A Would-Be Disaster Design Solution: The Iron Skeleton Fire Escape

Front Elevations of 102-104 N Water Street, February 14, 1918 (PhillyHistory.org)

Front Elevations of 102-104 N. Water Street, February 14, 1918 (PhillyHistory.org)

How to safely exit a building on fire? The fire escape, of course.

But what about before law required the familiar “iron skeleton fire escape”? In the greater part of the 19th century, when fire struck in the rising city, urbanites were at the mercy of fate. On more than one occasion, Philadelphia’s garret sweatshops and New York’s tenements went up in flames. Those trapped inside the upper stories perished in “galleries of certain death.”

Inventors heeded the call. In March 1849, the Franklin Institute exhibited for public admiration the model for “a very ingenious contrivance,” a “new fire-escape.” No word as to how it might save lives, or if it ever did. Nor do we know exactly how many such contrivances, either ingenious or ridiculous, promised the trapped and doomed freedom to walk, jump or even fly to safety. But, as we saw in the case of Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire, even after buildings were equipped with exterior iron fire escapes, they sometimes contributed to fatal disasters.

Philadelphia passed an ordinance creating a fire-escape regulatory board in 1876 and endowed it with the authority to order their installation “upon such buildings as they may deem necessary… to secure life and property.” Three years later, Pennsylvania passed a sweeping law declaring that any building “three or more stories in height, shall be provided with a permanent, safe external means of escape therefrom in cases of fire.”

The list of seemed comprehensive: “Every building used as a seminary, college, academy, hospital, asylum, or a hotel for the accommodation of the public, every storehouse, factory, manufactory, workshop of every kind, in which employees or operatives are usually employed at work in the third or higher story, every tenement house or building in which rooms or floors are usually let to lodgers or families, and every public school building.”  But somehow the 1879 list missed theatres. No problem, historian Sara Wermeil tells us, that mistake was corrected in 1885.

Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)

Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)

Benjamin B. Oppenheimer, Fire-Escape. No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)

Benjamin B. Oppenheimer,
Improvement in Fire-Escapes.
No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)

But to some, a greater mistake lay in the assumption that the exterior iron fire escape would be effective. According to Wermeil, Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan “condemned the ‘iron ladders clamped against the wall’ as ‘worse than useless, because they are deceptive; giving the appearance of an escape without the reality.’” They were, he wrote in 1868, “‘a most stupid contrivance’ because women, children, the aged and the disabled could not use them. With fires lapping out the window, he asked, ‘would not those balconies be turned into gridirons to roast the unhappy victims?’”

Sloan’s preference? Wall off internal stairwells with iron doors—a solution that became standard, but not until the 20th century.

Building owners and landlords took advantage of inadequate compliance and enforcement. A full decade after passage of the 1879 law, “the lives of fully 100,000 children are in danger,” reported the Inquirer. “City Councils have failed to obey the laws plainly lay down by the legislature of Pennsylvania. There are over 113,000 school children in Philadelphia distributed among 262 schoolhouses. Only 17 of these buildings are provided with fire escapes…  The remaining 245 schoolhouses, with over 100,000 pupils, are totally without any means of escape in case of fire.”

Frankford Elevated - Site of Bent 16 - 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

Frankford Elevated – Site of Bent 16 – 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

No surprise, really. Compliance failures continued for decades, as we know from the landmark disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which killed 145 New Yorkers in less than half an hour.

Did Philadelphia somehow manage to avoid such a pivotal and devastating event? Hardly. We recently recalled the Market Street fire of 1901, where 22 died. And a full thirty years before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Philadelphia endured the tragic and scandalous Randolph Mill fire.

[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; “The Model of a New Fire-escape,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 1849; “Tenement Traps,” The New York Times, February 4, 1860; “The City’s Safety, Annual Meeting of the Board of Fire Commissioners. Report of the Chief,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 1880; “Schools Not Protected,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 7, 1889.]

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Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire

12th and Market Streets - Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (PhillyHistory.org)

12th and Market Streets – Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (PhillyHistory.org)

Walls of the Hunt, Wilkinson & Company furniture emporium came tumbling down the morning of October 25th, 1901. By lunchtime, firefighters declared the conflagration of the 8-story, 14-year-old building at 1219–1221 Market Street under control.

Twenty-two were dead, ranking this as Philadelphia’s deadliest fire.

Yet it’s missing from the top “25 Most Deadly Building Fires in America,” a list that recalls the 1908 Rhoads Opera House disaster in Boyertown, PA which killed 171. (That ranks #8.) Philadelphia’s 1901 fire had the same number of casualties as the Detroit’s Study Club dance hall disaster of 1929, the 24th worst disaster.

“Never in its history has Philadelphia experienced a fire which spread with such great rapidity,” reported the Inquirer. Never before were so many victims “speeded through gates of eternity,” reported the Atlanta Constitution.

“Rows of charred bodies at the morgue, a score of homes made desolate, a gaunt pile of twisted, steaming ruins on Market street between Twelfth and Thirteenth, are monuments to a fire” that was “swift as a whirlwind, sickening in its horrors.”

First responders were quick, “but the flames were quicker.” The fire rose quickly “from cellar to roof, eating into adjoining buildings and hanging in a seething, spark-dotted canopy over Market street.”

Hell reigned outside and in: “Sixty or more men, women and children were at work on the upper floors of the building. The roaring flames and the suffocating smoke that cut off retreat were their first and only warnings. Madly they groped for windows and the fire escapes, many meeting death where they stood, others reaching the iron railed balconies, only to find themselves and like rats in a trap, confronted with the alternative of being gridironed or the chance of being crushed on the stones below. Most of those killed were at work on the sixth floor, where women were engaged in sewing. It was reported that goods were stored against the windows, which prevented the women from getting out on the fire escapes, but this was positively denied by a member of the firm.”

