January 7th marked 73 years since the tragic St. Elizabeth’s fire occurred in Davenport, Iowa. A fire that not only changed safety standards locally but throughout the entire United States.
Forty female patients and one nurse perished that freezing cold night as firefighters, police, and hospital workers desperately tried to save them. The window bars and locked doorways meant to protect patients prevented help from reaching them in time.
Over the years, we have tried to learn about the women who died in that tragic fire. Today we are remembering Mrs. Anna Neal, the nurse who died trying to save her patients that fateful night.
Anna Rang was born in Germany on May 8, 1894, to Andrew and Mary Rang (most likely Andreas and Maria/Marie in German). It is believed she grew up in or near Euskirchen, Germany from newspaper reports, obituaries, and her death record. We’ve had trouble locating records of Anna or her family online. Possibly, if it is a small area, they have not been digitized or there is a chance the records were destroyed during World War II.
Anna would have been 20 in 1914 when World War I broke out. There is a possibility she may have married and been widowed with a son before she met American soldier Herman W. Miller about 1920 in either Euskirchen or Bonn, Germany.
Herman (also spelled Hermann) W. Miller was born in St. Louis Missouri on April 15, 1887. His family settled in Davenport in 1907 and Herman enlisted in the United States Army in 1915. By the start of World War I, he had achieved the rank of Sergeant and was deployed to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force. On July 25, 1918, at Chateau-Thierry, Herman was seriously wounded by a bullet to his hip and exposure to mustard gas. He returned home to recuperate at Camp Dodge in Iowa.
Herman remained in the Army with a promotion to Lieutenant and was sent back to Germany in 1920. It was during this time he married Anna Rang and their daughter Mary Ann was born in Bonn, Germany on January 12, 1921.
It is unknown when Herman returned to the United States, but we found Anna and Mary Ann arriving in the United States on the ship Cantigny on April 18, 1922, with other war brides and children. The family quickly settled in Davenport near Herman’s family.
Life was not easy for Herman due to his injuries, and he was moved to a Veterans’ Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925 as the mustard gas caused paralysis in his body. He died there on January 8, 1926. His remains were returned to Davenport and he was buried in Pine Hill Cemetery.
After being widowed, Anna took on work as a seamstress. Then on October 2, 1926, Anna married mechanic Herman E. Joens of Davenport who was divorced with three young children.
The 1930 U.S. Census finds the family living in Davenport. In addition to the three Joens children, there is a Herman Miller age 9 who is the stepson of Herman Joens. It is the only time we find a young Herman Miller listed living with Anna.
We found Herman W. Miller’s obituary in 1926 only listing his daughter Mary Ann and no other children. Young Herman is not listed on the ship manifest for his mother and sister’s immigration. One conclusion is he might have been born from a first marriage (or out-of-wedlock) of Anna and remained behind with other relatives (possibly his father’s family). As young Herman’s language spoken was German in the 1930 census it is possible he was visiting his mother and her family at this time.
Anna seems to have led a quiet, but busy life between 1926 and 1942. She raised her stepchildren and daughter and belonged to several women’s clubs. Then in February 1943, Anna Joens was granted a divorce from Herman on the grounds of Cruelty (a standard divorce complaint). Household goods were divided between the two and Anna received a one-time payment of $100 instead of alimony. As all children were grown, custody was not needed.
Anna took back the last name of Miller and began to work as a nurse. By 1947, she was a nurse at Clear View Sanitarium at 4117 Eastern Avenue. At this chiropractic institution, patients were treated for nervous and mental disorders according to their advertisements in local papers. The institution emphasized a modern home-like quality as well as its quality of being fireproof.
In 1948, Anna was told her mother was in poor health. Euskirchen was under British control and she applied to the British embassy to be allowed to visit her mother. Civilians could not move around Germany without permission during this time. The British and American embassies granted her 30 days to visit her mother with the requirement she provides her own food as few rations would be granted to visitors. Anna left on September 19, 1948, to return home for the first time since she left as a World War I war bride.
Upon her return in November 1948, Anna was interviewed about the conditions in Germany. Anna reported that she felt sorry for elderly Germans, but not for the younger generations who created the problems. She was hopeful some of her family might immigrate in the future.
It was also during the late 1940s that we find Anna connected to The Temple of Spiritual Unfoldment. The group originally met in the Vale apartments, but later moved to Odd Fellows Hall at 508 ½ Brady Street. Anna was listed as the director of the group. She gave talks at the service such as “The Conditions in Europe” after her trip.
On June 23, 1949, The Daily Times printed a marriage license taken out between Albert Neal of Albia, Iowa, and Anna R. Miller of Davenport. Albert was a thirty-three-year-old World War II veteran. How did the thirty-three-year-old and fifty-five-year-old met? We do have a guess.
We found the address used by Albert when filing his World War II bonus paperwork in May 1949 matches the address of Anna from the City of Davenport Directory of 1949 – 729 Western Avenue. The older Victorian home was owned by William L. Hamilton, a machinist at the Rock Island Arsenal. There was a small apartment or single rooms to rent in the home. It seems likely the two met as boarders in the Hamilton home.
It was around June 1949 that Anna left her employment at Clear View Sanitarium to take a job as a graduate nurse at St. Elizabeth’s.
