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Charmed Life

Lives Lost: One

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/3/2003

Ninety-nine years ago, on a dank, gray Sunday morning, an errant cigarette butt changed the face of Baltimore forever. For it is generally believed that on Feb. 7, 1904, a lit cigar or cigarette was casually tossed curbside near the corner of Liberty and German (now Redwood) streets. The little fleck of fire somehow wound its way through a sidewalk crack to land in the cluttered basement of the John E. Hurst dry-goods company. Here the bit of ember found fertile ground. And over the next 24 hours, an epic conflagration raged through the heart of downtown. Today we simply call it the Great Baltimore Fire.

Superlatives surrounding the epic blaze abound: Some 1,200 firefighters battled the fire, and more than 1,500 buildings were destroyed. A commemorative plaque erected shortly after the inferno on the Market Street fish market (now, the Port Discovery children's museum) notes that $100 million worth of property was destroyed, and that 140 acres were affected. But the most amazing number concerning the big burn is, well, no number at all. Next to the heading "Lives Lost" on the plaque is the word "None." Subsequent accounts of the fire, in newspapers, magazines, and books, repeat this zero-fatality statistic. But if a budding historian named Jim Collins has anything to do about, this might change. Collins, 51, recently earned a bachelor's degree in history from Johns Hopkins University, and the Great Baltimore Fire was the subject of his senior thesis. He posits that the None should be changed to One.

"You could make a career out of reading newspaper accounts of this event," a grinning Collins says, sitting in the book-lined living room of his Wyman Park home. It was while poring through archived accounts of the blaze that he came across a tiny, three-inch story in the Feb. 17, 1904, Sun whose headline reads: "One Life Lost in Fire." The piece describes how Navy reservists pulled the "charred remains" of a "colored man" from the basin at Bowley's Wharf (which on today's map puts it near where the U.S.S. Constellation is docked). The story goes on to say that the victim had likely been "caught like a rat in a trap" when the flames bore down on the pier. The grisly tale resurfaces in the paper a few days later, when a couple of lines in a much larger fire-related story mention that the Bowley's Wharf body had still not been identified. And then accounts of this supposed fire fatality dry up entirely.

"I got curious," Collins says. "It seemed odd how everyone just sort of glossed over finding this body. Even the Afro-American didn't cover it. He might have been a drunk who passed out on the dock, or he might have been one of the several hundred people who were heroes trying to remove stock from the warehouses on the wharf. We don't know."

But then Collins' intrepid sniffing around hit pay dirt: He discovered a death certificate dated Feb. 24, 1904, for an unidentified burned and waterlogged black man whose unclaimed remains were ultimately cremated. Collins feels fairly certain that this is the Bowley's Wharf John Doe.

So why did this likely fire death disappear from the historical radar? Boosterism might be one reason. "For some reason the city thought it was so important to have no deaths in this fire that it was willing to compromise what it was actually telling people," Collins speculates. But given the scale of the fire, if several dozen people had died it could have been considered a low body count. Some 300 people perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and that blaze didn't include flaming skyscrapers. Temperatures reached as high as 2,500 degrees during the Baltimore fire as downtown's 12- and 16-story buildings burned like torches. In addition to the hundreds of firefighters (manning hopelessly underpowered equipment) crowding the smoky streets, there were thousands of hapless Baltimoreans either standing around as wide-eyed spectators, or running into burning buildings to save goods and business records. (People perish in rowhouse fires today, and here's a blaze that left Baltimore looking like Berlin in 1945.)

Another (and far uglier) reason why this death was shuffled out of historical accounts might have to do with racism. "It's possible that the reason why this person didn't count as a death is simply because he was black," says Collins, who has also been researching some of the insidious Jim Crow laws Maryland was developing around this same time, laws designed to disenfranchise blacks by limiting their voting power. In any event, Collins feels he's unearthed enough evidence to cast the zero-deaths-in-the-fire figure in doubt. (Maybe the downtown plaque needs editing: You could simply scrape the first "N" from the word "None.")

"We have tombs of unknown soldiers don't we?" Collins says. "Here we have an unknown dead guy from the fire. It's too late to account for how he ended up [in the harbor]. But now it's part of city lore that nobody died in the fire. It should be part of city lore that only one person died, which is astonishing enough."

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