The St. Elizabeth’s Tragedy: Part II of II

Please click here to read Part I.

During the cold dark morning hours of January 7, 1950, St. Elizabeth’s, part of the Mercy Hospital Complex, had caught fire, placing 63 patients and 2 staff members in danger.*

Before fire fighters and police arrived, several people from the complex attempted to rescue patients from the burning building. They’d been stopped by the interior locked doors on the main floor as they tried to enter through the lobby.

Patients were seen in the windows trying to escape, but they, and their rescuers, were hampered by security bars. Several witnesses ran to Mercy Hospital’s maintenance room in hopes of getting a blow torch or saws to use on the bars. That room was locked and they were unable to gain entrance to the tools.

As firemen and police arrived they used their keys to attempt to open the window bars from the outside. Others went into the building through the basement doors and tried to go up that stairwell as the main lobby area was filled with smoke and fire.

In the middle of the building, a dumb waiter ran from the basement to the third floor. Rescuers who attempted to enter the basement reported to the Corner’s Jury Inquest that flames had been coming out of the dumb waiter, quickly preventing them from reaching the far side of the room to access the stairs to the upper floors in a rescue attempt.

The wind also hampered firefighting efforts that night. A strong wind blew smoke around the building making it hard to see patients in the windows. It also caused the fire to spread more quickly.

St. Elizabeth's on Fire with trucks
St. Elizabeth’s Fire. Photo courtesy of The Quad City Times.

Within twenty minutes of the arrival of the first fire truck, the blaze was out of control. Forty minutes after the first alarm, the entire structure was on fire. It took about two and a half hours for the fire to be put out. No other building on the property was lost.

The heavy loss of life came as no surprise: Forty patients and the night supervisor, Mrs. Anna Neal, died.  Mrs. Neal was found by firemen in a patient’s room on an upper floor. It appeared to the firemen that she had gone to help the other patients, but lost her own life in the process.

Only twenty-three patients and Nurse’s Aide Josephine O’Toole survived.

Davenport Police and Fire Departments and Iowa state investigators immediately began to search out the source of the fire and the reasons it had spread so quickly.

Hospital rumors began circulating that a female patient at St. Elizabeth’s claimed she had started the fire. The woman, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, had voluntarily entered St. Elizabeth’s as a patient on December 12, 1949 and was set to be released January 7th of 1950.

Later, her comments were reported at the Coroner’s Inquest.

In the early morning hours of January 7, 1950, the twenty-two year old female patient was in her room on the main floor of the building. In her possession was her husband’s silver lighter, inscribed with his initials; it had been missed during the routine bedtime search for cigarettes and matches.

On most nights her room had remained unlocked. Things changed that evening with the latching of her door: the evening nurse reported she had to secure the room during the bedtime check, as the woman kept leaving her room to go into other patients’ rooms.  The nurse was alone on duty and worried about the patient’s safety if she roamed while the nurse was caring for the patients on the upper floors. The evening nurse went off duty at 11:30 p.m. and was not involved in the fire.

The patient stated that she had looked out of her window and had seen her husband being held against his will in the building across the way. She tried to get his attention, but could not. She also could not leave her room as the door had been latched, which added to her fears.

At about 2:00 a.m., the patient used the lighter to light a newspaper on fire. She waved it in front of the window to attract help for her husband’s imagined plight. As she did so, her curtains caught fire.  She opened the window, inadvertently fanning the flames, and then went to her door and began to pound and call for help.

When Mrs. Neal opened the door, the patient first ran to another patient’s room to tell her to get out, then ran to the parlors near the lobby. The parlor door leading to the lobby was locked. The patient stated that she dropped the lighter and broke a glass door pane. She reached through the broken glass and opened the door from the other side, cutting her hand in the process.

She exited the building and was found walking outside. The patient was taken to the ER for stitches and began telling the staff that she had started the fire.

As the investigators continued to search for answers, they found evidence to support her story: a silver lighter with initials engraved on the bottom that matched the patient’s husband’s initials was located in the parlor area, not far from a door with a broken pane of glass and blood on a piece of glass and door jam.

Several witnesses stated the fire was first spotted coming from a window on the main floor just north of the fire escape on the east side of the building. The room belonged to the patient in question.

The Corner’s Jury Inquest led to the calling of a Grand Jury to determined whether the patient would be criminally charged with the deaths of forty-one persons.

