The Nebraskan Man of Mystery: The Story of Joseph Winfield Packard

Close up of an 1897 map of Nebraska on the website of Hall County, Nebraska

On the morning of Sunday, March 13, 1910, three boys from South Sioux City, Nebraska, who were on a duck hunt, found a horrifying sight near Coburn Junction. [1] A man, said to be 27 years old, was lying beside a train track, his body mangled with a deep gash in his forehead, a broken hip, and numerous contusions and bruises across his body. He had been dead for several hours. On his person was five dollars of change, a “quart bottle of whiskey” (a fifth of a gallon or about 26 ounces), a raffle ticket, and a receipt belonging to a saloon (Duggan and Heffernan) in nearby Hubbard, Nebraska. He also had a letter on him, dated at West Cummington, Massachusetts, on an inside coat pocket addressed to “B.F. Packard” (likely an error) and signed “father.” He was, as local papers reported, killed instantly by a passing freight train that morning by accident and was dragged by the train, furthering his injuries. These same papers said he was suspected of robbery at the Duggan and Heffernan saloon on Saturday night, not an uncommon occurrence for the saloon (which had been robbed and burglarized in 1902, 1904, and 1906). [2] They also supposed that he walked down the Omaha railroad northeast toward the Coburn Junction, on his way to Sioux City, Iowa, across the Missouri River, but was overtaken by a train. His body was held “awaiting some word from his relatives.” This man was named Joseph Winfield Packard.

Joseph was the third child of Cyrus Winfield Packard (1852-1924) and Dorothy “Dora” Ann Mills (1849-1895). He was born on June 17, 1885 in the small town of Plainfield, Massachusetts. [3] His fellow siblings included 3 brothers, John Henry (1882-1950), and Charles Edward (1887-1960), Robert (1891-1956) [adopted in 1895 by the Mills family], and 3 sisters, Margaret (1884-1976), Marion Estelle (1889-1965), and Mabel Hattie (1892-1961).

Little is known about his life, how he got out to Nebraska, what his occupation was, or where he lived. He may have been a boarder with the locally-known Streeter family in Cummington, Massachusetts in 1900 due the fact that it correctly lists his father’s birth place (Massachusetts) and mother’s birthplace (New York), while saying he was born in May 1885. [4] However, since census record lists a “Joseph M Packard” rather than a “Joseph W Packard,” it cannot be confirmed that they are the same person.

Further complicating matters is his gravestone in Plainfield’s West Hill Cemetery, which his father Cyrus once oversaw. It correctly notes his dates of birth and death (1885-1910). However, it also states that he was “buried at Sioux City Nebraska” even though no such place exists! On his Find A Grave page, a family bible entry, sent to me by second cousin once removed, is attached, stating that his death date was March 10th even though it was actually March 13th. This raises the question of who provided this faulty information, which went into the family bible, and who provided the incorrect burial place which was carved into the stone.

We know from local newspaper reports that Joseph was buried in a cemetery in Dakota City on March 19, 1910. Unfortunately searches on the page for Dakota City Cemetery, the only cemetery listed for this town on Find A Grave, have been fruitless. Joseph’s remains were taken there by coroner B.F Sawyer. The county paid the funeral expenses as his father, Cyrus, said he was a “poor man” but he would like to know “the particulars of his son[’]s death.” This charge may have had some validity. The 1910 U.S. Federal census, enumerated about a month after Joseph’s death, showed Cyrus as a farmer who mortgaged a farm in Plainfield, married to his third wife, Clementina Cheney, and having five children in the household (Olive, Herbert, Rachel, Thomas, and Harold), none of whom had any occupation listing. [5]

Despite the lingering mystery of many of the particulars of Joseph’s life beyond his birth and death, there is something we can say for certain: Joseph lived in a small town environment, with Hubbard numbering in the hundreds of people, tied into the train system to nearby towns like South Sioux City and Dakota City, which are four miles apart, both to the Northeast of the town itself. [6] When authorities attempted to bring law and order to the Dakota County, ordering the closing of “remaining gambling houses,” there is no doubt that they were thinking of places like Hubbard, which had at least one saloon. These areas, within Dakota County, were also highly influenced by the railroad and agriculture, the latter due to the fact that the county was “originally vegetated with oak prairie savannas” and lies within confluence of the major rivers draining from Minnesota (Missouri, Minnesota, Mississippi, and St. Croix). [7]

The horrific death of Joseph was not unusual for those times. During the 19th century, railroads in the U.S. were “comparatively dangerous” to workers and their passengers, especially for freight trains. [8] In 1910, Joseph was one of the 314 people killed in railroad-related deaths and over 12,000 were injured, which was even a decrease from previous years.

