Thursday, May 31, 2012


I have mentioned before on this blog that it is truly a pleasure for me to be able to photograph graves for people who do not live in the Chicago area.  Just today I received the following email:

"Jim, I just had to thank you again for your photographs with the up-close portrait picture of Bessie Sanders that you did a while ago.
I was at a family gathering today and two of Bessie's grandchildren (one 82 yrs. old) were in tears seeing the Memorial page with grave and the enlarged portrait.  So thank you once again for your kindness. Sue"

I have also mentioned that it has been a privilege for me to be able to supply some Chicago grave photos for someone who lives in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem).  Just the thought of the Holy City moves me, and to have a connection with someone who lives there is truly a blessing.  So, when I received the following email from my Jerusalem connection I set to work right away:

"Did I ask you before, Jim, if you could perhaps try to find Meyer Rolnick's grave?
Let me attach for you his story as I have written it.
A really interesting fellow and family."

Here are my clues from the Rolnick family saga:

"The Columbia Evening Missourian reports a 1920 visit by Meyer and Mollie (Rolnick) to (daughter) Grace in Columbia and, in 1921, a visit by Grace to “meet her parents, Mr. and Mrs. M. Rolnick, of Oklahoma City, Okla., who are going to New York City. Miss Rolnik will return to Columbia Monday.” But a year or two later, Meyer died of a heart attack in Chicago. “The story is that he was running for a trolley….."

Before we go any further with our investigation, let's take a look at the interesting story of Myer (Meyer) Rolnick:

Meyer Rolnick, who had emigrated in 1882 at 18 years of age from the Kurland, now Latvia, had got his citizenship in Tennessee.  He was a travelling salesman who started life as a young peddler and taught himself English by studying a Hebrew-English translation of the Torah.  First Meyer walked with a pack on his back, then he got a horse (or maybe donkey), and then a wagon.  He moved west and entered the Oklahoma Territory when it was Indian Territory, before white settlers were permitted.  In the 1900 Census he is listed as living in Mangum, Greer County, in the South-Western tip of the Territory of Oklahoma with his occupation as “Salesman of dry goods”.  Meyer's granddaughter writes that Meyer was “highly loved and respected by everyone and made lasting friends wherever he went”, but it must have been a lonely life for him, a single man and a foreigner in this wide Territory. But things were soon to take a turn for the better.

Philip Slaner, born Solnicki (Selinsky) in Vishay, Lithuania, had arrived in Texas in 1883, aged 17. By 1894, he had lived for fifteen years in Texas, and was established as the proprietor of a clothing store in Fort Worth, Texas (at 1017 Main St.). The news of great opportunities with the opening of the Oklahoma lands must have stirred him when, between July 29th and August 5th of 1901, the Wichita-Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa and Apache tribal lands were divided up in a land lottery. The 6,500 winners (chosen from 170,000 applicants) were given title to their 160 acre plots, and the Kiowa, Caddo, and Comanche Counties were added to Oklahoma Territory. Phillip had travelled some 200 miles north and, on August 6th, he opened his store in Hobart in Kiowa County, Oklahoma. Luckily for Meyer, Hobart was only 30 miles away from Mangum where, as we saw, Meyer had been living.  Phillip’s sister Mollie, who had arrived in the USA a few years before, traveled with Phillip. Meyer’s granddaughter writes: “Mollie was quite beautiful and well educated in Torah, Talmud and the Commentaries, as there was a school on the family property in Vishay for traveling students.  She, of course, could not go into (the school) but she stayed by the window and learned as best she could.  Meyer was much taken by her.  He was much older and by then successful.  He spoiled her even more than she already was.  They were married in 1905 in Dallas at the home of Conrad Hilton (who later began the hotel dynasty) his good friend.

They went on honeymoon somewhere in the West (I just love this photo!):

The following year, their daughter Grace was born, in Hobart. Meanwhile, Phillip’s brothers, Louis and Jacob (who also took on the name Slaner, from their Solnicki) had arrived in the USA, Louis in 1900, Jacob in 1905. Louis soon set himself up working with Phillip and William Flaxman in a Dixie Department Store in Mountain View, but Jacob stayed with Phillip in the store in Hobart (and would remain with the store for another fifty years).

