‘Babes Die in Flames’: The Presbyterian Orphanage fire

At about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1909, a fire broke out at the Presbyterian Orphanage in Lynchburg, Va., killing five girls, ages about 5 through 10. Stories about the tragedy appeared in newspapers as far away as Texas and Kansas, and perhaps even farther afield.

Under the dramatic headline, “Babes Die in Flames,” the Baltimore Sun reported that the fire erupted in Shelton Cottage, a girls’ dormitory. It was first detected by the orphanage cook, a “Mrs. Priest.”

Mrs. Priest, they say, was awakened “by the roar of the flames.”

In one eternally long sentence, the newspaper goes on to describe the scene:

“When [Mrs. Priest] saw that it was then impossible to get the children out by the stairway, the entire basement and first floor at that time being enveloped, and that it would be but a few minutes before the whole building would fall, she rushed to the third story and brought 15 children down to the second floor, leading them to the veranda roof, where they were taken down a ladder, several of them dropping into the outstretched arms of the older boys of the institution.”

As described in “Feed My Lambs: A History of Presbyterian Homes & Family Services, Inc., 1903-2003,” by Mary Jo Shannon, “Boys in nearby Paxton Cottage rushed to bring a ladder to rescue the frightened children. Some of the smallest girls jumped and were caught by the older boys.

“Tom Bowles, a sixteen-year-old crippled boy who lived on the first floor of Shelton Cottage because he could not manage stairs on his crutches, caught five or six of the girls before he collapsed, exhausted.”

The little girls who died that fall morning were Ruby and Lucile Moorefield, sisters from Lynchburg; Mamie Reynolds of Bath County; Marie Hickman of Campbell County; and Mary Poole of McDowell County, W. Va.

Beneath the exceedingly morbid headline, “Five Children are Cremated in Nursery,” the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal reported that Ruby Moorefield had initially been rescued but, upon learning that her younger sister, Lucile, was still trapped inside ran back into the inferno and “lost her life.”

Wanda Carpenter photo - graves of girls killed in pres home fire
Five little graves. Photo by Wanda Carpenter, Presbyterian Cemetery.

A funeral for the girls was held two days later at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The Washington Post reported that the church was “crowded” and “the bodies were held in five little white caskets.”

The girls are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery on Grace Street in Lynchburg.

As for the cause of the fire, Charlotte’s Evening Chronicle reported that there “seems to be no doubt but the fire was started in the furnace from which the building was heated.”

The Baltimore Sun said a coroner’s inquest, held the day after the blaze, “threw no light on the cause of the fire, but the verdict included a statement fully exonerating the Home authorities from blame.”

The Bryan, Texas, Eagle, reported that the building “caught fire in a manner that made the rescue impossible.”

Despite that dire description, 24 of the 29 girls were helped to safety, many by the aforementioned Mrs. Priest and possibly Sue Gamewell, another Shelton Cottage matron.

They did this without the benefit of a fire escape and neither escaped unscathed.

According to accounts in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, Gamewell, a widow in her late 40s according to 1910 U.S. Census, “contracted pneumonia while escaping from the fire in her night attire.”

As reported in the Evening Chronicle, Mrs. Priest — who was likely 20- or 21-year-old Ohio native Edna Preas, according to the 1910 census — had numerous injuries, including a dislocated shoulder, sprained back and a scalp wound.

“Mrs. Priest, after seeing the children in the main part of the building out safely, was compelled to jump,” the newspaper said, adding, “She will recover.”

There was even talk of nominating Mrs. Priest for a Carnegie medal for heroism. (Either she wasn’t nominated or didn’t win, as she’s not listed among the honorees for 1909 or 1910.)

Despite that, the Baltimore Sun had this to say about the bravery displayed by the women:

“Dr. R.H. Fleming, the superintendent, was away at the time of the fire, and there were no men about except some distance away in the farmhouses. When they arrived at the burning structure it was too late to save the little tots.

“The women could not have save[d] them, as they barely succeeded in saving 24 of the other girls.”