In the end, while there are many remaining questions about Joseph’s life, there is no question that he was, to put it mildly, the Nebraskan Man of Mystery.


Editor’s Note: This article was originally slated to be published in an upcoming issue of Packard’s Progress, led by Dale Cook and pushed by others, which I submitted for consideration back in January of this year. I felt that it was wrong to let this article linger without further publication, so it seemed right to publish it at this time.

Notes

[1] “Mangled Body of Man Found Near Coburn Junction,” Norfolk Weekly News-Journal, Mar 18, 1910, p 8, Death of Joseph W. Packard, Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, 16 Mar 1910, p. 1; “The body of a man…,” Dakota County Herald, Mar 18, 1910, p 5; “Joseph Packard, the man who…,” Dakota County Herald, Mar 25, 1910, p 5; “B F Sawyer took the remains…,” Dakota County Herald, Mar 25, 1910, p 5; “Surviving Nebraska Railroad Stations,” American-Rails.com; M.M. Warner, Warner’s History of Dakota County, Nebraska: From the Days of the Pioneers and First Settlers to the Present Time, with Biograpical Sketches, and Anecdotes of Ye Olden Times, (Dakota City, Neb.: Lyons Mirror Job Office, 1893), p 97. A 1915 railroad map assists in locating where Coburn Junction was at the time. Coburn Junction is near South Sioux City, Nebraska and is “five miles due west of Dakota City…there is neither a settlement nor post office at this point” as M.M. Warner put it in 1893.

[2] “Hold Up [at] Hubbard Saloon,” Omaha Daily Bee, Dec 24, 1902, p 1; “Nels Anderson Disappeared,” The Lincoln Star, Dec. 15, 1902, p 3; “Notorious Robber is Convicted of Murder,” Lincoln Journal Star, Feb. 22, 1904, p 7; “U S Senator Norris Brown on County Option,” Dakota County Herald, Oct 14, 1910, p 4; “Former Negro Politician Dies in Insane Hospital,” Lincoln Journal Star, Nov 5, 1907, p 1; F.B. Tipton, “Anti-Saloon Legislation,” Nebraska State Journal, Jan 4, 1907, p 8; “A Question of Point of View,” Beatrice Daily Express, Apr 2, 1903, p 1; “Law and Order League,” Lincoln Journal Star, Apr 20, 1904, p 5; “Changes in the Mulct Law,” Omaha Daily Bee, Oct 18, 1903, p 6; “The Duggan and Heffernan saloon…,” Dakota County Herald, Apr 23, 1909, p 4; “The Dugan and Heffernan saloon…,” Dakota County Herald, Nov 30, 1906, p 4. The saloon was part of the local community, like other saloons in the area, leading to debates as to whether saloons should lawfully exist in the county. This was manifested by one writer in 1903 saying saloons “serve the devil,” F.B Tipton calling for limits on Saloons in Jan 1907, Norris Brown writing in October 1910 that “the county government polices and protects the saloons,” and a Law and Order League established in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1904, calling for “the union of all temperance people, the proper enforcement of the laws and the abolition of the saloon.”

[3] “Massachusetts Births, 1841-1915,” database with images, FamilySearch, Packard, 17 Jun 1885, Windsor, Berkshire, Massachusetts; citing reference ID #90, Massachusetts Archives, Boston; FHL microfilm 1,428,207. His Family Search page, which I have contributed to, like other ancestral pages, is a work in progress like all good family history. It is used for rough information on his fellow siblings, the accuracy of which I can vouch for.

[4] “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch, accessed 4 January 2019, Joseph M Packard in household of Edward B Streeter, Cummington Town, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 618, sheet 2A, family 31, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,240,653.

[5] “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch, Cyrus W Packard, Plainfield, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 712, sheet 1A, family 20, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 594; FHL microfilm 1,374,607.

[6] Charlene Jenson, “Hubbard,” Virtual Nebraska, 2005; Lori Steenhoven, “South Sioux City,” Virtual Nebraska, 2005; Shirley Sides, “Dakota City,” Virtual Nebraska, 2005; “Trains,” Sioux City History, accessed Jan 4, 2019.

[7] “A Premier County,” Dakota County Historical Society, accessed Jan 4, 2019; “Hastings Downtown District Added to National Register of Historic Places,” History Nebraska, Jan 3, 2019.

[8] Charles W. McDonald, “100 Years of Safer Railroads,” Aug 1993, p 14; March Aldrich, “History of Workplace Safety in the United States, 1880-1970,” accessed Jan 4, 2019.

One thought on “The Nebraskan Man of Mystery: The Story of Joseph Winfield Packard

  1. Pingback: The story Tom Packard told and the reality – Milling 'round Ireland: A Mills family story

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