This edited excerpt from Damn the Old Tinderbox: Milwaukee’s Palace of the West and the Fire that Defined an Era by Matthew J. Prigge describes a group of women who were rescued from what was described as “hell itself.”
On a January night in 1883, flames engulfed Milwaukee’s Newhall House hotel, among the tallest buildings in the nation at the time. In just two hours, the fire killed more than 70 people. The fire remains among the deadliest unsolved arsons in U.S. history. The tragedy drew global attention to Milwaukee, with heart-wrenching stories of victims who were burned to death or killed as they leapt from the burning building. But there were also tales of escapes and amazing rescues.
With no efforts made to rouse the sleeping guests and residents of the Newhall, most were left to be woken by the fire itself. Many jolted awake from the smell of smoke or the dull roar of the flames taking hold of the elevator shaft. Others woke to the shattering of the glass transom windows above their doors. Several people on the fourth and fifth floors woke to screams and shouts from the halls, the noise of their fellow dwellers fleeing the building. Others offered no explanation as to how they were roused. They simply passed from sleep to terror without recalling any transition whatsoever.
Firefighters soon began to arrive at the scene – the corner of Michigan Street and Broadway. Hook-and-Ladder No. 1 member Herman Strauss did not like the way his foreman, Edward Reimer, ran things. By the night of the fire, Strauss’ distaste for the way Reimer and the rest of his department superiors conducted themselves had turned into outright disgust.
Reimer and Strauss had a row not long before the fire over a minor repair needed on one of the company’s trucks. Reimer instructed Strauss, who was the company’s blacksmith, to do the work. Strauss, fed up with Reimer’s methods, pointed out that such a repair required an order filed by the fire chief and refused to do the job.
Such petty arguments, it was assumed, would be put aside during an emergency, when the vital and noble work of a firefighter outweighed all else. And when Fire Chief Henry Lippert ordered ladder men to the rooftop of a building across the alley from the hotel in order to attempt a daring aerial evacuation of the fifth floor, Reimer and Strauss grabbed a 22-foot ladder and headed for the other side of the block.
Their best chance was to use the home of the Frackelton Fine China Importing Co. at 380 E. Water St., one of only two cross-alley buildings that extended all the way to the alleyway at full height. From the back ledge of the roof, the men hoped to be within a ladder’s reach of room 124. There, firefighters believed, as many as 10 women who worked at the hotel were trapped after fleeing the fire from other portions of the fifth-floor sleeping quarters. Others, trapped in other burning rooms, had already jumped to their deaths on the street below.
Led by George Wells, a night watchman on the block with keys to several of the buildings, Strauss and Reimer worked the unwieldy ladder through the building and to the base of the staircase leading to the Frackelton roof. As Wells dashed to the roof to unlock the door, Reimer ran back into the street, leaving Strauss to carry the ladder to the roof on his own. The bullheaded Strauss, Reimer thought, would do just fine without his help.
As Strauss started slowly up the stairs, Reimer took a narrower staircase to the roof of the Frackelton and shouted to the trapped women that help was on the way. Reimer then went back down to the street, where he set out to find a second ladder to span the alley. Meanwhile, Wells waited at the top of the staircase as Strauss struggled clumsily up the stairs.
In room 124, the air was beginning to thicken. The relief of the open window kept the women alive, but smoke had mixed with the fresh air outside and continued to seep into the room from the hallway. The women of 124 grew weak and tired. Some slumped to the floor. Some died.
Strauss and Wells hurried to get the ladder to the roof while the women waited to be rescued. Strauss was hopeful that the 22-footer could make the span, but he did not actually know how far it was between the buildings. As the end of the ladder began its descent, he and Wells held tightly to the bottom rungs. If it fell short of the Newhall’s window ledge, Strauss and Wells would need to let it fall to the alley, or risk being pulled down with it. If the ladder swung too far, it could bounce off the brick and fall, or crack in the middle and be rendered useless.
But with the same fortune that led the women to collect in the one area of the fifth floor that could be reached from across the alley, the ladder fell with a tremendous and heavy crash, directly atop the window sash.
