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Poor Farm Fire of 1894

Awful Holocaust, An Insane Asylum Burns Down Near Boone, Iowa

The Daily Advocate, Newark, Ohio, Jan. 25, 1894

Eight of the Nine Inmates are Roasted Alive

Boone, Iowa, Jan. 25 -

The building on the Boone county poor farm used as an insane asylum burned down Tuesday night, and eight of the nine inmates lost their lives. The fire broke out about ten o'clock, and when discovered was under such headway that nothing cold be done to save the unfortunates in the building. The list of the dead is as follows: Thos. Leper, Jos. Craig, Sarah Scott, Christian Peterson, Christiana Anderson, Anna Soderberg, Johanna Briggs, Nancy Tucker.

The Boone county poor farm is seven and one-half miles north of here. Tuesday night's storm was the most furious of the winter, the thermometer indicating thirty degrees below zero. No one cold face this storm to bring the news to Boone and informaton of the holocaust did not reach here until nearly noon. An insane woman named Mrs. Hibbard was the only survivor.

Eight Persons Cremated, A Sickening Tragedy
The Disaster at the County Insane Asylum

Boone Democrat, January 1894

The most horrible tragedy that ever occurred in the limits of Boone county took place Tuesday night of last week when the county insane asylum burned down. Of the nine inmates of the place eight were burned to death, roasted alive, meeting a fate that makes one shudder. The horrible death roll, which has been published all over the country and created a cry of indignation wherever read is as follows:

CRAIG, JOSEPH, aged 81
SCOTT, SARAH aged 82
TUCKER, Mercy, aged 48

The county insane asylum was located on the poor farm. The poor farm is on the old Fort Dodge road seven miles directly north of Boone and a mile and a half south of Mineral Ridge. Henry Holcomb is steward of the poor farm and had charge of the insane also. The insane asylum was a two-story frame building put up about 60 feet from the poor house proper. It was erected six or eight years ago, when Boone county took charge of its incurable insane, taking care of them at home instead of the state institutions. This was originally done because there was not room in the state institutions and the counties were required to take care of the harmless incurables as best they could. Of late years, since the state facilities have been increased, the county has kept up the local asylum as a matter of economy.

There were nine of these unfortunates in the asylum--the eight that lost their lives and one that escaped, Mrs. Hibbart. Tuesday night, January 23, was one of the worst nights this winter. A furious storm started in the afternoon which gained in fury all night. The thermometer went down to 30 degrees below zero before morning. The insane asylum was heated with a furnace in the cellar which was reported out of order. Regardless of this, the nine unfortunates who were not of sufficiently sound mind to take care of themselves were locked up in this fire trap to perish like so many rats. Possibly the doors were not locked, but the unfortunate creatures, unable to look out for themselves, were left alone without a person of sound mind to look after them. When the house was left we have not learned. Evidently the old furnace was fired up so that the inmates should not freeze to death that bitter cold night and then left to their fate.

Henry Holcomb, the steward, went to bed at his usual time and all the inmates of the poor house proper were asleep at ten o'clock when they were awakened by Mrs. Hibbart coming into the house and telling them the madhouse was on fire. Holcomb rushed to the burning building, which he saw was all aflame inside, and burst in the door. He could not enter and no sound except the crackling of flames was heard. The poor unfortunates were already dead, either suffocated before they awoke or lacking the intelligence to make their escape.

Four of the poor creatures that were not considered perfectly safe were locked in their cells at night, and could not have escaped if they would. The others could have gotten out if intelligent enough. What little help there was availed nothing against the fire, and all that could be done was to prevent its spreading to the poorhouse and other buildings of the poor farm. The tragedy was over in half an hour and the roof fell in. The victims were seen burned beyond recognition. From the places where some of the remains were found it is inferred that some of the unfortunates had reached the windows and tried to escape from them.

How the fire originated is not and never will be known. One of the insane women was in the habit of tearing her clothes to shreds and stuffing them into the hot air registers. It is possible that this may have been the cause of the fire. The grand jury visited the asylum last week and their report, published in the last issue of THE DEMOCRAT, was far from complimentary to the institution. Before it was read by many of the readers of this paper, news of the sickening tragedy was on the streets.

A great moral responsibility attaches to some one for this crime against humanity. We will not stop to discuss how the policy of keeping the insane at home instead of in state institutions. It is sufficient that they were kept on the poor farm. Why were they not cared for? Who is to blame for the shocking barbarity of leaving nine unfortunate human beings unable to take care of themselves alone in a building to perish like so many rats? To burn up at 10 o'clock, the early part of the evening. It is highly probable that the fire had been smoldering for some time before it burst out. A sane person might likely have smelled fire and investigated before retiring. Possibly lives might have been lost even if proper precaution had been taken. This has occurred in other asylum fires. But then there would have been no cause for the universal indignation that is expressed at the utter lack of care in looking out for the unfortunates in Boone county. If economy was the reason the purpose has been accomplished--the insane are burned up and will no longer cost the county anything. This is cheaper than hiring some one to take charge of them but arouses a cry of indignation from every corner of the land. We wish the man or men that are responsible for leaving these unfortunates alone with less care than is given so many cattle (for fires are carefully kept out of the stable) could see the comments that are being made all over the country in the press. It will not mend matters but may cause a little remorse. Locking the stable door after the horse is stolen is of little use.

The criminal carelessness is largely chargeable upon the board of supervisors for the method of taking care of the insane. We do not wish to single out the present board, for they probably did the same as has been done for years, but the whole method is wrong. The management of the poor farm is peddled out to the lowest bidder, the man that will do it the cheapest, regardless of fitness for the place. It is possible that the present steward of the poor farm, who left nine people that the proper tribunal said were not competent to take care of themselves alone to perish, did just what his predecessors had done before him. That does not make it less reprehensible. The tragedy is a blot on Boone county that can never be justified and must meet the condemnation of every humane man.

Boone County Democrat, Jan. 24, 1894

The grand jury visited the poor farm last week and has made the following report:

We, the grand jury, after visiting the county poor farm found its condition as satisfactory as could reasonably be expected under the circumstances. There are a few things in our judgment absolutely needed. One is that more room and better facilites for the comfort and care of the inmates should be provided. That there should be a better system of ventilation in the insane department. We think the sanitary condition not very good. Think it could be kept warm and yet supplied with plenty of fresh air. We found the same needs in the men's department, not so bad as to ventilation, but as to heating still worse. The only way the upper rooms can be warmed is from stoves in the lower rooms, the heat passing up through a hole in the floor so that in very cold weather it would be impossible to keep these upper rooms warm and the foul air from the lower rooms fills the rooms above. There are some of the inmates who are in need of medical help and appliances which the county should provide. While we favor economyin the management of the county poor house, we think it not good policy to economize at the expense and health and comfort of its unfortunate inmates.

Jackson Hull,
Foreman of the Grand Jury

Note: Variations in spelling of names are as per the nwspaper articles.