Meyer had done well financially but was looking around for further business opportunities. The Santa Fe Railroad was building a transcontinental line, planned to go through the newly developing ranch and farm area of Eastern New Mexico. The railway engineers, ordered in 1906 to choose a town site, settled on a spot just northwest of an existing rail switch, known as Riley Switch. The town was renamed Clovis by the station master's daughter, who at the time was studying about Clovis, the first Catholic king of the Franks. Meyer felt that what was needed in the new town was a bank and, with four other founders, met in Melrose, New Mexico on May 29, 1907 to organize the Clovis National Bank with a capital of $25,000 (about $1,000,000 in today's money). By December of that year, the bank already had resources of over $65,000 of which $32,000 were deposits by individuals, and they had $26,000 out on loan.

Meyer and his family moved down to Clovis where, in August of 1908, they hosted Mollie’s 65 year old widowed mother Chaya Solnicki and her brother Jacob (Slaner). Their brother Phillip had travelled to their home town of Vishay in Lithuania to fetch Chaya, who came to the USA together with three 11 year old boys, one of them a grandson. Four of Chaya’s children were now living in America and the plan was for her to move permanently to the USA.  But, delighted as she was to see her new grandchild, Grace, she found the new country to be too strange, without the Jewish atmosphere and the kosher food that she was used to, and she returned to Vishay.  

Meanwhile, things had not been easy for the Rolnicks down in Clovis. Meyer’s National Bank of Clovis failed in the oil-related financial panic of 1911. But because of his good reputation he had no trouble getting advances from his old suppliers and he went back into business in Oklahoma, opening up a dry goods store in Carnegie, Oklahoma.   Marcia Burnham writes: “It took Myer years to pay back all his depositors, but he did”. 

Mollie’s cousin on her mother’s side, Abraham Grad, had arrived in September of 1911, his fare paid by his uncle Phillip. Abraham went to work in Meyer’s store in Carnegie and stayed there for many years.  Mollie’s nephew Irwin Chason also went to work in Meyer’s store.  So Meyer was employing a nephew from each side of Mollie’s family, one a Grad and the other a young man from her Solnicki side. Abraham’s younger brother, Frank Grad, and Frank’s wife Rose arrived in Hobart in 1922 with their son Charles. Frank started his life in Oklahoma by also working in Meyer’s store.  Indeed, Meyer was surrounded, happily one is sure, by Solnickis and Grads.  His own Rolnick family was far away in Chicago and Baltimore, but there is one historic photograph of a meeting, probably in Chicago and taken before Louis Rolnick’s death in 1906, of seven of the children of Berl Rolnik:

Marcia Garbus Burnham writes: “(Meyer) was always active in politics and became the first Republican State Committeeman from Oklahoma (i.e. head of the state party). My mother (Grace Rolnick)'s favorite story was that he was invited to join the Klu Klux Klan, the most virulent anti-negro, Catholic or Jewish group in our history. ….. He told them that it was a greatest honor he could imagine and that he loved each member like a brother but that he didn't think it was a good idea considering everything. …. One of his many charities was to give the widows who lived on the little farms of the region cloth, needles and thread. They could do whatever they wished (with) it...make clothing for their families etc. If they made quilts, he would buy them for cash as they had no other way of ever having any cash at that time. We had quite a collection of quilts. My children have some.”

By 1920, with their daughter Grace at school, the family moved to the big town, Oklahoma City. Interestingly, Meyer is recorded twice in the Census of that year. On the 16th January, a Friday, he is in Carnegie, a lodger with a private family, the Dauberts. On the “17-19” January, by the weekend, he is 100 miles away in Oklahoma City with Mollie and Grace, at 427 East 14 St. It seems that he spent part of the week helping Abraham Grad to run the store, but was back in Oklahoma City for the weekends. Soon after, Grace was sent to school at Stephen’s College, Colombia, Missouri. 

This brings us back to our original clues:  The Columbia Evening Missourian reports a 1920 visit by Meyer and Mollie to Grace in Columbia and, in 1921, a visit by Grace to “meet her parents, Mr. and Mrs. M. Rolnick, of Oklahoma City, Okla., who are going to New York City. Miss Rolnik will return to Columbia Monday.” But a year or two later, Meyer died of a heart attack in Chicago. “The story is that he was running for a trolley…"  

We know that Meyer died:

1.  In Chicago
2.  After 1921 (based on the quote above)
3.  Before 1925 (based on the fact that Meyer's daughter Grace married Morton Garbus in November of 1925.  Their marriage certificate is signed by Joseph Garbus, Morton’s father but by Jacob Slaner, Grace’s uncle, since her father, Meyer, had of course died some years before).

