Death & Confusion at IMS

This article is about confusion over the identification of a victim of the fatal accident of the final day of racing during the first auto meet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was originally published in the August 22, 1909 Indianapolis Star. These races were conducted on Saturday, August 21, 1909.
 
From the beginning and throughout its 100-plus year history the Speedway has produced outrageously controversial stories. While this one is specifically about the struggle authorities had in identifying James West, one of two spectators killed at the track in a massive wreck during the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy race, it is related to the grandiose ambitions that have always been a component of the IMS brand.
 
The race was scheduled for 300 miles, among the longest of the era anywhere. The Tiffany designed silver trophy was promoted as the grandest, most ornate in the history of the sport - and it almost certainly was. The new track, of course, was promoted as the world's greatest despite the reputation of the impressive concrete-paved closed circuit Brooklands in England. Expectations were sky-high which motivated James West and reportedly 80,000 other souls to pay good money to crowd into the unprecedented facility that became the prototype for the modern American race track.
 
Hyped to a fever pitch, West was among the more daring, foolhardy mostly men that ignored posted danger signs and repeated police admonitions to press against the thin fencing that bordered the running surface. This barrier was not a retaining wall, but a boundary to clearly demarcate track from vantage point and protect a generation of awed and curious children of the industrial age from themselves. Road races of the time such as the Vanderbilt Cup had demonstrated if nothing else the lack of judgment spectators could apply by running out on a course during high speed, wheel-to-wheel competition. They just wanted to get a better look or even touch a machine barreling along at the brink of the driver's control.
 
The article reports that James West was 29 years old and an employee of the Coffin-Fletcher Company of the meat packing industry. He lived at 541 West Merrill Street in Indianapolis, married but with no children. Confusion developed because West had accepted the business card of a Benjamin F. Logan. West was apparently recruiting Logan to join a lodge of Red Men Haymakers, a fraternal society. Logan must have given him his card so they could catch up later.
 
In era before driver's licenses people must have typically roamed the streets with no identification. It was a smaller world so in many communities everyone knew everyone else so perhaps ID was less of an issue than today. However this kind of confusion must have underscored the need for people to carry identification. West's body had been searched at the City Morgue but officials overlooked an important clue. Later as two newspapermen independently researched the tragedy and each provided leads to the inevitable discovery of the error.
 
One journalist at the body search found a receipt made out to James West resulting from some kind of transaction made with the South West Aid Society. Another journalist who had gone to Logan's house at 542 Dover Avenue to visit his grieving family soon found the man alive and well arriving home from his job at the Pennsylvania Railroad yard.
 
Logan's incredulous wife had dispatched her father-in-law Ellis Logan to find his son at work. As time passed the reports of his demise became more convincing and worrisome. Mrs. Logan was frantic and reportedly "prostrate" with grief. In a strange coincidence Logan had earlier in life been incorrectly reported to be the victim of a railway accident that forced the amputation of his feet. A friend of Logan's apparently knew West and his residential address. This led to the identification of his body through one of the victim's friends, James Saul of 1415 Ringgold Avenue.
 
Mrs. West was informed of her husband's passing after she had gone to sleep for the evening. Her husband had a habit of staying out late so her suspicions had not been stirred. Her midnight shreiks upon hearing the news awakened the neighborhood and friends on the block rushed to her side. The other spectator fatally injured in the Speedway accident as Homer Joliff.
 
 

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