Cleveland’s Saddest Fourth – The 1908 S. S. Kresge Fireworks Explosion

Firefighers in action at the S. S. Kresge fire in Cleveland in 1908

They Died Crawling: And Other Tales of Cleveland Woe, a book by John Stark Bellamy II from Gray & Company, Publishers – front coverBook Excerpt

From They Died Crawling, © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.

You wouldn’t know to look at it now. If you drive by 2025 Ontario Street today you might easily miss it: the sign simply says “Society Corporate Center,” an anonymous-looking business office. But on July 3, 1908, that address became history—terrible history, indeed—although it is almost completely forgotten today. You’d never guess, to look at its modern glass-and-trim front, that it was once the scene of a fiery, exploding holocaust that brought death to seven, injury to dozens, and a day of terror, tears, heroism, and shame to the city of Cleveland. For this is the site of the S. S. Kresge fireworks explosion and fire.

Let us set the stage for the chief actors in this melancholy tale. For Anna and Freda Trefall, sisters and fellow clerks at the Ontario S. S. Kresge store, the fateful day began early. They got up at 6 a.m. at their 2308 Carnegie Avenue boarding house, lest they be tardy when the dime store opened at 9 a.m. sharp. Anna and Freda were orphans from Wisconsin, who had come to Cleveland a year previously to live with their sister-in-law. Everyone noticed how close they were to each other; the coming day would offer sublime proof of their sisterly bond.

Mary Hughes, 27, of Whitman Avenue didn’t work at the Kresge store. She was an assistant to a downtown dressmaker. But the necessities of her job would bring her to the Ontario dime store that morning to buy some material for her work.

Ed Bolton didn’t work for the S. S. Kresge Company either. But his day as a shipping clerk at the W. P. Southworth store next door began early, too, and he expected to spend it slaving over the mountain of orders that had to go out before the July 4th holiday. Ed came from a surprisingly heroic bloodline: his uncle, Captain John Grady, had bravely lost his life fighting a terrible 1891 Cleveland fire, and three other uncles were members of the Cleveland Fire Department.

The day came early, too, for Jimmy Parker, four years old, of Ham­­p­den Avenue. Jimmy’s father, George Parker, had promised Jimmy that this year he could join in the noisy fireworks at the Parker home. But first, Jimmy Parker had to go shopping downtown with his mother, Minnie . . .

Up early also that fine July morning was Luther Roberts, the janitor of the Kresge store. Luther was short, quiet and self-effacing—but his incredible courage would resound throughout the city before the day was done.

Winifred Duncan was excited that morning. Only 18, one of the many teenaged clerks at Kresge’s, she usually sold postcards on the first floor. But today she was going to do something unusual . . . and thereby step unwittingly into history.

The S. S. Kresge store occupied the first two floors of a four-story structure, with a restaurant in the basement and offices on the third and fourth floors. Toward the center and rear of the ground floor, a stairway rose upward, dividing at a landing into left and right flights to the second floor. From the right side of the landing, a balcony stretched out over the right rear of the store, forming a mezzanine level that contained the manager’s office. The second floor was generally unobstructed, with windows both at the front on Ontario Street and the back, facing an alley, where there was also a fire escape. The only dangerously obscure aspect of the building was this: although there was a rear exit to the building on the left side of the first-floor staircase, there was no exit whatsoever in the identical-looking area to the right of the staircase. There, instead of an exit, were three windows, blocked with temporary shelves and further secured with steel bars, wire netting, and sheet-iron doors to prevent break-ins from the rear alley. Under normal circumstances this layout presented no problem. But if someone were in a hurry to get out the back of the store and turned to the right of the staircase instead of the left . . . it might make all the difference between life and death.

Owing to the ensuing deaths and the confusion of the tragedy, we cannot know the exact sequence of events that day. We do know, however, that at about 10:50 that Friday morning, Mrs. Minnie Parker and her four-year-old son Jimmy entered the Kresge store.

Jimmy had been lured there by the sight of clerk Winifred Duncan, demonstrating a sizzling sparkler near the store’s front window. D. E. Greene, the store manager, had just ordered her to do so and had assured her that the sparklers were “harmless.” Winifred stood in the aisle, three feet wide, separating the postcard department from the ample counters of firecrackers, Roman candles, rockets, and sparklers that were stacked all over the first floor in that era of virtually unregulated Fourth of July mayhem.

