Category Archives: History

It wasn’t the fire; it was the smoke

This morning over coffee, I ran across this picture of 1967 Las Vegas:





And, as is the norm for me, one thing led to another, and I fell down the hole. Eventually, I found myself reconnecting with some unpleasant memories.

Fellow crusties might remember the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino fire of 1980, which started in a deli kitchen and ended up gutting the bottom floors and killing 85 people who were stranded on the floors above. The flames incinerated the main floor of the casino and surrounding area, but it was the poisonous smoke — made worse by upper-floor hotel guests smashing out the windows in hopes of breathing fresh air, but instead inviting in all the deadly fumes — that did the worst damage.

While I can’t find the piece of video that has haunted me for 41 years, I remember it like it was yesterday: on a newscast or in a documentary, they showed a person leaping to his/her death in this fire. To this day, I can’t unsee it. Kind of like when they showed someone filming an ultralight aircraft in the sky, and suddenly, the aircraft flipped upside down, and the pilot tumbled out. I was horrified. And this was in the 1980s, mind — not some crazy independent TikTok or YouTube thing. But back to the hotel…

Talk about an absolute disaster waiting to happen. Not only were there no evacuation signs to tell guests where to go in the event of an emergency, there were almost no smoke detectors, and no sprinkler systems anywhere in the massive hotel and casino. Like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in 1911, the tragic death toll in the MGM fire forced city officials to revisit and improve fire safety measures.

Anyway, back to the effect this video image had on me. I had trouble sleeping for a while, although, with a newborn baby in the house, sleep was fleeting anyway, so I guess it didn’t much matter. But the whole thing terrified me to the point of insisting for years that any hotel room I booked be on the ground floor.

[Come to think of it, 1980 was a weird year for me all around. Remind me to tell you about the first-person encounter I had in the fall of 1980 with Ed and Lorraine Warren, the demonologists and ghost hunters of the Amityville Horror case. Yikes.]

A short documentary was produced shortly after the MGM tragedy. I don’t remember seeing this, but I’m sure I must have.

Funny how some images stick with you for your whole life. I’m sure we all have those memories. *shudder* Do you have any?

“It was raining bodies.”

I read to escape.

My job brings me no small level of worry and stress some days, and if I couldn’t turn to some healthy method of decompression come bedtime, I’d sleep even less than I do now. So I look forward to my routine announcement to the Thriller: Night, hun. I’m going up to read.

Occasionally, I step off my predominantly fiction-oriented path to take in a biography or historical account. For the last several weeks, I’ve spent 20 minutes a night with David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Undoubtedly, some New York observers of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, when victims with no other option leapt out of windows to their deaths, couldn’t help but be reminded of the worst workplace disaster in American history (prior to 9/11).

Typical day at the Triangle

Typical day at the Triangle

Eyewitness accounts of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire feature a wide range of images, emblazoned in the memory banks of those who were unfortunate enough to have watched the tragedy unfold in an ill-conceived, overcrowded, poorly ventilated, stifling 8th-floor-and-above women’s blouse factory death trap, staffed mostly by immigrant girls who worked 52-hour weeks. Once the lit cigarette was accidentally thrown into an under-table fabric bin, fates were sealed. Twenty-five minutes later, the factory lay in ruins, and 142 people were either dead or would die later in Manhattan hospitals. The ways in which many of the workers perished does not make for drowsy nighttime reading.

One witness said, “It was raining bodies.”

Girls by the dozens fell — or were dropped by male workers, who then followed them — onto the pavement, from eight and nine floors up. One observer remarked that it was an eerily quiet scene, disrupted only by the sirens and occasional shouts of Don’t jump! from those looking up in horror from the street. Systematically and silently they fell, choosing instant death over the agonizing torture of slowly asphyxiating on the smoke, or worse, being burned alive. Others saw police and firemen having to stop to remove corpses from the sidewalks so rescuers could get to the building.