“Thousands from the streets below witnessed tragedy upon tragedy, powerless to help. They saw women penned in by flame tearing out their hair in their frenzy. They saw men struggle on wires and gratings and burn as they hung between earth and sky. They saw others plunge from the windows or turn and stagger back into the pitiless cauldron. The stones of Commerce street, the narrow highway at the rear of the building, rang the dirge of more than one victim who jumped blindly and missed the net.”

“Squares away the screams of the dying could be heard. Tongues cannot tell the horrors that eyes saw.”

At one point, “all eyes turned to the fire escapes” outside a 7th-story window, where upholsterers “were running down the escape pell-mell.”

“The smoke ascending in their faces was growing blacker and blacker. A man appeared at the window with a woman. He put his arm around her waist. They began to climb down the escape and reached the sixth floor. He seemed to faint. They stopped to rest, and then made another struggle.”

“Cheer after cheer went up from the street at this. But the situation was growing more desperate every second. When the next wave of smoke passed the woman was seen standing alone on the landing. It was impossible for her to get down thought the flames beneath her. She heard the shouts and news the net had been spread below to catch her. She had one chance in a hundred to save her life by a leap. The firemen grabbed their net and looked up. They could not see her. The woman peered down. She could not see them. Persons father away tried to shout directions. It was a guess. It was her only chance. She leaped. Her form came straight through the air, feet foremost. She jumped well and clear. Thousands of eyes watched the flying form. They saw it strike the iron rail of the awning. She dropped a little to one side of the net outstretched to save her and struck the pavement.”

“Such was the death of Susan Gormley, 42 years of age, of 1727 Filbert street.”

A special jury of experts convened by the City Coroner collected evidence, reviewed testimony and found the structure in compliance with what safety codes existed. They couldn’t zero in on what started the fire, suggesting the deceased “could probably explain the direct cause.” And they recommended sweeping changes aimed at prevention, mitigation and “providing proper and sufficient means of escape.”

[Sources include: “Flames starting in basement of Hunt, Wilkinson & Co.’s Furniture Store, 1219–21 Market Street Form Funeral Pyre for Many and Cause Estimated Property Loss of $500,000,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1901; “Eight Story Building Fire,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 26, 1901; “No Cause Found for Fatal Fire,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1901; The 25 most-deadly building fires of all time, firesciencedegree.com.]

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Saving Souls on Hell’s Half Acre: The Inasmuch Mission

Perspective of NE corner of Warnock and Locust St. In-as-much mission building , January 8, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

Perspective of NE corner of Warnock and Locust St. Inasmuch Mission building, January 8, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Born and brought up a true son of the tenderloin,” George Long survived as a child pickpocket in Madison Square Park in New York City.

At the age of 14, having “been thoroughly schooled in the ways of the underworld, he launched himself upon his career as a ‘grafter.’” Long became addicted to cocaine and morphine and for the next two decades lived as “a habitué of the dens of vice in the large cities… repellant even to the keepers of the lowest resorts.” He had, “time and time again” been thrown out of even “the filthiest brothels.”

George Long “floated about the country for years” arriving in Philadelphia “on the ‘hobo’s’ common carrier, the freight train.” A “wreck of a man” on Skid Row, Long was “dissipated and disheveled, unshaven, unkempt, and saturated with liquor… a ‘bum’ of the uttermost, guttermost type.”

Then  he found religion. Long “fell upon his knees in the Galilee Mission and gave his heart to God” and dedicated himself to saving the souls of others.

“It takes a ‘down and outer’ to reform a ‘down and outer,’” he claimed. “Social workers try hard, but they can’t realize that feeling the other fellow has.” Long could talk with “them in their own language.” He met them where they lived, “in the heart of the city’s most disreputable and filthy sections” like Philadelphia’s Hell’s Half Acre—a place even more desperate than Skid Row.

“Bounded by Spruce and Walnut Street and Tenth and Eleventh” Hell’s Half Acre “is cut up by many small thorough fares filled with dilapidated houses. No less than 65 were being used for immoral purposes” including three gambling dens, two opium joints, and many pool rooms and speakeasies.”

At the heart of it, on Locust Street east of 11th, George Woodward, owned “20 vacant, ramshackle houses.” “Each was connected with the other by an underground passage, so that if a crime was committed in one, the perpetrator could easily make his way from that house to another, and so on to the street and to safety. One building in this group was known as the ‘get-away house.’”

Long convinced Woodward of his plans and the wealthy developer from Chestnut Hill turned over the houses, rent free. Long and his associates cleaned them up, removing “eleven wagonloads of beer bottles, playing cards, discarded frills and burbelows [furbelows?] of feminine wearing apparel, and other rubbish.” They made the former “getaway house” Long’s headquarters.

The Inasmuch Mission (named for the biblical passage: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) was born.

"Chapel of Inasumch Mission," in "The Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest," Church News, February 1915.

“Chapel of Inasumch Mission,” in The Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest. Church News, February 1915.

Beginning in March, 1911 Inasmuch offered help to “any man in need, providing that the beneficiary showed the desire to help himself.” And in the first six months more than 14,000 attended services, 8,731 meals were served and more than 2,000 took lodging. The mission placed 96 reformed men in paying jobs. At the second anniversary celebration, the first three rows were packed with men whose testimony so inspired Mrs. Woodward, she offered to donate funds for “a suitable building in which Mr. Long might carry out his original dream.”

