Fire News
| Home page | Hospital Fire Page | Victims List |

This transcription published with the kind permission of the Yankton Press & Dakotan.

Press & Dakotan
Yankton, South Dakota, February 16, 1899, Number 37.



Twenty-five Thousand Dollars of State Pro-
perty Licked up by Flames. A Win-
ter's Night Tragedy Which Af-
fects the Entire State

Talks with Survivors and Tales of Heroism.
The Coroner's Inquest. Story of Sun-
day Morning's Conflagration at
the Insane Hospital.


THE DEAD  [ Alphabetical list of victims and survivors .]
The following is a list of the insane women burned to death in the destruction of the laundry at the State insane hospital early Sunday morning:
KATE PLAVITZ, of Bon Homme county.
ELIZABETH STOLPHE of Davison county.
GAINI SWENSON of Kingsbury county.
MARTINA TENNISON of Lawrence county.
JULIA ERICKSON of Meade county.
MRS. HURLEY of Potter county.
MAGGIE LYNCH of Union county.
AUGUSTA BOERSE [Boese] of Lake county.
JANE KRONING of Pennington county.

These seventeen were all incurably insane and were the only persons burned of the 50 who were in the building destroyed.
MISS EMILY FARLEY, attendant, almost suffocated. Rescued by Miss Nesby, her room mate. Suffers from inhaling smoke, nervous shock and exposure to cold.
NETTIE MURPHY, attendant, suffers from nervous shock and exposure to cold.
The following is a list of the women attendants who had rooms in the destroyed building and who escaped from the flames.
MISS MARY PONSIN [spelled Poncin in remainder of article], head nurse.
MISS MARY POST, attendant

