Philadelphia, PA Insane Asylum Fire, Feb 1885

Philadelphia PA Insane Asylum Burned.jpg Philadelphia PA Insane Asylum circa 1861.jpg Philadelphia PA Insane Asylum Fire.jpg




Philadelphia, February 13. -- Eighteen raving maniacs were burned to death in the insane department of the Blackley alms house on the west side of the Schuylkill river tonight. The conflagration is the most horrible event of the kind ever known in the history of the city. The fire originated in the wing of an old building of the insane department which fronts towards the river and directly east of the main building of the alms house. This wing is 145 feet front and sixty deep, and is connected on the south with the main building of the old structure of the insane department, which runs south 400 feet to a similar wing, and in which the fire occurred. In this north building where the fire broke out, there were sixty separate cells for violent patients, twenty on each floor. In addition to this there was a large room on each of the floors in which cots for twelve men were placed, all of which were occupied when the fire broke out. On the second floor, oppositte the central cell of the row of the separate cells in the north end of the corridor, which runs from east to west, was the dry room, heated by steam. The room, which was about ten feet square was directly alongside the middle stairway leading to the floors above and below. Here the flames originated but from what cause is not known. All the patients were assisted to the escape, but some of the violently insane patients, who could not be induced to leave their cells, which soon became so hot as to render it impossible for human aid to be of any avail. Eighteen lives are known to have been lost. The buildings at 1 a.m. are still in flames, and the flames have spread to the entire group of buildings making up the insane department. There are no prospects of saving any of them, although the firemen have the fire well in hand. All other department buildings are safe. The loss will probably amount to $150,000.
SAMUEL AIKENS, a fireman belonging to engine No. 5, was struck by a falling skylight, which nearly severed his nose from his face. The wound and shock will probably prove fatal.
A rumor was prevalent at the alms house grounds late tonight that some forty of the most violent patients were confined in the upper floor, all perished. This rumor could not be traced to any authentic source, and it is believed by the attendants questioned in reference to it that the patients on the upper floor escaped and can be accounted for in the morning, or as soon as the prevailing confusion and excitement subsides.

Later Details.
Philadelphia, Feb. 13. -- The fire last night at the almshouse entirely destroyed that portion of the institution set apart for the insane. Of the 685 lunatics confined there, many are missing, but it is thought most of them wandered away. At 9 o'clock this morning two more charred bodies were found in ward No. 2. They were burned beyond recognition.
Several human forms can be seen in the burning wreck in the cellar. It is thought that twenty-eight of the inmates perished. That number of violent patients being locked in the cells in the third floor and could not be reached. Eighty others have been taken out dead and others are unaccounted for. There seems to be no doubt that they are lost and their remains are among the ruins.
During the night many insane persons were found wandering in different parts of the city, some nearly naked. The poor creatures generally seemed unable to understand the situation and in some cases begged their captors piteously not to throw them into the river. Others seemed to take it as a grand joke and laughed gleefully when the subject of the fire was mentioned. Another came flying down South street early this morning with a manacle attached to his wrist and a few links of a chain dangling from it. He shrieked and laughed as he struck right and left among the frightened people and it was found necessary to use violence and knock him down before he could be secured.
Another mad man caused a panic in a street car by rushing in half clad and with his face scorched and blackened, he sand cowering in the corner. It was soon found he was more frightened than those who ran away from him.
The report that the streets were full of escaped maniacs caused much alarm in West Philadelphia, and strangers looked upon each other with much distrust.
The firemen are still working the ruins. They are weary and half frozen, wach man's helmet and coat appearing as hard as armor, but the search for bodies will be continued steadily. It appears there has been a great deal of unnecessary trouble caused by rotten hose and scarcity in the water supply. To remedy the latter failing a dozen burly firemen chopped a hole in the ice in Schuykill river.

The Fort Wayne Sentinel Indiana 1885-02-13