Cincinnati, OH Printing Factory Disaster, May 1885








Seventeen Persons Roasted To Death By A Fire In A Printing Office -- The Building As Usual Proves A Trap.

By Telegraph to the Gazette.
Cincinnati, May 21. -- At a fire this afternoon in SULLIVAN'S printing establishment, 19 Sixth street, eight girls and women jumped from the fifth story to the sidewalk, and five of them are dead.

Cincinnati, May 21. -- This city has had its share of shocking accidents, but never has one happened where such a pitiful loss of life has occurred as that of today with so little occasion. In less than fifteen minutes after the fatal blunder began sixteen or seventeen persons perished. Looking over the scene after the event it is plain that every life could have been easily saved, short as the time was. There were displays of thoughtful heroism that saved two llives but one of the heroes lost his own life.
At 1:30 o'clock this afternoon MR. J. A. GREEN, city editor of the Times-Star, upon going up the stairway to his office saw dense clouds of smoke issuing from the rear windows of the building numbers 19 and 21 West Sixth street, and immediately telephoned to the fire department. An alarm brought the engines almost instantly and as the firemen could reach the building from the front and rear it was not fifteen minutes until the fire was so much under control that Chief Engineer WISBY was able to reach the fifth or top floor, but he was too late to rescue the girls employed there and to his horror he found ten dead bodies lyings with the hands to their faces and their faces blackened and distorted. The chief said in speaking of it: "The house is not burned out; in fact, the fire was in the fifth story. In the smoke I found ten girls lying upon benches, tables and other things; some on the floor. Their clothing was not burned, but the skin on the backs of their hands was scorched. It was a terrible sight -- the worst I ever saw in my experience. The girls lay where they had fallen in their wild and helpless despair."
It has now been fairly ascertained that the fire started from a can of benzine on the second floor, near the elevator shaft. A boy on that floor says he heard a report and instantly the fire leaped to the elevator shaft and darted up it. The shaft reaches to the top of the building, and from the third story to the fifth it was encircled by a wooden stairway, which was the only means of access to those floors. The elevator shaft, to add to its combustibility, was encased with a thin wooden lattice work. The second floor, where the fire started, was the press room, the third the composing room, the fourth a storage and waste room, and the fifth was the folding room. As soon as the fire started, JOHN SULLIVAN, a young man, cousin of the proprietor, ran up the stairway to the fifth floor to give warning to the girls. Instantly almost he found he was too late to get them down the stairway and this his own retreat was cut off. What he did for the frightened girls could only be told by the glimpses that could be seen of him at the smoking window whence four of the girls had already leaped to their death.
J. R. KINSLEY'S and his foreman had gone to the roof of their building adjoining this on the west, and knowing that the girls were imprisoned in the floor below, they procured a rope and lowered it to the window where SULLIVAN was. He instantly grasped it and fastening one of the girls to it he helped her out of the window, and KINSLEY and SHRAEDER lowered her safely to the sidewalk. The rope was brought up. SULLIVAN again quickly fastened it to another girl and sent her down safely. The rope came a third time and as the other girls by this time were all suffocated or were afraid to vanture, SULLIVAN fastened the rope to his own body and was being lowered when as he was half way down the flames shot out of a window, burned the rope and he fell headforemost to the sidewalk in the presence of a horrified crowd of people, who had witnessed his heroism. WHen the girls were jumping from the window a large colored man heroically tried to catch them and so break the force of the fall. He nearly lost his own life in the attempt.
Within ten minutes after the fire bagan the patrol wagons were called into use to carry away the wounded and killed. As well as can be ascertained there were about fifty occupants of the building, of whom twenty or twenty-five were girls in the fifth story. The boys were on the second and third floors and this accounts for their escape. All agree that the spread of the flames was almost instantaneous. MR. KINSLEY, who ran to his upper floors in the rear when the flames were in danger of coming through his windows, found the smoke so dense that he had to crawl on the floor to reach his window and close it. All this while there was an avenue of escape which the panic stricken girls did not think of. It was an opening in the roof, which they could have reached from a bench standing beside the wall, and once on the roof, they could have reached the other buildings with perfect ease. The lack of ready access to this place lost all of these lives. The fire was almost insignificant. That wooden stairway around the elevator shaft is not burned so as to be useless or even unsafe, yet the flames seem to have perforated all the floors and to have ruined all the paper and other light combustible matter. SULLIVAN estimates his loss at $5,000 to $10,000, with an ample insurance. The loss to the buildings is slight.