Inspired by London’s Rowton Houses for working men and New York’s Mills Hotel, Philadelphia architects, Duhring, Okie & Ziegler designed a severe, four-story, fire-proof facility with a chapel for 300, an office, a restaurant, a kitchen, and 400 beds. In March 1914, Long and others dedicated the Inasmuch Mission “as a place where men will be cleansed, both mentally and physically.”

Meanwhile, Long’s evangelistic career grew in scope and scale. With the gift (also from Mrs. Woodward) of a “large touring car,” Long began a “series of automobile meetings” on street corners “throughout the Tenderloin.” Long provided sermons accompanied by musical entertainment.

The popular evangelist soon preached to gatherings of 1,000 in a giant Inasmuch tent pitched at 60th and Locust Streets. In the midst of the World War, Long lumped together local food profiteers, rent gaugers and the Kaiser. “Hell is too good for them,” Long shouted.

Followers cheered.

Long determined to break a preaching record in the summer of 1918. For ten weeks straight he packed tent meetings with as many as 3,000. Long moved indoors to the nearby Imperial Theatre, 219 South 60th Street, while architects drew up plans for a new 5,000-seat evangelistic tabernacle.

More confident than ever, Long pivoted his message from the pulpit to politics: “There are more gamblers, thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes in this city than ever before, and it depends upon our next mayor as to whether they are to remain here.”

He “censured women who wear immodest attire” Long claimed “such women were responsible for much of the widespread immorality” adding: “More men are being sent to hell today owing to women’s immodest dressing than ever before.”

And he critiqued fellow preachers: “The she-man in the pulpit, with his soft voice and ladylike manners, has been driving red-blooded men away from the church.” The headline read: “Evangelist Flays “Sissies” In Pulpit.”

Long, it seemed, was only getting started.

[Sources include: Blair Jaekel, “The Inasmuch Mission,” The World’s Work: A History of Our Time (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913); “Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest,” The Church News of the Diocese of Pennsylvania (1915);  G. Grant Williams, Hells Half Acre and Inasmuch Mission,” The Philadelphia Tribune, May 18, 1912; “Rose From Underworld,” The New York Times, May 12, 1913; and from The Philadelphia Inquirer:  “Inasmuch Mission and Founder Have Done Great Work,” September 1, 1912; “To Conduct Street Missions in Auto,” January 15, 1913; “Inasmuch Mission will Provide Home for Men Desiring Reform,” January 24, 1914; “Inasmuch Mission Now in New Home,” March 24, 1914; “Scores Food Gougers,” July 8, 1918; “Tent Meetings Overflow,” July 27, 1918; “Evangelist Flays ‘Sissies’ In Pulpit,” August 4, 1919.]

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Chestnut Hill: Recognizing and Remembering the Real Legacy

"Proposed - Pastorius Circle - at Hartwell and Lincoln Avenue - Chestnut Hill - Philadelphia. "General Plans Division / Bureau of Surveys" Signed and dated lower right: "J. H. Hutchinson May 16, 1913" Looking Northeast on Hartwell Avenue." (PhillyHistory.org)

“Proposed – Pastorius Circle – at Hartwell and Lincoln Avenue – Chestnut Hill – Philadelphia.” J. H. Hutchinson, May 16, 1913″ (PhillyHistory.org)

Chestnut Hill is celebrating its legacy.

The party’s on for what Henry Howard Houston and his son-in-law, George Woodward, started in the 1870s. Houston spent some of his fortune from the Pennsylvania Railroad on tracts of land for his envisioned community of Wissahickon Heights. Woodward continued the development of Chestnut Hill—that name stuck—designing, defining and carefully expanding, decades into the 20th century. Today, both are being “revered as pioneers in sustainability and pillars of the community…champions for creating, preserving and promoting the well-regarded quality of life in Chestnut Hill.”

But is it a legacy worth celebrating? Or is it more one worth rediscovering—and recognizing for what it really was?

“The real key to that community’s character,” wrote Dan Rottenberg in the Inquirer back in 1986, “is the rare brand of benevolent feudalism practiced there for more than a century by the Houston-Woodward family. Just as feudal lords protected their tenants from barbarian invaders, so the Houstons and Woodwards protected their tenants from the equally frightening forces of economic and social change.”

George Woodward, it turns out, was “something of an eccentric” with very particular, if not peculiar, preferences. He disliked cars with internal combustion engines (“loud and smelly”) so he drove electric models. He didn’t care for light from incandescent bulbs so he read by kerosene lamps. Woodward dressed in golf knickers and woolen stockings. He shared his ideas about life in an autobiography titled Memoirs of A Mediocre Man. And when it came to a vision for expanding and populating Chestnut Hill, Woodward had some very specific preferences as to who would get in—and who would not.

Woodward picked up one principle while a student at Yale, and later shared it in a talk titled Landlord and Tenant. According to Woodward, “we used to say in a college fraternity that one fool member always reproduced another fool member. Working on the reverse of this principle, one social asset reproduces his kind in a real estate venture.”

Implementing his vision of community for the many rental homes he built in Chestnut Hill around two private schools, a country club and the Episcopal Church his father-in-law dedicated in 1889 (St. Martin-in-the-Fields)—Woodward carefully selected tenants. As planned, the well off rented the high-end homes in his version of SimCity. More modest twin houses built by Woodward were intended for the working class. But to his mild dismay (and seeming amusement) the “white collars” were attracted to his sturdy worker twins “and rented every house in sight.” Ah, well.

