POORHOUSE INSANE ASYLUM FIRE -- 1894
|Submitted by: Susie Martin-Rott|
Below is an article regarding the Poor Farm
and Asylum of Boone County Iowa --the asylum building burned to the
ground on 23 Jan 1894, killing eight of the nine inmates. One of
those was my grandfather's aunt, Mercy Onion (O-NYE-UN) Tucker. I
am not sure what newspaper this appeared in, but it mentions that the
national news picked up on this story. It mentions a newspaper "The
Democrat" in the article but I am not sure if this article was from
the same paper.
It took me 13 years to find out what happened to Mercy Tucker until a descendant contacted me regarding the Tucker genealogy and had this article in her possession.
January 1894 - newspaper not known
A Sickening Tragedy
The Disaster at the County Insane Asylum.
The most horrible tragedy that ever occurred in the limits of Boone county took place Tuesday night of last week when the county insane asylum burned down. Of the nine inmates of the place eight were burned to death, roasted alive, meeting a fate that makes one shudder. The horrible death roll, which has been published all over the country and created a cry of indignation wherever read is as follows:
ANDERSON, CHRISTIANA, aged 28
SNIGGS, JOHANNA, aged 55
CREGG, JOSEPH, aged 81
LESSER, THOMAS aged 45
PETERSON, CHRISTIAN, aged 87
SCOTT, SARAH aged 82
SODERBURG, ANNA, aged 38
TUCKER, Mercy, aged 48
The county insane asylum was located on the poor farm. The poor farm is on the old Fort Dodge road seven miles directly north of Boone and a mile and a half south of Mineral Ridge. Henry Holcomb is steward of the poor farm and had charge of the insane also. The insane asylum was a two-story frame building put up about 60 feet from the poor house proper It was erected six or eight years ago, when Boone county took charge of its incurable insane, taking care of them at home instead of the state institutions. This was originally done because there was not room in the state institutions and the counties were required to take care of the harmless incurables as best they could. Of late years, since the state facilities have been increased, the county has kept up the local asylum as a matter of economy.
There were nine of these unfortunates in the asylum--the eight that lost their lives and one that escaped, Mrs. Hibbart. Tuesday night, January 23, was one of the worst nights this winter. A furious storm started in the afternoon which gained in fury all night. The thermometer went down to 30 degrees below zero before morning. The insane asylum was heated with a furnace in the cellar which was reported out of order. Regardless of this, the nine unfortunates who were not of sufficiently sound mind to take care of themselves were locked up in this fire trap to perish like so many rats. Possibly the doors were not locked, but the unfortunate creatures, unable to look out for themselves, were left alone without a person of sound mind to look after them. When the house was left we have not learned. Evidently the old furnace was fired up so that the inmates should not freeze to death that bitter cold night and then left to their fate.
Henry Holcomb, the steward, went to bed at his usual time and all the inmates of the poor house proper were asleep at ten o'clock when they were awakened by Mrs. Hibbart coming into the house and telling them the madhouse was on fire. Holcomb rushed to the burning building, which he saw was all aflame inside, and burst in the door. He could not enter and no sound except the crackling of flames was heard. The poor unfortunates were already dead, either suffocated before they awoke, or lacking the intelligence to make their escape.
Four of the poor creatures that were not considered perfectly safe were locked in their cells at night, and could not have escaped if they would. The others could have gotten out if intelligent enough. What little help there was availed nothing against the fire, and all that could be done was to prevent its spreading to the poorhouse and other buildings of the poor farm. The tragedy was over in half an hour and the roof fell in. The victims were seen burned beyond recognition. From the places where some of the remains were found it is inferred that some of the unfortunates had reached the windows and tried to escape from them.
How the fire originated is not and never will be known. One of the insane women was in the habit of tearing her clothes to shreds and stuffing them into the hot air registers. It is possible that this may have been the cause of the fire. The grand jury visited the asylum last week and their report, published in the last issue of THE DEMOCRAT, was far from complimentary to the institution. Before it was read by many of the readers of this paper news of the sickening tragedy was on the streets.
A great moral responsibility attaches to some one for this crime against humanity. We will not stop to discuss how the policy of keeping the insane at home instead of in state institutions. It is sufficient that they were kept on the poor farm. Why were they not cared for? Who is to blame for the shocking barbarity of leaving nine unfortunate human beings unable to take care of themselves alone in a building to perish like so many rats? To burn up at 10 o'clock, the early part of the evening. It is highly probable that the fire had been smoldering for some time before it burst out. A sane person might likely have smelled fire and investigated before retiring. Possibly lives might have been lost even if proper precaution had been taken. This has occurred in other asylum fires. But then there would have been no cause for the universal indignation that is expressed at the utter lack of care in looking out for the unfortunates in Boone county. If economy was the reason the purpose has been accomplished--the insane are burned up and will no longer cost the county anything. This is cheaper than hiring some one to take charge of them but arouses a cry of indignation from every corner of the land. We wish the man or men that are responsible for leaving these unfortunates alone with less care than is given so many cattle (for fires are carefully kept out of the stable) could see the comments that are being made all over the country in the press. It will not mend matters but may cause a little remorse. Locking the stable door after the horse is stolen is of little use.
The criminal carelessness is largely chargeable upon the board of supervisors for the method of taking care of the insane. We do not wish to single out the present board, for they probably did the same as has been done for years, but the whole method is wrong. The management of the poor farm is peddled out to the lowest bidder, the man that will do it the cheapest, regardless of fitness for the place. It is possible that the present steward of the poor farm, who left nine people that the proper tribunal said were not competent to take care of themselves alone to perish did just what his predecessors had done before him. That does not make it less reprehensible. The tragedy is a blot on Boone county that can never be justified and must meet the condemnation of every humane man.
|Transcriber's Note: If these folks were so indignant, why didn't they pay for proper burials of the inmates who perished--some if not all were buried at the Poor Farm cemetery without markers?! I have tried in vain to find a listing of the Poor House Cemetery to see if all the victims were buried there. I did find record that Mercy Tucker was. I am guessing the family members of the other seven victims may be struggling as well to find their missing persons.|