This was the scene in Kresge’s as 10:50 a.m. arrived: Minnie and Jimmy Parker were watching Winifred demonstrate a sparkler. Manager Greene was in his mezzanine office with Cashier Celia Zak, scanning the day’s mail. Mrs. Fannie Frank, 50, a Collinwood Village matron, was shopping on the second floor with her four-year-old granddaughter, Grace. Mary Hughes, the dressmaker’s assistant, was probably in the sewing section on the second floor. Ed Bolton was next door at the Southworth Company, busily getting out the day’s orders. Miss Carrie Bubel, a clerk, was selling goods at her counter on the second floor. Erma Schumacher, 18, was pacing the floor, keeping a vigilant eye on the 50 or so female clerks who worked the floor. Although only 18, Erma had just been promoted to floorwalker, and it was well known that she aspired to even higher rank. Muriel Mayes, a Kresge clerk, was at her second floor counter. So, too, was Freda Trefall, while her older sister Anna worked downstairs. Mary Podowski, a charwoman, was awaiting change from the $20 bill she had handed a clerk. Andrew Lempke, a Kresge employee, was trimming lamps as he worked atop a ladder on the first floor. And staff pianist Hazel Thompson, one of the several Kresge pianists who demonstrated the store’s sheet music for curious customers, had just launched into a rendition of “I Don’t Want to Go Home in the Dark” . . . when all hell broke loose on the first floor.

This is probably what happened. After remarking to Minnie and Jimmy Parker that her sparkler was “perfectly harmless,” Winifred turned sideways toward a fireworks display that included an American flag. Sparks from the sparkler in her hand suddenly ignited the fabric of the flag, which in turn set fire to Mrs. Parker’s voluminous, flammable dress. As the two terrified women attempted to beat out the flames, sparks from the dress fell on adjacent fireworks counters and the fire and explosions began their deadly race through the store.

It was about as close to instantaneous combustion as you can get. The store contained about $30,000 worth of fireworks, and within seconds of the initial spark, the entire stock ignited in an inferno of blazing colors, dense smoke, and terrifying, deafening explosions. In a minute or less the entire first floor of Kresge’s was a fiery nightmare, with up to 200 panic-stricken shoppers and clerks trying to flee the sudden conflagration. Max Zucker, a customer on the ground floor, had a typical experience. One moment he was staring at the sizzling electric sparkler, and the next: “I heard a sputtering noise—a skyrocket whizzed past my face and darted over the heads of the crowd and set fire to combustible material on the counters. People around me stood aghast for a few seconds. A giant cracker exploded with a roar that set all into a mad dash for the front and rear exits.”

The fire spread with shocking speed, setting merchandise and people alike on fire as it raced from counter to counter, aisle to aisle through the store. The next morning’s Plain Dealer well conveyed the horror of the next few minutes:

Big piles of fireworks exploded and added to the noise and confusion. Giant crackers pounded and boomed, skyrockets whizzed through the crowded room, roman candles sputtered and flashed. It was a mimic battle, magnificent if it had not been so full of terror and death.

Several patterns of movement developed during the fire’s first minutes. On the blazing first floor, customers tried to escape in three directions. Those near the front headed for the Ontario exit. For those toward the rear, the aisles to the left and right of the rear center staircase beckoned toward seeming safety. This was true of the aisle to the left, a corridor that led to an unlocked door on the back alley. The corridor to the right of the staircase, however, led only to the rear wall of the store, blocked there by shelving and barred windows.

Things were better on the second floor. When it became apparent there that the first floor was afire, movement surged toward the front and rear windows, the elevator, and the staircase. The elevator was not working, and it was immediately abandoned after one attempt to use it. Most of the shoppers and clerks fled to the front and back windows and most of them survived, albeit injured and traumatized. Some, however, tried to escape down the stairs, and the vast crush and hysterical panic there quickly precipitated a pile-up of screaming, suffocating women, girls and children on the stairs and the landing on the ground floor. All of them were pulled out or managed to wriggle free and stagger into the inferno waiting below.

The evidence is that the fire department arrived soon after the fire started, but by the time the engines got there, Kresge’s was already a fiery pyre, with smoke pouring out of every door and window. Customers and employees were still streaming out of the exits and frightened women were leaping out the second floor windows. Firemen quickly deployed ladders and nets. The nets saved many lives but could not prevent some terrible injuries. Owing to the smoke, many could not even see the nets and fell beyond them to the pavement below. And quite a number of people jumped into the same nets simultaneously, injuring each other and bringing the nets crashing to the ground.

Let us see how our cast of characters fared. Poor little Jimmy Parker disappeared into the interior of the store during the first few panicky moments of the fire. His mother, although badly burned, frantically searched the burning store for Jimmy. Told, however, that a little boy had been rescued from the store, she was persuaded to leave and return home. By the time she got there her husband George had already identified Jimmy’s corpse at the county morgue.

D. E. Greene, the Kresge store manager, did his best. As he was in the middle of sorting his mail, an exploding firecracker alerted him to the danger. He immediately seized cashier Celia Zak and rushed her to safety outside on Ontario Street. He then returned and tried to save others until flames and smoke drove him back out into the street for good.

