Lost in the Great Fire

Death of black man went almost unnoted

February 05, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Call it history, urban myth, civic pride or boosterism, but for a century Baltimoreans have believed no one died in the Great Fire of 1904.

"Miraculously ... " says Robert Brugger, in his history Maryland, A Middle Temperament.

"Incredibly ... " says a writer in Firehouse magazine.

More cagily in his Baltimore on the Chesapeake, Hamilton Owens, a former editor at The Sun, says: "There were no deaths surely attributable to the fire ... "

Now comes Jim Collins, a recent Johns Hopkins University graduate, who believes he's found evidence that indicates at least one person died in the fire. Collins, 51, came to Hopkins to study history after a 30-year hiatus in his education while he ran restaurants in Washington, Annapolis and Los Angeles.

In doing research for his senior thesis on the business recovery after the fire, he came upon a small notice in The Sun from Feb. 20, 1904, a Saturday. The headline read: "ONE LIFE LOST IN FIRE," with a subhead explaining: "Body of Colored Man pulled from the Basin at Bowley's Wharf."

The Basin is what we now call the Inner Harbor. Bowley's Wharf was the first wharf east of Light Street.

The story said the charred remains of a man 30 to 40 years old surfaced on Feb. 17, 10 days after the start of the fire.

"The naval militia pulled the body out," Collins says.

He found another version of the story in an earlier edition of the Saturday Sun. But he scoured the other Baltimore newspapers without success. The account didn't even show up in The Afro-American. And no other story appeared in The Sun.

"Then I was doing some work six months later [in the Maryland State Archives], and I came across this death certificate," he says. Death certificates are on microfilm at the Archives in Annapolis.

Death certificate No. 66347 describes a 28-year-old black male who died of drowning, name "unknown." He was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital: "Body in bad condition and cremated."

A man named Martin signed the certificate. Collins couldn't make out the first name.

"I haven't been able to find anything at Hopkins," he says. "The body was disposed of at Hopkins, which leads me to believe the autopsy was done at Hopkins. The official record is the death certificate. There wasn't much left of the body apparently."

He speculates that with all the activity during the fire, people running in and out of burning buildings, 10,000 to 30,000 spectators, "this guy got caught." "Like a rat in a trap," is the supposition of the newspaper article.

"A building collapsed on him," Collins suggests, "and he either jumped into the water or the wharf collapsed and he got trapped underwater and drowned, and when the wharf collapsed on him, he burnt."

Collins thinks the dead man fell out of history largely because he was black. He just didn't count. There was no investigation, or follow-up stories in any newspaper. The fire occurred during the rise of Jim Crow in Maryland. A year earlier, the Democratic candidate for governor, running on a white-supremacy ticket, had called African-Americans "this ignorant race." He won. The segregationist Jim Crow laws that devalued African-Americans even in death lasted more than half a century longer.

Several white firefighters who died of bronchitis shortly after the fire were celebrated as heroes. And a few weeks later, when a building fell on a white businessman, his death was considered "a big deal," Collins says.

As for the black man whose body was recovered, Collins was unable to find out who transported the remains. "If one is going to try to connect a chain of evidence, I think that would be important," he says.

And he can't find police reports or missing-person records.

He acknowledges that the person described in the death certificate might not be the man found in the Basin.

"Then, in fact, we [would] have two possible casualties," he says.

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