The scenes at HALBIG'S undertaking establishment, where the dead bodies were taken and where friends and relatives came to identify them, were of the most painful character. In one case a policeman of Covington, identified his sisters, LIZZIE and DOLLIE HANDEL who were twins. MRS. MEIER found the body of her daughter and had to be led away from the terrible sight. MRS. LEABAN had the awful experience of finding her three daughters among the dead. The fatal list as now made up is:
ANNA BELL, aged forty-eight, wife of DAVID P. BELL, of No. 26 Lock street.
DOLLIE and LIZZIE HANDEL, twin sisters, twenty years, No. 715 Scott street, Covington.
FANNIE JONES, twenty-two years, Liberty and Freeman streets.
DELIA, KATIE and MARY LEABAN, sisters, aged twenty-three, fourteen and sixteen, respectively, No. 206 Sixth street.
KATIE LOWRY, twenty years, Newport.
LIZZIE MEIER, sixteen years, No. 345 Broadway.
ANNIE McINTYRE, twenty years, No. 90 East Sixth street.
FANNIE NORTON, thirty-four years.
KATIE and MARY PUTNAM, sisters, aged twenty-two and nineteen, respectively.
JOHN SULLIVAN, twenty-two years
No. 396 Broadway.
LILLIE WYMAN, twenty years, 88 East Fifty-first street.
The injured are:
WILL BISHOP, printer, twenty-three years, 203 Fifth street, Covington, crushed and burned, will probably die.
JOSIE HAWKES, broken leg.
EMMA PINCHBACK, Covington, internally, will probably die.
NANNIE SHEPHERD, had badly cut, Harrison street.
Already preparations are in progress for the relief of the families of the victims, most of whom were the support of dependent parents.
C. BRAUN, who had charge of the paper cutting machine in the building, located on the second floor, made the following statement:
"I was working at my machine when the fire started. It broke out at the elevator right below the dry rack, where the freshly printed sheets are hung to dry, on the second floor. When I saw the blaze I ran up the stairs as high as the fourth floor, when the flames became so hot that they drove me back, but not before I yelled to the girls not to jump out of the windows. When I got to the pavement, however, I saw the flames and smoke rushing out of the windows and the girls trying to make their escape. MRS. BELL and DOLLY and MARY HANDEL jumped, and I caught them as well as could, injuring myself by so doing. The two girls were killed outright and MRS. BELL was dreadfully injured. She died at the hospital."
JOSIE HAWKES, who was one who was saved by the rope, was badly burned on the hands and arms and by a fall just before she reached the sidewalk, broke her leg. She spoke rationally to the doctor and said she did not want to be taken home in a patrol wagon. Her wish was gratified. In answer to questions she said: "The first thing I know I found myself surrounded by smoke and smothering. The fire seemed to come up through the floor and it burned my arm and feet. I dropped on my hands and knees and crawled to the window. After a while somebody threw me a rope. I started down and would have fallen only somebody caught me."
MISS SHEPHARD jumped apparently safely to a tarpaulin held out to catch her, but she was afterward found to be injured.
MRS. LEABAN, who lost three daughters, appeared at the morgue to identify them. Her features were strained with grief, but with some gleam of hope she passed body aftere body until a sharp cry and the words, "My God, here is MARY," showed that hope had fled. In a moment her bewildered eyes found KATIE and then DELIA, and the poor woman's grief was so touching that a spectator kindly led her to the office, where her disconsolate moans could be heard far into the street.
The brother of FANNIE JONES recognized his sister by two finger rings. "It will kill mother, too," he cried, as the tears ran down his cheeks and he too was led away from the ghastly sight.
MR. N. CALDWELL, the fire escape inspector, says when he inspected the building more than a year ago it was not occupied as a factory above the second floor and hence he could not require a fire escape to be attached to the building. He had never been notified of the change in manner of occupancy of the building and hence there had been no fire escape ordered. The SULLIVANS were quite young printers, beginning only a short time ago with no capital. They had used economy and being well trained in the art had increased their business until they occupied nearly the entire building.

The Daily Gazette Fort Wayne Indiana 1885-05-22