It was December 22nd and the girls in Sister Theotima’s nativity scene readied for their dress rehearsal. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.
Sister Theotima motioned to her girls that it was time to go backstage to get dressed for their play. This was it – the big moment they had all been waiting for.
They went quietly up the aisle, behind the stage, then up the steps in that narrow stairway to a small dressing room. It was darker than usual. Normally, the room was lit by an electric light bulb, but for some reason it wasn’t working that day. A gas lamp had been lit instead. But the girls were so excited they didn’t even notice.
The first girls in had changed quickly and then went down on the stage to wait. The curtains were closed while another class performed its part of the program at the front of the stage, so Clara waited offstage with a dozen other girls, in the wings just below the dressing room. Lillian’s class was waiting backstage, too, and she waved across the stage at Clara.
Up in the dressing room, there were five girls left – Laura Menke, Mary Futterer, Margaret Werner, Bernadina Freund, and Lulu Bauman. They were laughing and giggling as they put the finishing touches on their costumes.
And then it happened, so fast that no one ever knew which little girl it was.
One of the girls brushed against the gas lamp in her lamb’s costume, and that touch of flame was all it took. In a single, horrifying flash, her cotton nightgown and the cotton batting were ablaze. She screamed and ran toward her friends for help, but the flames leaped from her clothing to theirs and spread with the speed of tinder. Within seconds, every child was ablaze. The dressing room was an inferno.
Down below, Professor Frank Musholt, was standing at the foot of the stairs to the dressing room when he heard one of them shriek, “Fire!” He turned and saw a flash of flame in the dressing room and leaped up the stairs. He was halfway up the stairs when Mary Futterer came tumbling down, a mass of flames. He ripped off his jacket and threw it around her to smother the flames, but crazed with pain and fright, she jumped out of his arms and rushed down past him – down into the group of girls standing in the wings. Laura Menke jumped through a small window in the dressing room, onto the stairs, and onto the stage.
Musholt ran up and into the inferno. Margaret Werner and Bernadina Freund were on fire from head to toe. With his bare hands, he tore the blazing cotton from them. He stripped them to the skin, but his efforts were futile. They sank to the floor in his arms.
In the meantime, Mary Futterer, who ran past him on the steps, had flung herself into the group of lambs and angels standing in the wings. Within seconds, their flimsy costumes too were ablaze and they were screaming in terror.
Sister Theotima heard the screams and ran toward the burning children. Father Andrew and Sisters Ludwiga, Radulpha, and Ephia also came running and without a thought of the burning flesh of their own hands and arms and faces, they tried to tear the burning clothing off of the girls. Even after “their own voluminous gowns and headdresses were burning” the brave sisters tore at the girls’ burning clothes. But the flames spread through the lace and cotton and silk like fire through a dry field of weeds. The girls ran this way and that in their terror, which only fueled the flames.
Across the street, Mrs. John Happekotte was dusting and had her window open. As she looked across the street to the school, she saw a girl rush past a window on the top floor of the building, her clothing ablaze. It was Mary Hickey in her lamb’s costume.
Mrs. Happekotte cried out to her mother-in-law that the school was on fire. They would have called the fire company themselves, but, like most people, they still had no telephone. So the two women did what they could. They rushed from the house, ran down to Gehring’s butcher shop at the comer of 18th and Vine and asked him to telephone for the fire department. As they walked out of the meat shop, Mary Hickey ran toward them, her clothes still on fire. She collapsed unconscious into the arms of Mr. Gehring, just as Police Chief Ahern arrived.
Inside the school, Helena Soebbing , her costume ablaze, rushed from behind the curtain, leaped over the footlights, and ran to where her four sisters were sitting in the audience. Her oldest sister Clara – 13 years old – tore the burning clothing from her sister’s body and then with amazing presence of mind piloted all of her sisters, the youngest being six, safely out of the building and home.
Clara Koesyan was with Sister Theotima’s class waiting in the wings. But Lillian, from across the stage, saw the flaming girls come down the steps and toward the group. Clara stood frozen, but Lillian ran and grabbed her sister by the hand and pulled her away from the group.
“Quickly, Clara!” she cried. “We have to move quickly!”
Lillian ran to the front of the stage, jumped off and onto the top of the piano, then down onto the bench. Then she turned and caught Clara as she did the same, and the two of them joined the throng of children trying to get out of the building.
After the first cry of “Fire” from behind the stage curtain, the panic began in the audience.
At the command of their teachers, 500 children in the audience headed for the single door that would take them to safety. They pushed and shoved their way down the two flights of stairs. Nine-year-old Oscar Kathman leaped out a window from the third floor more than 40 feet to the ground below and his only injury was a broken finger. George Middendorf, 12 years old, slid down the banister. Screaming and crying, children poured out onto the street and ran for home.
Lillian and Clara raced down Vine Street, the five blocks to their home. And it was only when they stopped breathless in front of their house that Lillian realized she had left Emma’s coat back at school, back in the cloak room where she so carefully hung it up that morning.
“Mama’s going to be so angry,” she cried. “She’ll spank me for sure.” Then she took Clara by the hand again, led her upstairs to their bedroom, and they slid under their bed. There they hid, so Mama wouldn’t be able to find them and spank Lillian for leaving the new green coat behind.
Back at the school, it was all over in less than 10 minutes.
The firemen arrived, but there were no flames to fight. Instead, Fire Chief Schlag directed his men to remove the blankets from the teams of horses to cover the dead.
Four children lay dead on the stage: Irene Freiburg, Mary Wavering, Mary Althoff, and Coletta Middendorf. The firemen wept as they carried the four small bodies out into the hall and covered them with the blankets.
On the second floor, in one of the classrooms, desks were pushed together into makeshift beds. The firemen placed blankets on the desks and one by one, carried down six more little girls. Like Helena Soebbing and Mary Hickey, several more of the burned children had run for home. The firemen who weren’t inside the school raced down the street to Schmeideskamp’s drugstore for supplies. There they met Peter Pinklemann, who told them to buy every bandage and every bottle of lotion in the shop and he paid the bill. The Miller and Arthur drugstore sent an extra supply of bandages as soon as they heard about the tragedy.
As if the community could not endure the heartbreak, the next day The Quincy Daily Journal on page 8 stated simply: “Tragedy At St. Francis School.”
Carolyn Rapp is a writer, storyteller, book lover, traveler, and mother of three grown children. She lives with her husband, Michael Rapp, in McLean, Virginia. She also is the author of Garden Voices: Stories of Women & Their Gardens, published by Water Dance Press.
By and copyright © Carolyn Freas Rapp
Thanks to the Quincy Public Library for allowing use of images from the Quincy Area Historic Photo Collection.
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