Map of Existing and Proposed Main Traffic Highways and Parkways Northwestern Section of Philadelphia. December 1, 1915 (PhillyHistory,org)

Detail of “Map of Existing and Proposed Main Traffic Highways and Parkways Northwestern Section of Philadelphia. December 1, 1915” (PhillyHistory,org)

Woodward put to work a second lesson learned at Yale, this one from the lectures of social scientist William Graham Sumner. The professor spoke of a new kind of American citizen, “The Forgotten Man”—“dependable, self-respecting, and quite unexciting.” According to Sumner:

He works, he votes, generally he prays — but he always pays — yes, above all, he pays. He does not want an office; his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies. He keeps production going on. He contributes to the strength of parties. He is flattered before election. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He may grumble some occasionally to his wife and family, but he does not frequent the grocery or talk politics at the tavern. Consequently, he is forgotten. He is a commonplace man. He gives no trouble. He excites no admiration.

Woodward relished his success at having created a community of 180 families where the folks with the lowest incomes turned out to be “exactly the people who pay their bills and seldom complain.”

Plus they were all White. And Protestant.

Woodward never rented to minorities: Italians, African Americans or Jews. In 1920, in “Landlord and Tenant” he proudly said so: “I have consistently refused to rent a house to anyone only because he happened to have the price. I have always inquired into antecedents. I have never taken a Jewish family or allowed one to be taken as a subtenant.” Other ethnics need not apply, either.

The legacy of exclusion in Chestnut Hill became an operating principle that stuck. In 1960, Chestnut Hill insider Barbara Rex broke free and “used fiction to unmask what she saw as inequities and injustices.”  Rex described her community as “all-white, privileged, prejudiced, Protestant, aristocratic Philadelphia society, where exclusion was a beast that struck down the weak, unfit, or unwary.” In her novel Vacancy on India Street, Rex wrote of the deep worry about outsiders moving in:

Connie could not conceive of Joe Setteventi strolling around Flora’s yard, the stump of a cigar in his red face, and Mrs. Setteventi waving from the bay window. The Setteventi children were cat lovers, carried cats around in their arms all day. Now the birds would never come back.

‘Well, at least they are not Jews,’ said Connie’s friend. ‘You’re just as glad as I am we don’t have Jews on India Street! …Look what’s happened on Franklin Street. They’ve got Jews over there, three in a row. … Nobody lives on Franklin Street anymore.’

As for African-Americans, according to Rex, “no negro has ever so much as attempted to violate the special domain” of the neighborhood. “Houses come up for sale in the community, but it simply would not occur to a negro to apply.” Although one of Rex’s characters, Clayton Cruikshank, “had defiled his sisters memory by daring to sell her house to a Negro.” But Cruikshank wasn’t playing straight. He “had been seen drunk on India Street on Christmas morning, wearing a woman’s hat.”

There goes the neighborhood.

Chestnut Hill’s legacy? Attractive, well-built homes in a leafy, planned community built of Wissahickon schist, cemented with bigotry, engineered for consistency, complacency and comfort. And definitely not for everybody.

So, again: recognizing and remembering makes all the sense in the world. But why a celebration?

[Additional Sources Include: David R. Contosta, “George Woodward, Philadelphia Progressive,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 111: 3 (July 1987) and David R. Contosta, A Philadelphia Family, The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).]

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The Zigzag Drama of a Memorial Day Monument

Colored Soldiers Memorial - Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue - Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (PhillyHistory.org)

Colored Soldiers Memorial – [original location] Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue – Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (PhillyHistory.org)

“All monuments have a message,” writes Dell Upton in Commemoration in America, “they direct us not simply to remember, but to remember in a certain light.

That’s the first of Upton’s “three rules of thumb for monument-building,” principles especially useful in explaining the zigzag drama of Philadelphia’s All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, dedicated eighty-two years ago today at one of the most off-the-beaten-track places in all of Fairmount Park.

Upton tells us that monuments “interpret the subjects they honor for an intended audience: people who are thought to need the message.” By installing this piece on Landsdowne Drive behind Memorial Hall and not permitting it at the intended public place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, its message was blunted and stunted; its audience disrespected.

Upton’s second rule of thumb is further revealing: “Monuments always say more about the people, times and places of their creation then they do about the people, times and places they honor.”

On May 30, 1934, if this monument had been dedicated where it was intended, Philadelphia’s Art Jury (the predecessor of the Art Commission) would have made a definitive declaration. By denying that site, and hiding the memorial in one of the farther recesses of the Park, we see a declaration of another kind.


All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, 1934. J. Otto Schweitzer, sculptor. (Wikimedia)

“If a Negro is fit to fight and die for his country on the battlefield then no site is too great for a war memorial,” claimed a contemporary news story. But racial equality in the American Armed Forces was still 14 years off in 1934. Even at the start of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt still worried that the “intermingling of White and Colored personnel” would be a “new social experiment” that might “confuse the issue of prompt preparedness.” By 1948, when President Harry S. Truman finally issued Executive Order 9981 integrating the Armed Forces, the memorial’s move from banishment was still 46 years off.

Can Upton’s third rule of thumb help us understand why? “Monuments are almost always promoted by interested parties who claim to offer ‘the nation’s gratitude.’ By setting a monument in a public space, the builders claim to speak to everyone. This is a fundamental, necessary fiction of monuments,” he writes, “but it is a fiction.”

