Inferno Of Caged Unfortunates
Steele Scrapbook - January 22, 1886




Appalling scenes at the Burning of the National Surgical Institute at Indianapolis. The Building a Veritable Fire-trap—The Brave Efforts of Rescuers —Some of the Bodies Charred Beyond Recognition—Inmates Who Died Without Any Attempt to Escape—Leaped From the Windows—Sad Incidents of the Holocaust.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind., Jan 22 — A score of helpless human beings burned to death. That is the record of last night in Indianapolis. At 11.45 last night an alarm was turned from box 52, corner of Meridian and Georgia streets. The locations being in the heart of the wholesale trading district of the city, people naturally expected a great fire, but when box 22, at Illinois and Louisiana streets, was pulled and in a moment the second and third alarms were heard, it was plain that the conflagration was a dangerous one.

Every piece of fire-fighting apparatus in the city was quickly on the run, and upon arrival, the firemen were horrified to see flames leaping from the roof and fourth-floor windows of the National Surgical Institute, which is located on the corner of Illinois and Georgia streets, with an extension on the latter street. About two hundred and fifty crippled people were in the institute at the time. The building was almost totally enveloped in fire, and when Chief Webster arrived his first order was: "Let the building burn, but run up the ladders and save the people." This was obeyed, and the work of rescuing the imprisoned patients commenced.

The fire when first discovered was located in the Georgia street building at the rear of the office, in the advertising room. An alley separates the Georgia street building from the one facing Illinois street one. A covered bridge connects them. The fire leaped up through the floors of the building in which it was started, reaching a stairway about two feet wide, thus securing a draught, and sped through the second floor from room to room and hallway to hallway. Then the third and fourth floors were quickly reached and across the alley the fiery tongues dashed, firing the adjoining building.

On the third and fourth floors the horrible work was done. The buildings were a network of narrow halls, entrances and stairways. The fire could not have chosen a better place for its destructiveness. In the small rooms throughout the building were from one to four beds, all occupied by patients, many of whom were perfectly helpless. When they became aware of their peril their fright was awful. They became frantic in their efforts to reach places of safety. Every effort was made by the fire, police and ambulance forces to rescue the caged unfortunates, and acts of heroism and daring were performed by the men that should perpetuate their memories.

Where the dining-room and kitchen were the building was gutted. Above these two departments, on the third and fourth floors, were the sleeping apartments of the patients. When the fire was discovered every means of escape was cut off and many perished there. The flames ate up the entire interior of the building. When the floors gave way and fell to the bottom there is no telling how many persons were killed.


The Surgical Institute was a verital firetrap. The stairways were narrow, the halls dark and whole structure a labyrinth. Entering the main building from the alley a dark store-room is reached. A door at the inner end leads to an open court. A winding stairway not much over two feet wide leads up to a window of the third floor. This stairway is built of pine boards and boarded to about the height of a man's head. It would be next to impossible for two persons to pass in it. The room to which this leads was a dormitory. It contained about a dozen beds, most of which had been occupied.

From the open court there is a door leading to the hallways inside the building. This passage was dark and a person was obliged to group [sic] his way to a better lighted spot. Near the Illinois-street front of the main building was a stairway the people were surprised to see. It made a turn midway between two floors, and at that point there was a landing. From that landing to the top step of the lower section was a distance of least 2 1/2 feet. In speaking of that place Fireman James Madden remarked: "How could they expect cripples to get up or down those stairs?"

In some parts of the building the stairs were so old and worn that extra boards had been nailed on the steps. Large holes had been burned in the floors. The halls and stairs in some places were so much of a puzzle that it was hard for a person to tell which was which. At one point four flights of stairs were in a bunch. Rooms on the third and fourth floors of the main building and nearest the alley were the scenes of the greatest fatalities.

In one room were two women, both of whom perished. In another there was a man whose lower extremities were paralyzed. Although unable to walk he dragged himself to a window at the rear of the building and threw himself out. He dropped about eight feet to a roof, then to another, and finally rolled off to the ground, saving himself from death. The entire rear half of the inside of the Georgia street building fell in. The debris completely filled the first story, and when the firemen began their search for dead bodies they were obliged to commence work on a level with the second floor. It will be several days before they can hope to reach the bottom. The names of the killed are:


KATE L. STRONG, died at 1084 Massachusetts avenue; home in Salem, Oregon.
MRS. LAZARUS, of Chicago, jumped from the second story of the rear building.
MISS KATE BURNS, of Newport, Minn.
FRANK BURNS, of Newport, Minn.
MINNIE ARNOLD, Lancaster, Mo.
ILMA PAYNE, Dexter, Minn.
STELLA SPEES, Macomb, Ohio.
MINNIE MCDONALD, Negaunee, Ohio.
MRS. ERB and DAUGHTER, Shelby, Ohio.
FANNIE BREEDEN, Memphis, Tenn., died of her injuries at eleven o'clock Friday.
MORTIE DECKO, died at 305 north Mississippi street.
FRED DOCKENDORF, Stillwater, Minn.
HANNAH BROOK, Taylorsville, Ill.
C. H. GORMAN, McDonald, Mich.

