The Randolph Mill Fire: Disaster, Indignation and Recognition

Randolph Mill and Pennsylvania Hosiery Mill in 1879. Hexamer General Survey, vol. 15 (GeoHistory Network/Free Library of Philadelphia)

Randolph Mill and Pennsylvania Hosiery Mill in 1879. (Between 5th St. and Randolph St., north of Columbia, now Cecil B. Moore Ave.) Hexamer General Survey, vol. 15 (GeoHistory Network/Free Library of Philadelphia)

The two front doors on Randolph Street were locked tight. They said this was “partly to keep intruders out, and partly to keep the male hands in” during work hours. You know, to “prevent their slipping around the corner to get a drink.” Worst of all, in spite of the three-year-old law requiring fire escapes, the five-story mill building had not a one.

On the night of October 12, 1881, when fire struck Landenberger’s Dress Goods Manufactory, destruction multiplied into horror and death.

A little before 10pm, neighbors heard the “shrieks of agony and despair…issuing from the building.” They looked to the windows on the third and fourth floors to see “the forms of men and women gesticulating frantically and screaming for aid, their retreat being cut off and the flames sweeping around them.”

“Don’t jump,” someone on the ground shouted. “We will get ladders.”

The fire spread faster. As an eyewitness described it, “the first thing we knew, down came a girl, and then another and another. When the first was picked up it was found that she had broken her back over the railing of the iron steps. The next leaped from the fourth story and was crushed out of shape upon the pavement. And so the work of desperation went on until nearly a score of victims had been cruelly and in most cases fatally injured.”

Mattie Conlan was somewhat luckier, “let down by a shawl from the third story window.” The smoke “rising round her and the flames streaming upward”—and she let go. Conlan’s injuries weren’t fatal. Kate Schaeffer and Annie Brady “jumped hand-in-hand from the third floor window. Brady died instantly.

What became of the 35 others working the night shift? According to newspaper reports, no one even knew exactly who they were. “Landenberger’s people positively refused to furnish the list of those who were in the building when the fire broke out.” And without a list, loved ones were at loose ends: angry, confused, and grieving.

Looking West from 5th and Cecil B. Moore St. to Randolph St., October 19, 1934 (PhillyHistory.org)

Looking West from 5th and Columbia, now Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Randolph Street, October 19, 1934 (PhillyHistory.org)

The following morning, as the coroner searched the ruins, relatives “begged pathetically to be allowed to enter the building and look for missing husbands or sons.” Five victims were retreived that day, including the 16-year old Elizabeth Franck, who had lived with her family at 1706 Waterloo Street. Her funeral services would be held at St. Jacob’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3rd and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore). “Six young ladies clad in white” were Lizzie Franck’s pallbearers.

Even two days after the fire, searchers worked all day looking for bodies— “but discovered none.” James McMunn’s wife waited nearby, sadly watching. So was Joseph Glazer’s mother. Annie Straub’s brothers looked on “with anxious hearts.”

At the morgue, George Matheson barely recognized the body and polka dot blue and white dress of his 15-year old daughter, Mary. He had her remains transferred home to 1419 Hope Street. Later the same day, authorities sent a contingent by “to see whether the body was not really that of the missing Annie Straub.” Matheson angrily turned them away, refusing access to Mary’s body. What he expected was a visit by Charles Landenberger, who, Matheson snapped to a reporter, “might have come to see the family, as any gentleman would have done.”

“The feeling around the neighborhood was intense, and many people, while they unreservedly condemned the owner of the building, Joseph Harvey,” they also challenged Landenberger’s denials of culpability. He knew the upper floors were dangerous. He claimed to have urged Harvey, time and time again, to install fire escapes. So, they asked, “Why did he send so many people up there to work?

Surrounding streets filled up with expressions of distress. “Knots of employees of other mills were grouped here and there earnestly discussing the sad event, and strongly denouncing the false economy which failed to provide suitable means of escape from the burned mill.”

“Popular sentiment, urged on by the atrocity of this case, with its ugly exposure of indifference to human life and human suffering and sorrow” led to the organization of an “indignation meeting.” About 600 people crowded onto the lot adjacent to “the scene of slaughter” at Randolph and Columbia.

The coroner’s inquest into the fire and the nine deaths it caused produced an undisputed verdict: “…the fire was caused by the improperly constructed and inefficiently managed apparatus for lighting the building; …Joseph Harvey, owner of the mills, is criminally responsible for the loss of life, in neglecting to furnish proper means of escape in case of fire; …the city of Philadelphia is responsible for not enforcing the laws in compelling Joseph Harvey to erect proper fire-escapes.”

In fact, the Randolph Mill Fire turned out to be a pivotal disaster. A specially appointed committee of the Franklin Institute examined technologies and design possibilities for fire escapes and elevators and, as historian Sara Wermiel tells us, made “farsighted recommendations” leading to “an important advance in the field of life safety.”

So, PhillyHistory people, we ask ourselves: Do we remember and recognize any of this at the site today?

[Sources Include: Sara E. Wermiel, “No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the Outside Fire Escape,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 258-284; “Report of Committee of the Franklin Institute on Fire-Escapes and Elevators,” The Journal of the Franklin Institute, (Philadelphia, 1881), pp. 408-414; and in The Philadelphia Inquirer:  “Another Horror. Fatal Result of a Mill Fire,” October 13, 1881; “A Holocaust. The Mill Fire Disaster,” October 14, 1881; “Around the Ruins,” October 14, 1881; “At the Hospitals. How the Wounded Are Faring,” October 14, 1881; The Man-Trap. More About the Mill Disaster,” October 15, 1881; “Last Week’s Horror. The Disaster and Its Results,” October 17, 1881.]

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4 Comments

  1. Gordy
    Posted September 17, 2016 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Photo caption should be: Looking West from 5th and Columiba Avenue to Randolph Street, October 19, 1934. The name, Cecil B. Moore Avenue, did not come into fruition until 1975.

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted September 18, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Thanks. The caption is now edited to reflect that.

  2. John Cline
    Posted September 17, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    This is similiar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911. Loss of life because of the greed of the companies owners. The Triangle fire had more loss of life and the owner”s did not serve any jail time.

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted September 18, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Yes, That much more famous disaster took place 30 years later and had 146 casualties. It, too led to what is called a “general awakening” about working conditions. More here: https://www.osha.gov/oas/trianglefactoryfire.html.

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