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I never come down the stairs at the Merchant’s House that I don’t think of poor Phebe Tredwell. On October 3, 1907, at 6 o’clock in the morning, Phebe  died from an accidental fall at home, in which her femur was broken. She was 78 years old, the eldest of the surviving Tredwell daughters, at the time still living with her two younger sisters, Julia and Gertrude, in the rowhouse their father bought in 1835.

The staircase where Phebe Tredwell may have fallen to her death. The rowhouse of the time made no accommodation for the elderly and disabled.

The staircase where Phebe Tredwell may have fallen to her death. The rowhouse of the time made no accommodation for the elderly and disabled.

It seems pretty clear that Phebe must havefallen down the stairs. Even supposing her bones were fragile, which they probably were, how else could she have possibly broken both her thigh bone, the strongest bone in the body? I think she must have fallen down the flight from the second floor bedrooms on her way to breakfast and died immediately. That’s speculation, of course. We have only the death certificate to go by, which states that she was “viewed by the coroner”—in other words, no doctor was in attendance at the time of her death— and that she died from an accidental fall. However it happened, it must have been a horrifying experience for her sisters.

Even worse! The staircase at Number 8 Washington Square North, a house built in the same year as the Tredwells' (1832). It as a similar but grander home, beautiful to look at but like all of the urban row houses short on comfort as we know it.

Even worse! The staircase at Number 8 Washington Square North, a house built in the same year as the Tredwells’ (1832). It is a similar but grander home, beautiful to look at but like all of the urban row houses short on comfort as we know it.

Considering that the standard residential lot in New York City was only 25 feet wide and the homes as a result multi-storied, accidental stair falls must have been quite common.

Bill Bryson in his fascinating book, At Home, has a lot to say about stairs.
For instance, would you have guessed that falls on stairs are the second most common cause of accidental death, after car accidents? It has been calculated, according to Bryson, that you are likely to miss a step once in every 2,222 occasions you use stairs. Whether or not your misstep results in a fall and whether or not that fall turns out to be fatal depends on a number of factors, especially your age. Going down is more dangerous than going up, and as many as one-third of all stair accidents occur on the first or last step. The odds  were not in Phebe’s favor, nor was her age.

It is ironic that the Tredwells installed a one-person elevator in the house around 1870, which Phebe could have used to transport her safely to the first floor. I am convinced, however, that on that fateful morning in October, for one reason or another, Phebe chose not to bother with the elevator.