These ten young women except Mrs. Palmer who saved some clothing lost every article of wearing apparel and personal property which they possessed, escaping from the building in their night gowns, barefooted and bareheaded. Several of them lost money saved from salaries which was in their trunks. Miss Poncin lost $600 in certificates of deposit. Miss Farley is said to have lost $75 in this way. Miss Lowe lost $45. The attaches of the hospital yesterday raised $600 by popular subscription for the benefit of the women attendants whose effects were swept away by the flames. The businessmen of Yankton will be asked to contribute to this fund.
Neither the building destroyed nor the property it contained were insured and the loss is total. It is barely possible that the mangler and one or two other machines in the laundry may be worth repairing. The estimated value of the property destroyed is $25,000.
The building was completed in 1894 and was intended to be used only as a laundry. The walls were of Sioux Falls granite and the interior was finished in hard pine. There were two floors and an attic above the high basement. The legislature of 1893-4 was asked to appropriate money for a laundry building and a cottage, but only the laundry building appropriation was made. The insane hospital became so crowded shortly after the laundry was completed that Supt. Mead transformed portions of that building above the basement into a ward and there mildly insane women of the incurable type have been domiciled. Later the attic was fitted up for rooms for the attendants. The structure was in no sense fire proof and the stairway which ascended from the first floor to the attic was in the centre of the building, was very narrow and hasty exit was almost impossible. There were no fire escapes. Large entrances were placed on the east and west sides. It was a veritable fire trap and would never have been used for a ward except that it was absolutely impossible not to utilize it in that way. For its destruction no blame is attached to anyone. Every possible precaution against fire was taken. It was heated by steam and there was but one stove in the building and that was in the laundry in the basement, used for heating flatirons. When Mr. Runford the laundry man left the laundry at 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon there was no fire in the stove.
The destroyed cottage was located 400 feet north of the main buildling. The laundry of the hospital was located in the basement. The next floor above that was the day room or dormitory of the forty patients. The next floor above was the sleeping quarters or dormitory of the patients and on the attic or top floor were the location of the apartments and bed rooms of twelve nurses or attendants ten of whom escaped with their lives alone while the other two happened to be on night duty in the main building. Miss Mary Poncin the night attendant slept on the same floor with the patients. Her story of the discovery of the fire is told later.
Many people wonder why is was that the destruction of the building and its contents was so complete when there is water and some fire fighting apparatus at the hospital. The fire took the precaution as it were, to burn the bridges it crossed during its progress. The pipe which conveys steam from the boiler house in the main building to the pump house which is located near the artesian well, 600 feet away, passes through the basement of the destroyed cottage and the intense heat in that basement caused the steam pipe to burst and the pumps were rendered absolutely useless. There was only the pressure from the tank remaining and that was not sufficient to force water any considerable distance through hose. Two lines of hose were laid from the main building through a rear door, to the burning cottage, with wonderful despatch after the fire was discovered, but the water pressure was not heavy enough to make such efforts to suppress the flames effective. And then the fire spread with startling rapidity when once started, only fifty minutes being required in the total demolishing of the interior of the structure. The hard pine floors had been dressed repeatedly with paraffine [sic] which added to the inflammability of the wood work and caused the flames to leap from floor to floor in marvelous brevity of time. A strong wind from the northeast fanned the flames and caused the roof of a carpenter shop one hundred feet away to take fire. It was a combination of circumstances, which no human agency could have battled successfully against.
The fire evidently originated in the laundry drying room which was located in the northwest corner of the basement. The drying room is almost air right and in the floor directly under the drying rack, is a large coil of steam pipes, which is kept very hot in order to dry the clothes. Mr. Rumford the laundryman says that lint from the hundreds of articles dried collects near the steam coil being attracted thereto by the currents of hot air passing from the coil and that enough lint and combustible dust collected there to cause spontaneous combustion. Either that or a garment dropped from the enclosed drying rack to the steam coil, took fire and ignited the pine frame of the rack.
The whistle on the main building sounded the alarm at 10 minutes after 2, Sunday morning.
The thermometer at the rear of the main building marked 28 degrees below zero while the fire was at its heighth [sic], the mercury being then under the influence of the flames.
It is very improbable that the bodies of any of the victims will be recovered in such condition as to make recognition possible. A majority of the doomed women gathered or huddled in the northwest corner of the building and when the floors gave way fell in the red hot covern [sic], formed by the walls and the burning debris. To extricate them yesterday was not possible and it is expected that the flesh and bones will have been reduced to ashes. There is extreme danger that the walls of the building will fall and Supt. Mead will not permit men to work about the ruins until the walls have been dismantled by someone who understands that sort of work. It may be a week before what remains of the victims is brought to light.
Shortly after dinner Sunday Coroner C. C. Gross, went to the hospital and impannelled [sic] a jury consisting of W. S. Stockwell, Zina Richey and A. W. Petterson, for the inquest. Sheriff Hickey was present and R. E. McDowell was engaged to make a stenographic report of the proceeding. Dr. L. C. Mead, Miss Poncin, Mr. Rumford and other witnesses were examined.

Miss Mary Poncin, Tells How She Aroused the
Patients and Attendants and Gave the Alarm.

