John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a CBS senior national correspondent and Chief Political Analyst. He is also a Contributing Writer to The Atlantic and is co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

When Americans went crazy for train crashes

Football might be the current American pastime, but for half a century Americans turned out in droves to watch head-to-head smashups between pairs of largely empty trains.

One of the directors of train-crash theatre, a man from Iowa named “Head On” Joe Connely, had a theory on why people loved them: “I believed that somewhere in the makeup of every normal person there lurks the suppressed desire to smash things up.”

From the last decades of the 19th century to the beginnings of the Great Depression, fair organizers and even railway companies themselves sold tickets to train crashes and let the crowds fish souvenirs from the wreckage.

(Library of Congress)

It wasn’t exactly a safe form of entertainment.  In September of 1896, at least two people died and many suffered blows from flying shrapnel after two 35-ton trains slammed into other. The event was staged in a town called “Crash,” outside of Waco, Texas, which was invented for the event that brought in more than 40,000.

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(The Texas Collection, Baylor University)

The trend took a while to lose steam (!), but the 1930s brought a close to the era. In 1932, “Head-On” Joe threw the last great crash of his 36-year career at the Iowa State Fair.  The final two trains he destroyed—of the 146 he took out of commission over the years—were named “Hoover” and “Roosevelt” after the presidential candidates that year.

You can see what happened to both of them in Joe’s last hurrah here:

Screen Shot 2022 06 29 at 4.47.17 PM


This post was compiled with the aid of these sources: The Smithsonian, The Des Moines Register, Atlas Obscura, Mike Cox’s book “Train Crash at Crush, Texas: America’s Deadliest Publicity Stunt,” and James J. Reisdorff’s book “The Man Who Wrecked 146 Locomotives.

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