Ironically, memorials commemorate facts by employing fiction. Between, and rising above, six very representative African-American servicemen on the front of this memorial is an allegorical figure of “Justice” holding a pair of wreaths signifying “Honor” and “Reward.” On the back are four additional, equally unreal human figures. On the left is War” with a shield and “Liberty” with torch and tiara. On the right are “Peace” and “Plenty.” All are abstract allegories, idealistic personifications of classical attributes. All are unflinchingly represented by Anglo-Saxon Caucasian females, idealistic spokesfigures for the same authorities who kept this memorial out of the public view for six long decades.

In 1994, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors was refurbished, rededicated and finally reinstalled—this time on Logan Circle—a place of prominence and respect.

[Sources include: Bill Duhart, “Monument to Black soldiers may get its due, 67 years late,” The Philadelphia Tribune, December 24, 1993; Peter Landry, “Belated But Monumental Move Sixty Years Later, A Memorial To Black Soldiers Will Go On The Parkway,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1994.]

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The Center City Conflagration of 1897

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (PhillyHistory.org)

Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphians couldn’t imagine their city in ruins. But the fire of January 26, 1897 provided a pretty good idea of how that looked and felt.

That Tuesday morning, a fire started in the basement bakery of Hanscom Brothers, 1309-1317 Market Street, at 6:45 am. A porter sweeping out an upper story room saw smoke and “dashed into the street, calling ‘Fire!’” and a watchman at the corner “rung in an alarm.”

In the panic, “someone bethought himself of the two bakers,” still inside and unconscious, and a pair of Hanscom employees “descended through the smoke and dragged the half-suffocated men out.”

What began as a “little tongue of flame” was soon “caught…by the winds that whirl about City Hall, and fanned…into a pillar of fire” destroying not only the 6-story building, the home of Hanscom, Dennett’s Café and Hirsh’s Umbrella Factory, but also 59 other buildings between 13th and Juniper Streets, Market and Filbert Streets.

“It was a fearful morning to fight a fire,” reported the Inquirer. “The thermometer was near zero, and the first line of hose, as it was unreeled, burst and covered everything surrounding with water that turned to ice the moment it struck. The flames gained on the firemen, and alarm after alarm was rung in, until every engine in the city was hurrying to the scene. Thousands of workers on their way to their places of business were attracted by the fire, and the streets in the vicinity speedily became impassable from the curious and surging throng.”

A conflagration of “spectacular grandeur” that “defied the resources of the city.”

“Firemen worked under the most discouraging conditions, the hosemen and laddermen taking their lives into their hands as they crawled cautiously up the ice coated rungs of their ladders, dragging after them their lines of hose, which were encased in a solid covering of ice. The streets around the fire were coated with ice… The fronts of the surrounding buildings upon which the water had been played presented a beautiful spectacle as they flashed back from their icy walls the rays of the morning sun.”

At time, the smoke “would descend to the street in almost [a] solid cloud, and the firemen were driven back, gasping for breath. … Building after building along Market Street crumbled beneath the touch of the fiery tongues of flame enwrapping them, and when the rear wall of the Hirsch Building fell into Silver Street, the fire leapt across and entered the seven-story double iron building fronting on Filbert Street.” Soon the entire block was “honeycombed by fire.”

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (PhillyHistory.org)

Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (PhillyHistory.org)

“The firemen feared that the great Wanamaker establishment would go… Mr. Wanamaker himself had arrived early, and, dismissing the greater number of his 3,500 employees, marshaled under his own direction the fire force of the store.” At 8am, when “the Market Street front of the Hirsh building fell into the street…a torrent of fire rolled out and flowed across… and broke against Wanamaker’s. The building shriveled and blistered beneath the fierce deluge, and a tongue of flame shot up from the high clock tower at the corner of Thirteenth and Market Streets.

Much to the dismay of the firefighters—and Wanamaker himself—“the jets from the hose could not reach the flames in the tower and the entire building seemed threatened with destruction.” Just as the chimes in the burning clock were striking 8:15, the “entire tower toppled over and fell with the great crash.” This “proved the salvation of the building, for the firemen were then able to fight the heart of the fire, and soon had it under control…”

“By 5 o’clock the carpenters had completed the temporary repairs, and then they raised large American flag on ruins of the clock tower” which was quickly rebuilt.

To the west, City Hall survived, although the heat was so intense employees couldn’t “bear to stand within five feet of the windows, which, to a one, cracked or broke.

In the days to follow, the ruins were compelling to visit and dangerous to navigate. And with each “severe gust of wind” the “great bulging wall of the Hirsh building… was seen to be swaying dangerously. To all appearances it was on the point of crashing outward….  A shower of loose bricks was whirled off of the crumbling wall….”

The fire was the “worst in a generation.” But so long as there were no casualties due directly to the fire, the loss of buildings seemed welcomed by the Press. “Their destruction will probably be to the ultimate good, if newer and more modern buildings are erected on their sites.”

And, in a historical blink of an eye, new buildings that addressed the needs of the burgeoning city in the new century appeared in their places.

[Sources: “Big Philadelphia Fire,” The New York Times, January 27, 1897; and in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Many Buildings A Prey to the Flames,” January 27, 1897; “Thousands at the Scene of the Fire,” January 28, 1897; “Tottering Walls Retard the Work,” January 29, 1897; and “New Buildings Soon To Be Erected,” March 12, 1897.]

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Market Street: Fodder for Literary Legends

Market Street, East from 13th Street, ca. 1910 (PhillyHistory.org)

Market Street, East from 13th Street, ca. 1910 (PhillyHistory.org)

Do Philadelphia streets have distinct personalities? We know they do. Are they potent enough to stand out in the literary imagination? In 1920, Christopher Morley thought so.