The easiest way to find Meyer's burial site is to look at his death certificate.  Based on the above clues I checked all the online death indices but could not find Meyer's death listed anywhere.  
I checked Family Search, the Illinois Statewide Death Index and Cook County Genealogy Online - nothing.

At the same time this request came in, I made one of my frequent trips to Jewish Waldheim Cemetery.  I stopped in at the office to see if they had any record of Meyer.  And unlike the Chaia Vision saga (see previous post) the nice women at the desk said "Yes, he's here - he died in September of 1924."  She went on to say that Meyer's grave was located at Gate 24 (B'nai Israel), Lot 33, Row 15, Grave 3.  So, off I went to meet Meyer Rolnick - and here he is:

Meyer is buried next to Jack Rolnick,

 and just a few rows up from Michael Rolnick and his wife Jennie, and Max Rolnick:

So even though Meyer died a long way from home, he was laid to rest in the bosom of his family.

As the description of this blog says "There is a story under every stone."  We don't usually have as much of the story as we do with Meyer Rolnick, but due to the diligence of his relatives, we know not only about Meyer and his wife, but also his siblings and forebears.

May Meyer Rolnick, immigrant, peddler, banker, and department store magnate, rest in peace.

(The Rolnick family saga, and all photos except the grave photos, are used with permission of the Rolnick Family.) 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

80 YEARS ARE ENOUGH - Chaia (Ida) Vision

Usually when looking for material for this blog I see an interesting gravestone then look for the story behind it.  This time, however it was the other way around.  First I found the story, then I went looking for the grave.

When I was searching through an online archive of Jewish records a couple of months ago I saw an interesting article:

Jewish Woman, 110 Years, Oldest in Chicago, Dies

Chicago, III, Mar. 3 (JTA) – (Jewish Daily Bulletin)  Mrs. Chaia Vision, 110 years old, said to be the oldest person in Chicago died at the Orthodox Jewish Home for the Aged here.
As she lay on her death bed, Mrs. Vision repeated what she had often said: "I am ready to die. I have lived. Eighty years is enough for anybody--and I have had a hundred and ten."
Mrs. Vision has lived in the Home for the Aged for sixteen years. She had taught the "younger" women at the home a philosophy of contentment, one that said, "Eighty years are enough."
She is survived by three sons, Abraham, Daniel and Solomon, all old men; twenty-seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren, and ten great-great-grand-children. Burial was in Waldheim cemetery.
Jewish Daily Bulletin - March 3, 1928

Of all the posts in my blog (46 as of this date) the one that has received the most hits is the story of Lazarus Finkelstein who died in Chicago in 1918 at the age of almost 110.  It looks like Chaia Vision beat Lazarus' record.

What can we find out about this remarkable woman?  In the 1920 Census she was already living in the Orthodox Jewish Home for the Aged (Beth Moshav Z'keinim) at Albany and Ogden in the predominantly Jewish (at the time) Lawndale neighborhood. 

(Photo courtesy

Chaia is of course retired and a widow, and came to the United States in 1905.  She was born in Russia and her native language was "Jewish".  Not too much information there.  Let's go back to the 1910 Census.

In 1910 Ida Vision was living at 618 W. 13th Street with her husband "Mike".  He was a "Notions Peddler".    They had been married for 49 years in 1910 and had 4 children, all of whom were still alive in 1910 (but not living with their parents).  Today, 618 W. 13th Street is a parking lot for the UIC Pavilion, but it is interesting to note that it is just one short block from Maxwell Street, the heart of Jewish life in Chicago the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The writeup from the Jewish Daily Bulletin said she was buried at Waldheim, so on one of my Find a Grave photo trips there I stopped in at the office to see where the grave was located.  To my surprise the response was "She's not here."  I assumed they weren't trying to tell me that she had risen from the dead, but that she had not been buried there in the first place.  Just to double check, I stopped in at the office of Silverman and Weiss who manage a small part of Waldheim.  Again the response "She's not here."  I showed them the obituary as one of the groundskeepers happened to be passing by.  "Maybe she's up the street at Forest Home."  Forest Home Cemetery is a large and historic cemetery literally just up the road from Jewish Waldheim.  In fact, Forest Home in German is "Waldheim".  I responded that I wasn't aware of any Jewish graves at Forest Home, and he told me that there is one small section of Jewish burials.  It's surprising that a Jewish person would not have used one of the 300+ burial societies at Jewish Waldheim, but that may have been the case.  