A few women crawled downhill to safety – the Frackelton end of the ladder was 2 feet lower than the Newhall side – as people in the street cheered below. As the women kept coming and the weakened inhabitants of 124 climbed to their feet, it became clear to Strauss that far more women were alive on the fifth floor than he had expected.
He yelled down to the ladder men on the ground. “For God’s sake, come up! The whole room is full!” After six women crossed, a seventh appeared in the window. She slowly put her hands to the sides of the ladder and lifted her knees up to the window sash. She moved forward, sliding her trembling hands a few inches at a time. When she cleared the side of the building, she could see straight down to the alley, to the gaping onlookers and the pools of blood illuminated by the glow of the roaring hotel. Her hands stopped and clenched the ladder. She froze.
Strauss tossed his helmet aside, tore off his jacket and climbed across the ladder toward the terrified woman and the burning hotel. As he crossed the alley, a second crew of men had appeared on the roof and dropped their own ladder to the ledge of room 122. Men from Hook-and-Ladder companies 1 and 2 steadied the ladders as No. 2’s Al Smith crossed over. In the alley, the men of Hook-and-Ladder No. 3 had finally arrived from Vliet Street and worked at raising the second extension ladder.
At the far end of room 124’s ladder, Strauss turned around and pulled the stranded woman onto his back. As he slowly carried her across, Newhall chambermaid Mary Gavin, having seen that every woman she could find and rouse on the fifth floor had made it across the ladder, followed after him.
Smith climbed into the window of room 122 and found three women, two lying motionless on the floor and one standing in the corner, rigid with fear. He grabbed the woman in the corner and quickly carried her across. He dropped her in the snow and passed back over twice more, pulling out the two limp women, each of whom was revived by the cold shock of the snowbank.
The 11 women who escaped the fifth floor were the last of the living people inside the hotel that night. The flow of charred and dazed guests fleeing into the streets had stopped. No one screamed from the windows. The ladders had been pulled away, and the makeshift ropes dangled idly from windows and balcony rails.
As the women were making their way to the roof of the Frackelton, a single figure appeared at a window in the southwestern corner of the house. A group of idle hook-and-ladder men held open a jumping sheet and the figure fell, hitting the canvas in the center and rolling off. It was Kitty Linehan, the hotel’s head laundress, who had run back into the building after helping as many as five people find their way out. Somewhere inside, she became disoriented and lost. She was the only person that night to survive a leap to the sheet, but her time inside the Newhall furnace had already doomed her. She died from smoke inhalation a few hours later at the American Express office across the street.
Back on the roof, Smith and his men moved one of the ladders to the window ledge of a room. Smith crossed over, but the smoke inside the room was too thick for him to enter. He threw open the window, hoping to let the smoke clear out. But as it did, the sinister orange glow of flames appeared in the room and began to light the other windows along the alley. At the base of the extension ladder – which had now been raised to its full height and moved to near where Smith was perched – a firefighter waited for a clear moment to ascend, but a burst of fire from a window near Smith drove him back. The flames roasted the top of the extension ladder, and as it began to smolder and smoke, the men in the alley abandoned it and retreated. Smith rushed back to the Frackelton, and his men gave the ladders a mighty yank, sliding them back from the hotel just as another burst of flames erased all question as to whether anyone remained living in the domestics’ hall.
The healthiest women saved by the ladders shuffled across the rooftop. Those too badly burned or bruised were carried. Most wore only the tattered remnants of their nightclothes or were entirely nude. Some were gripped by a dazed, stony silence, while others trembled and wept. Police and firefighters gathered some of the clothes that the women had thrown into the alley at the outbreak of the fire and ran them up to the roof so that the women could maintain decency as they were loaded into carriages and taken to hotels and private homes where they could warm themselves and be treated for their injuries.
Catholic priests had already made their way Downtown, prepared to administer last rites should anyone falter in the early morning hours. It was 4:45 a.m. Less than an hour had passed since the fire had been discovered.