Miss Mary Poncin, the brave little woman with light hair and eyes, to whom ten attendants and twenty-three demented women owe their lives, could not restrain her tears yesterday afternoon while talking to a Press & Dakotan reporter about her thrilling experience of the night before. She did not want to talk and the reporter was obliged to be diligent and somewhat insistent before he succeeded in his efforts to get the story.
"I heard some one of the patients say 'I smell smoke' and I was awake right off. The smoke was very heavy in the hall where I slept and it smelled of burning cloth and wood. I jumped from my bed ans as quick as I could, awoke the patients, told them the building was on fire and to get out at once. Then I ran upstairs to the attic and called the girls sleeping there. The smoke was getting thicker every moment and I hurried down the stairs again to find the patients huddled in the hall, waiting for me. They knew I had the only key to the front door and nobody else could let them out. They were very quiet and pale as ghosts. I then took the night lamp and hurried down the stairway to the east door, the patients and the attendants from the attic, who had got down by that time crowding me every step of the way. I opened the front door and ran over to the engine house and gave the alarm. How many of the women in the building had come out with me I did not know. The night was very dark and I could not count them but I supposed all of the patients had escaped. The seventeen who burned must have become confused in the darkness and smoke and lost their way to the hall. They seemed to have huddled in the northeast room and suffocated there. I did not hear a sound from th epoor things during all the fire and I presume they suffocated very quickly. It all happened so quicly that I don't remember everything. I only know that every one of those women except Mrs. Palmer, got out with only her night clothing on and lost everything she had in the world.["]
Miss Nesby and Miss Mary Farley, occupied the same room in the attic. When Miss Poncin aroused them, Miss Nesby was the first out of bed and without waiting for anything started from the room, telling Miss Farley to hurry. Miss Nesby reached the first landing and supposed Miss Farley was just behind, but upon looking around was horrified to discoved [sic] that her room mate was not in sight. Miss Nesby dashed back up those stairs and into her room and found Miss Farley kneeling beside her trunk evidently trying to open it. The kneeling woman was almost stupefied with smoke and Miss Nesby was compelled to seize her by the wrist and half carry and half drag her down stairs and out of doors. Miss Farley suffered a severe nervous shock and was hysterical all day yesterday. Her feet were painfully frozen and her experience was in every respect terrible. She acknowledges her eternal gratitude to Miss Nesby.
When the engine house whistle sounded the alarm almost every person in the main building was awakened and without waiting to more than half dress, they hurried out into the frightfully cold night. Maurice Fitzgerald, the hospital farmer was the first man to reach the cottage from the main building. He saw right through the basement windows and running to the west side of that structure distinctly saw the flames in the laundry dry room. The fire was not burning briskly at that time but in the few seconds that Mr. Fitzgerald stood there, one of the panes of glass to the nearest window, burst with the heat and the wind entering fanned the flames and the entire basement was a blaze in a minute. Men from the barns and main building had begun to arrive and with their assistance Mr. Fitzgerald forced the west door off its hinges and went into the building hoping to rescue some of the women. All those who were to escape had gone out by the east door with Miss Poncin some moments before, however, and Mr. Fitzgerald turned to assist the people who were by this time dragging the hose from the main building.
Dr. L. C. Mead, superintendent of the hospital was among the very first to appear at the scene of desolation. He was clad in an undershirt, trousers, slippers and hat and he promptly took charge of the men who were dragging the hose out of the main building toward to [sic] fire. Two lines of hose were stretched, but it was not until the nozzles were pointed toward the conflagration that the horrible discovery was made that the pump hose pipe had burst and that only the tank pressure on the hose could be relied upon. The situation at this time was critical. Flames were leaping far out from the burning building and great blazing cinders were being carried by the wind across the intervening space toward the main building. Piles of old lumber between the burning cottage and the carpenter shop, 75 feet to the south, had caught fire and been extinguished and the roof of the carpenter shop itself was seen to be burning. Forty feet south of the carpenter shop is the new and handsome cottage just completed. While it is fireproof and unoccupied might have suffered the demolishing of windows and damage to its ornamental doors and cornice. There was great danger that the fire would spread and fears of such a catastrophe were not abated for two hours. The men with the lines of hose managed, however, to keep the lumber piles and carpenter shop wet and the threatening flames were kept within their original bounds. There was nothing for Dr. Mead and the others to do, except to stand by and witness the work of destruction, powerless to avert one atom of it.

