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What we lost in the Fire

Woman's Literary Club of Baltimore, ca 1900.

Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore, pamphlet, ca 1900.

This past summer, I was one of five Loyola University students that conducted research on the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore. The club, which met on Tuesday afternoons between 1890 and 1920, was only a small part of the nationwide movement of women’s clubs to emerge after the Civil War. Most of them served as outlets for intellectual pursuit, and the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore was no exception; although nominally devoted to the study of literature, their meetings covered such a wide arrange of topics as colonial history, archaeology, and current topics.

The minutes of their meetings were meticulously kept, and are housed at the Maryland Historical Society. Most of our research was transcription. With the end of the summer in sight, and still years worth of minutes to be transcribed, we decided to hone in on some key time periods of interest. One of these, of course, was 1904—the year of the Great Baltimore Fire. One of the worst conflagrations in United States history, it raged in central Baltimore on February 7th and 9th of that year.

SVF - Baltimore - Fires & Explosions - Baltimore Fire - View sou

Baltimore Fire – View south on Light Street after fire, 1904, Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

Amazingly, the Club met Tuesday, February 9th, the very day after the fire ended. The fire had hardly been under control for twenty-four hours. “Few members were present,” the recording secretary wrote. “But the president decided that the record of our meetings should be kept unbroken.” Only a portion of the program was therefore given, under the auspices of the Committee on Drama.

But what shocks me about the minutes from this time period is that, save this one meeting, there is not a single other reference to the devastation in the season. Here’s what they do have to say about it, though:

“In a few strong words, [Mrs. Wrenshall] alluded to the great financial loss, from which we must all suffer; but pointed out the comfort that was ours, in the dauntless spirit shown by the people. Especially, she thought, should we unite in thanks, to the press which had risen so wonderfully above the difficulties of the time, to give the public information and cheer. The magnitude of the loss Baltimore had sustained, was almost incredible. The city had been laid low; but we had been spared the worst and greatest agony, in that, there had been no sacrifice of human life, except in one instance. Had the fire begun on any day but Sunday, what horrors would have been added. There could be no shadow of doubt that much of the great misfortune, must be laid to the charge of building those high structures which helped to carry the force of the fire beyond all human reach.”

That’s it—one paragraph. What interests me most in this account is the reference to the loss of life “in one instance.” I’m from Baltimore, sort of (the county). My elementary and middle school, The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, allegedly owes its existence to the fire. But the narrative of the fire I’d grown up with held that not a single person perished in the blaze.

SVF - Baltimore - Fires & Explosions - Maryland National Guard 1904.

Baltimore Fire, Maryland National Guard, 1904, Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

So I did some poking around. In his volume, The Great Baltimore Fire, Peter B. Petersen notes that no one challenged this claim until 2003, when an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University by the name of James Collins, dug up a story in the February 17th issue of The Sun, entitled “One Life Lost in Fire.” The story reported that the charred remains of an African American man were pulled out of the basin—that is to say, the harbor. We don’t know his name.

The story slipped under the radar, and went practically unnoticed. Peterson theorizes, “Officials may not have deemed a single black life sufficient in 1904 to warrant undercutting the supposed—and astounding—lack of deaths related to the fire.” But not even the Afro-American reported it.

And the women of the Club couldn’t have been referencing it either. The body was found a full week after their meeting. Whose death they were referencing is beyond me. It could have only been hearsay. But, more likely, this only supports my longstanding hunch that we lost more in the fire than we think.

(Hunter Flynn)

Hunter is a senior English major at Loyola University. He and fellow classmates Sydney Johnson, Katie Kazmierski, Clara Love, and Ellen Roussel spent this past summer in the MdHS library transcribing records from the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore Collection. Read more about their work on the Aperio Log which “recounts the archival adventures of the summer 2017 research team for the project “’Right and Serious’: The Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore, 1890-1920.” The research will eventually become part of the Aperio Series of Humane Texts.

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