termed the mule’s ‘circus tricks.’”

But as the article went on to describe, “their mirth was suddenly turned to mourning.”

The mule finally succeeded in pitching Cramer from its back, and when it did, the boy became tangled up in the harness. As reported in The Times of New Bloomfield, Penn., “The animal plunged and reared and bit at the boy, who was dangling in front.” Then the mule took off running, “dragging Cramer over the sharp rocks.”

When the mule finally stopped, as described in hideous detail by the Northern Ohio Journal, “he seized one of the boy’s arms in his teeth and literally tore it into fragments. He then attacked other portions of the bruised and bleeding body, and with fiendish malignity tore open the breast, thigh and back, laying the bones bare in many places.”

Apparently, it was a terrible scene. When the other miners finally reached Cramer, he was dead and his body unrecognizable. As reported in the Lynchburg Virginian and other newspapers, “The old miners, who has looked upon death in almost every form, turned their heads away involuntarily, sickened at the horrible sight before them.”

Using FamilySearch and Find A Grave, I was able to find out a few more things about Cramer. He was born on July 5, 1863, in Luzerne County, Penn., and was the son of Conrad Sr. and Amanda Cramer.

On December 12, 1864, when Cramer was about a year and a half old, his dad died while serving in the 4th New Jersey Infantry. He’s buried in the Loudon Park National Cemetery in Baltimore.

Before 1870, Cramer’s mom married Josiah Trumpore, described in the 1870 census as “boss at coal works.” Perhaps it was the same mining operation where Cramer would meet his untimely and “terrible death” eight years later.

(Both images of the boy and mule were taken by photographer L.W. Hine in 1911, as part of a series on child labor. While the photos were taken in a coal mine located in the same county where Cramer lived, the subject is not Cramer. Photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

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