Q: Your recent article on the St. Peter’s Cathedral fire in 1912 sparked vague memories of an even worse fire across the street at a boys’ and girls’ school, where several children died. Could you please refresh my memory with some details?
Carol Myers, of Belleville
A: “At half-past 10 on Saturday night, death in its most horrible form visited the Institute of the Immaculate Conception and touched with its icy fingers the cheeks of many of its inmates and closed their eyes in eternal slumber.”
So began an account in the Milwaukee Journal of what on Jan. 5, 1884, would became the most ghastly conflagration in Belleville’s history. Parents and other residents had to watch in horror as dozens of children, some trapped in locked rooms, stood at their windows, screaming for help.
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After what must have felt like an eternity of agonizing terror, many of the 70 eventually would be rescued, but many would be burned to death while still others took a fatal plunge from the four-story building in desperation. The final death tally nearly rivaled the Hindenburg disaster: 26 dead, 21 of them students, including Gertrude Strunck from Germany.
“The scenes were sickening,” the Milwaukee paper reported. “Sister Manessa (who had jumped) was found by Dr. Kohl impaled upon a picket of the fence in front.”
“It was a terrible sight,” the Oshkosh, Wis., Daily News reported the following day. “At times, the searchers would find two or three charred masses huddled close together, seemingly seeking protection in one another from the advancing and terrible flames.”
The school’s leader died with her charges after a quarter century of overseeing what locally became known as the Young Ladies’ Academy.
“Sister Superior Mary Jerome perished at her post,” the Milwaukee paper reported. “Nearly 12 hours subsequently, her incinerated remains were found and their identity established by the peculiar texture of the underwear.”
It was a most grisly chapter in the history of what had become a shining star among the city’s educational institutions. In 1857, Alton Bishop Peter Baltes began a collection that would raise nearly $8,500 to build a convent and schoolrooms for girls. Two years later, Sister Mary Jerome and two other members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived from Milwaukee to start teaching at the new school, which was situated approximately where the St. Elizabeth Hospital emergency department is today.
“The boarding school ... offered every advantage of similar institutions,” A.S. and A.A. Wilderman wrote in volume two of their “Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois.” “The course of study pursued embraced the English, German and French languages, with all useful and ornamental branches taught. Many ladies of Belleville and vicinity received their musical education in that historic institution.”
Just four years after it opened, the school already was bursting at the seams. A huge addition was built, expanding its size from 100 feet by 40 feet to 180 by 100 — and four stories high. But soon after the sisters and students had settled down from the joyous Christmas celebrations of two weeks before, that bastion of learning turned into a death chamber.
At about 10:30 p.m. Jan. 5, August Love, a watchman at the nearby Harrison Machine Works, reportedly spotted flames through one of the school’s windows. He raced across the street and began pounding on the convent door, but, according to stories told later, he was thought to be a drunk and told to go away. So he ran back to his workplace to ring an alarm bell before running to a friend’s house for more help.
It was the first of many delays and mistakes that would compound the tragedy. Before the fire department could arrive, a crowd of residents, alerted by the bell, had gathered to assist.
“Hundreds of men were ready to rush into the place to rescue the inmates, but the doors were all locked and so solidly constructed that all ordinary attempts to break them in were futile,” a New York Times account reported on Jan. 7.
Finally, James Sturt found a “ponderous bar,” and a dozen men used it to batter down the door.
“A rush was made up stairs, and many of the inmates were led through the blinding smoke to the ground in safety. But to the horror of the rescuers, it was discovered that in accordance with a rule of the convent, the bedrooms had all been locked. The battering ram was brought to bear upon these doors also, but ... the gallant band were obliged to abandon a large number of the unfortunate inmates to their fate.”
At least 30 minutes after the fire was first seen, the fire department arrived, far too late to be of much help. In those years, it had no ladders to reach the “women and babes struggling and strangling and suffocating but a few feet away,” according to the Milwaukee paper.
“Soon the forms of women and children appeared at the windows, their shrieks and piteous appeals for help heard above the roaring flames and falling timbers. They retreated, but returned to the windows, gazing out into the street where only upturned faces greeted their appeals. Then, they began to throw themselves out.”
Young May Campbell stood at the window above the main entrance, begging the men below to save her. As the flames approached and intensified, she stepped onto the windowsill.
“At this juncture a man ran upon the steps and shouted for her to jump. ‘I will catch you,’ he added, and with a hope born of desperation she threw herself headlong in the direction of his outstretched arms. She struck upon the steps and was carried across to the harvester works in the last pangs of dissolution.”
Fortunately, there were heroic stories of successful rescues. Instead of jumping, Sister Galacia, who had been sleeping on the second floor, bolted from her room “like Pallas from the brow of Jove” and gathered several of the students around her before leading them through the burning embers down to the basement and out a rear door. But more than a third of the sisters and students would perish in the fire, which had begun in the basement furnace and quickly spread through the wooden floor above it.
“The scene this morning (Monday) is one of dread and loathsome in the last degree,” the Milwaukee paper reported. “The bodies and portions of dead bodies recovered from the embers are loaded into wagons and on shuttles covered with tarpaulins. As the labors of searchers are rewarded, the parents and friends of the missing hasten to the spot in the hope that they will be able to identify it.”
The school was rebuilt on the same site and dedicated anew on Dec. 15, 1884, but, according to the Wildermans, it “never regained the prestige it had had.” It continued until Notre Dame Academy opened in 1925 at 6301 W. Main St.
What famous explorer published a nude photo of his mistress in one of his travel books?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Through the mid-1800s, John Matthews became known as “The Soda Fountain King.” Born in England, he learned how to make fountain machinery as a teenager while apprenticing for a local inventor. But after moving to America when he was 24, his business took off when he realized that he could make carbonic acid, the essential ingredient in soda water, by combining sulfuric acid and marble dust. Marble proved a cheap ingredient because he could find it at many building sites. It is said that Matthews recovered enough marble scraps from the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to make 25 million gallons of soda water. Matthew also created a fountain apparatus that sat on a pharmacist’s counter, which led to its quick popularity. If you’d like to learn more, see Donald Yates’ in-depth biography at www.fohbc.org/PDF_Files/JohnMatthews_DYates.pdf.