So I drove up the street to Forest Home and the very nice lady at the office there told me the same thing: "She's not here."  What to do now?  I decided to get a copy of the death certificate to see what burial information was there.  

Ida's Place of Burial is listed in Box 19 of the death certificate:  "Knova - Forest Park."  Knova is actually a name for Gate 45 Kovner Congregation Section at Waldheim Jewish Cemetery.  I checked again with the office at Waldheim and asked them specifically to check records for Gate 45.  They told me they had a "Marks" Vision who died in 1914 but that's all.  The records at Waldheim are very good, but they aren't perfect so I decided to go see for myself.  There in the shade I found the grave of "Marks" Vision.

There is a place for Marks' wife to be buried next to him, and a place on the tombstone but Chaia (Ida) does not appear to be there.

Here's the death certificate for Marks (Max) Vision:  

I tried to find the burial records for Ida's sons, Abraham, Daniel and Solomon thinking she might be buried next to one of them, but no luck.

So, unless any of my readers has a suggestion I am stumped.  I will have to subtitle this listing:

"Where in the world is the burial place of Chaia (Ida) Vision?"

Frustrating, to say the least, but this may just have to be one of those unanswered questions I am always talking about.

I know there are some very astute genealogy researchers who read this blog, so if any of you can think of an avenue I should pursue, please let me know.

In the meantime, may Mike---Marks---Max Vision, buried at Jewish Waldheim rest in peace and

may Chaia (Ida) Vision, once the oldest woman in Chicago, rest in peace wherever she may be.

Monday, May 21, 2012


On yet another Find a Grave photo trip to Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago I was walking the rows of graves in Section 103 when I saw the following footstone:

"Dorothy - Sweet Sixteen" was all it said.  I looked up and saw an impressive family monument with more details.

Dorothy C. Starr
February 10, 1894
August 15, 1910

The 1910 census was taken as of April, 1910 so luckily we can find Dorothy still alive at that time.  Dorothy lived at 6059 South Monroe Street in Chicago.  Most Chicagoans of today's vintage are used to Monroe as an east-west street that starts in Chicago's Loop but in 1910 there was also a Monroe street that ran north and south from 5300 South to 9000 South on Chicago's South Side.  The north-south Monroe street was later changed to Kenwood Avenue.  6059 S. Kenwood is now an industrial building, but 100 years ago this was a very fashionable neighborhood of big old homes.

Dorothy lived with her father Arthur, a real estate agent, mother Florence, and her brothers 26 year old Leon and 18 year old James.  Dorothy was 16 when the census was taken.  The Starr family was well-off enough to have a servant, 19 year old Lillian Bethke.

What happened on August 15, 1910 in Onekama Township, Manistee County, Michigan?  We will probably never know the whole story but the death certificate says that the cause of Dorothy's death was "accidentally drowned in Lake Michigan near Portage Point." 

The death of Dorothy Starr reminded me of the tragic death of 20 year old Meyer Iglowitz who drowned in Michigan during an outing with friends August 18, 1913 and whose story I have previously told on this blog: 

Being the only girl in the family, with two older brothers, I am sure that Dorothy was the "pet" of the Starr Family.  Not only was she the only girl, as the youngest she was "The Baby" as well.  It goes without saying that all were devistated by her death.

Dorothy died on August 15, 1910 and was buried the very next day, on August 16th.

Dorothy had turned 16 on February 10, 1910.  We don't know for sure, but it is very possible that her loving family threw a "Sweet Sixteen" party for her when she reached that "magic" age.  It is all speculation on my part, but perhaps while they were trying to deal with the fact that their Dorothy was dead that someone said "I'll never forget her at her Sweet Sixteen party - she never looked lovelier and she was never happier."  It's just a small step then to imagine that one of them (perhaps a big brother) said, "That's how I want to remember her.  Let's put that on her tombstone:  Dorothy - Sweet Sixteen."

But life went on for the Starr family, as it does for every family that has had to deal with a tragedy.  Was this the end of tragedies for the Starr family?  Unfortunately, no.