The Grand Jury convened in the beginning of February 1950. Their findings matched those of the Corner’s Jury Inquest. The patient, who had been transferred to Mt. Pleasant State Hospital, had been declared insane by doctors.  Due to the declaration of insanity, a trial was not pursued.

The tragedy of the St. Elizabeth’s fire brought into focus the dangers of older public structures. The interior of the building was wood lathe and plaster construction with wood wainscoting in the rooms—all extremely flammable. The space between the plaster and exterior wall allowed the flames to travel quickly up to the attic area. It is believed that the open window allowed wind and air into the room that fed the fire. The door to the patient’s room was also likely left open which accounted for the flames traveling so quickly into the hallway.

By chance, the room in which the fire started also had an opening for the dumb waiter. The fire traveled quickly through the shaft, spreading in both directions to the upper floors and the basement.

Other factors that allowed for the spread of the fire included the uncapped chimney flues, which allowed flames easy access to the upper floors, while the fire fed off fresh paint and varnish which had been applied only a few months before.

The converted attic only had one stairway, narrowing the path of escape. The locked bars on the windows prevented those on the lower levels from leaving as well.

In addition, the decision had been made to delay the installation of a sprinkler system, for financial reasons.

St. Elizabeth Day After Fire
After the fire. January 7, 1950. Photo courtesy of The Quad City Times.

St. Elizabeth’s was never rebuilt. By 1955, Mercy Hospital decided that it would no longer provide long-term psychiatric care; St. John’s, St. Elizabeth’s counterpart for male patients was torn down.

As for the deceased, sixteen bodies remained unclaimed after the fire. Some were too badly burned to identify and others had no family. These women were buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery on the Mercy Hospital grounds, alongside the Sisters of Mercy who had passed before them.

St. Elizabeth’s fire remains one of the greatest tragedies in Iowa history.

(Posted by Amy D.)

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*The information in this post was obtained through the interviews conducted for the St. Elizabeth Hospital Fire Inquest – Microfilm 977.769 Cor.

The St. Elizabeth’s Tragedy: Part I of II

In the early morning hours of January 7, 1950, as frigid winter temperatures were made harsher by a strong wind, Mercy Hospital night orderly Murray Francis noted an eerie light glowing outside. Shortly after 2:00 a.m., he activated an alarm.

St. Elizabeth’s was on fire.

St. Elizabeth's Summer 1949 Close Up
St. Elizabeth’s during the summer of 1949. The chimneys in the rear of the photo were part of the separate laundry building.
Photo courtesy of The Quad City Times.

St. Elizabeth’s was part of the Mercy Hospital complex in Davenport. Built around 1874, it housed psychiatric patients along with a few surgical patients when space was needed. St. Elizabeth’s was primarily used for female patients, while male patients resided in St. John’s, which served a similar function.

Both buildings were four story structures. The basement was at ground level with an elevated main floor that was reached by walking up a flight of outdoor stairs to a lobby. Once inside the lobby there were interior doors that were kept locked at all times for patient security.

By 1950, the main floor housed parlors along with rooms for “acute” patients. These patients were staying in the hospital on a voluntarily bases for psychiatric needs or were post-surgical cases. The second and third floors (which when looking at the building from the outside would appear to be the third and fourth floors) housed long-term committed patients. The top floor was actually a converted attic with only one stairway to access it.

The interior of the 75 year old building had recently been freshened up during the summer of 1949 with new paint, new electrical wiring, and other updates. However, installation of a fire sprinkler system had been delayed due to finances.

The outside of the building looked similar to its earlier days. One physical change over the years had been the removal of two large chimneys that were taken down when a new heating system was installed. While the chimneys were removed from the exterior of the building, the interior chimney flues remained uncapped in the converted attic, which would prove to be a dangerous mistake, later.

For patient safety, bars had been installed on the windows of the upper three stories. The bars could only be unlocked from the outside. The nuns, nurses, and local fireman carried keys to unlock the bars in case of emergency.

St. Elizabeth’s was a self-contained unit that allowed patients to move about freely between their in-house therapy appointments.  For the most part, doors to the patient rooms were not locked at night except when needed for patient safety.

Patients were even allowed to smoke in their rooms or the parlors. The night nurse gathered the cigarettes and matches during final rounds and locked them away until the next day.