All I have to say to that is, “Really, guys? The lady saved 15 girls and then jumped out a second-story window, probably in her nightgown. Obviously, your editor was not a woman.” 

And special thanks to Wayne Fitzgerald for posting an article about the Presbyterian Home fire last October.

‘Sunday Stroll’ shows off natural beauty of Presbyterian Cemetery

On Sunday, May 7, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its second “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long walking tour, “Natural Beauty,” will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight plants and gardening traditions in the historic cemetery, along with stories of the past. Harvey also will address the meaning behind certain plants — roses, lilies, ivy, etc. — commonly used on tombstones and cemetery statuary.

You can read more about cemetery symbolism here.

10 babies
The final resting place of the 10 Waldron infants.

One story Harvey will tell involves the Waldron babies, 10 infants born to Robert and Susan Waldron, of Lynchburg. They are buried in a long, segmented plot behind their parents. Other than two monuments paying tribute to the infants as a group, the graves are unmarked — no names or genders and no birth or death dates.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

Road Trip Recap, Part 1

Last week, my good friend and running partner, Paula, and I took a road trip to Mississippi. Our primary mission was doing research for a book I’m working on about the journey William Macon Waller and his slaves took in 1847-48 from Amherst, Va., to Natchez, Miss.

Our secondary goal was eating. There’s lots of good food in and on the way to Mississippi.

We left Lynchburg on Saturday morning, April 22, bound for Birmingham, Ala. On the way, our route would take us through Bristol, Va., where there were doughnuts at Blackbird Bakery. Really good doughnuts.

The bakery, which is open 24/7, is located on the Virginia side of Bristol. In case you didn’t know, Bristol is a divided city. Tennessee is on one side of its main drag and Virginia on the other.

At Blackbird, I had three doughnuts: a vanilla cake, chocolate cake and a chocolate/caramel yeast doughnut. I washed them down with a pint of milk. Paula, who has more self-restraint than I do, had two doughnuts.

One of hers was blueberry pancake flavor with maple/bacon topping. It looked pretty good.

If I didn’t hate traveling I-81 so much, I might be at Blackbird every weekend.

Back in the car, we drove on, through Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn., and then Birmingham, Ala. Along the way, we counted 17 dead armadillos. They started appearing roadside, belly up with their tiny, clawed feet in the air, somewhere around Chattanooga.

Paula Googled “armadillo” on her phone and discovered the word was Spanish for “little armored one.” That made sense. She also read that armadillos had an odd — and suicidal — habit of jumping straight up when startled.

Sometimes, the article said, they jumped straight into the undercarriages or fenders of cars, thus all the little, armored bodies. Before the week was out, I’d count 42 dead armadillos along highways in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. And not a single, solitary live one.

alabama sign
Yes, it really says that.

In Bessemer, Ala., south of Birmingham, we checked into a hotel. Hungry again, we went to Bob Sykes, a local barbecue joint that’s been around since 1957. Husband John and I had been there once before, on the way to a family wedding in Louisiana.

It was about 6 p.m. and the place was packed. Many customers were wearing University of Alabama colors — red and white — causing us to suspect there was a spring football game down the road in Tuscaloosa that day.

I had a barbecue pork sandwich, macaroni and cheese a pile of fried okra. Normally, I wouldn’t cross a busy street for fried okra, but this was fried in a cornmeal batter and very tasty. Bob Sykes might have made a convert that night.

At the hotel, we watched several episodes of “Law & Order Special Victims Unit,” my favorite TV show. In addition to enjoying the dramatic stories and vicariously reliving my days as a sex crimes detective — yes, that was one of my “past lives” — I also appreciate its star Mariska Hargitay’s dedication to real-life sexual assault victims.

In 2004, in response to what she learned by playing Olivia Benson on “Law & Order” and the mail she received from sexual assault victims, some of which were telling someone about their abuse for the first time, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation.

You can read more about the organization here.

Soon, I’ll take you a little further down the road, where more dead armadillos, more good food and a few historic discoveries await.