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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

Yet the fire was crossing Charles Street by Lombard and charging east. Changing winds caused havoc for firefighters, who had come from five states and Washington. Gusts blew to the northeast, then east, then southeast. It wasn't until 5 p.m. Monday that a line of firefighters managed to stop the fire at the Jones Falls, answering the prayers of Little Italy residents gathered just across the narrow waterway.

The devastation was immense. In a city said to be the biggest dry goods market between New York and New Orleans, block after block was a pile of rubble. The fire zone reached Liberty Street on the west, Lexington Street on the north and the falls to the east, and it tore up the waterfront.

Architectural prizes such as the Sun Iron Building were lost, though City Hall and the Power Plant building were among those narrowly saved.

Almost immediately, the public's - and McLane's - focus turned to rebuilding. In a perverse way, said archivist Papenfuse, the fire gave McLane an opportunity to push for a municipal sewer system and other modern changes he had previously envisioned.

McLane, a Democrat, was what today's pundits might call a comer. He was 35 on Election Day, a year younger than Mayor Martin O'Malley was when voters made him mayor in 1999. Pictures show a serious-looking McLane with deep-set eyes and pursed lips.

He was born into a wealthy Baltimore family that included a governor of Maryland. McLane had a privileged upbringing of country houses, private schools and trips to Europe. In 1899, while in his early 30s, he was elected city state's attorney.

Nothing could prepare him, though, for the fire. Days after the disaster, he appointed a Citizen's Emergency Committee and named as chairman William Keyser, a businessman thought of as a progressive. The group called for the widening of many streets and for the city to buy the wharf area so modern docks and piers could be built.

McLane accepted these recommendations and appointed a Burnt District Commission to implement the multimillion-dollar rebuilding to be financed with bonds and the sale of the city's Western Maryland Railroad stock.

Some of the rebuilding ideas met with resistance among Republicans on the City Council and business owners. Merchants felt that wider streets would deprive them of valuable square footage, Petersen writes.

Col. Sherlock Swann, chairman of the Burnt District Commission, offered to resign at one point if the criticism embarrassed the mayor. McLane turned him down.

In the end, much of the work moved forward, with a few exceptions. Baltimore Street was not widened. Within two years, downtown was largely rebuilt. McLane's successor, Republican E. Clay Timanus, laid the groundwork for a modern sewer system.

The people of Baltimore were still focused on rebuilding when they got a surprise May 15: Their bachelor mayor had wed the day before in a secret ceremony in Washington.

Not even his friends knew ahead of time, The Sun reported. At 48, the dark-haired Mary Van Bibber was a dozen years older than the mayor, The Washington Post noted. She was a widow and the mother of two sons.

"She is noted for her charm of manner, her exquisite taste in dress and her many accomplishments," The Post said.

Their engagement had been rumored for more than a year, and The Sun said "it was known that the mayor was attentive to the lady."

If their story sounded romantic, there were also hints of a family rift. McLane's parents didn't approve of her or her ties to the ritzy world of Narragansett Pier, outside Newport, R.I., according to the Post. "She was a member of the smart set in society," the paper reported, "while the mayor's family are of the retiring aristocratic sort."

Because his parents refused to recognize her and wouldn't attend a wedding, McLane's mood darkened, the paper claimed.

The mayor's state of mind, whatever it was, took on great significance just 16 days later. It was Decoration Day, so City Hall was closed for the holiday. The mayor took a stroll in the morning, bumping into two acquaintances along the way. "To both he spoke in the most cheerful kind of way," The Sun reported, "and talked of matters he intended to do on the morrow."

Even his last letter hinted at no distress. Written at 11 a.m. on May 30, it was addressed to a judge who served as secretary at the University of Maryland Law School, where McLane lectured. In the letter, he told the judge he was grading papers for a commercial law class. "I am working on the rest of the books now," he wrote. "I will try to have all of the marks by the end of this week or the early part of next."

The May 31 edition of The Sun described what happened next. McLane and his wife ate lunch. Afterward, the two walked up to the third floor, "laughing about the way she had tied up a bundle."

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