Telephone operator frightened to death in 1933

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

One of the more bizarre and tragic deaths in the county’s history occurred in Arthur early in the morning of June 29,1933.

Mary Ellen O’Neill, known to most local people as Helen, was a 20-year-old telephone operator, a job she had taken after leaving high school at 18. That day she was holding down the night shift at the Arthur exchange. She was working alone that night, as was the usual practice in the Arthur office.

Before the introduction of automatic dial equipment, Bell Telephone maintained exchange offices with operators on a 24-hour basis. In places such as Arthur, the night shift could be a brutal assignment. The night operator had to remain alert and at the switchboard, awaiting the few calls that were placed during the night. When a call did come through, there was a good chance that it was an emergency of some kind, though there was also a sprinkling of calls placed by drunks and pranksters.

Often, the undesirable night assignment fell to the newest operator on the staff. Lottie Berry was the usual night operator at Arthur in 1933, and Helen O’Neill was covering for Berry’s night off.

July 6 was a miserable day in 1933. A heavy rain fell steadily, and continued into the early morning of July 7. The rainfall created problems for the Law Construction Company, which had a paving contract for Highway 6 between Fergus and Arthur.

About midnight one of the company’s trucks got bogged down in mud. After several hours of attempts to get free, the driver, Joe Spinelli of Chesley, flagged a ride into Arthur with Les McFarlane of Conn. 

The men were looking for the Arthur constable for help, but did not see him in the downtown area. They decided the best place for information was the telephone office. By then it was after 3am.

The men rapped loudly at the screen door of the office, which was locked, and shouted for someone to respond. The only response they received was several screams, followed by some moaning.

McFarlane and Spinelli soon spotted Constable Tindale, and he roused manager Hillier of the phone company. All four returned to the telephone office, and Hillier broke in by removing a screen.

They found Helen stretched out on a couch, with no signs of life. Constable Tindale immediately summoned Dr. J.R. Russell and the coroner, Dr. J.K. Blair. After examining the body and listening to the stories of Spinelli and McFarlane, Dr. Blair decided that a coroner’s inquest should be held. He called the session for the following Monday.

Meanwhile, the funeral took place on Saturday, July 1, at St. John’s Church in Arthur. The front of the church overflowed with flowers. Helen O’Neill had been a popular girl during her schoolgirl years at Arthur’s Separate and High Schools, and had been an excellent student. Her mother had died earlier. Helen left her father and a brother in Arthur, and a second brother in Toronto.

Her sudden death stunned the remainder of the Bell Telephone staff in Arthur. She had been well liked by her colleagues. After the high mass, Father Traynor, the popular Arthur priest, spoke informally to the filled church on the sad occurrence, offering words of comfort to Helen’s friends and co-workers. Burial followed at Greenfield Cemetery.

The inquest convened the following Monday evening at 6:30pm, with Dr. J.K. Blair presiding. J.M. Kearns, the crown attorney from Guelph, examined the witnesses. He was no stranger to Arthur, having practiced law there for several years before his appointment.

Joe Spinelli was the first witness. His testimony differed slightly from what he had told reporters four days earlier. He said he had been having trouble getting his truck through the mud on Highway 6, and had headed to Arthur on foot before he was overtaken by Les McFarlane. 

Spinelli was looking for the constable, he stated, and McFarlane suggested going to the telephone office.

He stated that he knocked on the door, and told Helen through the door what he wanted. The operator said she would get a number for him, and then he heard a scream. All the while, McFarlane had remained in his car, Spinelli said. He and McFarlane returned to the door of the exchange, but could get no answer. Just then Stan Overend of the Royal Bank came along. He went to the bank and called the exchange, but got no answer. The three men returned to the door of the exchange, and could hear a steady buzz, indicating an unanswered incoming call. A few minutes later the three men encountered Constable Tindale. He suggested that they get OPP Traffic Officer Jack Lewis. They also called Bell manager Hillier.

Under questioning from Kearns, Spinelli denied that he had made a lot of noise knocking at the exchange door and yelling.

Medical evidence came from Dr. J.R. Russell of Arthur and Dr. L.M. Stewart of Guelph, both of whom conducted post mortem examinations. The medical men agreed death had resulted from shock. They also raised some questions about the state of the ventilation in the office. It also emerged during the medical testimony that Helen had suffered some health problems as a result of a fall in the telephone office. She had fallen from a chair while pulling down some blinds. The fall left her unconscious for several minutes. The doctors agreed that the lingering effects of the fall may have been a factor in Helen’s death. 

At the request of Helen’s brother, Kearns asked about a blood clot found in Helen’s heart. The doctors believed it too large to have come from her brain.

Les McFarlane supported the evidence offered by Spinelli. He stated that he could hear Spinelli talking to the operator, and afterward Spinelli had called him to the door, where both could hear some moaning.

Bank manager Stan Overend confirmed the previous testimony regarding the phone call he attempted to make from the bank office. He also heard the moaning through the door of the telephone exchange.

Bell manager Hillier told the inquest that Helen had often worked the night shift, and that she was very competent and held in high esteem by both the company and co-workers.

The jury deliberated for a little more than an hour. Their finding was that death had resulted as the result of a scare received by Helen O’Neill when there was a call at the outer door of the exchange office, and that no blame could be attached to the person knocking at the door, or to anyone else.

They had two recommendations: that a male telephone operator be assigned to the night shift, and further, that the ventilation in the office be improved to provide those working there with fresh air.

So ended the inquest into one of the strangest and saddest deaths in the history of the county. Not surprisingly, there were those who suspected there was more to the story, based in part on the variations in the reported stories compared to the inquest evidence.

Nevertheless, Helen O’Neill may have been the only person who, in the opinion of the coroner, was literally frightened to death.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on April 17, 2009.

Thorning Revisited