Leon Parley Starr
Company C, 1st Colorado Infantry
August 10, 1884
April 5, 1917

Leon was one of Dorothy's big brothers.  Leon "went West" and ended up living in Colorado.  In May of 1916 he married Anna Burgess in Canon City, Colorado.  Then the war came along - the one that used to be called "The Great War".  Leon was too old to be drafted - in 1917 he was 33 years old.  But a sense of duty called and he enlisted in the First Regiment, Colorado Infantry.  The Chicago Tribune obituary from April 6, 1917 tells the rest of the sad story:

STARR - Leon P. Starr, son of Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Starr of 6059 Kenwood Av., Chicago, April 4, at Denver, Colorado, of meningitis contacted in camp of the First Regiment, Colorado Infantry.  Graduate of the University of Chicago in the Class of 1908.  Member of the Lincoln House.
Chicago Daily Tribune - April 6, 1917.

Arthur P. Starr, father of Dorothy and Leon, only lasted just over two years after Leon's death.  Arthur P. Starr died July 7, 1919 in Chicago:

STARR - Arthur P. Starr, suddenly, July 7 at his residence, 6059 Kenwood Av., beloved husband of Florence Murray Starr, father of J. Ralph Starr.  Funeral notice later.
Chicago Daily Tribune - July 8, 1919.

Does it say "died of a broken heart" on his death certificate?  It might as well have.

James Ralph Starr, Dorothy's other big brother, died in in Los Angeles, California on December 20, 1960 at the age of 69.

Florence Murray Starr, mother of Dorothy, Leon and J. Ralph, and wife of Arthur, had to wait a long time to be reunited with her family.  She outlived all of them and did not die until November 5, 1962 at the age of 101!

Dorothy Starr - Sweet Sixteen

Leon Parley Starr - Our Soldier Boy

May they rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I was spending a gloomy Saturday recently at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago helping someone in Pennsylvania who is putting together a roster of the burial places of Civil War Dead.  After I finished what I was supposed to be doing, I wandered around the cemetery looking for interesting graves as I often do.  Rosehill is so large, and so old, that there are interesting gravestones virtually everywhere you look.  All at once I saw a large gray stone with the name MEYER and an inscription in German.

 Here's what it said:

                                                          C. M.

In front of the large stone were two flat headstones.  One said:

Robert Meyer
Died Jan. 2, 1920

and the other said:

Conradine Meyer
Died Oct. 26, 1913

I didn't need to be able to read German to figure out that the "C.M." from the quote must be Conradine Meyer.  But what was she trying to tell us?

First let's see what we can find out about her.  There's not too much about Conradine Meyer on the Internet, but with her unusual first name we are able to find out a few things.

The 1910 census shows that Robert and Conradine Meyer lived at 2535 N. Orchard Street in Chicago.

Conradine was born in 1849 in Germany making her 61 in 1910 - her husband Robert was born in 1856, also in Germany and was 54 in 1910.  They had been married for 29 years; they had no children. Robert listed his business as "Wholesale Underwear".  

Conradine Feidelberg Meyer died at home the morning of October 26, 1913 of complications from breast cancer.  She was 64 years old.

But wait - there's more.    

Robert Meyer died seven years later on January 2, 1920, just short of his 64th birthday from pernicious anemia.  His death certificate said that he worked for "Meyers Bros. Wholesale Underwear."  He did not remarry after Conradine's death and he still was living at 2535 N. Orchard.

A comparison of their death certificates shows something very interesting.  Conradine's lists her father as M. Feidelberg and her mother as H. Heilbronn.  Robert's father is listed as Moses Meyers and his mother as Bertha Heilbronn.  Were Conradine and Robert first cousins?  We may never know.  

As I have mentioned before, genealogy is a cross between a treasure hunt and a detective story.  For every question that is answered, five new questions pop up.  And one of the frustrating things about genealogical research is that some questions are never answered.

Back to the mysterious tombstone.  I love reading tombstone messages. They are a way for the departed to reach out from the other side and talk to the living.  It is their last chance to impart a word of wisdom, or even a warning ("As I am now, so you shall be...").  Even though I have German ancestry I do not speak or read German.  Luckily one of my friends is a native German speaker and was glad to translate Conradine's message to us.  So here is the message direct from Conradine Feidelberg Meyer who died in 1913:


May Conradine and Robert Meyer rest in peace.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Hello everyone out there in the blogosphere -

I just found out that "Under Every Stone" has reached the milestone of 1,000 page views over the past 30 days.  In addition to our US visitors, we have had visitors from Russia, Canada, Germany, France, India, The Philippines, Indonesia, The United Kingdom, and The Netherlands.

