Friday, February 8, 2019

Louis Armstrong, (Not That One), What Really Happened?

The Ambridge Aliquippa Bridge under it's original name 

     On a drizzly January afternoon in 1933,  Louis Armstrong of Ambridge Pennsylvania parked his car on the Ambridge Aliquippa Bridge, high above the Ohio River, and stepped out.  There would be no witnesses to what occurred next, but it wouldn't be long before his empty car was noticed and a search for the owner initiated.

     Louis, born in 1880 in Seneca Falls, New York was the first child of Thomas Armstrong, an immigrant from Northern Ireland, and Hannah McGarr, the daughter of Irish immigrants.  He was also my third cousin, three times removed.  Louis grew up in Seneca Falls, moving to Pennsylvania sometime between 1900 and 1904, the year he married Minnie Brack of Pittsburgh.  Over the ensuing years their family grew to include four daughters and one son, Louis Jr., but by 1930 the family had fractured with Minnie and the children living in Pittsburgh while Louis lived as a boarder in Ambridge about 20 miles away. In 1930 Minnie described herself as married; Lester told the census taker he was single.  What could have caused the breakup at a time when divorce was uncommon and the great depression was raging?  Louis' death certificate held a possible answer.

     The county coroner fixed Louis' time of death at 1pm, and gave the following cause--  
Suicide-Drowning-Jumped into the Ohio River from the Ambridge Aliquippa Bridge.  
Contributory--  Temporary insanity due to head and neck injuries in auto accident two years ago.  

     Search as I might, I couldn't find any mention of the car accident, finding the newspaper account of the suicide took hours.  With a name like Louis Armstrong a lot of the hits were for the musician.  Finally I located the article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette but it was on a pay site.  It did give the newspaper name, date and page where the article could be found however, so I tried the Library of Congress site which was malfunctioning and then a college library site but I didn't have a user name or password.  Then I remembered that Google has some digitized newspapers, (you didn't really think I was going to pay to see the article did you?).  The Google newspaper archive project has been long abandoned, but the newspapers that were already posted are still there and one just happened to be the paper I needed, the January 20 edition--
      Less than 3 hours after his car was found abandoned on the Ambridge-Aliquippa bridge, the body of Louis Armstrong 48 of Ambridge, was removed from the Ohio River at Legionville by employees of Lock number 4 yesterday afternoon.  Search for the owner of the abandoned car had been started when the body was found.  Armstrong, an automobile salesman, is believed to have leaped from the bridge while despondent, and is reported to have attempted to end his life by asphyxiation previously.  He roomed at 318 Park Rd, Ambridge, and leaves a widow and children in Pittsburgh, friends said.
     It's hard to say with certainty that the car accident was responsible for the breakup of the Armstrong marriage or the suicide, but a quick internet search brought up medical research into victims of traumatic brain injury and concussion that showed a marked increase in suicides among that group.  With the scanty information we can't tell if Louis' brain itself was damaged and affecting his behavior, or if his seeming depression stemmed from discomfort or limitations from his injuries.  The mention of neck injuries and the fact he went from an active job as foreman at a drilling site, as seen in the 1920 census, to auto salesman may indicate Louis was a victim of chronic pain. As in so many cases, this tragic story makes me wonder if Louis could have benefited from modern medicine and treatments.

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