Lives Cut Short; The Tragedy of 1899

By Travis on December 28, 2008


Christmas should be a time of happiness. Christmas should be a time for families to gather around the tree and open presents in their pajamas. For many families in Quincy Christmas of 1899 would sadly be much different.

The girls of St. Francis’ parochial school had no idea what tragic fates awaited them. Imagine the sights and sounds of children from 9-11 years old frantically tried to remember their lines and their cues as they rehearsed for the yearly Christmas pageant. Though I can not be sure, I envision an instructor playing a muffled piano the gymnasium hustling and bustling with children dressed to represent the scene of the birth of Christ, Shepard’s, lambs, and the lot.  I’m sure there were whispers and laughter about what they hoped Santa Claus would bring them this year.

Several girls were dressed as lambs. Their costumes consisted of cotton batting. There was a small dressing area located above the stage. The girls were putting on finishing touches to their costumes. Normally this area would have been lit by an incandescent electric globe, however, it was broken at the time and in its place a gas jet was used to light the area. This would be the catalyst for tragedy.

One of the girls hat came in contact with the gas jet and the fire combusted the cotton batting of her costume and within moments had spread about her to the other girls around her.  One girl ablaze jumped through a window of a the dressing area and nearly fell down the stairs leading ot the stage. She ran towards other girls wearing the same cotton frilly costumes. In the chaos and panic she ended up collapsing on the floor, she had inhaled the flames and suffered extensive external and internal burns. She was pronounced dead moments later. The fire spread violently to all exposed to it. Frank Musholt was the teacher on stage that recalled hearing the cries of fire and ran towards the dressing area to be met by a girl completely engulfed in flames pleading for him to “Save us”. Other teachers rushed to assist, tearing off the burning clothing of the children with their bare hands suffering excruciating burns themselves in the process.

Frank rushed towards the dressing room where the atmosphere was blinding. Two children were completely in flames head to toe. Without any thought for himself, he began ripping off the burning clothes. His hands were nearly burned to the bone. The adrenaline outweighing the pain he continued to try and assist the girls who were beyond any point of help. His efforts proved futile and the two girls died at his feet.

Along with Frank Musholt, Father Andrews, Father Nicholas and several sisters selflessly sacrificed their own flesh in an attempt to extinguish the children. They were later taken to St. Aloysius orphan asylum to have their wounds treated. Sister Ludwigue received terrible burns to the face and hands. Sister Theothimia suffered the worst burns to her face, arms and hands. Sisters Rodolpha and Ephia also received extensive burns. Though they were suffering an incredible pain while having their wounds tended to, they never ceases to voice concern and worry over the children.

Four girls died almost immediately, several other girls died later in the evening. Mary Hickey in the panic and confusion ran from the third floor of the building where the gymnasium was located down to the street and while engulfed in flames proceeded to run down Vine street (now college) for about a block where she collapsed in front of Gehring’s Butcher shop. She clung to life several more hours until succumbing to the agony.

Though this was a horrific tragedy, greater human loss was avoided. Originally the other non-performing students of St. Francis were to be present as an audience to the dress rehearsal.  Thanks to quick actions by teachers the children in the audience was whisked away from pandemonium.

The gymnasium quickly became the place where heart-wrenching scenes would play out. Parents rushed to the school upon hearing the news and had no way of knowing if the dead were their children. There was such a sense of bedlam that a policeman was placed at the door of the building instructed to not let anyone pass. Frantic mothers begged and pleaded through tears to let them get to their child. The policeman answered back with a apologetic and tearful choke in his voice that he couldn’t let them in.. For more than an hour the names of the dead were not announced. Leaving the parents to only linger to find out the fate of their child. One father upon hearing the news of the fire rode a horse with no saddle to the scene. At this point the children had been moved to the morgue or hospital. Upon arriving he was asked if his child had any type of identifying clothing or jewelry. He replied that his daughter was wearing a gold ring. The reply confirmed that one of the dead girls was wearing such a ring. Upon hearing the news he staggered back as if an invisible force had hit him. He then set out to the morgue to identify the body.

