Norwich, NY Chenango County Poorhouse Fire, May 1890

Chenango County Insane Asylum.jpg


The Chenango County Poor House Calamity.

Later Returns From the Scene of the Disaster More Than Double the Number of Victims – Fierce Battles With Wandering Lunatics -- One Man Shot.

{Special to the Eagle.}
NORWICH, N. Y., May 9.
Later reports from the scene of the Chenango County Poorhouse fire indicate at least thirty people perished in the flames. Keeper MAINWARING, who was so completely dazed by the shock of the calamity, estimates the loss of property at $30,000 and the loss of lives at thirty.
The coroner holds an inquest to-day at this place over the remains of thirteen partially burned dead bodies. Two lunatics were captured late last night on Church Hill after a long and desperate fight. They had armed themselves with pickaxes and the sheriff was obliged to shoot one of them before they could be secured. The sickening stench of the burning bodies is very apparent in the neighborhood of the burned building. The origin of the fire is known to have been as follows: The pauper woman with the pipe in her dress who died at 8 P. M., before the fire began, left an old mattress, which was thrown in the yard and burned. The sparks from that were not entirely extinguished, and as a result before the keeper knew it the house was in flames.
One of the queer incidents of the fire was this: An old, decrepit woman, named ANN LINGEE, crawled along the ridge pole of the poorhouse and fell with a crash into the keeper's sleeping room, thus giving the first alarm of the fire. About thirty of the paupers spent the night in an open field, with nothing to cover them except a few sheets and blankets, their clothing having been burned. The farmers of the neighborhood, thinking that their lives were in danger, bound one poor lunatic to a tree with bed ropes, where he was found in a perishing condition by the Sheriff's posse. The Board of County Supervisors are now in session for the purpose of providing suitable accommodations for the paupers and for selecting a new site for the county buildings. About 60 lunatics will be taken to the Utica Asylum to-morrow morning, being the largest delegation that institution ever received.
Workmen are busy uncovering the debris at the fire, and are discovering body after body. It will take days, and perhaps weeks, to know definitely the number burned, as a great many are now wandering in the woods about the poor house. Keeper HALL, of the insane department, had a very narrow escape from death, having one leg burned off. One lunatic, who has always imagined himself Keeper Hall, called at the house of ex-Assemblyman S. W. BERRY, who lives some miles from the county buildings, about 1 o'clock at night. He had a hatchet in his hand and said that he (Berry) had run things around Preston and Pharsania long enough and that he had come to annihilate him. After a long and desperate fight, BERRY, with the help of his farm hands, secured the lunatic with ropes and chains and sent him back to Norwich.

The Unprotected Condition of the Asylum Was Not Remedied.
{By the United Press.}
ALBANY, N. Y., May 9.
State Commissioner in Lunacy GOODWIN T. BROWN made a statement yesterday of the condition of the Chenango Asylum which was burned Wednesday night. A dispatch from Superintendent BABCOCK announced the calamity to the board but did not state whether any lives were lost.
MR. BROWN says that DR. MacDONALD and he examined the asylum in November last, and found that is was a two story and attic frame building, separated from the pauper house by a 12 foot road. There was absolutely no protection against fire, and the means of escape were so meager that if the fire started in the asylum there would not be a chance of escaping for a single inmate. There were in the asylum at that time forty-four patients – fourteen men and thirty women. At night they were locked in their cells with slat doors, a padlock being used. Twelve women were locked up in the attic in small rooms and all the people there were to take charge of those insane were the keeper, his wife and a hired girl. There was no night watchman. The commission recommended immediate changes and especially in protection against fire. Three months elapsed and in March the keeper wrote to say that the Board of Supervisors did not deem it wise to expend any money since the State Care bill would probably pass. The only change that was made at the instance of the Board was the appointment of another woman to aid in keeping the women patients. Late yesterday afternoon the Lunacy Commission telegraphed to the superintendent to transport all of his insane patients at once to the Utica Asylum where they will be quartered.

Brooklyn Eagle New York City 1890-05-09