That horrible night seemed of interminable length and the two hours in which the premises were alive with shivering humanity will never be forgotten by those who participated in them. The good order maintained and the promptness and courage with which the attaches of the hospital endeavored to aid the superintendent, speak volumes for the excellent discipline maintained at the hospital and the faithfulness to duty of those who have charge of South Dakota's insane. There was very little excitement among the patients in the main building, many of whom were awake and witnessed the conflagration from ward windows. There were a number of convalescents among the men who turned out to fight the fire and they were of material assistance. The patients of Ward 1 all turned out.
Ed. Donavan, supervisor, was but a few moments behind Maurice Fitzgerald in reaching the flames and he dashed into te building by the east door. The smoke was rolling from doors and windows in heavy black clouds at the time, but Mr. Donavan knew that some of the patients were still in the building and entertained a faint hope that some of them might be near the door and could be reached. He had not gone ten feet, however, before he was completely overcome by smoke and he fell to the floor, almost helpless. He had the presence of mind and strength however to roll toward the east door and succeeded in reaching fresh air very much exhausted. Another ten seconds in that building would have wound up his earthly career.
Hundreds of people in the city found the weather warm enough yesterday afternoon to permit them to look upon the remains of the greatest fatality and one of the heaviest calamities which has ever fallen upon South Dakota, and they rode or walked out to the hospital during the afternoon. All that they could see were the four smoke begrimmed walls of the once neat and attractive cottage, the windows gaping like the holes of a skull, and a vast pit of red hot debris. In the northeast corner of that pit the vertebrae and rib ends of a human being protruded through the ashes and tangled wires and iron rods and a faint sickening odor of burning flesh was wafted to their nostrils by the gentle breeze, a relict of the fierce wind of the night before. The scene was one of desolation and sorrow and the spectators gazed with horrified silence upon it. Among the hospital authorities and attaches gloom and heavy hearts prevailed and the usual cheerfulness about the big institution had given place to sincerest sorrow. In time, insane people find affectionate regard among those who minister to their comfort and welfare and attendants were heard expressing the deepest regret at the realization that this one or that one among the seventeen dead women would be seen no more on the premises.
Dr. Mead telegraphed brief information of the catastrophe to Gov. Andrew E. Lee, Lieut. Governor Kean, the speaker of the legislature in the house, members of the state board of charities and corrections, the Ladies' Board of Examiners, to county judges in counties where the burned patients lived early Sunday morning. Governor Lee reached Yankton from Pierre at 5:30 Monday afternoon. President Sibbison of the board of charities and corrections arrived at noon and Secretary Laughlin of the board together with a legislative committee now at Plankinton arrived Tuesday to make an examination and formulate a statement concerning the situation to the legislature. This fire is very liable to make considerable change in the matter of appropriations by the legislature. The burned cottage and contents must be replaced and the laundry established anew. For the present the washing will be done by hand in the basement of the new cottage and the ironing in the chapel of the main building. A new outfit of laundry machinery has been order[ed].

State Senator Edgerton was very fortunately in the city yesterday and will have a fund of information to take back to Pierre with him. Among other undertakings he will endeavor to secure an appropriation to reimburse the young lady attendants who lost property and money in the fire.
Conflagrations in state institutions at the Madison Normal School, Vermillion University, Plankinton Reform School and Yankton Insane Hospital within the past four years have caused a loss of $200,000 to South Dakota and not one cent of insurance has been received because no insurance is carried.

It is extremely fortunate that the new cottage, designed especially for the reception and care of the worst class of male patients, is completed and can be occupied. It can accommodate forty patients and relieve the crowded condition of the main building.
One of the pathetic incidents of the night was the entire confidence and faith which the twenty three demented women, who escaped from the burned building, exhibited in obeying and following Miss Poncin. They made not the slightest objection, were very quiet and carried out her instructions to the letter.

It was a peculiar fact that during the fire the telephone enunciator [sic] connecting the burned building rattled for five minutes without cessation. The cottage telephone number was 13. It is presumed that the telephone wires were melted and broken by the heat and in falling, caused the electric light wires of the main building and the light current being turned on, caused the telephone enunciator to drop and rattle.
Miss Nettie Murphy one of the attendants who escaped from the burning building, became so excited as to be impervious to cold and she was about in her bare feet, helping the men who were dragging the hose from the main building, for fifteen minutes before she was compelled to go in out of the freezing atmosphere.

Quiet and good order obtain at the hospital today.

Miss Heiberger, attendant, who slept in the destroyed cottage was warned by dreams of a fire and took her money to a friend in the main building for safe keeping. She dreamed of fire for three successive nights.

The penuriousness of past legislatures made the above calamity possible. Refusal to furnish additional and actually demanded room for patients compelled the use of this laundry building as a ward. It was not built for the purpose.


Additional information Concerning the Horrible Casualty
at the Insane Hospital on Sunday.

The excitement resulting from the destruction by fire and the burning to death of seventeen insane women at the state hospital for the insane on Sunday morning has in a great measure subsided and conditions are almost normal at the institution. Miss Farley, Miss Nettie Murphy and Miss Post and others of the attendants who escaped from the burning cottage and who suffered the freezing of their feet are rapidly recovering and will not suffer serious results. The patients on ward ten of the main building were moved to the new cottage yesterday and are now comfortably situated therein. It was necessary to purchase considerable bedding for the new quarters but there was little inconvenience as a result of the enforced change. The attendants who lost their clothing in the fire were downtown Monday purchasing entire new wardrobes.