Morley considered how Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Henry James might have sung the praises of (or, in the case of Poe, bemoaned fears about) a Philadelphia thoroughfare.

But which street had the requisite robustness to nourish literary posterity? Which embodied stature, range, resilience and vitality? Morley’s choice, in Travels in Philadelphiawas Market Street.

“I see the long defile of Market street,” Morley imagined Whitman writing. “And the young libertad offering to shine my shoes (I do not have my shoes shined, for am I not as worthy without them shined? I put it to you, Camerado.)” …

“In a window I see a white-coated savan cooking griddle cakes, And thinking to myself, I am no better than he is, / And he is no better than I am, / And no one is any better than anyone else / (O the dignity of labor, / Particularly the labor that is done by other people; / Let other people do the work, is my manifesto, / Leave me to muse about it) / Work is a wonderful think, and a steady job is a wonderful thing, / And the pay envelope is a wonderful institution, / And I love to meditate on all the work that there is to be done, / And how other people are doing it. / Reader, whether in Kanada or Konshocken, / I strike up for you. / This is my song for you, and a good song, I’ll say so.”

(You didn’t really expect Morley to mount an earnest channeling of Whitman, did you?)

He imagined the return of Poe: “During the whole of a dull and oppressive afternoon, when the very buildings that loomed about me seemed to lean forward threateningly as if to crush me with their stony mass, I had been traveling in fitful jerks in a Market street trolley; and at length found myself, as the sullen shade of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy tower of the City Hall. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”

And for Henry James (known for his long sentences) Morley reveled in a few of his own making: “Thorncliff was thinking, as he crossed the, to him, intolerably interwoven confusion of Market street, that he had never—unless it was once in a dream which he strangely associated in memory with an overplus of antipasto—never consciously, that is, threaded his way so baffling a predicament of traffic, and it was not until halted, somewhat summarily, though yet kindly, by a blue arm which he after some scrutiny assessed as belonging to a traffic patrolmen, that he bethought himself sufficiently to inquire, in a manner a little breathless still, though understood at once by the kindly envoy of order as the natural mood of one inextricably tangled in mind and not yet wholly untangled in body, but still intact when the propulsive energy of the motortruck had been, by a rapid shift of years and actuating machinery, transformed to a rearward movement, where he might be and how.”

“’This is Market street,’ said the officer. ‘Market street! Ah, thank you.'”

“Market street! Could it be, indeed? His last conscious impression had been of some shop—a milliner’s, perhaps?—on, probably, Walnut street where he had been gazing with mild reproach at the price tickets upon the hats displayed… So this was Market street. …

“Market street? How interesting.”

Yes, Morley did think of Market Street as especially interesting.

In another piece, this time entirely of his own creation and credit, Morley considered a midnight scene: “Market street is still lively. A ‘dance orchard’ emits its patrons down a long stair to the street. Down they come, gaily laughing. The male partners are all either gobs, who love dancing even more than ice cream soda; or youths with tilted straw hats of course weave, with legs that bend backward most oddly below the knee, very tightly and briefly trousered. … The girls all wear very extensive hats, and are notably pretty. ‘Which way do we go?’ is the first question on reaching the street. It is usually the way to the nearest soda fountain.”

When it comes to Market Street one hundred years later, what do we experience? Which way do we go?


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The Station-House Murder of Riley Bullock

Police, Fire and Patrol Stations, 20th and Federal Streets. (PhillyHistory.org)

Police, Fire and Patrol Stations, 20th and Federal Streets. (PhillyHistory.org)

A day after riots shook the city and a few hours after the Polyclinic incident, patrolmen Robert Ramsey and John Schneider returned to their station house at 20th and Federal before hitting the streets. Within minutes they encountered Riley Bullock, a 38-year old African-American who lived at 2032 Annin Street.

Bullock would soon be dead.

According to one account, Bullock “was being attacked by a crowd of white men when the two policemen came to his rescue and arrested him.” According to another, Ramsey and Schneider “arrested Bullock while he was going on an errand and committing no crime…” They struggled with Bullock, “who wielded a razor with such telling effect that Ramsey’s coat was cut.”

No one challenged that Ramsey and Schneider severely beat Bullock, who the Inquirer described as “a negro rioter.” According to one witness: they “beat him with all their might and force for about two squares until he reached the station.” Another witness, a Mrs. Williams, “testified that she saw Ramsay and Schneider beating Bullock at the corner of Titan and Point Breeze Avenue; that they held both of Bullock’s arms up as he walked … Schneider was beating him with a black jack and Ramsey was beating him with the butt of a revolver…”

Then, “just as soon as they entered the station house door, she heard a shot.”

At first, police said “the bullet which ended Bullocks life was really intended for one of the white policemen…” They claimed Bullock, who was escorted into the station’s rear door, was “shot by ‘a colored man’ [who] was detected running away from the scene of the murder with a revolver in his hand.”

The story soon changed: “In their haste to open the station house door and escape the threatening mob that followed them,” Officer Ramsey slipped on a step and his “revolver was accidentally discharged and Bullock was struck, receiving injuries that resulted in his death.”

Point Breeze Avenue entrance of the 20th and Federal Street Police Station. October 19, 1949. (PhillyHistory,org)

Point Breeze Avenue entrance of the 20th and Federal Street Police Station. October 19, 1949. (PhillyHistory,org)

Lieutenant Harry Meyers issued the statement: “As they came up the steps of the police station on the Point Breeze Avenue side, Ramsey, who still had his gun in his hand to keep the pressing crowd at bay, suddenly slipped. The revolver was accidentally discharged and the bullet struck Bullock in the back, piercing his lungs.” Then Meyers added: “Ramsey did not shoot the negro because of any malice resulting from the killing of Policeman McVey by Negroes.” And then Meyers “ordered all newspaper men from the station house and forbade them to return.”

