Can't tell much from looking at the tombstone itself. Well, recently a photo request came through Find a Grave for Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago: "Herbert E. Swanson who died December 7, 1946 and is buried in Section - Lot 116 - Sublot 3". The request went on to say that "Herbert Swanson was a 38 year old victim of the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, Georgia on December 7, 1946. He was from Chicago, Illinois and stayed in room 522."
I had never heard of the Winecoff Hotel fire and was shocked to find that it was (and is) the deadliest hotel fire in US history, killing 119 hotel occupants, including the hotel's owners - and also including Herbert E. Swanson from Chicago.
Before we look further into the fire itself, let's see what we can find out about Herbert Swanson.
According to his tombstone, Herbert E. Swanson was born in 1908. His parents, Edward and Nannie C. Swanson and buried just below him at Rosehill:
Edward Swenson (sic), 31 years old from Chicago, married 24 year old Nannie Froholm, also from Chicago on September 17, 1898 by the Rev. Herman Lindskog, Rector of St. Ansgarius Swedish-American Episcopal Church.
Here's a picture of St. Ansgarius Church, and Rev. Lindskog:
Edward Swensen (sic) , son of Edward Swenssen (sic) and Nannie Freholm (sic) was born 05 Mar 1908 in Chicago.
A comment here: Look at all the differences in spellings of just these three people. Is it any wonder that genealogy is a maddening hobby??? Just asking... Anyway, back to the Swansons.
The 1930 census shows the Swanson family living at 1507 West Highland Avenue in Chicago.
The father Edward (born Sweden 1867) is a tool maker for a steel company. His wife Nannie (born Sweden 1873) is a housewife. Daughter Edith (born 1899 in Illinois) is a stenographer for an insurance company and son Herbert (born 1909 in Chicago) is not working. However, young Edward Swensen is now going by the name of Herbert Swanson. Why? Perhaps he did not want to be known as "Junior". One of the frustrating things about genealogy research is that not all of your questions will be answered, but the search is fun nonetheless.
The 1940 census shows most of the Swanson family still at 1507 West Highland Avenue in Chicago. By now, 70 year old Edward is a handyman for a tool manufacturer, Nannie is a housewife and now 31 year old Herbert is a laborer for a wholesale grocery. Edith is no longer listed so she has probably married or moved out on her own.
1946 was not a good year for the Swanson family. Nannie Caroline Froholm Swanson died on September 18, 1946, and was, as we know, buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. Under normal circumstances we would never know what took Herbert Swanson to Atlanta, Georgia in December of 1946, but we do know that on the night of December 7, 1946 Herbert Swanson of Chicago, Illinois was staying in Room 522 of the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia.
Atlanta, Ga., Dec. 7 [Special]-
Origin of the blaze which broke out between 3 and 3:15 a.m. on the 4th floor of the Winecoff hotel here today and spread with explosive fury to upper floors to cause death to at least 116 persons and injuries to 100 others remained a mystery tonight. Among the identified dead was Herbert E. Swanson, 35, of 1507 Highland av., Chicago, associate editor of Rock Products magazine, a trade publication.
Investigations - probably long drawn out and many sided - were to come, but officials and foremen were too busy today with problems of the disaster's immediate aftermath to make plans for them. Identification of bodies, many burned beyond recognition, proceeded rapidly, with 103 being identified by late tonight.
The death toll was the largest in any hotel fire in United States history, eclipsing the previous record of 71 in Milwaukee's Newhall House fire in 1883. The Hotel La Salle fire in Chicago six months ago took 61 lives.
The 15 story steel, brick and concrete structure of the Winecoff, situated on Atlanta's famed Peachtree st., was a gaunt and gutted shell tonight with charred and twisted blankets and bedsheets hanging from scores of windows like empty shrouds. Some of these were instruments of escape or rescue to trapped guests, but most were avenues to death, to persons who had swung helplessly in billowing smoke after being driven from their rooms.
Police Chief M.A. Hornsby estimated that from 25 to 30 persons were killed in leaps or falls from upper stories.
A recapitulation of casualty lists late today indicated there were 282 guests in the hotel last night and that the total of those who left the building uninjured may be as high as 58. Possibility that a few bodies may remain in the debris was not entirely discounted, altho fire officials said they believed all bodies have been recovered.
No person had come forward tonight with even a theory as to how the fire started. All that was known was that fire was first discovered on the fourth floor about 3:15 a.m. by a Negro woman elevator operator who noticed smoke and a flash of flame as her descending cage passed this floor.
The woman went to the first floor and rushed to the desk to notify Comer Rowan, night clerk. Bill Moberly, night bell captain, took another elevator to the fifth floor to investigate. He found the floor a sea of flame and was trapped on the fifth floor for the duration of the blaze.
The fire spread upward from the fifth to the 15th floor with a rapidity which surviving observers described as that of a flame thrower. The interior of the so-called fire resistance structure became an inferno in a matter of minutes.
Rowan seated himself at the hotel switchboard and began calling guests to warn them of the fire. He said tonight he talked to persons in about half of the hotel's rooms. For most of those with whom he talked, however, his words were the last from the outside world. Before many could open their doors, flames racing along the corridors had cut off chances of escape.
The Winecoff was without outside fire escapes, fire officials said. Stair wells and elevator shafts filled with smoke and leaping flames in the fire's first upward surge, cutting off escape by any method except thru windows. Some guests who were fortunate and who kept their heads, sat it out in barricaded rooms.
Death came in numerous ways to the trapped guests. Some leaped blindly from windows, and others tried to jump into firemen's nets. Many rushed in panic thru the corridors to die of suffocation or burns. Some were roasted to death as they huddled in bathrooms or closets.
Thanks to Chet Wallace who put me onto the story of Herbert Swanson with his Find a Grave photo request. Chet is currently working on a project to locate the graves of all of the victims of the Winecoff Hotel fire. He is also working on a book about their lives as well as survivors, firemen and policeman who were on the scene.
If you are interested in more information about the Winecoff Hotel Fire, here are some excellent websites:
Peachtree Burning - a one-hour documentary depicting the tragedy of America's worst hotel fire: http://www.winecoffhotelfire.com/
Don't blame me if you have nightmares....