It was a perfect storm of disasters:

  • Several doors were locked by bosses, in an effort to make sure everyone left at the right time and from a monitored exit. When the fire broke out and spread instantly, hundreds of people encountered locked door after locked door. As they wasted precious seconds trying to find another way out, the smoke and flames grew exponentially.
  • The New York City Fire Department’s water hoses lacked sufficient pressure to reach the ninth floor, and their ladders did not stretch far enough. Workers died within plain view of rescuers who simply couldn’t reach them.
  • Even though another deadly factory fire in New Jersey just four months earlier claimed 25 lives, and public outcry put great pressure on factory owners to improve workplace safety, not a single fire drill or posted route of egress was implemented at Triangle. Once the flames began, no one knew what to do or where to go. These wasted seconds of confusion cost many their lives.
  • The building’s only fire escape was poorly built, and the result of utterly baffling design:  the rickety ladder ended in a 20-foot fall into a skylight.

Nothing left

The aftermath included no shortage of demands that workplace safety be a city priority, and that labor unions be given the respect they deserved. (The organized labor aspect of this tragedy is another post altogether.) Indeed, the Triangle fire not only influenced large-scale changes in building codes and union law, but also played a part in the changing face of American politics, from the corruption of Tammany Hall to the inception of FDR’s New Deal.

What struck me most about the book, however, is how horribly these immigrant workers were treated. The great bulk of New York’s clothing industry was kept afloat on the backs of underpaid, overworked young people from Russia and Italy, who barely scraped enough wages together to pay for a bed in a filthy tenement house where there were four and five people per room. Many scrimped and went without so they could send money back home to their families. I can’t imagine the joyless life they led, while their immediate superiors dined out every night and were driven about in limousines.

It’s a good read, though, in that I have learned much about the history of labor relations in the US, and for this teacher union president, the information was timely and appreciated. However, for nighttime relaxation reading? I think I’ll go back to Stephen King. ;-)

Fink, back to the couch with the DayQuil and electric blanket

Well, cut off m’legs & call me Shorty

Who’s that whisperin’ in the trees?
It’s two sailors, and they’re on leave.
Pipes and chains and swingin’ hands — who’s your daddy?
Yes, I am.

Until this morning, I had absolutely no idea that the story of the song “Zoot Suit Riot” (a song I’ve loved since the 90s) was based on real events. Huh. Whaddya know. Who says you don’t learn anything on Twitter?

The “zoot suit” was popular with Latinos living in the Los Angeles area during WWII. Featuring long-cut jackets, high-waisted, baggy pants, and topped by porkpie hats, the suits were worn as a metaphorical badge of cultural pride. However, they were viewed by white Americans as wastefully extravagant, and disrespectful to fighting men and other Americans who were sacrificing fancy things for the war effort.  They called themselves pachucos, and soon attracted the ire not only of police, but also of Navy sailors on shore leave — which clarifies the meaning of the first two lines of the song. Ah-haaaa. (Now I get the pachuco reference in the silly-but-awesome movie, too.)

Anyway, do you know the song? Here’s a clip:


When I think of race riots in LA, Watts enters my mind first. I had no idea the violence stretched back this far. Me, thinkin’ I’m all history nerd and stuff.

Man, I’m lazy this morning. But I’m looking forward bigtime to tonight’s journey to Cleveland (fighting traffic for the home Indians game and the Cavs watch party at the Q, yikes), where we’ll see Postmodern Jukebox at the House of Blues. Wahoo! Fotográfias tomorrow.

Spooky history

The original OSR structure opened for business to 150 convicts in September 1896.

The Ohio State Reformatory opened for business to 150 convicts in September, 1896.

A while back, Groupon had a deal on tickets to tour the Ohio State Reformatory, the now-famous 19th-century prison where parts of movies such as The Shawshank Redemption, Air Force One and others were filmed. (A dozen TV shows and music videos have also been shot there.) We finally found a good date to go, so we drove all of 15 minutes to get there, yesterday morning.

I mentioned to a Facebook friend that I’ve lived nine miles away from this place for over four decades, but never visited until this weekend. Strange for sure, although the property wasn’t always a restored historical landmark. The dilapidated structure was closed in 1990, and inmates were transferred next door to the newly-finished Mansfield Correctional Institution, now referred to by locals as “Manci.”

Sitting and rotting for years, surely destined for the wrecking ball, the place was a huge eyesore in Richland County until a group of citizens formed the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society in 1995, and rallied to save it. The work is ongoing, funded by private donations and tour fees.

