Jewelry and a Trainwreck
On May 6,1853, a New Haven Railroad train headed for Boston raced blindly around a sharp bend and shot through an open drawbridge outside Norwalk, Connecticut. It was the worst single American railroad disaster up to that time. Lost amid the smoking splintered rubble were the lives of 46 people and a fortune in fine jewelry worth a quarter of a million dollars at that time.
One of those who died on that ill-fated journey was Thaddeus Birke, a jeweler from New York City. An Englishman, he had arrived in the United States only two months earlier. He had opened a shop as an independent importer-salesman-distributor for the London’s Tawny Gems Ltd. The firm supplied him with exquisite jewelry from France, Bavaria and of their own manufacture in England. He had been invited to Boston by shipping magnate Nigel Massey, who was interested in buying some jewels for his wife.
Two days before Birke was to leave, he packed away dozens of his finest specimens into two stout leather covered hardwood trunks. There were heavy gold bracelets, earrings, and finger bands all studded with precious and semi precious stones. There were large brooches and pins of gold mounted with pearls and diamonds, with necklaces to match. Two pendants, one a 30 caret diamond and the other an oval slab of emerald, were included. Altogether, over $50,000 in exotic jewelry was packed in the trunks for the trip.
When Birke boarded the train, the two trunks were with him and were placed in the seat across from where he sat. As the train neared a drawbridge across the Norwalk River, about three hundred yards from the South Norwalk depot, the engineer failed to notice that the red spheres used to alert any oncoming train of the bridges opening were out. Just as the tender prepared to close the bridge, the train thundered around a curve towards the opened bridge and the train plunged headlong into the river below. Birke and his two trunks were in the first passenger car which followed the engine, tender and two mail cars. All landed in the river below, killing some 46 people instantly. The stacked debris was cleared from the channel, but most of the baggage and smaller chunks of wreckage were strewn through the rivers depths, never to be recovered. Birkes twin trunks of bejeweled treasure were never found.