Anna, dressed in her nursing uniform, started her job at 11:00 p.m. Saturday, January 7th, 1950. Her co-worker, Lucille Kalloway, described Anna’s physical features during the coroner’s inquest as being about 5 foot and slightly heavyset. She seemed to have some type of deformity to her left hip which caused her to walk with a limp. One shoulder raised higher than the other and Anna wore glasses to read.
A few co-workers would later indicate Anna seemed not herself at the start of the shift. She had asked for that night off, but was refused and was told she could have Sunday, January 8th off instead. Anna Neal was described as “huffy” or “depressed” as she started her duties.
Lucille Kalloway was to finish her shift in St. Elizabeth’s at 11:00 p.m. but stayed until 11:30 p.m. to assist Anna. It was taking longer for patients to settle for the night, especially Mrs. Elnora Epperly on the main floor. This young woman was a private patient prone to hallucinations. Elnora kept wandering into another patient’s room that night disturbing her as the nurses tried to get the women in their beds.
Finally, after taking Elnora back to her room several times, Lucille latched Elnora’s door shut with a hook so Lucille could continue to check on patients on the upper floors with Anna. She had already taken matches and cigarettes from Elnora as standard evening practice. They would be locked away until the next day when they would be given back to the patient.
No one knew that Elnora had obtained her husband’s silver lighter during his visit that day. A few hours later, Elnora believed she saw her husband being held against his will in another institution, St. Joseph’s. Trying to signal for help she lit a newspaper on fire with the lighter and waved it near an open window. Her curtains soon caught fire.
Anna Neal was on duty alone that night after Lucille left. A live-in aide, Josephine O’Toole, was asleep in her room on the second floor (third floor when looking from the outside). It was shortly after 2:00 a.m. when Anna heard Elnora crying and pounding on her door to be let out as there was a fire. Anna opened the door and the flames immediately escaped helped by the strong breeze coming through the open window.
Anna was faced with three floors of patients, locked doors, barred windows, no sprinkler system, and no fire escape plan.
Elnora, Josephine O’Toole, and a few patients on the main floor escaped. Anna continued to move room by room, floor by floor, trying to get the patients to leave. Some were able to follow her as she led them to the stairs in small groups while others refused to leave their rooms and crowded by windows screaming for help. The fire moved quickly throughout the building.
Eventually, Anna was overcome by the fire. Likely trapped, she retreated into an empty bedroom on the main floor. She was found lying on the floor near a bed by the firemen and carried to the hospital’s emergency room. There, she was officially declared dead. Her body showed signs of burns and smoke. Anna Neal had given her life to try to save her patients.
Anna was buried in Pine Hill Cemetery near her first husband Herman Miller. She left behind her husband Albert, daughter Mrs. Mary Ann Petersen of Davenport, son Herman Miller of Germany, her mother, four siblings, and four grandchildren.
Anna’s story does not end with the fire though. It was Lucille Kalloway who first spoke of Anna’s special abilities. She was described as a “fortune teller” by several people. Those meetings of The Temple of Spiritual Unfoldment included Anna asking those attending to write questions on pieces of paper that she would then answer. It seemed Anna could see into the future.
Those who knew her said she predicted the election of Harry Truman in 1948, the Rock Island Central Junior High fire (December 11, 1949), the Kathy Fiscus tragedy (California, April 1949), and a recent prophecy of severe flooding in the Midwest (which was ongoing in early January 1950). Several people came forward to verify the claims and mentioned how Anna had answered their questions when they asked her for help.
Why would Lucille have mentioned this special ability? About two weeks before the St. Elizabeth’s fire, Anna Neal predicted a large hospital fire would kill 40 – 50 people in Davenport. Her husband Albert stated he never attended her meetings, but she talked frequently about the predicated fire to him.
It seems that Anna knew events were coming, but not the cause or how to stop them. One can only imagine how Anna Neal felt as the fire began to spread in St. Elizabeth’s that night knowing she had predicted the event and outcome. Despite this, Anna had the courage to keep working to save the lives of others over saving her own.
(posted by Amy D.)
- The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 6, 1918. Pg. 9
- The Davenport Democrat and Leader, February 21, 1919. Pg. 9
- The Daily Times, February 24, 1919. Pg. 7
- The Daily Times, May 9, 1919. Pg. 9
- The Daily Times, October 28, 1920. Pg. 17
- The Daily Times, January 9, 1926. Pg. 4
- The Daily Times, October 4, 1926. Pg. 6
- The Daily Times, October 5, 1926. Pg. 10
- The Daily Times, December 31, 1937. Pg. 42
- The Daily Times, February 13, 1943. Pg. 4
- The Daily Times, August 24, 1948. Pg. 8
- The Daily Times, September 25, 1948. Pg. 10
- The Daily Times, November 24, 1948. Pg. 8
- The Daily Times, December 4, 1948. Pg. 12
- The Daily Times, June 23, 1949. Pg. 13
- The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 2, 1949. Pg. 11
- The Daily Times, January 7, 1950. Pg. 9
- The Davenport Democrat and Leader, January 8, 1950. Pg. 3
- The Daily Times, January 13, 1950. Pg. 21