William Rickenbacher, apparently, had a keen sense of history. He told his son, Eddie, future race car driver, World War I flying ace, and Eastern Airlines CEO, “You’re a lucky boy to be born when you were. There are a lot of new things in the making, and you ought to be ready to have a hand in them.”
For his part, Eddie had a strong sense of the dramatic. In his autobiography, he claimed these were his father’s last word to him. “That very night, while operating the pile driver, he was struck by a swinging timber. The blow fractured his skull.” He was in a coma for six weeks until he finally succumbed. Suddenly, thirteen-year-old-Eddie was fatherless.
Eddie ought to know what happened. He was there. Wasn’t he?
Yet the Columbus Dispatch reported the death differently: “Laborer’s Skull Fractured by Two Blows with a Level” (July 18, 1904) and “Charge of Murder Will Probably Be Put Against Negro” (July 19)
Eddie’s father did not work the night shift operating a pile driver on county bridges, as Eddie would have us believe. He was a common laborer, laying pavement for roads and sidewalks. On that July day in 1904, he and his crew had broken for lunch. W. A. Gaines (much later identified as William) wandered up to different workmen asking for handouts: “None of you fellows want to share your dinners with a fellow, do you?” He was rebuffed by each until he came to William Rickenbacher.
“If I had any dinner to share with any person I would share it with my children,” Rickenbacher said and let loose a string of profanity. To this point, according to the newspaper, all witnesses agreed. Gaines’s account is quoted at length, giving the report a veneer of objectivity and thoroughness. Oddly, no other witnesses are quoted, not even indirectly. What gives?
Gaines said he began to walk away but was followed by Rickenbacher, who pulled a knife on him. Unnamed others alleged Rickenbacher made no move. In either case, everyone agreed Gaines picked up a level and swung it at Rickenbacher. The first blow fractured his arm, the next his skull. Rickenbacher went down and out. Gaines fled, saying later he feared the other men “would follow me.”
Rickenbacher was described as a “hard-working man” with a “family of six children.” Illness in the family as well as the current injury had placed them in “destitute circumstances.” A “lawn fete” was to be given the next Friday as a fundraiser. (Understand: they’re hard up, but not through any fault of their own. This family deserves your pity and your generosity.)
Gaines, the paper reported, “showed fight” when apprehended. He had “been in Columbus but a short time.” (Understand: he’s not from around here.) He had come from Indianapolis where police “think he is wanted there for assault to kill.” (Yeah, we think he did the same thing before. We think.) A month later, August 26, when Rickenbacher actually died, the paper added new information. Gaines was from Springboro but, since coming to Columbus, had been living with a colored woman “who is understood by the police to be of a very bad disposition.” (They’re pretty sure she’s a prostitute. Yeah, pretty sure.) The Dispatch was reporting, still, that the assault, “so far as has been shown, was without provocation.” (And did we mention he was a Negro?)
The jury might have been “shown” a few more details. Despite the fact that a black man had killed a white man, they convicted him of manslaughter, not murder, and sentenced him to ten years behind bars, not death. There must have been some “provocation” after all.
Eddie kept these facts at arms’ length his entire life. He did not just lie to the public. (His swinging-timber-to-the-head story was repeated in all the “life stories” published about him in the popular press.) He lied to himself. Eddie Rickenbacker didn’t want to know the truth. He certainly didn’t want to consider its full implications.
The historian is left to hypothesize from disparate pieces of evidence the fuller story. William Rickenbacher may well have been a frustrated man. He probably was quick to anger. William had not achieved his dream of establishing his own construction business in America but remained a common laborer. William Gaines’s presumption, especially coming from a black man, was intolerable to him. Where others let the matter pass, William could not. His obstinacy cost him his life.
Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967: 29.
Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005: 15.
“Laborer’s Skull Fractured by Two Blows with a Level,” Columbus Evening Dispatch, July 18, 1904.
“Charge of Murder will Probably Be Put against Negro,” Columbus Evening Dispatch, July 19, 1904.
“Wm Rickenbacher Takes Nourishment,” Columbus Dispatch, July 23, 1904.
“To Aid Rickenbacher’s Family,” Columbus Evening Dispatch, August 2, 1904.
“Assault to Kill,” Columbus Evening Dispatch, August 5, 1904.
“Victim of Assault Dies of Injuries,” Columbus Evening Dispatch, August 26, 1904.