Living Hell - Volume #2, Issue #10


September 11, 2002

Special Non-Memorial Edition!


  o Birthdays
  o Movie Review
  o The Night The Inmates Howled


Happy birthday to Brother Tim today!

And Nephew Nico turned one over the weekend.

Frosting-caked pics at http://www.legeros.com/fof/nicholas/

Movie Review

My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

My big, fat, Greek-American hand wrote the words


  "ethnically overbearing"

  "she's cross-eyed, for Christ sakes!"

And then I walked out.

The Night The Inmates Howled

*All quotations from the April 11, 1926 edition of "The News and
 Observer," except where noted

"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 pro-
position.  As sure as you live, if fire ever breaks out in institu-
tions 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 for-
mer 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 legis-
lative bodies, some members of which have tears in their eyes when
he's finished.  But still no sprinklers at "Dix Hill."  And thus the
exquisite irony in April of 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 Su-
preme 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 In-
sane 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 mo-
torized American LaFrance apparatus.  (The last horse has been re-
tired 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 con-
nected 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 build-
ing, 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, however, there's a
problem.  The streams from the aerial ladder can't reach the build-
ing, because the water mains supplying the pumping 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 cot-
ton 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

  "In the faces of a few a faint light of reason still glimmered,
   for the most part their faces were blank or unmistakably stamp-
   ed with a mad cunning.  Distorted to such an extent that some
   of them resembled horrible masks rather than a human counten-
   ance, 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 the hose lines they've laid.  The two and a
half-inch, rubber-lined cotton hose is considerably 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 sup-
ply.  Water again flows, streams are again directed, but fire on the
front of the building can't be reached from their new location.  Al-
as, the north wing is ultimately lost, due to the "rapidity" of the
spreading flames and "the little effect" that water has upon "check-
ing 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 Ra-
leigh, as happened in 1816, and in other North Carolina cities, such
as happened during New Bern's great fire of 1922, when 40 blocks and
600 buildings burned on the day after Thanksgiving.  Dynamite was u-
tilized as was a railroad engine, to pull buildings down in the di-
rection of the conflagration.)

During the firefighter effort, the "dangerously and criminally in-
sane" 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 out-
side, their "crazed minds" begin to wander to religion:

   "'There is no God.  Nothing is Holy.  Damn God,' shouted one wo-
    man 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

Chief Hicks ultimately rejects the explosive 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 begin directing
water at the flames.  Simply, it'll take too long.  Plus, there's a
possibility that the explosion could throw fire into the very (main)
building that they're trying to save!  By this time, a call for as-
sistance has been placed to Durham.  At two o'clock, as 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 por-
tion" of the wing.  ("They handled themselves like old-time fire-
fighters," says Hicks of Durham 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" has been brought
into use and is furnishing a pair of high-pressure hose lines.  In
all, fifteen streams are playing 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.

Meanwhile, nurses, attendants, and even assisting spectators have
started "removing furniture and other property" from the main build-
ing.  Hundreds of students from nearby State College also offer aid,
including members of the school's Reserve Officers Training Corps.
In turn, they're augmented by troops from the North Carolina Nation-
al Guard's 120th Infantry, who assist police officers with keeping
back "the over-grown throng of folks" flocking to the asylum grounds
to "witness the spectacular blaze."  The inmates pay attention, too.
The imprisoned male patients, seeing fire coming closer and smoke
rolling through the building, "strangely enough grow quieter."  Lat-
er in the evening, the female patients quiet down.  And are eventu-
ally returned to their undamaged quarters.  The men's rooms are de-
stroyed, 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 about
ten years ago through legislative lobbying-- 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., the firefighters 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 an-
nounced under control.  At 5:00 p.m., two of the five pumping en-
gines 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
for a fire company are greater than to be recalled to the scene of
an earlier fire.)  Roads leading to the hospital grounds are closely
guarded that night, too, as a couple of female inmates are suspected
of having strayed.  (And some of whom are returned "tired and weary"
after making partial escapes.)

The origin of the fire is not immediately known, perhaps a workman's
blow torch having started it all, while soldering tin on the roof of
the male quarters.  (Remember, soldering was one of the suspected
source of the State House fire in 1831, which was destroyed along
with a masterpiece marble statue of Washington by Italian sculptor
Antonia Canova.)  And debate on cause rages for days as hospital ad-
ministrators publicly disagree with Chief Hicks later assertion that
inmates started it.  Much haranguing is also made of 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, after seeing their words pub-
lished in the local papers, a *revised* opinion.  But the hospital
is rebuilt, a sprinkler system is eventually added (though I haven't
done the research to advise a date), and, as of this writing, hasn't
burned down since.  And everybody lived madly ever after.

Copyright 2002 by Michael J. Legeros




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