Thursday, February 20, 2020

The L. Fish Furniture Fire on March 25, 1910, Chicago.

L. Fish Furniture was established in 1858 by David Fish and is one of the oldest Furniture Companies in the United States. Shortly before the Civil War, David Fish opened his first furniture store in Chicago. To honor his wife Lotta, David used her first initial in naming the new company, "L. Fish Furniture." 
L. Fish Furniture was in business during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and before the light bulb was invented. Fish lost their Chicago stores in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and rebuilt them. They survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the 1970s Energy Crisis. 

For over 160 years, five generations have carried on Mr. Fish’s tradition of offering the best quality furniture at the lowest price. Mr. Fish’s great, great-grandson operates its 170,000 square foot furniture and mattress store in Indianapolis, Indiana, today.

It's Friday, March 25, 1910, at the L. Fish Furniture store on Nineteenth Street and Wabash Avenue when the company’s auditor asks an office boy to go down to the fourth floor and fill three cigar lighters with benzene. As he was filling the third lighter, the benzene bursts into flame, and he ran out of the building and headed for the alley behind the building, telling no one what happened.
Part of the building was used as a storehouse, and the furniture for sale, which was packed-in on every floor, furnished the fuel for the fire which spread at an alarming rate. About seventy-five people were at work in the building. 

Sigmund Fish was ascending in the elevator and was between the third and fourth floors when the thermostatic apparatus that controlled the doors opening was released by the heat. Fish heard a click. The doors crashed shut. Fish and Geiner, the elevator manwere prisoners. The sliding elevator doors jammed when Fish tried to open them. In the frenzy of his excitement Fish tore one of the doors from its fastenings, burst open the elevator's fire door, and ran through the third floor, shouting an alarm. 

The flames, however, cut off all escape routes on floors four through six. Luckily, the employees on the first three floors were able to make it to safety. 

A "4-11" alarm was turned in, and all the downtown fire companies hurried to the scene. When they reached it, the flames had apparently got to the point that it made it impossible to save the building. Still, several firemen endeavored to enter the building, but were overcome by the smoke and heat and had to be assisted out.

Miss Ethel Lichtenstein was one of the first to reach the stairway. Panicked, she ran away from the stairway towards a window and leaped out, striking the edge of the glass awning at the main entrance, and sustained injuries from which she died at St. Luke's hospital half an hour later.

A number of other girls employed by the company escaped by the stairways but sustained severe injuries. How many were hurt is not known. The fire caused a small panic at the Columbus hotel, a small hostelry adjoining the Fish building, but so far as is known none was injured.

Miss Lichtenstein and the other girl victims were near rescue just before Miss Lichtenstein leaped to her death. The girls were leaning out of the front windows on the sixth floor of the building when the firemen put up a long ladder. Then several firemen started up. When they were halfway, a sudden explosion forced a wall of flames out of the front windows on the fourth floor, blocking their further progress. A few moments later Miss Lichtenstein jumped.

William Peterson and John Schmidt declared the fire had started as the result of a lighted match being dropped into a can of benzene when the boy tried to fill a cigar lighter.

Dr. William Kinsley was badly burned about the face and hands while trying to rescue Miss Lichtenstein and the other girls. He told a thrilling story:

"When I reached the scene," Kinsley said, "the upper floors of the building are a mass of flames. Hanging out of the windows on the sixth floor were five or six girls screaming for help." "For God's sake, save us," they cried. I ran into the building and got as far as the third floor before the fire drove me out.

As I came into the street again, I saw the Lichtenstein girl at the sixth-floor window. She threw up her hands and screamed "LOOK OUT," and the next moment she plunged headlong from the sixth floor. She struck the glass canopy over the front entrance, and her body became lodged in the heavy glass. When we got her to the ground, her face was terribly burned and her body was badly cut and bleeding.

By the time the firemen got their ladders against the front of the building, it was too late and the escape for the people on the sixth floor was cut off.

Shortly before the ruins had collapsed sufficiently enough to allow the firemen to search for bodies. By 12:30 am. all hope that any of the missing persons were still alive had been abandoned. 

First, they came upon the bodies of three girls. All were burned beyond recognition. The fire burned so hot, that the arms and legs of the victims had been entirely burned off. Fifteen minutes later the bodies of two more girls were found and the bodies of two men. 

Eleven bodies have been recovered from the ruins, and one victim, Miss Ethel Lichtenstein, dies after she had plunged to her death in an effort to escape the flames.

Fish, Isaac.
Geiner, Elevator Operator
Kinsley, M.D., William, badly burned about hands and face.
Peterson, William.
Schmidt, John.

Anderson, Ethel, Stenographer.
Bell, Minor, Advertising Agent.
Bruche, Rosa, 17yo, Stenographer.
Burden, Hannah, Foreman.
Green, William, Porter.
Lichtenstein, Ethel,16yo.
McGrath, Veronica.
Mitchell, Herbert M., brother-in-law of Mr. Simon Fish.
Quinn, Gertrude, 20yo, Private Secretary of Mr. Simon Fish.
Sinclair, Bert, Clerk.
Sullivan, Lillian.
Wargo, Mary, Clerk.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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