John Luther “Casey” Jones was born on March 14, 1863, in Missouri. In 1876, his family moved to Cayce, Kentucky. (This is where his nickname came from.) At the age of 15, he started working as a telegrapher for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad
(M & O) in Columbus, Kentucky. In 1884, he moved to Jackson, Tennessee, where he took a job as a flagman for the M & O. Casey married Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady (the daughter of the owner of the boarding house where he was living) at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Jackson on November 25, 1886. Casey and his wife bought a house in Jackson. It was located at 211 West Chester Street. The Joneses had three children.
Casey was promoted up through the positions of brakeman and fireman with the M & O. In 1887, a yellow fever epidemic caused the deaths of many of the Illinois Central (I. C.) Railroad’s employees. Casey took a position as a fireman with the I. C. in 1888. On February 23, 1891, he was promoted to engineer. Jones developed a reputation to always “get her there on the advertised.” In fact, he was so punctual that people set their watches by him.
Even before his fateful train wreck, Casey was known as a hero. In his 1939 book, Fred J. Lee describes an 1895 occurrence in which Casey, noticing a group of small children dart in front of the train, leans out on the cowcatcher and pulls a small girl from the train rails to safety.
On April 29, 1900, Casey was at the Poplar Street Station in Memphis, Tennessee. He had driven the No. 2 from Canton and had agreed to take the No. 1 because the No. 1’s engineer, Sam Tate, had called in sick. With his fireman (Sim Webb) by his side, Casey left Memphis in Engine No. 382. He was 95 minutes behind schedule. Jones was “highballing” (a railroad term meaning he was going extremely fast) toward Mississippi, trying to make up some time. Somewhere near Vaughn, Mississippi, Sim yelled to Casey, “Oh my Lord, there’s something on the main line!” Casey yelled back to Sim for him to jump off the train. Casey stayed on board to slow the train and save the passengers. He reversed the throttle and slammed the brakes for an emergency stop but his train plowed through the wooden caboose and several freight cars of another train. Casey was the only fatality in the wreck that occurred at 3:52 AM on April 30, 1900. At the time of the wreck, he was only 2 minutes behind schedule. Legend says that when his body was removed from the wreckage, his hands still clutched the whistle and the brake.