Thanks to all of your for your interest.  I have many more interesting stories in the queue.  Stay tuned!

Until next time -

Jim Craig
Evanston, Illinois

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

WORST U.S. HOTEL DISASTER - Herbert E. Swanson

You can seldom tell from looking at a tombstone how someone died. Was it quick and painless, or did it take a long time to die in anguish? Take a look at this tombstone and see if you can tell how this man died:

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.  

Many Trapped Guests Leap to Doom; 100 Hurt
Atlanta Blaze Worst of Kind in History

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.

Building a Gaunt Shell

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.

Lack Theories on Cause

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.

Phones Warnings to Guests

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.

Some Survive Drops

Most persons with rooms in the third floor saved themselves by dashing downstairs or dropping from window ledges.  Above the tenth floor a few residents survived by remaining in their rooms after stuffing mattresses and bed clothes into shattered transoms and around doors to keep out the smoke.  Firemen with ladders saved dozens of others.

Edward W. Sherwood, 54, of Chicago, a golf professional , was one of the few 9th floor guests who escape uninjured.  Tonight he gave The Tribune a vivid account of his ordeal.

"I went to my bedroom about 7:30 p.m. and retired, leaving a call for 8 a.m.," he said.  "I had intended to check out and leave Atlanta today.  I am a light sleeper and I woke up at 3:30 a.m. hearing cries of fire from the alley under my room.  I opened the door but found the hall full of smoke, so I shut the door at once and plugged up the cracks with bed sheets.

Floor Becomes Hot

"After a while the floor got so hot I could no longer stand on it.  I opened a window and crawled out on the ledge.  The heat from the room was so intense I managed to close the window while clinging to the edge.  I could see dozens of persons from my floor and from floors above and below me also standing on window ledges.  Every once in a while one of them would shriek and dive off.

"A woman was standing on a ledge next to mine.  She kept crying that she was going to fall.  She was just too far away for me to reach her.  I pleaded with her to hang on, but it did no good.  She plunged down."

Sherwood said he stood on the ledge for between 45 minutes and one hour, shouting, "ladder, ladder," until he became too horse to shout.  "I was clinging there praying and the heat was so intense it seemed I could not bear it another minute,"  he said, "Then from the office building across the alley firemen pushed a ladder at me.  They were above me and the ladder came down at about a 30 degree angle.  I grabbed it and got it fixed to the ledge.  Then I crawled upward across the alley to the office window."

Collapses After Rescue

Sherwood said he collapsed as he reached safety and that he hopes he can forget the horrible scenes he witnessed during his ordeal on the ledge.  He was revived without hospital attention and sent a wire to his wife assuring her of his safety.  She is living temporarily at 714 Clinton place, River Forest.  Sherwood is a representative of the McDonald company, manufacturer of golf equipment, of West Chicago.

Sherwood said it was his observation that water pressure limited fire fighting activities to the first 8 floors of the hotel.

A midwesterner among the identified dead was Dr. Carl E. Rasmussen of Des Moines, Ia.

Midwesterners on the list of injured at Grady hospital included H.B. Keller, Chicago, Ima Dell Ingram of Rockford, Ill., and Mrs. Kitty Tribble, Poole hotel, Rockford, Ill.

Miss Ingran, 24, said she and her aunt, Mrs. Tribble were in a room on the eighth floor and peered out to see a ladder below them but extending only to the sixth floor.  They knotted sheets together and attempted a descent.  Miss Ingram reached a ladder but saw her aunt slip and fall.  At the hospital she found her aunt also safe.

"I lost consciousness when I slipped," Mrs. Tribble said, "I guess I must have hit a net."

Atlantans Throng Area

Thousand of Atlanta residents jammed midtown streets today to view the burned out structure and to talk in hushed tones of the tragedy.  It was a consensus of opinion that "Something must be done to make hotels safer, " but there were no concrete suggestions.  A report circulated that the hotel had been inspected within the past week and given a clean bill of health by the fire department.  This was not immediately confirmed.

Hotel's Builder Killed

W.F. Winecoff, who built the hotel in 1914 and has lived there in retirement since selling his interest in 1938, lost his life in the blaze, as did his wife.  They occupied a 10th floor apartment.

The hotel is now owned by Mrs. Annie Lee Irwin of Atlanta and operated by a lessor, Arthur F. Geele Sr., of Danville, Ky., in association with his son, Arthur Jr. and R.E. O'Connell, a Chicago detective.