The chief hero of the Kresge tragedy was Luther Roberts, the Kresge janitor. Realizing that the elevator was useless, he began to smash open the windows on the second floor. He then went to the fatal staircase, clogged with screaming, writhing, piled-up bodies and began to drag and throw them out the back windows of the second floor onto the fire escape. Time after time, Roberts returned to the staircase, until the flames and smoke drove him back, “blinded and dizzy.” But he had cleared everybody from the staircase.

Roberts’s courage, if not his fate, was matched by that of Anna Trefall. When the fire started, 24-year-old Anna was working with several clerks on the first floor. Her companions immediately seized her and tried to drag her out the Ontario exit. She resisted, saying, “I must find my sister!” She broke free and ran toward the staircase to get to Freda on the second floor. Her first attempt failed; the hysterical sea of bodies surging down the staircase soon forced her back toward the Ontario exit and safety. But she again freed herself from the crowd and resumed the search for her 17-year-old sister. We don’t know the exact sequence of events after that, except that Freda was one of the last to make it down the staircase during the fire. Upon reaching the ground floor, she was immediately overwhelmed in the pile-up of terrified women there. An eyewitness saw Anna try to pull Freda toward the Ontario exit, and then saw both sisters stumble and fall to the floor. Freda and Anna Trefall died with the rest of those trapped by the three barred windows, their arms around each other’s necks. Freda’s dead face was so crazed with fear that her fellow employees could not identify her corpse.

Ed Bolton, too, proved himself a hero that July day. Becoming aware of the fire, he ran into the burning building. He dragged several persons out of the building onto Ontario and then reentered the store on his hands and knees to search for others, until the fire drove him out again. He then held nets for those leaping from the second floor.

This almost proved Bolton’s undoing. As a girl prepared to leap from the second floor, she opened her umbrella like a parachute to aid in breaking her fall. By the time Bolton shouted, “Never mind your umbrella,” it was already too late. As the young lady landed in the net, her umbrella smashed Bolton’s arm, breaking it and sending him out of the fray. Staying in character, Bolton merely had his broken arm set, returned home to change out of his wet clothing, and resumed shipping out the holiday orders for Southworth Company, Grocers Wholesale and Retail.

Mary Hughes was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The dressmaker’s assistant survived the crushing pile-up at the staircase—only to die with the rest of the victims by the three back barred windows.

Mrs. Fannie Frank of Collinwood was a heroine, too, that July day. On the second floor with her four-year-old granddaughter, Grace, Mrs. Frank quickly led the child to a window and out onto a projecting ledge. From there she jumped, holding Grace so as to shield her from the impact of the fall. Fannie hit the ground, injuring herself but saving Grace from injury. As Fannie put it, “I could not bear to think of what my daughter would say if the child was hurt.”

Erma Schumacher, the newly promoted floorwalker, died in character. When the fire started, she tried to stem the panic of her employees at the flashpoint—the staircase—and it was near there and by the three barred back windows that firemen found her body later in the afternoon.

Muriel Mayes, a second-floor clerk, was one of the first to escape from the second floor. At first she thought the explosions were the work of mischievous boys blowing off fireworks in the rear alley, but she eventually made her way to a front window and was the first person to jump into the nets below. She survived the jump, but was badly injured by the force of collision with the bodies that jumped into the net after her.

Miss Emma Schaef, 17, was something of a heroine, too, after a fashion. She had fled to the second-floor windows looking out on Ontario. There was a woman with a child there, afraid to jump through the suffocating smoke toward the nets below. So Emma pushed them out toward the net below. The woman missed it, hitting the sidewalk. Then Emma jumped—and missed it, too. The child was unhurt.

Miss Carrie Bubel, 18, had one of the fire’s typical injuries. Selling goods on the second floor when the fire started, she was paralyzed by terror for some minutes. By the time she got to the windows, everyone else had already jumped. She jumped, missing the net, breaking her left leg and spraining her right.

Let us not forget charwoman Mary Podowski. Just as she handed her $20 bill to a clerk, the fire exploded around her. Initially disoriented by the blaze, Mary recovered her nerve and began searching through the burning, smoky store for the clerk who had taken her money. After fighting her way into the store through the frightened crowd surging out, Mary finally spotted the clerk who had taken her $20 bill: “I want my money! Give it to me!” she shrieked. The clerk, who must have marvelled at Mary’s single-mindedness, muttered, “Haven’t got it!,” as the surging, terrified mob swept the clerk by Mary and toward the Ontario exit. After the fire was extinguished, Mary could be seen, still in front of the smoldering store, weeping and sobbing over and over again, “My money! I want my twenty-dollar bill!”

