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The Night The Inmates Howled
All quotations from the April 11, 1926 edition of "The News and Observer"
"Gentlemen, you may call me a sentimentalist, if you will, and an idealist, if you desire, but it is not upon these grounds that I am appealing to you now," said State Fire Marshall Sherwood Brockwell at the last North Carolina Legislature, concluding his latest appeal for protective measures. "I am appealing to you as a business proposition. As sure as you live, if fire ever breaks out in institutions like the State Hospital without an adequate sprinkler system, it's a goner I tell you, for you'll never be able to stop the fire." The State Hospital For The Insane is the preferred text of the former Raleigh Fire Chief and first head of the department, when the RFD became paid professionals in 1912. He has "begged, beseeched and implored" successive legislatures to install sprinkler systems in such institutions and, as entertainment at Rotary and Kiwanis luncheons, he has carried his appeal all across the state. Nor is he above "pleading on bended knee" to budget commissions and legislative bodies, some members of which have tears in their eyes when he's finished. But still no sprinklers at Dix Hill, where the Dorothea Dix-founded institution is located. And thus the exquisite irony in April, 1926, when Brockwell lent his seasoned hand at Raleigh's biggest fire in years. At the State Hospital.
Saturday, April 10. The headlines of the five-cent _Raleigh Times_ trumpet "President of China Deposed," "Cake Eater To Pay Penalty In Electric Chair," and "When Is A Pound Of Shot Worth Almost $2,000?" (The latter's subheading reads "Faulty Scale Weight Case Reaches Supreme Court.") Advertisements ask "Tired? Run Down? Eat SHREDDED WHEAT, contains all the vitamins" and "Have you ever heard the statement 'Oh, I don't want to go there for luncheon, I know their menu by heart-- I want something different.' Our policy is to change the menu. CAROLINA CAFE." There's a dirigible over France, some dead British airmen, and one "Lieutenant MacReady" who failed to break some record after having reached "an altitude of 34,000 feet." And, at 12:55 p.m. that day, the first alarm for a fire at the Insane Asylum. Flames are discovered "bursting from a small window in the attic at the center of the north wing of the main building." The wing that houses the men's wards.
Gongs sound at Raleigh's four station houses: 112 W. Morgan St., 412 S. Salisbury St., 115 E. Hargett St., and 505 Jefferson St. Four hose companies and two "trucks" race to the scene in their motorized American LaFrance apparatus. (The last horse has been retired for more than a decade.) Upon reaching the hospital, located about a mile southwest of the State Capitol, Fire Chief Lewis Hicks is informed that the hydrants in front of the main building are connected to a twelve-inch water main. Good. He orders the 75' aerial ladder-- the "tiller truck," with a second person steering in the rear-- raised beside the window where "the flames are issuing." The Chief then goes inside, making a "personal inspection of the building, going into every room in the burning section" to ensure that the inmates are out. Inside, he finds many of the residents "hiding in closets, under beds, and between the mattress and the bed springs." Outside the smoke-filled structure, there's a problem. The streams from the aerial ladder can't reach the building, because the water mains supplying the pumper engines are too small. There's not enough wet stuff for the red stuff.
Between "900 and 1000 insane people" are removed from the building to safety, including "between 400 and 500 women" who are "marched, led, or carried" from their opposite quarters in the east wing. They huddle together at first, then start spreading out "over a cotton field," with some retreating "into a pine grove." Attendants and nurses try their best to keep the women together and "to quiet their fears." But for a while, "hysteria" threatens the entire group:
"In the faces of a few a faint light of reason still glimmered, for the most part their faces were blank or unmistakably stamped with a mad cunning. Distorted to such an extent that some of them resembled horrible masks rather than a human countenance, some depicted fear while other faces registered a vicious hatred. For the most part, however, there were more foolish and curious faces in the lot but the wild, mad light in their eyes was the same, stamping them one and all lunatics."
With insufficient water and the fire continuing to spread, the Chief and his men begin moving all the hose lines they've laid. The two and a half-inch, rubber-lined cotton hose is quite heavy, even with insufficient pressure. It's dragged from the east side of the main building to the rear, to a reservoir there. The four pumper trucks are also driven around back and connected to the 450,000 gallon supply. Water again flows, streams are again directed, but fire on the front of the building can't be reached from the west side. Alas, the north wing is ultimately lost, due to the "rapidity" of the spreading flames and "the little effect" that water has upon "checking their progress." With flames menacingly creeping toward the central section, Chief Hicks is urged to "dynamite" the thing, to separate the burning section from the rest of the building. ('Twas a common-- albeit drastic-- practice Back Then, using dynamite to check the progress of otherwise uncontrollable fires. Both in Raleigh, as happened in 1816, and in other North Carolina cities, such as during New Bern's great fire of 1922, when 40 blocks and 600 buildings burned on the day after Thanksgiving. Dynamite was utilized as was a railroad engine, to pull buildings down in the direction of the conflagration.)
