Mayor's death, blaze still linked in mystery

McLane: Baltimore's young leader guided the city through disaster, and months later died of a gunshot. Was it suicide or murder?

The Great Baltimore Fire

February 07, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Robert M. McLane guided Baltimore through the Great Fire of 1904 and led a bold rebuilding effort. The 36-year-old blue-blood mayor found time, too, to sneak off and secretly marry a socialite hailed as one of the city's most beautiful women.

Then on May 30, less than four months after the flames were doused, he shared a laugh with his bride at their West Preston Street home, walked into his dressing room and, according to a coroner, shot himself in the head with a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver.

Did the fire kill McLane? A city determined to revive itself now had to struggle with the sudden loss of a promising young leader at a time it needed him.

Forever, the story of Baltimore's largest disaster and the mystery of the mayor's death will remain linked.

The devastating blaze began 100 years ago today when a cigar or cigarette fell into the basement of the John E. Hurst & Co. dry goods building near present-day 1st Mariner Arena. It was a cold and breezy Sunday, and the city was soon aflame.

The 30-hour fire transformed downtown. About 80 blocks and more than 1,500 buildings were ruins reminiscent of an earthquake's aftermath. Damage was put at more than $125 million - worth an estimated $2.5 billion today. Miraculously, just five deaths are attributed to the fire, either directly or as a result of pneumonia contracted from battling the flames.

A century later, the fire's lasting mark is clear around downtown, from a widening of Pratt Street and other roads, to edifices like the B&O Railroad's grand Charles Street headquarters building.

Far murkier is the mystery, nearly lost to time, of McLane's demise. Is it true, as many felt then, that the outwardly happy and newly married mayor broke under the strain of the catastrophe and its tense aftermath?

No one really knows what happened to him. Some of his descendants, along with a federal bankruptcy judge, doubt he committed suicide. Their theories range from a freak accident to suspicion that his new wife, Mary Van Bibber, did the deed.

Even those who accept that he died by his own hand cannot fathom how the fire could have driven him to it.

The Baltimore of 1904 had a bright future as an economic powerhouse, thanks to its railroad, shipping and manufacturing industries. The key question seemed to be how much stronger it would emerge, and the progressive McLane was in a good position to shape that future.

"All the indications were he was going to play a strong leadership role in leading the city out of the disaster of the fire," said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist. "It's very hard to believe it's the fire that leads him to suicide. It's much easier to believe the fire invigorated him."

If answers are hard to find, a look at the fire through McLane's eyes offers a glimpse of an energetic mayor who tried - but didn't always succeed - to do what he thought was right.

"He's the tragic figure in all of this," said Peter B. Petersen, a Johns Hopkins University management professor and author of The Great Baltimore Fire. "Tremendous stress on the poor man, truly a tragic figure. A person who wanted to do the right thing. ... "

The fire began at 10:48 a.m. when an alarm sounded at the Hurst building, near Liberty and German (now Redwood) streets. At first, city residents gathered to watch the spectacle. The spreading fire soon drove them back.

The mayor, elected nine months earlier by a scant 624 votes, quickly made clear he was in charge of fighting the flames. That was especially true after the fire chief was injured and an assistant stepped in. An hour after the blaze broke out, McLane was walking the fire lines like a field general.

At 5 p.m., the mayor ordered the dynamiting of buildings in the hope of creating a firebreak. A dozen buildings were blasted along Charles, Baltimore and Lombard streets. The drastic step failed and only hastened the fire's eastward pace by blowing out windows of nearby buildings.

As time passed, the mayor became too involved for his and the city's good, said Petersen. In his book, he criticizes McLane for initially declining fire-fighting assistance from other cities, for spending so much time near the fire that he could not be found on occasion, and for going ahead with the dynamiting. "Cool under pressure and decisive, McLane seemed to be the right man at the right place," Petersen wrote. "Yet as he became more involved in choosing strategies for fighting a fire ... McLane made some disastrous decisions."

Petersen praises one decision: McLane's request for Maryland National Guard troops to help control crowds and keep order.

Overnight, as the fire marched on and the glow could be seen 50 miles away, McLane continued to lead. When the blaze seemed to weaken about 3:30 a.m. Monday, he confidently told a reporter, "I feel the conflagration shows some signs of abating."

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