4/21/1930 - Dangerous places in the extreme, prison death can come suddenly by way of a shank stabbing, beating, or gunfire, planned out on a schedule with executions by firing squad, electrocution, hanging, gas, chemical injections, and suicide, or in a grindingly slow manner from disease and old age ... but no one usually associates fire with convict or guard endings ... until a good portion of the Ohio State Penitentiary located in the downtown portion of the city of Columbus goes up in flames on Easter Sunday, 1930, in what will be the third deadliest structural fire in U.S. history.
Dousing The Flames
Opened in 1834 to hold 1,500 convicts (the institution sits on 22 acres of land between West and Neil Streets), during its tenure as the place to put Ohio's worst criminal offenders up until 1930, the penitentiary briefly serves as a home for such illustrious and infamous visitors as gold medal winning killer, Dr. James H. Snook (a member of the U.S. Olympic Pistol Team at Antwerp, Belgium in 1920, while head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University, he murders the 24-year-old medical student he has been having a sexual affair with for three years), Confederate General John H. Morgan (caught conducting a raid into Northern territory during the Civil War, Morgan and six of his officers escape the prison by digging a tunnel out into the prison's inner yard, then using a rope made of bunk coverlets and a bent poker iron, flee over the walls), North Side Chicago mob boss, Adelard Cunin, better known as George "Bugs" Moran (the man Al Capone intended to have killed during the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre), short story writer William Sydney Porter (better known by his pen name of O. Henry, the author of such works as "The Ransom of Red Chief" and "The Gift of the Magi," in "Cabbages and Kings," he coins the term "banana republic" ... he makes a stay on embezzlement charges), and armed robber turned crime novelist, Chester Bomar Himes.
The Prison Goes Up
As Columbus Grows Around The Site
Depression beginning to swell the convict ranks as some of the desperate turn to crime for sustenance, as the new decade of the 1930s begins, the prison is holding over 4,300 convicts like sardines in its steel cages (and it is the facility where the state metes out its death penalty executions), over triple the institution's capacity. In dire need of expansion and renovations, funds finally become available for the much needed work, and in 1930, wood and metal scaffolding goes up alongside the six story building housing the prison's "G" and "H" cell blocks (containing about 800 prisoners) for the dual purpose of building another cell block and making repairs on the roof of the existing structure. Pieces in place with prisoners returned to their cells after dinner and locked in for the night, the horrified screams of "FIRE!" beginning spreading through the unit at around 5:20 in the early evening and the tragedy commences.
The Fire Begins
Timbers, sawdust, tar, kerosene and resin available in the building supplies to feed the fire that breaks out in the scaffolding and spreads to the northwest corner of the roof, in minutes the fire is out of control and a different kind of screaming (the sound is never forgotten by any of the men that hear it!) begins as the deaths start from smoke inhalation, oxygen deprivation, seared lungs, and burnt flesh, eventually reaching a toll of 319 prisoners (no prison personnel perish in the holocaust and the number of dead is only topped by the 492 individuals burnt to death in 1942 at the Coconut Grove nightclub, and the more than 605 patrons of Chicago's Iroqouis Theater that die in a 1903 fire) ... an array of different ages, races, and religions made up of men serving sentences for burglary, forgery, assault, larceny, car theft, receiving stolen property, statutory rape, bank robbery, murder, spousal non-support, bootlegging, writing bad checks, manslaughter, and selling liquor to a minor. And it could have been much worse! At first disbelieving the cries of fire, 72-year-old Captain of the Guards, John Hall, forbids Thomas Waltkinson, the guard responsible for the cell blocks in danger, from unlocking any of the cells, cells which must be individually opened, and letting the convicts out! And Warden Preston E. Thomas doesn't help the situation either ... believing an escape is taking place (he will be proved later to be very close to correct), he calls for assistance from the National Guard (by the next morning, over 500 will be surrounding the prison), takes twenty minutes to call the fire department (big mistake, the prison is bereft of fire fighting equipment because everyone knows that concrete and steel don't burn, so why budget for it), and goes outside the prison walls to supervise the containment of the convicts, leaving his assistant, J. C. Woodward inside to coordinate putting down whatever is taking place (meanwhile, his daughter rushes to the burning cell blocks to help with the rescues and provide a modicum of medical assistance).