The place was designed in Germanic-Romanesque style in order to give prisoners hope of returning to a more noble and virtuous lifestyle after serving their sentences. Not sure how that all worked out, but it certainly must have had a dramatic impact on convicts upon first coming up the main access road. It looks more like a haunted castle than a correctional institution. Chamber of Horrors, yikes.

At six stories, the east wing is the largest freestanding cellblock structure in the world.

At six stories high, the east wing is the largest freestanding steel cell block structure in the world.

Most unsettling — aside from the creepy historical vibe (and the silence, as we were first inside the building, and for the most part, alone in our wanderings) — was the sheer size of the cell blocks. How these men could have eked out any type of existence that wasn’t permanently scarring is beyond me. The hopelessness…all I could think about was the hopelessness of the inmates in these hellish surroundings.

Two men shared a 7×9 foot cell.

The warden, his family, and some lower administration were also housed on-site. The warden’s quarters take up a surprisingly large amount of space in the main house, spacious even by today’s standards.

Inmates attended chapel, and were allowed a library from which to glean edification of their brains and souls. Conversely, those who refused to be inspired or taught stood a better chance of ending up in the solitary confinement wing. Terrifying.

Being incarcerated is one of the most frightening things I can imagine. Being locked up in a place like the OSR? Unimaginable. Located just outside the windows of the old structure is the modern-day prison, although we were forbidden to take photos of the place.

Nowadays, the newly-restored main guardroom is a place for receptions, meetings and other events that can further raise funds for the ongoing restoration. I read an article somewhere in my research this morning that quoted a Preservation Society member as saying the massive restoration was designed as a “100-year project.” I can easily imagine it taking that long to completely restore or renovate this massive structure.

So, there you have a mini-review of the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. If you’re ever in the area, definitely give it a go. If I rated venues here at RtB, I’d definitely give it five cheeses on the Rat-O-Meter scale.

And now…back to reality. Oy.

Voices, long silenced, speak

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”
Robert Burns, Man was made to mourn: A Dirge (1784)

A monument sits on an overlook that greets visitors of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic site near Eads, Colorado. In November of 1864, Colorado militiamen killed over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the site who were living peacefully along the creek in their village. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most ruthless and unnecessary “battles” in American history, when 675 Colorado militia slaughtered between 150 and 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, who were doing just as they were told: flying the Stars and Stripes to indicate their willingness to maintain peace on a scrap of land at the edge of a reservation. Sand Creek is one of many reminders that the American Civil War featured not one, but two sets of dispossessed peoples: Negro slaves and indigenous Americans. The sad part is the latter were largely forgotten for decades afterwards.

Under the leadership of Col. John Chivington, the cavalry functioned like a street gang that morning, descending upon the unarmed villagers at dawn on 29 November, 1864, gunning down women, children and the elderly, execution-style, while able-bodied tribesmen scrambled to find weapons they could use.  Militiamen cut off heads, scalps, limbs and genitalia, and later paraded them in the streets of Denver as trophies.

Capt. Silas Soule

Fortunately, there were some US cavalrymen who were still in possession of their humanity, and refused to attack. One man in particular, Capt. Silas Soule, dared to expose the horrific crimes perpetrated by the soldiers against largely defenseless victims by writing official letters decrying the military’s behavior. As a result, Chivington and Colorado Governor John Evans were forced to resign, but neither was ever tried for his role in the massacre.

Tragically, Captain Soule was himself murdered on a Denver street after the war, and while his assailants were known, they were never tried. Still, in a twist of righteous fate, Soule had the last word, many years after his death.

In 2000, the only first-person accounts of what really happened at Sand Creek were unearthed. In the form of two letters, written in sickening, gruesome detail, the tale was finally and painfully brought into full focus from the 135-year-old voices of Soule and his compatriot, Joe Cramer. The discovery of these letters, among other issues, impelled the Sand Creek historical commission in Colorado to reformulate its take on what happened, and indeed, to make things right.

I won’t expound today on the ocean-deep inequity shoved upon Native Americans as a result of the horror that lay at the heart of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I will hold out hope for our nation to be increasingly compassionate, forward-thinking and colorblind, so 150 years from now, our descendants will look upon eerily similar events of today with the same incredulous repugnance we experienced upon reading those letters, knowing that the country had finally learned its lesson.

A blessed, relaxing Sunday to you!