M. R. Park of Sioux Falls, a builder, is on the hospital grounds looking into the matter of taking down the walls of the burned cottage which work must be done with extreme care, to prevent fatalities. A search for the remains of the burned patients will not be attempted until after those walls are removed. Dr. Mead is using every possible precaution to prevent further fatalities and it may be a week before the remains are exhumed.
W. A. Dow, architect, of Sioux Falls, is in the city and has, it is believed, been making estimates of the cost of a new laundry building, which it is hoped the legislature will order built at once.

Governor Lee went to the hospital immediately upon his arrival Monday afternoon and was an eager listener at the proceedings of the coroners inquest. He propounded some questions on his own responsibility. Governor Lee, State Senator Edgerton, and Representative Davison left for Pierre at noon.

President Sibbison and Capt. Davis of the state board of charities and corrections arrived Monday and G. W. Kingsbury, the Yankton member met with them Tuesday. A resolution was presented and adopted somewhat modifying the requests for new buildings in the annual report which has been presented to the legislature and asking for an immediate appropriation for a laundry building and machinery. Copies of this resolution were taken to Pierre by Senator Edgerton and Representative Davison and will be introduced in the legislature at once.

The coroner's jury continued to work at 1 o'clock this Tuesday and as the inquest continues it grows in interest. Coroner Gross is making a most thorough and exhaustive inquiry into the matter and it is probable that people who now reside in the city will be subpoenaed before the jury to give testimony. The testimony already taken will cover 100 pages of type written matter and the end is not yet.

Considerable talk is being indulged in by people about town concerning a patient's dance which occurred at the hospital on Saturday evening, and efforts are made to connect that affair in some way with the fire. Those dances occur every two weeks and terminate at 9 [?] o'clock, and are held in the chapel of the main building. The dance on Saturday evening had no more to do with the fire of Sunday morning than sun dogs have with the Yankton electric light system, and all talk concerning it is nonsense.

Mrs. Irma Davis Palmer, who was one of the attendants who escaped, was the last to leave the burning cottage. After Miss Poncin awoke her, Mrs. Palmer somewhat leisurely arose, lighted a lamp, packed some clothes in a sachel [sic], put on a skirt, slippers and a heavy jacket, secured her gold watch and sachel in hand, walked down the stairs. When she left the cottage the smoke was very dense. She hurried across to the main building taking about 3 minutes for that trip. Just as she climbed the rear steps into the main building, she turned and saw flames shooting out of the attic windows of the cottage. She did not realize until that moment, in what fearful danger she had been.

Press and Dakotan.
Thursday, March 9, 1899.
Subscription Price, One Dollar a Year When paid in Advance.

The present legislature has done a wise thing in providing money for improvements at the Insane Hospital. Seventy thousand dollars has been appropriated for improvements to consist of a new boiler house and heating plant, a new laundry building, and a building to be erected in the rear of the Main Hospital building, known as the rear center building to be used for kitchen and bakery purposes, a dining hall, amusement hall, sleeping apartments for employees, &c. These improvements, except the laundry, have been urgently demanded for the past four years, and even when completed, which will be several months hence, they will not add materially to the accommodations for patients, which are now overtaxed. The fact is the hospital has got way behind in the matter of accommodations for the insane and has been caring for about 75 more patients during the past year than it would have done, had the authorities in charge adhered rigidly to well settled principles and rules which govern the care of insane people in properly regulated institutions. The next legislature, we trust, will supplement the action of this one by furnishing funds for enlarging the hospital accommodation proper. Experience demonstrates that a certain percent of the population will go crazy. We have now about 475 insane and our population is not far from 475,000. As the population increases the number of insane will increase, and the hospital at Yankton can be safely enlarged to accommodate a thousand or twelve hundred patients before the state should take any steps to erect a second institution. Not only the soundest economy is found in a large institution as compared with two or more small ones, but the care and successful treatment of the patients is certainly promoted, and this after all is the prime purpose for which institutions of this character are maintained.