Possible link found to young widow's 1947 death
By JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONSjsimmons@tylerpaper.com
In 1947, a young widow suffered a horrible death in Tyler's stately Blackstone Hotel, but decades later, the tragedy is largely forgotten amid progress and the passage of time.
It wasn't until a few weeks ago, during a random search of Texas death certificates, that the haunting, accidental decapitation of Mattie Elizabeth Cheeseborough, 41, was revealed, yet again.
The elegant Blackstone Hotel, dubbed the Queen of East Texas for its first-class accommodations, opened in 1922 at 301 N. Broadway Ave.
Many people visited the Blackstone because of the daily menu choices offered by its premiere restaurant, The Creole Coffee Room, where Ms. Cheeseborough was assigned to work.
Wrecking balls reduced the beloved hotel to rubble in 1985, and it was replaced by a 150-space parking lot.
Likewise, there seem to be few traces of the woman who died there -- an old death certificate and front page newspaper story reveal a few, scant details about her life.
It seems Ms. Cheeseborough went to work at the Blackstone in April 1947, one of many service employees who worked behind the scenes to ensure the hotel lived up to its fine reputation.
She was working as a pantry girl the day she died, Nov. 18, 1947, about a week before Thanksgiving, according to her death certificate.
The official cause of death: decapitation by the hotel's elevator.
It was ruled accidental, records show.
As awful as the incident was, historians with the Smith County Historical Society were surprised when they received a public inquiry about Ms. Cheeseborough's demise and a copy of her death certificate.
"It was pretty shocking," historian Sam Kidd said. "We didn't know anything about it."
The death certificate was discovered during a routine Internet search of old records, sparking the interest of local historians, who wondered why such a ghastly death in a public venue would go largely unnoticed.
Sherry Kidd, also with the Historical Society, said she and other members began an extensive search for answers.
"We found a front page newspaper story about it," Mrs. Kidd said. "We also found her in the city directory ... there's not much else."
A microfiche copy of a Nov. 19, 1947, front page story in the Tyler Courier Times Telegraph reveals the sad, grim details.
According to the newspaper, a service elevator had been installed at the hotel about a month before Ms. Cheeseborough's death, but it lacked safety doors.
The doors had not yet been delivered, leaving no barrier between the cavernous elevator chamber and the various floors in the five-story luxury hotel, records show.
"The accident occurred as the woman peered into the elevator's shaft to see if the machine was en route to the first floor of the hotel," according to the story. "Just as she looked into the shaft, the bottom of the elevator struck her head."
Death was instantaneous, the newspaper reported.
Hotel manager George Niggemyer said the elevator had been on order for more than a year, but it had only been installed a month earlier, records show.
He said the machine was automatically controlled and required no operator.
Two hotel employees, Bernice Ford and Geraldine Johnson, were on the elevator at the time of the accident, which happened around 2:45 p.m., according to the newspaper.
"They told officers the machine was descending from the second to the first floor when the accident occurred," the story states, listing Bennie Gumpton and Marvin Harrell as two other witnesses to the incident.
"Everybody was so upset," Kidd said. "People who worked in the cafeteria, they were driven home from work by the police."
It's unclear when the safety doors were finally installed.
The newspaper listed Ms. Cheeseborough's mother as her only survivor.
Both the death certificate and the newspaper state the accident victim was laid to rest in Tyler's Westview Cemetery, but there is no mention of her in cemetery records.
Historians believe the remains might be located in an unmarked cement crypt, located near the grave of Rudolph L. Cheeseborough, a World War II veteran who died in 1958 at age 54.
His name appears in Tyler City Directories as both a student and a bellboy at the Blackstone, but historians are uncertain about any possible connections between the two.
Little else is know about Ms. Cheeseborough, whose death played on the minds and imaginations of many who worked in the hotel and lived nearby.
For years, there were reported sightings of a ghostly figure walking the streets near the hotel, an unfortunate way to memorialize a woman who suffered so much.
Historians are hoping more details will surface to shed new light on a very old death.
"To have a decapitation in a hotel that's the center of everything ... and by a fluke, someone found it on the Internet?" Kidd said. "That's off the charts."