The Geeles were on a hunting trip when the fire occurred.  O'Connell was in the hotel and was reported injured.

Woman 60, Saves Three

The wife and two children of Arthur Geele, Jr. were saved thru the efforts of Mrs. Banks Whiteman, 60, operator of the hotel's cigar counter, who had been spending the night with Mrs. Geele Sr. in the latter's 15th floor suite.  Mrs. Whiteman heard cries for help from Mrs. Geele Jr. who was in a 14th floor room with her children.  Mrs. Whiteman, who weighs about 100 pounds, dropped a twisted sheet to the floor below and pulled the children Esther, 6, and John, 14, up to safety.  She and John then pulled up Mrs. Geele Jr.  All crouched in the 15th floor room until firemen reached them.

Mrs. G.D. Burch of Chattanooga, Tenn., fell 10 stories and lived.  Her husband, 21, said they were in a 10th floor room when the fire broke out.  He knotted several sheets together and hung them out the window.  He said a ladder had reached the 8th floor and that he helped his wife out the window.

"I saw her slip and fall," he said.  "I climbed out not knowing what had happened to her."  At Grady hospital he learned she had been caught by firemen and was alive, altho injured.  He said she suffered fractured legs and internal injuries.

Alvin J. Millman of 4833 N. Kenneth av., Chicago, escaped from a 3rd floor room by jumping into a life net.

Persons on the street while the flames were at their height told many stories of witnessing death plunges and heroic rescues.  One said he saw a fireman, who was descending a ladder with a woman, struck squarely by a body hurtling from an upper floor.  All three fell several floors to the hotel marquee, it was said.  Both women were killed, and the fireman, Jack Burnham, was gravely injured.
Chicago Daily Tribune, December 8, 1946

What a tragedy.  Herbert E. Swanson, who started life in Chicago in 1908 (as Edward Swensen) lost his life on December 7, 1946 in Atlanta, Georgia.  We will never know if Herbert suffered, or for how long.  We can only pray that his death came quickly and painlessly, although that was not the case for so many of the Winecoff Hotel's victims.  Herbert was buried several days later right above his mother's grave in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.  Although he died miles away from home, the family decided it was only proper that he be buried here in his home town with his Mother.   

Herbert's father Edward joined his family at Rosehill ten years later in 1956. 

By now we have seen that it is impossible in most cases to tell how someone died from looking at their tombstone.  Many years ago I saw a tombstone inscription that is a fitting way to end the story of  Herbert Swanson:

Remember man, as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you shall be
Please stop and say a prayer for me.

May Herbert E. Swanson, and all the victims of the Winecoff Hotel fire, rest in peace.

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:

Don't blame me if you have nightmares....

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"I AM GLAD IT AS ME INSTEAD OF YOU" - Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago

People of my parents' generation were extremely fond of Franklin Delano Roosevelt - after all, they elected him president four times.  Chicagoans of their generation were very proud of the story of the Mayor of Chicago who was assassinated in the place of Roosevelt.  As with many of the stories of the old days, I am afraid this story is virtually forgotten today.  One of the purposes of my blog is to re-tell the stories of the men and women of days gone by so they are not forgotten.  So as a life-long member of the greater Chicago community I will proudly tell the story of Anton Cermak, the martyred mayor of Chicago.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Anton Joseph Cermak (Antonín Josef Čermák) was born in Kladno, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) on May 9, 1873.  He came with his parents to the United States in 1874 and the Cermak family settled in northern Illinois as many of their fellow Bohemians did.  After his schooling was completed young Anton joined his father as a coal miner in Braidwood, Illinois.  In 1890 he moved to Chicago and found work on the railroad before starting his own business as a wood dealer and hauler in the city. 

Cermak began his political career as a precinct captain and in 1902 was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives.  Seven years later, he would take his place as alderman of the 12th Ward.   Using his aldermanic office as a springboard, he was elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1922, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party in 1928, and ultimately mayor of Chicago in 1931.

Up until this time, politics in Chicago, and the rich patronage army that came with it, had been controlled by the Irish.  An immigrant himself, Cermak realized that the vast majority of immigrants felt disenfranchised by the Irish politicians so he made them his political base.  He may not have been Irish, but he had been in Chicago long enough to learn from the pros.  After the Irish bosses rejected Cermak's bid to become their mayoral candidate, he swore revenge. He formed his political army from all of the non-Irish elements, and was the first Chicago politician to reach out to the African-American community through black politician William L. Dawson.    Cermak persuaded Dawson to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party.  With the support of the Cermak political machine, Dawson was elected to the US Congress and went on to become the most powerful black politician in Illinois.

