Friday, February 4, 2011

The Dangers of Coal Gas

Each winter we often hear stories of people being overcome by carbon monoxide gas.  Fortunately for many of us, we have carbon monoxide detectors (and those who don't have them should take steps to rectify this).  But these are a recent development.  I came across this story about the tragedy of the Phyfe family in Bovina which could have been prevented by such a detector.  It happened eighty-three years ago today and was reported in a number of local newspapers.

Archibald Phyfe, age 79, woke up early on Sunday, February 4, 1928, feeling unwell, but he went ahead with his morning routine, which included tending the coal fire in the living room. His 77 year old sister Sarah, who lived with him and kept house for her widowed brother, heard him stirring and went downstairs, too. Within minutes, Archibald had collapsed on the floor and Sarah was unconscious in a nearby rocker. Neighbors became concerned when they noted that the milk they usually picked up from the Phyfes had not been put out. They went into the house to find the brother and sister passed out. They called Dr. Sarles to provide medical attention.  Miss Phyfe was moved to a bed but died shortly after. Her brother was luckier - his head was close to the crack under the door, allowing some fresh air to come in. Dr. Sarles was able to revive him. Phyfe's brother in law, Dr. William Ormiston of Delhi, came to Bovina and had Archibald taken to Mrs. Drum's emergency hospital in Delhi for further treatment. Archibald reported that he found the living room to be gassy and suspected that a piece of iron under the coal stove had come out, allowing the gas to escape. While carbon monoxide itself is odorless and colorless, it is a component of coal gas. 

Sarah and Archibald were the children of John Phyfe and his wife Matilda Loughran. Archibald was born in 1848, his sister two years later. Matilda Phyfe appears to have died giving birth to Sarah. John Phyfe remarried twice and had two more children by his second marriage.

Archibald married Mary Ormiston in 1875. She died only ten years later, leaving her husband with two daughters, Anna and Bertha. Archibald had a number of occupations, including mason, dry goods clerk and salesman, while also running a small family dairy farm. Sarah was a school teacher for a number of years, but gave that up when her brother was widowed, taking charge of his home.  She helped her brother raise his motherless daughters.  Archibald survived his sister by six years and two days, dying on February 6, 1934. Sarah and Archibald are both buried in the Bovina cemetery.

The Phyfe's home was the family farm, bought by their father in 1866.  Archibald and Sarah likely were born in the house. About three months after Sarah's death, the farm went out of the Phyfe family when Archibald sold it to Fred and Nell Henderson. In the 1960s, the farm was sold to Jim and Mary Haran.

One side note: Though the neighbors are not mentioned by name in any of the news accounts, it's very possible that two of the neighbors were my grandparents, Benson and Anna Bell LaFever, who lived right next door. Later that year, they moved about a mile up the road to the Henderson farm when the Hendersons had moved into the Phyfe home.

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