In the following days, “delegations of Negro clergymen and business men” attempted to meet with the mayor and police officials to send the message that “Afro-Americans of this city are tired of legalized murder.” They “put responsibility for the rioting squarely up to the police of the 20th and Federal Streets station, whom they charged with showing sympathy for the white residents of the turbulent area.” They and others organized “The Colored Protective Association” which retained attorney G. Edward Dickerson “to prosecute Policeman Ramsey,” held at Moyamensing Prison.

Dickerson anticipated the testimony of two African-American policemen in the station house when Ramsey shot Bullock. One officer had even “helped put out the fire which the pistol shot started in Bullock’s clothes” and both had “heard Policeman Ramsey acknowledge that he shot” Bullock. But in court they weren’t reliable witnesses. One of the officers even “swore he never saw Ramsey before.”

2032 Annin Street. The home of Riley Bullock in 1918. (Google Streetview)

2032 Annin Street, home of Riley Bullock, killed by police July 29, 1918. (Google Streetview)

Testimony from the Coroner’s Physician proved the most damaging: “The ball entered into the small part of Bullock’s back and took a downward course through the pelvis [indicating] …that the bullet could not have been accidentally fired when Ramsey slipped going up the steps.” Judge Henry N. Wessel refused bail for Ramsey, who remained in his cell at Moymensing. Wessel criticized the police for their apparent looseness in the investigation and expanded it to include “every policeman who was in the station house at the time of the shooting.”

A month later, Lieutenant Meyers would be transferred to the Fishtown station at Girard and Montgomery Avenues, and a week after that “the entire force of policemen at the 17th District Station House” was transferred. “May the good Lord have mercy on the neighborhood to which this king of thugs has been assigned,” editorialized The Tribune about Meyers’ move.

Now we have a mixed force of colored and white officers,” they noted. “For the first time in six weeks colored children have been able to play in front of their homes…colored people can walk home and feel safe.”

Ramsey and Schneider lost their jobs and went to trial, but would never serve time for the murder of Riley Bullock. Two years later, they were tried and found “not guilty.” The jury had deliberated for a mere 30 minutes.

[Sources: “Race Riots Grow In Fury As Police Fail To Curb Mobs, Negro Is Slain at Door of Station House,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 30, 1918; “Race Riot Area Dry; Detain Policeman In Shooting Probe,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1918; “Policeman is Held after Rioter’s Death,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1918; “Meyers Kicked Out 17th District,” by G. Grant Williams, The Philadelphia Tribune, August 31, 1918; “Entire 17th District Police Transferred,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 7, 1918; “Judge Rebukes Police For Killing Of Negro,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1918; “Coroner Holds Patrolman for Grand Jury,” by G. Grant Williams, The Philadelphia Tribune, September 21, 1918; “Schneider Is In The Jail House Now; Prisoner Held Bullock While Ramsey Shot Him,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 2, 1918; “The Colored Protective Association,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 18, 1918; “Ex-Policemen Freed,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 16, 1920.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 herehere, here and here

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Aftermath of the Race Riots of 1918: The Station House at 20th and Federal

Engine House #24 - 17th District, Police Station, 20th and Point Breeze Avenue, November 9, 1896. (PhillyHistory.org)

17th District, Police Station and Engine House #24, 20th and Point Breeze Avenue and Federal Streets, November 9, 1896. (PhillyHistory.org)

After a weekend of rioting the likes of which Philadelphia had never seen, families of the deceased planned funerals for two of the men killed in the mayhem. Grieving for their fallen 24-year-old patrolman, the McVey’s would have Requiem Mass sung at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, 24th and Fitzwater streets. “Thousands of persons, hours before the services started, began assembling along the route of the funeral procession,” reported the Inquirer. Lieutenant Harry Meyers of the 17th Police District at 20th and Federal Streets would send a 30-man “guard of honor” and largest floral wreath. Six officers from the station stepped up as pallbearers. They’d attempt to console McVey’s bereft mother, who responded: “I have but one wish…to live long enough to see my poor boy’s death avenged. He didn’t deserve to meet with such an end, to be killed by the bullet of a negro.”

Even though he was on vacation, one of those pallbearers-to-be, patrolman John Schneider, reported for duty that Monday, the day after the death of Thomas McVey and two days before his funeral. The streets of South Philadelphia still seethed with a toxic mix of mob violence and martial rule, which would prove nearly fatal for African American men—even those going about their business.

That morning, Preston H. Lewis visited his brother, hoping “to find a place to move because the family with whom he lived, at 2739 Titan Street, was moving on account of the riot,” reported the Inquirer. “He was met on the streets by Officers Ramsay and Schneider” who stopped and frisked Lewis and “finding a small pocket knife, beat him about the head inflicting about 20 wounds.” In fact, Ramsay and Schneider beat Lewis “until he was semiconscious” before sending him to the Polyclinic Hospital at 18th and Lombard Streets. There, with his face and head “a mass of bruises” Lewis “was laid on a cot to await his turn to have his wounds dressed.”

