Posted by: downtothesea | January 10, 2010

The Life and Death of Charles Gavin (1880-1910)

“And then there were the twins, Florence and Charles,” I can remember my grandmother telling me, reciting the litany of her maternal grandfather, Michael Gavin Jr.’s seven children, all of whom grew up in Niagara Falls, New York. 

Of all the Gavin brood, I know the least about Charles.  Directly, anyway.  Indirectly, I know he was 5 years old when he faced the death of his mother (almost certainly due to complications from the birth of her last child Alice).  I know he was around 8 when his father remarried.  In 1894, when Charles was 14, his stepbrother George was born.  One year later, in 1895 Charles watched both baby George and Charles’ younger sister Jennie die, Jennie most poignantly at the tender age of 12, of “brain trouble.”  In the same year, Charles’ father Michael was arrested for what we would know today as domestic abuse of both his wife and children.  Hard times.

By the age of 17, Charles was working.  All the Gavin children worked.  He was first an elevator operator, then a worker at the Carborundum factory.  At the turn of the century, Charles had followed the lead of his older sister Nellie (my great-grandmother) and his twin sister Florence, who were telephone switchboard operators, and found a job at Bell Telephone, working as a “telephone setter.” 

Then Charles drops off the map.  He is missing from the 1910 census.

When I discovered the Gavin family plot last February, I learned why Charles had not been in the 1910 census:

But it was only when I gained access to the Niagara Falls Gazette for 1910 that I learned the full extent of the misery of Charles’ final weeks.

From the Gazette on April 22, 1910:


Charles Gavin was down and out due to an overload of intoxicants last night in the alley back of the Temperance house.  This morning Gavin pleaded guilty to a charge of public intoxication and was sent to the Niagara County Jail for sixty days.

Poor Charles.  Looking back on the many losses he suffered in his life, it wasn’t surprising to me that he turned to the bottle…and/or whatever else the term “intoxicants” implied.  But the next and final mention of him in the papers threw me for a loop.

It is from the Buffalo Morning Express, dated May 15, 1910:


Electrical Shock Supposed to have caused Charles Gavin’s Death.

Special to The Buffalo Express

Lockport, May 14–Charles Gavin, 30 years old, who was serving a 60-day sentence at the county jail for intoxication at Niagara Falls, died this morning in the hospital ward of cerebral hemorrages.  He became ill yesterday and became unconscious, remaining so until death.

Gavin had served three weeks of his sentence.  He was burned three weeks prior to his confinement by an electrical shock at a Niagara Falls plant.  The burn was on the leg, and it is believed by Dr. Bickford to have been the direct cause of death.”

You led a difficult life, and died a strange and tragic death…I sincerely hope you rest in peace, great-grand uncle Charles, and that the next world is miles better to you than this one was.



  1. A touching tribute. Though his life was hard, at least he will not be forgotten now.

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