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A Tragic Christmas: Remembering The Victims of Quincy’s St. Francis School Fire

A short and simple bit of general news was mixed in with dozens of other announcements in the Quincy Daily Journal on Dec. 14, 1899: “The children of the parochial school of St. Francis church are practicing for a play to be given the day after Christmas.” Sadly, that play never happened.

A young angel girl oversees the graves of the 12 victims of the St. Francis School fire of Dec. 22, 1899. The monument, which was put in place on October 23, 1900, sits in the northeast section of St. Boniface Cemetery at 20th and State in Quincy.
Deron Johnson

In what has to be one of the most tragic days ever in the history of Quincy, 12 young girls – all between the ages of nine and 11 – were burned to death on Friday, December 22, 1899, in a fire at St. Francis School, which was located at the corner of 17th and Vine (now College).

A newspaper account from The Quincy Whig on Dec. 28, 1899 described what happened:

The catastrophe happened in the school hall of the St. Francis school building, a large three-story brick building. The children were rehearsing a play which was to be given as a Christmas entertainment in the school hall next Tuesday evening. Sixteen of them were in the cast, and a winter scene was included. Several of the girls were to represent lambs in the play, and their costume was made up largely of cotton batting.

The school hall is on the top floor of the building, and the stage is on the east end. Some of the girls were in a small dressing room above the stage putting the finishing touches to their costume. The room had been lighted by an incandescent electric globe, but it had become broken, and a gas jet was used. The cotton batting of one of the girl’s hats caught from the gas jet, and the flimsy stuff flashed up like powder. She communicated the fire to the others, and only one of the sixteen escaped.”

Many of the names of the victims are names that are still very prominent in Quincy today, showing the long history of Quincy’s proud family tree. The children who died, and their parents’ names and addresses are listed below, according to The Quincy Whig. In most cases, the occupation of the child’s father was listed as well, as was custom in reporting a century ago:

  • Coletta Middendorf, daughter of W. H. Middendorf, the lumber merchant of Broadway. He resides at 1322 Lind Street.
  • Irena Freiburg, daughter of J. P. C. Freiburg, of 1432 Broadway, and treasurer of the Freiburg Boot and Shoe Company.
  • Mary Wavering, daughter of Anton Wavering, of 1116 Elm Street. He is a miller at the Knollenberg & Wavering flour mill.
  • Mary Althoff, daughter of J. H. Althoff, of 1628 Spring Street. Mr. Althoff is an employee at the J. B. Schott Saddlery company.
  • At 7 p.m. Bernadina Freund died at St. Mary’s Hospital. She was the daughter of Joseph H. Freund, of 505 North Thirteenth Street, the brick contractor.
  • Addie Futterer, daughter of Charles J. Futterer, of 25th and Broadway, died at 7 p.m. Mr. Futterer is a wood worker at the Collins Plow Company.
  • Olivia Timpe died at 8 p.m. She was the daughter of Prof. William Timpe, a teacher in St. Francis College. He resides at 1811 Elm Street.
  • Josie Bohne died a short time after the Futterer girl. She was the daughter of George W. Bohne, of 1107 Lind Street, who has a blacksmith shop on North Twelfth Street.
  • Wilhelmina Kottendorf died at 7:30. She was the daughter of Joseph B. Kottendorf, and resides at 2035 Cherry Street. He is a molder, employed at the Channon-Emery foundry.
  • Margaret Werner, daughter of John G. Werner, of 1313 Spring Street.
  • Mary Hickey, daughter of John Hickey, of 2231 Vine Street (now College).
  • The 12th and final victim died early the next morning: Mary Vonder Haar, daughter of George Vonder Haar, died at 5 a.m. at the home of her parents, 1330 Spring Street.

Three other children were badly injured but survived:

  • Helen Soebbing, daughter of Alderman John L. Soebbing, of 720 North 20th Street.
  • Laura Menke, daughter of Mrs. Josephine Menke, of 718 North 22nd Street.
  • Elenora Timpe, daughter of H. B. Timpe, of 1710 Oak Street.

Others injured in attempts to rescue the children were Frank Mushort, Rev. Nicholas Leonard, Rev. Andrew Butzkueben, Sister Ludwigus, Sister Theothimia, Sister Radulpha, Sister Ephia and Gergard Koetters.

Over  5000 people braved frigid temperatures and snow to attend joint services at St. Francis Church (the same church that stands today), which was located just across the street from the school, on Christmas Eve 1899. The children were buried in St. Boniface Cemetery, located at 20th and State.

I often think about these children and the tragic circumstances that took their lives. I can only imagine the toll this took on a proud and very close-knit community like Quincy. Well over a century later, we remember them, and hopefully we always will.

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