Springfield Daily Republican
May 38, 1875
The Holyoke Disaster.
The tramping and burning to death of 60 of 70 human beings in a new-built, but cheap and old-fashioned, New England wooden church at Holyoke, last night, was scarcely an accident. Everything that folly, carelessness and religious flummery could foreordain to such a catastrophe was done to cause it. It only needed a May zephyr to flap a paper tinsel into the flame of an altar candle to set fire to the terrible sacrifice. The church was dry with age and with the heat of an unseasonably fierce sun. The old-fashioned gallery on three sides was reached by the usual meager stairways and entrance, and, whether there was more than one or not, only one was in familiar use and likely to be resorted to at such a moment. The Puritan plainness of the church had been relieved by the decorations of a more spectacular religion, and upon these the fire swept around the walls back of the galleries, as upon a fuse. The occupants of the galleries, with the fire dropping among them, and inflaming at the same time the church and their own clothing, rushed for the narrow exit, choked it up and died in a tangled mass of writhing, suffocated and charred humanity.
We speak not of the lowly homes blighted and embittered by this affliction,—homes whose very lowliness too often shuts out all other luxury but the domestic sentiment and sweet family ties. We are no hand at consolation, though we take the liberty to assure the bereft community of the warm sympathy which will be felt for them. But what we want to ask of the people of Massachusetts, in this year of 1875, is whether this sort of thing pays to the people at large. Does it pay to tolerate man-traps in full operation over the state, any which is liable to sweep off 70 able and innocent people in an hour? The Holyoke church unfortunately is only a specimen of a class of audience rooms and places of thick resort which is by no means small in this community, and every one of which is by no means small in this community, and every one of which is liable at some time to betray its audience or its occupants to a similar horrible fate. How many old churches are there, some of them over stores and shops, with a third story of galleries, with perhaps only one community-used exit? Many of these churches, doubtless, are bare enough of ornament, but on a Christmas night at least some of them are trimmed with tinder. How many halls are there, with al exits but one closed up, to save a store-room or an office? How many like our own city hall, emptying great crowds through angles and over winding stairs, with the streams from the galleries and floor converging at a narrow place, or perhaps with the gallery emptying into the faces of those going out from the floor? How many hotels and boarding-houses are there with no protection from fire or provision for escape whatever?
This may seem very alarmist talk to nice people who go to stone churches with many fine-arched entrances and broad passage-ways, and where the worshipers are never crowded; who patronize the best entertainments in the most carefully built structures, and resort to hotels of known safety and completeness of appointment. The nice people generally can take care of themselves. It is the poorer classes who ignorantly and carelessly and sometimes compulsorily take up with these dangerous accommodations, and, and it is time that the state interfered. The state has interfered to some purpose in the matter of great factories and has prevented we know not what disasters, by compelling the adoption of a generally high standard of safety. It may have to interfere still further in that direction. It is time that a similar policy be adopted in relation to all places of public resort. New buildings will generally be conformed to reasonable requirements voluntarily. The chief danger lies in the carelessness with which old and defective buildings are tolerated or carelessly applied to new purpose, and in the greed and stupidity with which private landlords tinker up halls and assembly rooms with most incomplete appointments. But, as our readers well know, there are plenty of large public halls and churches of frequent resort, with most insufficient means of exit. Disaster after disaster crowds upon us,—Mill river flood and the Granite mill fire, last year, and this year already the French Catholic horror at Holyoke,—and it would be not merely most brutal and unhuman apathy but a wasteful indifference to our material interests to turn a deaf ear to their instruction.