The Ohio State Penitentiary Complex
Not acquiescing to any kind of delays whatsoever, just coming on to start their evening shifts, guards Thomas Little and V. C. Isaldwin become heroes in the unfolding tragedy, risking life, limb, and future employment by taking the keys from Waltkinson anyway, and opening cells as quickly as possible, working there where along, and then up the tiers of cells, soon assisted as much as possible by other guards and just released convicts. Fire and smoke burning away differences (and smoke and soot make both guards and convicts look they are wearing black), many convicts and guards display their base humanity in the rescue (in the aftermath of the fire, several prisoners will receive pardons for their actions) ... one convict goes into the flames and smoke twelve times before not returning, a guard who passes out in the smoke awakes to being gently put down on a lawn outside by two prisoners who pulled him out of the cell block, and free in the ensuing chaos, one prisoner gets lost in downtown Columbus and turns himself in to the first police station he stumbles across (and of course on the flip side, there are stories of guards deliberately passing by the cells of inmates they dislike, letting the convicts burn to death). Though dousing the fire and cleanup will take much longer, when the burning roof of the cell blocks collapses into the structure, the event basically ends in just over thirty minutes, with all the prisoners on the top two tiers of the six stories of cells perishing, and another 130 convicts and guards being injured in the conflagration.
No mortuary in town big enough to process the multitude of bodies, all in closed caskets, the nearby State Fairgrounds become a funeral parlor for the dead. Too big a tragedy to be swept under the carpet, an investigation into the causes of the fire, and subsequent finger pointing begins almost immediately the next day ... but before any definitive answer can be agreed upon for the official record, out of the blue, the source of the spark announces itself to authorities ... convict James Raymond has a confession to make.
The Next Morning
Before The Caskets
Caskets, Caskets, And More Caskets!
Overwhelmed by guilt and remorse, without bargaining of any kind with the warden for concessions for his story, Raymond acknowledges that he started the fire as part of an escape. In cahoots with convicts Clinton Grate and Hugh Gibbons (whom he rats out without qualms), the fire was started by an incendiary device consisting of a burning candle set in a small, open container of kerosene roughly timed to go off while the inmates are out of their cells at dinner, with the trio of cons escaping in the resulting chaos ... but poorly created and not tested in advance, the arson doesn't take place until the prisoners have been returned to their cells. Placed immediately in solitary confinement ahead of an expected, and warranted, murder trial, Raymond saves the state the cost of a trial and execution by making his bedsheets into a rope of sorts and hangs himself to death the same day. One down, two culprits to go, Grate and Gibbons do go on trial and are both found guilty of second degree murder (they didn't "intend" to kill anyone) and sentenced to life in prison. Convicted, Gibbons takes his medicine and is eventually pardoned, but until the day he dies, never speaks about the bungled escape, while Grate mimics Raymond, creating a noose out of materials in his cell with which he hangs himself.
If any silver lining can be found in the event, it goes to the future inmates of Ohio, and other prisoners around the nation in the subsequent structural and management changes that take place ... in Ohio, repairs are made to the prison, men are transferred to other facilities, and the state changes some of its sentencing mandates so that lesser crimes do not result in prison time, and henceforth all doors open outward and have emergency bars, cell blocks are required to have a lever or button that can open a whole tier of cells at once, emergency fire equipment being on site is mandated, and fire evacuation plans are created and practiced (since, the only prison fire to ever "top" what takes place at the Ohio State Penitentiary is the 2012 conflagration that takes the lives of 360 individuals, out of 857 inmates, at the prison in Comayagua, Honduras). Never the same after the fire, in various forms the Ohio prison continues to hold the state's convicts until the facility is closed down in 1979 (there will be a food riot over dismal meals in 1952, and a worse blowup over prison conditions in 1968 that results in five prisoner deaths, and injuries to five more inmates and seven guards). It then stands empty for twenty years, used only on Halloweens as a haunted house for local charities, until it is finally torn down in 1998, despite the efforts of the Columbus Landmarks Foundation to save the site and its structures. Harsh concrete and steel now gone, the location currently is part of the city's Arena District that is home to Nationwide Arena and Huntington Stadium, and at the spot where the prison once stood, there is a group of condos, the Arena Grand Movie Theater, and the movie house's parking lot ... and lots and lots of ghosts.
Demolition In Process
Where Once There Was Prison
Ghostly noises and horrifying screams reported by prisoners, guards, and visitors to the site while the prison was still standing ... its subsequent destruction and rebirth as an entertainment center for the city has not stopped reports of supernatural events continuing to take place at the area ... if you ever visit the area, by careful if you light a cigarette, and have your EVP recorder at the ready!
Before It All Came Down
One Of The 319