"Tell all - I see them on the other side," Martin Toler wrote in pencil on an insurance form in the dark, "It wasn't bad, I just went to sleep." And at the bottom, "I love you."
Another note said: "We're not suffering. We just went to sleep."
Partly because it's a timeless fear that we won't be able to speak those last important messages before we die, and partly because underground mine disasters are a rarity in modern news, readers' hearts go out to these families whose last words from their fathers, brothers and sons will be written on the backs of pay stubs and old grocery receipts.
But the practice among underground miners -- who live every day knowing that such a fate is possible -- is an old one. Tragically, death underground is slow (and certain) enough to allow time to write such notes.
Dolores Riggs Davis, an Ohio historian and an expert on mining disasters, told the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch in 2000, that it's a perfect storm of human impulse and circumstances.
"I've seen my share of these letters," she told reporter Rex Bowman. "People desperately want to reach out to a loved one. They'll tear scraps from paper bags to write a note. They want people to know what they were feeling when they died."
In a 1902 Tennessee mine disaster, J.L. Powell wrote to his wife:
"Dear Ellen, I will have to leave you in bad condition. But dear wife, put your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen, take care of my litle darling Lillie. Ellen, little Elbert [also in the mine] said he believed in the Lord. He said he was saved if we never see the outside again, he would meet his mother in heaven. He would meet his mother in heaven if he never lived to git out. We are not hurt bad, only perishing for air. There is but few of us here. I don't know where the other miners are at. Elbert said for you all to meet us in heaven, All the children meet us both in heaven."Another miner in the same hole wrote:
"Alice, do the best you can. I am going to rest. Goodbye Alice. Elbert said the lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all perishing for air to support us. But it is getting so bad without any air. Charlie said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 1-1/2 o'clock. Marvell Harmon's watch is now in Andy Wood's hands. ...Raise the children the best way you can. Oh how I would love to be with you. Goodbye to all of you. Bury me an Elbert in the same grave. Tell little Ellen goodbye. Goodbye Ellen. Goodbye Horace. We are together. It is now 25 minutes after 2 o'clock. A few of us are alive yet, Jacob and Elbert.OH GOD FOR ONE MORE BREATH."In a 1915 West Virginia mine explosion, miner Bill Derenge wrote:
"We are all still alive but not knowing [how] long God will spare me so dear friends should it be Gods will that I must die you will find on me a Gold watch and a purse with $10 and 90 cts and the rest of my belongings is at G John Souls house such as trunk and clothes So please notify my father and restore everything safely to him So God being my helper I will close."So imagine this: You're a mile below ground, huddled in the dark, cut off from rescue and all you can do is wait to die. You have a pencil and a piece of paper the size of a pay stub.
What will you write?