Milwaukee, WI Newhall House Fire, Jan 1883 - Awful Disaster




MILWAUKEE, Wis., Jan. 10.----A light cloud of smoke was seen issuing from the upper floor of the Newhall House about 4 o'clock this morning. An alarm was immediately given, but the larger portion of the Fire Department was then engaged in extinguishing a small fire at Vleit and Eighteenth streets, and before a single engine could arrive flames were issuing from the entire upper part of the south front of the building, the result being that nearly 100 lives were lost. The first alarm was given at 4:05 A. M. by the telephone wires. Three minutes later the alarm reached Chief Lippert at the Eighteenth-street fire, and at 4:12 the entire department was hurrying toward the Newhall House.

There were few people near the hotel at the time---some policemen, a few reporters, and belated people---but the scene which took place before them was one which none of them will ever forget. In a moment every window of the large six-story structure was filled with struggling guests, frantically and piteously beseeching the few below for aid, which it was impossible to render. But few of the unfortunate inmates gained the front entrance in Michigan-street, although many might have been saved if some immediate attempt at systematic rescue had been made. The halls of the hotel were the scene of the wildest confusion. Men, women and children rushed up and down the halls in the dense suffocating smoke, missing in their frantic efforts the stairways and windows leading to the fire-escapes. The fire started apparently in the third floor of the building, over the side entrance, in Michigan-street, and before the Fire Department got a steamer fairly in position the flames had enveloped the whole south-eastern corner of the building. Some blundering person, seeing the reflection of the fire on the sky, turned in an alarm from box No. 31, corner of East Water and Division streets, at 5:40, causing a loss of the work of one steamer for 10 minutes just when the fire was at its worst. The crowd, which by this time had swelled to thousands, stood almost paralyzed, few having self-possession and resolution enough to lend a helping hand on the canvas stretched out to receive those of the despairing inmates of the burning building who risked the leap down to the stone sidewalk, 100 feet below. At first there were only Lieut. Brockwood, Detectives Rierman and McManus, Officers O'Brien and Campbell, and a few Sentinel men stretching the heavy canvas, which required fully 30 strong men to handle successfully.

One poor fellow stood on a cornice of the fifth-story corner window for 20 minutes, not daring to take the leap. Finally he became bewildered, to judge by his actions, or unconscious from the smoke, and slid off his perch to the canvas below. The few who held it could not give the necessary resistance. The body fell, unhindered by the canvas, with a crush which sent a shudder through every witness. The body was carried into the American Express office. All the while hundreds of people had been looking on, nobody responding to the demands of the officers for aid. In the sixth-story window, right over this man, sat the figure of a man crouched upon the window-sill, gazing like one absent-minded into the fiery abyss below, motionless, but from time to time sending up a heart-rending shriek. Steadily the flames encroached upon him; he did not seem to mind it. Then the flames singed his hair and licked his nightclothes; one despairing look he gave to the crown below, and then fell back into the sea of fire. A man and a woman appeared at a window of the third story. They were recognized at Allen Johnson and wife. A canvas was stretched below the windows of their apartment, and a thousand voices called to them to jump. Mr. Johnson kissed his wife and then leaped into the air and shot downward into the canvas, but his weight was such that the canvas was pulled out of the hands of the few who held it, and he alighted on the ground with deathly force. His wife followed. Her body struck the veranda and fell to the ground lifeless. Mr. Johnson died soon afterward in the express office, and his body was laid beside that of his wife until they were borne away.

About a dozen persons jumped from the Michigan-street front. Each leap meant death or shattered limbs, and not less than four unfortunates at one time lay upon the icy sidewalk in front of the Chamber of Commerce clad only in night clothes. Some were carried to the express office and others to the ground floor of the Mitchell Building, where cots had been hastily arranged, and from there they were carried off to the private houses of kind-hearted people. The scene in the alley west of the burning building was sickening. As early as 6 o'clock the bodies of seven unfortunate waiter girls were stretched upon the snow and ice, with broken limbs, writhing in agony until death ended their sufferings. The maze of telegraph wires encircling the building on the south and east sides played sad havoc with the people who made the frightful leap for life. Several of the bodies were cut deep into by the wires, and then the torn and bleeding from would drop to the ground. Others would strike the wires crosswise, rebound, and be hurled to the ground with a dreadful crash. To the poor waiter girls, all lodged in the sixth story and the attic, the saddest lot had fallen. Of 60 young girls only 11 were heard from as alive this evening. It is feared that the estimate of 50 lives lost is far too low, and that fully double that number were burned to death. Long after the flames had taken possession of the interior, Miss Chellis, head dress-maker at T. A. Chapman & Co.'s, was seen at her window on the fourth floor. She was recognized by friends below, and implored to make the leap upon the canvas, but she remained standing at the window of her burning room until the flames enveloped her and she sank back.