During the firefighter effort, the "dangerously and criminally insane" patients are herded into another building and a "barbed wire pen." The inmates-- all male-- crowd close "to the iron bars of the windows and to the stockade fence, manifesting the same fear that animals show at fire." Of the female patients, safely grouped outside, their "crazed minds" begin to wander to religion:
"'There is no God. Nothing is Holy. Damn God,' shouted one woman hoarsely, following the remarks with a string of curses. 'God be praised. He will save us yet. He is taking care of us. Pray sister, pray,' shouted another. 'God started all this,' one blank little woman muttered. 'He thought He was starting something, but He didn't have anything to start it with.' Others joined their voices to the outcry. Paying no attention to each other, they pointed accusing fingers at the passers by. Standing bolt upright in the middle of the field at some distance from the rest, one woman called down all the wrath of God with terrible imprecations against the human race."
Chief Hicks ultimately rejects the explosion solution because of the amount of time required to (a.) move the "huge crowd of spectators" (b.) place and explode the dynamite and (c.) again direct water at the flames. Simply, it'll take too long. Plus, there's a possibility that explosion could throw fire into the very (main) building that they're trying to save! By this time, a call for assistance has been placed to Durham. At two o'clock, when it's seen the flames are "making rapid headway," the Durham Fire Department is summoned. One hour later, a pumper arrives, having "made the run from that city in forty-minutes." Two lines are laid from the arriving engine and they're turned on the north wall, which helps save a "large portion of this end of the wing." ("They handled themselves like old-time fire-fighters," says the Chief of Durham Fire Chief Bennett and Assistant Chief Cannaday.) Five fire engines are pumping from the reservoir now. In addition, a "large steam pump in the power plant" is brought into use and furnishes a pair of high-pressure hose lines. In all, fifteen streams are "played on the burning building." Mother Nature lends a hand, too, shifting the wind shortly before 3:00 p.m. Thus is saved the east wing of the building.
Volunteers comprised of spectators, nurses, and attendants, meanwhile, have started "removing furniture and other property" from the main building. Hundreds of students from nearby State College also assist, including members of the school's Reserve Officers Training Corps. In turn, they're augmented by troops from the North Carolina National Guard's 120th Infantry, who aid police officers as fire lines are required to "keep back the overgrown throng of folks" who flock to the asylum grounds to "witness the spectacular blaze." The inmates watch intently too. The imprisoned male patients, seeing fire growing closer and smoke rolling through the building, "strangely enough grow quieter." Later in the evening, the women patients quiet down. And are eventually returned to their undamaged quarters. The men's rooms are destroyed, however, and so the male inmates must be moved. They're marched "between a huge passageway composed of human beings joining hands, and carried to the State prison, where the criminally insane, numbering fifty-nine, will be kept for the present." (Later, the men will be returned to the hospital and temporarily housed "in a large chapel and other available space.") Even the aforementioned Mr. Brockwell assists in the extinguishing effort, first putting fire doors into operation in the building-- doors he obtained through legislative lobbying about ten years ago-- and, since said doors don't extend into the attic, manning a hose line with two others, Lonnie Lumsden and Prof. Charles B. Park.
At 3:30 p.m., firefighter's worst fears are confirmed: flames have spread to the main building and are "burning furiously under the roof." The cupola in the center of the main building bursts into flames and Chief Hicks directs "every available hose line" to the roof. Within minutes, the extension is extinguished. At 4:00 p.m., the blaze that once threatened the entire structure, is announced under control. At 5:00 p.m., two of the five pumping engines are shut down, no longer needed. Plus, the water supply is growing low. But even as the remainder of the fire is extinguished, two pumpers are kept at the hospital overnight, to "finish the work" and "guard against new outbreaks." (Few potential embarrassments are greater than for a fire company to be recalled to the scene of an earlier fire that has "rekindled.") Roads leading to the grounds are closely guard that night, too, as a couple of the female inmates are suspected of having strayed. (Some of the women are returned, "tired and weary," after making partial escapes.)
The origin of the fire is not immediately known, perhaps being a workman's blow torch that started it all, while soldering tin on the roof of the male quarters. (Remember, soldering was one of the suspected causes of the State House's destruction in 1831, which was destroyed along with a masterpiece marble statue of Washington by Italian sculptor Antonia Canova.) And that debate rages for days as hospital administrators publicly disagree with Chief Hicks later assertion that inmates started it. Much haranguing is also made of the water pressure and the lack thereof. So, hydrant testing is done. And, of course, there's the issue of a sprinkler system, on which everyone from the Governor on down has an opinion and a revised opinion. But the hospital is rebuilt, a sprinkler system is eventually added (though I haven't done the research yet to advise a date), and, as of this writing, hasn't burned down yet. And everybody lived madly ever after.
Copyright 2023 by Michael J. Legeros