More than a score of persons were hurt. They were taken to St. Vincent's Hospital, where, with the exception of those fatally injured, they were resting fairly.

Five bodies were taken out this morning. They were roasted alive, the skin having peeled off their bodies. In a few instances their faces were burned off. At Powers and Blackwell's were found the unknown bodies. They were taken out of the building in their night clothes, and there was absolutely nothing by which they could be identified. One was a woman with dark hair and complexion. She can easily be identified by friends, as she was suffocated and not burned. Another woman whose body was cooked beyond recognition was also at the morgue. Her feet were deformed and shrivelled up from the fire. A man with a deformed limb, also there, can be identified.

This afternoon the ashes and cinders were washed from the dead, and hundreds viewed the blackened remains. At Flanner and Buchanan's morgue was a man supposed to have been attendant. He was burned about the face. He was about twenty-five years old. He had light hair and moustache and blue eyes. Three other bodies were found at the northeast corner of the rear building or the third floor. They had huddled about the windows and were trying to escape when the flames caught them.


Just as the department arrived on the scene a woman appeared at a third story window. The flames within made a frightful background, and her form stood out in bold relief. She wrung her hands and screamed for help, while the smoke rolled up in angry black wreaths about her. Chief Webster at once realized her critical condition and shouted at the top of his voice, "Hold on, hold on; don't jump. For God's sake don't jump, we'll get you in a moment"

A savage roar of the flames and a creaking, crashing sound was the only reply that came back to him, and scarcely had the words of appeal left his leaps when the woman, with a shriek of agony, leaped into space. With dishevelled hair the feminine form descended rapidly, the burst of flames displaying the deathly pallor which overspread her face. The body struck the stone flagging but a few feet from where the fire chief stood, and was picked up dead.

At a window on the upper floor a panic-stricken mother was seen struggling to throw open the window. In one arm she clasped her child, which was a mere infant. She clutched at the window casing, and finally succeeded, after frantic efforts, in reaching the air and received relief from the stifling smoke and death-dealing flames within. Her screams fell upon the ears of thousands of hapless spectators. No ladders were at hand, and her pitiful appeals were unheeded. Her face was deadly pale and her form partially nude.

The flames were closing in about her and she looked back into the furnace of death, then down to the pavement below, as if choosing between two things, either of which seemed certain death. Realizing finally that the end was at hand she clasped the babe to her breast, tossed the precious load out of the window and gave her life to the flames within. It would have been a pleasing thought to her to know before expiring the fortune that befell her offspring.

Pipeman O'Brien had watched the heart-rending scene from below, and as the child left the arms of its mother he planted himself firmly with outstretched arms underneath the window. The baby, wrapped in its night clothes, whirled about in the air and tumbled into O'Brien's arms unhurt by the fall—a life saved. A few moments later it was smiling, seemingly unconscious of the surroundings.


As soon as the hall-ways had been sufficiently cleared of the smoke to permit an investigation, some of the most horrible scenes were developed. In one room on the third floor four victims were found dead, kneeling in the attitude of prayer. The windows in the room were up, but their occupants had apparently made no effort to escape nor appeal for rescue. The stifling smoke had overtaken them, and seeing no avenue of escape, had become resigned to their fate, and as a last hope muttered a prayer to Heaven, begging the interference of Providence in their behalf.

In a room on the second floor a man was found in bed dead. The smoke had found its way into the room slowly, and he was gradually overcome, expiring without a struggle. Further along the hallway a young man was found sitting beside an open window, his dead body leaning forward. There seemed to be no good reason for this loss of life, as all who appeared at the windows were quickly saved.

Although the occupants were nearly all more or less seriously crippled, many of them became so frantic that they lost all self-control and almost invited death by their actions. They would rush to a window, cast their eyes below, and realizing that a leap was almost certain death, retreated at once into the room and faces the result desperately.

Unceremoniously Stolen From Alf

Dreadful Sentiments...