The fire was over in about an hour. It had quickly gutted both floors of the dime store and outside the smoldering ruin milled multitudes of firemen, policemen, and spectators—the latter doing their usual best to impede the work of safety forces. The initial belief was that everyone had been rescued from the burning building. It wasn’t until about 12:30 p.m. that Fire Chief George A. Wallace and a crew of searchers entered the sizzling building and found seven bodies in the rear right alcove by the three barred windows. Captain James Granger of Cleveland Fire Company #1 (later chief of the Cleveland Fire Department) described the gruesome scene to a reporter from the Cleveland Leader:

“I heard what sounded like the mewing of a cat,” he said. “I had heard that sound before, however, and I shuddered. . . . [There] was a mass of humanity, it seemed, intertwined. There were [six] women. It seemed all had huddled together in the belief they would get air at that particular point, and when the fumes of the powder and paper became too strong all had given up at the same time. The arms of [most] of them were free, but their legs were intertwined so that it would have been impossible for any one to have dragged herself out. At the farther end of the bunch was a little lad. He was living.”

The lad was Jimmy Parker, who died soon after his removal from the store. The fact that he was still living when found may have led to the false report that convinced his mother he had survived.

By now, it had begun to rain, and the bodies were removed and laid in the muddy back alley behind the Kresge store. It soon became apparent, however, that two of the victims were still breathing. Two female trained nurses forced themselves through the police line and tried to revive the two survivors. Their efforts were in vain: Erma Schumacher was dead on arrival at Lakeside Hospital later that afternoon. The other survivor, S. S. Kresge clerk Elizabeth Reis, recovered consciousness at Huron Road Hospital before dying at 6:30 that evening.

The awful afternoon was not yet finished. While police and firemen searched the smoking ruins of the store and questioned survivors, heartbreaking scenes unfolded at the county morgue, where most of the seven bodies had been taken. Through it streamed a mournful procession of relatives, survivors, and a goodly proportion of the morbidly curious to see and identify the dead. Catching sight of his dead four-year-old son, George Parker collapsed, sobbing, “My son, my son! My poor little Jimmy!” Two sisters of Mary Hughes identified her corpse—by her teeth—but then became hysterical and had to be led away. Throughout that ghastly July afternoon crawled a sad procession of stunned men and women through that house of death, all with the same, simple, sad question on their lips, “Is my girl here?”

The rest of the S. S. Kresge fire saga—except for the ultimate legal result—is the stuff of sour anti-climax. The inquest, managed by Coroner Burke, began on July 9 and featured a parade of witnesses, rigorous cross-examination, and a lot of contradictory testimony. Winifred Duncan testified about her sparkler demonstration—but firmly denied that it caused the blaze. All witnesses corroborated her belief and that of the store management that the sparklers were “harmless.” Testimony disclosed that no one in the store knew that the right rear windows were barred—or even that there were windows there at all. Testimony also revealed that there had never been a fire drill in the Kresge store—and that it was not legally required. As to the display and storage of fireworks, all officials and witnesses agreed that it was in full compliance with all Cleveland fire and safety laws. Or as Coroner Burke lamely summarized the inquest: “I am satisfied that the law was violated in spirit, while it seemed no one was legally culpable. It was morally wrong for that condition to be permitted to exist.” The inquest concluded with the finding that while the fire was due to “carelessness in handling fireworks,” no one was legally at fault because everyone involved acted under the belief that the sparkler was “harmless.”

That wasn’t quite the end of the matter. Cleveland newspapers cultivated public outrage over the fire for several weeks afterwards. And the enduring outcome of the Kresge tragedy was a public demand for an end to the homicidal mayhem that had become the norm for Fourth of July celebrations. On July 6, 1908, Cleveland Councilman Daniel Pfahl introduced the following ordinance in Council:

That no person, firm or corporation, shall, within the city, sell, offer for sale or have in his or its possession or custody any toy pistol, squib, rocket crackers or roman candles or other combustible fireworks, or any article for making of a pyrotechnic display.

The Pfahl ordinance passed Cleveland Council by a vote of 21 to 11 on the night of Monday, July 13, 1908, and was soon signed into law by Mayor Tom Johnson. This landmark legislation and the tragedy that precipitated it were important milestones in the movement, ultimately nationwide, to end the annual toll of deaths and injuries due to fireworks. Other cities and states copied the Cleveland fireworks law and the Pfahl ordinance is remembered now as a pioneer triumph in the crusade for a “safe and sane” Fourth of July. So the Kresge Seven did not die entirely in vain—something to think about the next time you are stalled in traffic opposite 2025 Ontario Street.

From the book They Died Crawling, © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.