Sometimes as I am reviewing the notes in my family history database, I’m struck by the commonality of a particular fact — like how many people in my tree were postmasters, how many were twins, or how many died in accidents . . . like house fires.
I have not experienced a close call with fire, but I remember hearing the story that the large collar on her dress caught fire one time when my sister was blowing out her birthday candles. And the stories below tell the sad but true tale of several family members who met an excruciating death.
Clara Annie May Wilhoyte, my fifth cousin twice removed, four years old:
From The Courier-Journal, 8 Dec 1893:
The death of Clara Wilhoite (sic) occurred Wednesday night at the home of her parents above Jeffersonville, on the Utica pike. Last Monday her clothing caught fire from a grate and the injuries sustained terminated her life. She was the daughter of William Wilhoite and was a relative of the wife of City Clerk Fred Bamber, of Jeffersonville.
Mary Bowdish, mother-in-law of my great uncle, Frank Wild, 80 years old:
From The Nebraska State Journal, 4 Feb. 1910:
Mrs. Bowdish, mother-in-law of Frank Wild, postmaster at DeWitt, was so badly burned at her home here this afternoon that she died shortly afterwards. Her son, Homer Bowdish, who ran valiantly to her rescue and who carried her out while her clothes were still aflame, is in a critical condition from burns he received from the inhalation of flame.
Mrs. Bowdish was 80 years of age, and had been in an enfeebled condition of health for some time. She lived alone in a small two-room house on the small lot with her daughter, Mrs. Wild, following her own desire to live the rest of her life in her own home.
This afternoon she tottered into her bedroom to get a match with which to light her pipe. In striking it, she did not notice that a portion of the flaming head lit upon the bed and set fire to the coverings thereof. In a few moments the small room was ablaze and the woman’s clothes were all afire when her son, Homer, responding to her cries for help, rushed in and picking her up carried her outside. Part of her body was burned to a crisp, and she lived but a few moments. The house was partly burned, but most of the furniture was destroyed. The Wilds live near the center of the city, but the prompt response of the fire department prevented the spread of the flames beyond the small house occupied by the aged woman.
Barnett Sleet, husband of Frances Cleek, my fifth cousin twice removed, 39 years old:
From The Courier-Journal, 3 Mar 1919:
Walton, Ky., March 2 — Barnett K. Sleet, a farmer living near Walton, lost his life in a fire that destroyed his home last night. Mr. Sleet’s wife and three children had gone to spend the night with neighbors, and he was alone in the house at the time. Neighbors who saw the flames hurried to the home and found the charred body of Mr. Sleet in the kitchen. Both arms and legs had been burned from the body.
The origin of the fire was not learned, but it is believed that the blaze started from the kitchen stove.
Alice Walker Garr Coleman, my fourth cousin three times removed, 74 years old:
From The Courier-Journal, 23 Aug 1926:
Mrs. Alice Coleman, 70 years old, is dead at Providence of burns suffered when she forgot a can of kerosene she had left on a stove, and it exploded, setting fire to her clothing. She is survived by four children. Burial was in Slaughters Cemetery.
Annie Weithaus Kruckewitt, wife of my great uncle Bill Kruckewitt, age 69:
According to a letter from her son, Edward John Kruckewitt, to Laila Wild, dated September 22, 1941: “Mother passed away February 5, 1931, two weeks after an accident in which her skirts caught fire while cleaning the bathtub.”
Aranna Blackamon Sherley, wife of Ben Sherley, my third cousin three times removed, age 75:
From The Courier-Gazette, 18 Jun 1947:
MRS. SHERLEY DIES WHEN HOME BURNS AT ANNA
Mrs. Aranna Elizabeth Sherley, aged 75, burned to death about 1 o’clock Wednesday morning when her home east of Anna [Texas] burned. Neighbors seeing the blaze arrived too late to save Mrs. Sherley.
Mrs. Sherley, who was born in North Carolina in August, 1871, had resided in Texas about 60 years. She had lived at the Anna home for the past 47 years. Mrs. Sherley was a member of the Christian Church.
These events seem shocking to those of us living in the modern age. And yet, in 2014, almost 3,000 Americans died in structure fires. The leading causes of home fire deaths are: smoking (23%); heating equipment (19%); and cooking equipment (17%). The stories above show, and it is still true today, that the very young and the very old are most at risk.