According to the book, From Simplicity to Elegance: The Story of Mercy Hospital, Davenport 1869-1994 by Sister Mary Brigid Condon (SC 362.11 Con) on the night of January 6, 1950, there were 63 patients in St. Elizabeth’s under the care of RN night supervisor Anna Neal. No other staff was on duty, though Miss Josephine O’Toole, an off-duty live-in nursing aide, was sleeping in her room on the second floor of the building. If there were any problems Mrs. Neal was to awaken Miss O’Toole for help.

But later, during the Scott County Coroner’s Jury Inquest,* Miss O’Toole testified that she was not awakened by Mrs. Neal on the morning of January 7th , but by the sounds of screams coming from elsewhere in the building,  shortly after 2:00 am.  As she left her third floor room, she reported, the hallway was already filling with smoke.

St. Elizabeth Entrance on Fire
Front entrance to St. Elizabeth’s. Note firemen from different departments fighting fire.
Photo courtesy of The Quad City Times.

Second Assistant Fire Chief Harry Lange reported to the Corner’s Jury Inquest that the first alarm call came into Central Fire Station at 2:06 a.m. Fireman Philip Axelrod stated to the Inquest he was part of Fire Engine Company 6, the first truck to arrive on scene a few minutes after the call came in.

Fireman Axelrod noted flames were shooting out of a window on the main floor just north of the fire escape on the east side of the building when his truck arrived. The flames were already reaching up to the roof from the outside. Two more fire engines arrived along with a ladder truck to the first alarm.

It was immediately apparent that extra resources were needed and a second alarm was called for additional trucks. That brought three more engines and another ladder truck to the scene. Soon a third and fourth alarm were called as the fire quickly spread throughout the building. Not only were fire fighters trying to rescue patients inside and put out the St. Elizabeth fire, but the surrounding buildings also needed protection from the flames. The two buildings in closest proximity to the fire were the hospital laundry and the convent.

Soon over one hundred fire fighters from all over the area were battling to not only put out the fire, but save the 63 patients trapped behind the iron bars and locked doors that prevented their escape as flames swept through the building.

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*St. Elizabeth Hospital Fire Inquest – Microfilm 977.769 Cor . The Inquest took place on February 2 and 3, 1950.

Please click for Part II.

(posted by Amy D.)

The Beginning of Mercy

On December 7, 1869 the first patient entered the new Mercy Hospital situated on the outskirts of Davenport. Started by the Order of the Sisters of Mercy , the hospital and its grounds would play a pivotal role in the physical and mental health of the local community.

Before it became a hospital, the grounds once housed the Academy of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, run by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This private school for young ladies opened in July 1859 in a beautiful brick building on land surrounded by fruit trees.

However lovely the grounds, the effort to transport their children to the edge of the city and back seems to have been a deterrent to parents. By 1861 the Sisters of Charity moved the school to a more central location on Brady Street, where the school flourished.

An advertisement in the Davenport Daily Gazette, March 7, 1865 describes the 10 acres and main building for sale for the “bargain price” of $9,000 (roughly $130,000 in today’s dollars).

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It wasn’t until 1869 that the property was given to the Sisters of Mercy to start a hospital.  Ten additional acres were donated by a neighbor and the Scott County Board also provided a loan of $2,000 to remodel and make necessary improvements to the building.

The December 7, 1869 Davenport Daily Gazette described the large brick building and the twenty acre grounds. The Sisters had also created a medical board of local physicians and surgeons to staff the hospital.

Patients were either private, paying for their own rooms, or county patients, who were cared for in a dormitory environment. It was noted in the December 7th article that private and county patients were to be kept separate, but provided equal care. It was estimated 200 patients could be cared for at one time.

At the time, Mercy Hospital was unique. Not only were  patients treated for physical ailments, but the building housed psychiatric patients as well. Later, two dedicated psychiatric buildings would be added to the growing Mercy Hospital complex: St. Joseph’s for men and St. Elizabeth’s for women.

Mercy Hospital

Mercy Hospital grew quickly over the years, providing both physical and psychiatric care. In 1994, Mercy and St. Luke’s Hospital merged to form the Genesis Health System. Mercy Hospital was renamed Genesis West.

145 years later, the land  on which Mercy Hospital began is surrounded by local neighborhoods and schools and it is difficult to imagine it as twenty acres of trees and gardens.

Yet the hospital continues to be a place of healing—a fine legacy for the Sisters who offered Mercy to those in need.

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