When Cermak challenged the incumbent Wiliam Hale ("Big Bill") Thompson in the 1931 mayor's race, Thompson, representative of Chicago's existing power structure, responded with ethnic slurs:
I won't take a back seat to that Bohunk,
Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name is.
Tony, Tony, where's your pushcart at?
Can you picture a World's Fair mayor with a name like that?

I love Cermak's reply:  "It's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I got here as soon as I could."
The Chicago Tribune didn't mince any words with their opinion of Big Bill Thompson:

"For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.... He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character."

Sometimes a politician can go too far - even in Chicago.  In the mayoral election held on April 6, 1931, Anton "Pushcart Tony" Cermak won with 58% of the vote.  Cermak's victory finished Thompson as a political power and largely ended the Republican Party's power in Chicago—no Republican has held the office of mayor of Chicago since Thompson's exit in 1931.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in November of 1932.  In those days, the president was not inaugurated until the following March.  On February 15, 1933 President-elect Roosevelt arrived at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida.  He was coming off a yacht he had been using for a fishing trip to the Bahamas.  After giving a short speech while sitting on the back seat of a convertible Roosevelt noticed Cermak in the crowd.  He motioned Cermak over - probably to thank him personally for his help in getting Roosevelt elected.  After the two spoke privately, Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara stepped out of the crowd and began shooting.  It was believed that Zangara was attempting to kill Roosevelt, but he hit Cermak instead.

Zangara fired six bullets - the bullets hit four bystanders (including a mother of 5 children) and Mayor Cermak.  The mayor fell out of the car and called out "The President, get him away!". But Roosevelt ordered his car to stop and had the Mayor put in with him. President-elect Roosevelt held Cermak all the way to the hospital. On March 6, 1933, Cermak succumbed to his wound. Before he died, he is reported to have said to the President, "I am glad it was me instead of you, Mr. President."

An unrepentant Giuseppe Zangara, who laughed when he was sentenced to die, was executed in Florida's electric chair on March 20.  Relatives refused to claim his body so he joined other killers, rapists and common criminals who are interred in plots in orderly rows marked by a small concrete block with a license tag-shaped metal plaque stamped in the prison's tag plant with a name, date of death and a correction number on the grounds of the Florida State Prison at Raiford known as "boot hill."

Photo used with the permission of the photographer Z.K. Roberts.

Cermak's body was returned home for an elaborate funeral in Chicago.  Thirty thousand mourners marched in a solemn procession of six black horses, an open Army caisson, bells and muffled drums. Five hundred thousand Chicagoans presented themselves to honor their fallen leader as he lay in state first in the front window of his home, and then in the central corridor of the building shared by the City Hall and the offices of Cook County.  (It was not recorded whether or not Big Bill Thompson was among the mourners).

Twenty three thousand mourners packed into every available space in the Chicago Stadium for Cermak's funeral service.  Cermak's late wife Mary was a Catholic as were the Cermaks' daughters, and in fact a priest was called to his bedside as he lay dying, but Anton Cermak himself was not a Catholic.  It was decided that the service at the Stadium would be more of a civic service than a religious one, although mixed in with the politicians there were eulogies from The Rev. Daniel J. Frawley, pastor of St. Jerome's Catholic Church, Rabbi Louis L. Mann of Sinai Temple, and The Rev. John Thompson, pastor of The First Methodist Episcopal Church.  Governor Henry Horner gave the final eulogy.

After the services concluded, a crowd estimated at fifty thousand followed the late mayor's bronze casket from the Chicago Stadium to its final resting place at the Bohemian National Cemetery on North Pulaski Road.  The committal took place on a carpeted space in front of the art-deco Cermak family mausoleum where Cermak's beloved wife Mary Horejs Cermak had been laid to rest in November of 1928.  

It took ten army trucks to deliver all the floral offerings which were placed all around the mausoleum among the gravestones and against the trees.  Then finally, as Taps was played, Mayor Anton Cermak was commended to eternity.  Not bad for an immigrant boy from Bohemia, was it?

It is fitting that the front of Mayor Cermak's crypt is labelled with the quote he is most remembered for:

"I Am Glad It Was Me, Instead of You."   

May he rest in peace.