But Schneider wasn’t done. He “walked into the hospital…went to the Accident Ward, and without a word of warning, knocked down Miss Applegate, one of the nurses in attendance” and began to beat Lewis with his fists and then with his black jack. “Lewis was knocked unconscious…”

William Watson, an African-American officer from another district “who was on guard in the hospital drew his gun and threatened to shoot Schneider before he would stop beating Lewis” but “several white officers present wrenched the gun from his hand…” The head nurse telephoned the police of the 19th Police District—not Schneider’s own stationhouse—for assistance. Two officers arrived, resident physician William M. Cooperage would later testify: “I tried to stop [Schneider] but could not, and it took the efforts of three other policemen to drag him from the helpless victim.”

Schneider would later be charged and tried, but that day, right after the incident at the Polyclinic Hospital, Schneider went back to work, rejoining his partner, Robert Ramsey, at the 17th District Station house. From 20th and Federal, Schneider and Ramsey would return to the streets, looking for trouble.

[Sources: “Pays Fine Tribute to Victim of Riot – Rev. Francis A. Brady Praises Policeman McVay for Dying at Duty,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 2, 1918; “White Policeman Clubs a Race Riot Victim on Hospital Cot,” The Philadelphia Tribune, August 10, 1918; “Policeman Tried for Brutal Action,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1918; G. Grant Williams, “Cop Schneider on Trial,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 7, 1918; “Echo of Race Riot – Policeman Schneider to Be Tried for Deadly Assault,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1918.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 here, here and here. Next time: Schneider and Ramsey encounter Riley Bullock.

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The Riot Continues: Targeting African-Americans on Titan and Stillman Streets

1522 S. Stillman Street. Home of Mrs. Eleanor Grant in 1918. (Google Streetview)

1522 S. Stillman Street. Home of Mrs. Eleanor Grant in 1918. (Google Streetview)

“The fighting spread yesterday,” reported the Inquirer, to include a giant swath of South Philadelphia: Twentieth to Thirtieth streets, Lombard to Dickinson. Pawnbrokers were forbidden to sell “weapons of any kind until further notice” and saloons were ordered closed. Streets were roped off and police stationed at corners, allowing access to residents only.

Still, on Monday July 30, 1918, the violence grew more intense. “With the coming of night the rioting continued unabated, while the police made feeble and frantic efforts to scatter the throngs which gathered in the streets armed with every sort of weapon. Some even carried hatchets but the most frequently used instrument was a blackjack. Hundreds carried bricks with jagged edges.”

Frustrated, Mayor Thomas Smith “confessed that he did not know how order was going to be restored.”

“One of the most serious acts of the infuriated white mob took place at the home of Henry Huff at 2743 Titan Street” (near 28th and Wharton) the man accused of killing police officer Thomas McVey. While Huff sat in a cell in Moyamensing Prison, about fifty men, “many of them neighbors and friends of the dead bluecoat,” reported the Inquirer, “marched into Titan Street, armed with clubs, knives, bricks and revolvers.”

“With wild cries they descended upon the Huff home. The door had been locked and the windows barred. Inside were two women and three children, said to be the children of Huff. … They smashed the [door] panels with axes, tore open the windows and climbed in, one after the other. … Meanwhile the women and children inside the house at fled through the rear gate to the home of neighbors. Once inside, the vengeance seeking crowd started to wreck the place. A piano was shoved through the windows and hurled by willing hands into the centre of the street. Beds followed from the upper floors; chairs were tossed through windows, carrying away sash and glass. Everything removable in the house was sent flying into the street where it was made into a huge pile. Matches were applied to oil soaked mattresses and in an instant the furniture was in flames. Inside the house other members of the raiding party had started a fire.”

When there was nothing left to destroy at the Huff residence, the mob turned to other houses occupied by African-American families. “Mobs of white men” rampaged, wrecking interiors house after house. Police showed up, according to new reports. “only after the damage had been done.”

“Hundreds of colored residents are leaving the danger zone for places of safety,” police told reporters. “Several men were found fleeing clad in women’s garments.”

Four blocks to the southeast of the attack on the Huff home, someone thought a shot might have been fired from a window of 1522 South Stillman Street, the two-story home of Eleanor Grant, an African American woman. “Within a few minutes a struggling, fighting throng had forced its way into the Grant home and swept everything before it.”

2th Street - South of Dickinson Street. National Alloy Company, May 10, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

25th Street – South of Dickinson Street. National Alloy Company, May 10, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

“The crowd became a mob of five hundred within a short time.” A dozen policemen “were powerless before the swaying mass of bodies locked in deadly struggle. Every window in the house at 1522 Stillman street was broken. The furniture was cast into the street and broken with axes. From the Grant home the crowd entered houses of five other colored residents, repeating their actions. The street was soon filled with broken furniture and glassware. Half an hour later a mounted squad of twelve policemen arrived and, by sending their horses directly into the crowd managed to break it up.”

Soon after, William Duberry, 33, an African-American resident who lived nearby at 1511 South Stillman Street, returned home. “A crowd of white men who still lingered in defiance of the police” spotted Duberry, chased him through his house, then through the alley behind Stillman Street and across a nearby lot to Dickinson Street. With the mob “at his heels…Duberry ran into the office of the National Alloy Company and sought refuge behind the desk of the president of the company, Henry P. Miller. The crowd demanded admittance, and as Mr. Miller went to the door it gave way before the pushing of the crowd. Duberry managed to evade capture…by scaling the fence.”

But by the time police arrived, the mob had caught and was “pummeling” the now unconscious Duberry. “With their revolvers the policeman held the crowd at bay while they put Duberry into an automobile and took him to St. Agnes hospital” where he was admitted with internal injuries and a fractured skull.

[Source: “Race Riots Grow In Fury As Police Fail To Curb Mobs,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 30, 1918.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 herehere and here

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