A deed of heroism was recorded worthy of unqualified praise. Edward Ryemer and Herman Strauss, of Truck No.1, appeared on the roof of the bank building at a critical juncture, directly opposite the servant's quarter, ladder in hand. For a moment the unwieldy thing was poised in mid-air and then descended with a crash through a window of the hotel. If formed a bridge across the alley, and before it became steady in position men had crossed into the hotel. Then, amid cheers of the multitude below, they dragged helpless creatures across the slender bridge until fully a dozen were rescued, all in their night clothes, but many were badly frozen before reaching a shelter. A woman in a dead faint was dragged across in safety, but at one time the whole of her body was hanging over clear of the ladder, while a brave man held her by one of her ankles. The crowd below held their breath in suspense, expecting every moment to see the ladder turn over or break beneath the terrible strain. The man, however, was equal to the emergency. By a herculean effort he pulled her upon the slender bridge, and finally placed her out of danger, while the crowd, which had endured the most painful suspense for fully 10 minutes, burst forth in round after round of cheers. Twelve waiter girls were rescued by these brave men. The two brothers Clayton rescued four women, carrying them out bodily. The Police rescued a dozen persons. The Police patrol soon commenced their work of gathering the dead and wounded. The former were taken to the morgue, which was soon filled; the latter to the Central Police Station, where they cared for by physicians.

From 5 o'clock the interior of the building was one mass of flames. The upper floors soon giving way and carrying the lower floors with them, a thundering crash was heard for blocks, and then the fire shot up fully 50 feet, sending a shower of sparks and cinders over the whole northern portion of the city, carried ahead by a brisk south-westerly wind. Had it not been for the thick coat of snow on the roofs many buildings north of the hotel would have been set on fire. At 5:30 o'clock the Broadway front, unsupported by rafters from within, gave out, and came thundering to the pavement. Soon after that the tottering walls of the south-east corner of the building followed, tearing from the ground a heavy telegraph pole, which felled Ben Van Haag, a truckman of Hook and Ladder Company No. 2, beneath its weight. Van Haag, a favorite in the department, died a few hours later.

Chief Lippert had telegraphed to Chicago and Racine for help; also to the Soldiers' Home for the steamer of that institution. Gen. Sharpe, Governor of the Home, failed to comply with the request. Chicago and Racine responded at once. Three steamers left Chicago at 5:50 A. M., Nos. 5, 10, and 14, together with two men each from Companies Nos. 2 and 3, and 1,000 yards of additional hose. At Highland Park, about 25 miles north of Chicago, the relief train was countermanded by Chief Lippert, the fire having had its sway in destroying the Newhall House and being under control as far as the surrounding establishments were concerned. The Racine relief train was also countermanded.

There is loud talk of incendiarism, and in this theory the Chief and the Police who were first on the ground concur. No tangible ground for such a theory can be found, however, beyond the fact that the fire broke out near the foot of the elevator and spread so rapidly that the building was destroyed in half an hour. Regarding the origin of the fire, Mr. Antisdel said; "The night watchman saw the fire first, but before he could do anything the flames shot up the elevator, igniting every floor. I am confident that the fire started in the elevator, but how it originated I cannot say. I was awakened by the noise and rushed out to find the building filled will flames and smoke and people flying for their lives. After saving my wife I tried to save others. I met my father and mother in their night-clothes and tried to get them to leave the building, which was fast becoming a furnace of flames, but father was apparently out of his head. He said he was bound to go into the flames to save those in the building, but by force I got him to the street, and, being afraid that if I let him go he would again enter the flames, conducted him by force down Michigan-street. When near the alley some one fell from the upper floor to the ground a few feet away and caused him to become frenzied. A number of the rescued guests say the fire started in the basement and went through the elevator to all parts of the house before an alarm could be given. A man employed in the baking department, who arrived on the scene at about 4 o'clock, states that at 5:30 he passed to the third floor and assisted in rescuing a number of lodgers. It is stated on good authority that there was no fire in the rear portion of the building, where there was a wide flight of stairs, by means of which all those quartered on the upper floors could have made their escape. However, the smoke was dense, and those who were not suffocated lost their presence of mind.

One of the most trying scenes incident to the fire was witnessed at the Morgue. At 6 o'clock 15 bodies lay upon the marble slabs and floor, the allotted space being too small to accommodate them all. One of the first bodies recognized was that of Mrs. Gilbert, wife of Mr. John Gilbert, of the Minnie Palmer Company. They were married yesterday morning in Chicago, and the bride of a day lay upon the cold marble charred and bruised almost beyond recognition. It is said that she was Miss Sutton, of Chicago.

The New York Times, New York, NY 11 Jan 1883