The girls still clinging to life were taken to St. Mary’s Hospital. They were covered in bandages and in doing so, the process of identifying the children became almost impossible to the parents who would soon arrive. It was not uncommon for a mother to to pass through the cots calling out the name of their child. In most cases the children who had regained consciousness would give a soft feeble reply. One father entered the hospital carrying a tiny shoe weeping. He thought he was sure that his little girl was wearing a shoe of that type of style and pattern. He futile called out his daughters’ name to which no reply did come. With the shoe still in his hand he slumped back tot he morgue where he stood for a long while contemplating the charred bodies that lay before him. Along with the parents’ anguish the trained medical staff typically numb to such tasks were visibly shaken to see such horrors. Many were seen stepping away with tears in their eyes. The bleakest of realities was to explain to the parents that there was little hope their child would survive. All cases of burns were so extreme that there was little to nothing the medical staff could do to save them.

The joint funeral of the 12 girls was held at St. Francis church.
6 horse-drawn hearses, four black and two white made two trips carrying the little caskets to the church.  Close to five thousand people gathered around the church and cemetery in hopes to get inside or pay their respects while giving the service Father Andrew broke down and another Priest had to finish the service. The girls were finally laid to rest in St. Boniface Cemetery. 12 small headstones all in a row mark the lives cut short by tragedy. Later a monument was erected in the center of the lot. The monument is still visible today and pays tribute to the fallen girls.


7 Responses to “Lives Cut Short; The Tragedy of 1899”

  1. Renee Harmon says:

    I still find this story so fascinating – and you added even more details for me! Now, didn’t we discuss something about the hands of the angle on top??? Are they there?

  2. Dan says:

    Wow, what a story. My heart was truly touched by this story. Having a little girl myself, I can’t even begin to think how I would feel if this were to happen today to my sweet Hannah.

  3. carol krews says:

    Very moving story. I had heard about this but had forgotten…
    I have questions about a Quincy story of a different nature, no less interesting, I think. Back in the mid-60’s two young women were found murdered in the trunk of a car (I think). In the months that followed, there were stories of the multitudes of Quincy men, many upstanding citizens, these women had supposedly “entertained”. There were rumors that a son of one of Quincy’s finest families was the murderer, that a cover-up occurred and he was sent out of town…
    Lots of rumors, no convictions. Except of the young women, whose names were dragged thru the mud repeatedly.
    Could you do a story about that? I tried to look it up online, could find nothiong…

  4. Sara says:

    This is truly a tragic story! Many people are not aware of this part of Quincy’s history. I first found out about it when I heard a song written and performed by “Idgy Vaughn”. The song “Saint Francis Fire” is a tribute to the girls that died in that fire. It is very moving. After hearing the song I researched the story. Here is a link if you want to download the song or hear an exert from it.

  5. Georgia Schmitz says:

    Actually I researched a bit of a different story and interviewed Idgy Vaughn (Who is a quincy native and grew up across the street from the cemetery the girls are buried in ) about it. According to the references I have The girls were all angels in the Christmas play and wear wearing large flammable wings, Also The girl who initially caught flame was Laura and she ended up being one of the few surviving the ordeal.

  6. anita purcell says:

    i found out about this fire while doing geneolgy research on my maternal grandmother. she was in the fire and thanks to father andrew who smothered the flame she survived. my grandmother never spoke about the fire , probably too traumatic. i did not know there was a song about it, thanks for that info.

  7. R.A. Bauer says:

    The actual newspaper accounts from the Quincy papers can be accessed online through the Quincy Public Library: Active Paper. They have digitalized papers through 1920. Nothing in those papers indicates that the girls involved were dressed as angels. Most descriptions state that they wore costumes of muslin with cotton batting attached to simulate lambs. Some wore headdresses. There does seem to be some confusion about which child backed into the open gas jet, but it does appear that it was Laura Menke. It may have been Laura who stated that it was Margarethe Werner. The original report states that Laura tore her burning headdress off and threw it, hitting another girl with the flaming piece. Lauara was burned about the face, ears and hands. My husband’s great-aunt was burned in the fire, but survived. Another cousin, Olivia Timpe, died.

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