“The catastrophe was so sudden, so swift, so pauseless, that few were cool enough to observe its' minutise. The ruins of the church lie now a heap of charred timbers and arches, over a hidden floor quite untouched by fire. The priest’s house adjoining it in the rear, a mere shell, stands to mark more emphatically the spot, and in the basement of the Park Street school house, a little ways south, lie rows of hideous, black effigies, that were women and men, only a few hours ago, covered with white cloth, that only brings out more clearly the horror of the scene…”
Friday, October 28, 1875
Springfield Daily Republican
At dawn, the crier’s voice carried the news of the fire and viewing of the dead. “The doors of Park Street School are to open at eight a.m.” The repeated message woke all to the realization that last night’s horror had not been a mere nightmare.
Rose came through the door with warm bread and she began rousing the children with kisses. Philomene felt immense gratitude toward this young woman, whose years seemed to surpass Philomene’s, although twelve years her junior. Rose lost many children and while pampered the four which survived birth and illness, doted upon Philomene’s as though they were her own.
Philomene entered the kitchen and pulled the coin jar down from the top shelf of the pantry. Handing the five pennies to Charles, she instructed him to go to the paper boy and fetch the news. Charles slid into his britches, accelerating his motions as he awoke and realized the urgency of the task.
Charles had been the most scholarly of the elder children and although he entered employment after elementary school, continued to read and find great interest in the happenings of the city and world beyond their growing community. Normally this newspaper would be a treat that Charles would consume column by column until the family could afford another one.
Moments later, a breathless Charles returned with the Springfield Daily Republican and spread the sheets on the table. He moved his finger through the column of words, all foreign to Philomene, and began to read accounts of fellow parishioners. “Widow Daigneau, just 36 years old left four children orphaned when she did not survive. The Daigneau children lost their father just a year earlier in a brick fire. Widow Goyette left seven children upon her death. Mrs. Forgue left nine children and Mrs. Dupont left six children, each in the care of their laboring fathers.”
Philomene prayed thankfully to God for sparing her for her children’s sake, yet questioned how she would provide for them. Would it not have been better that Leopold had been spared? The stories of loss continued but no sign of Leopold’s identity had been made and hope remained that he had been taken some where and cared for during the night.
Charles continued, “A coroner’s jury has been established and the doors to the Park Street School will open at 8 am, only to family members, for identification of the dead. Upon completion of the identification process, general viewing will be available. Can I come with you, Mother…to the viewing?” Charles looked up innocently at his adoring mother.
Philomene looked upon her thirteen year old boy who was bravely assuming the role as man of the family in his father’s absence. His smooth face still held the softness of a boy, but his deep brown eyes had seen far more of life in the mills than a boy his age should have. He had experienced human exhaustion, injury, and witnessed brawls and brazen behavior which only weekly confession purified. His hands matched his eyes in their experience, already hardened and scarred.
She took those hands in hers and kissed them, “Charles, I need you to remain here with the children. They need you in place of your father, here with them. I will take Sophia and Celina with me. Angelique, you and Adele will help Charles with the children. Madame Brisson will be with you but she also has her four to care for. While we are gone, Charles, you may take Armiac and Fabien down to the canals for a walk if you wish. Just please, stay away from those Irish boys on Race Street. We don’t need any trouble today.”
The three Messier women hurried down the narrow tenement stairs to the street. One on each side of their mother, the two girls instinctive took her hands. From West Street to Bowers Street, they observed others moving with similar urgency along the sidewalks, few speaking as they converged onto Lyman. A swarming crowd moved onto Park, met by additional crowds from the other direction. Atop the stairs of Park Street School, the orders were shouted by Mayor Pearsons, “In just a few moments the doors will open to family of the deceased only. Once all are identified, general viewing will be allowed. Please show your neighbors patience and compassion during this process and God bless us.”
A line formed from the base of the stairs where two officers were accompanied by Mayor Pearsons. The line continued along the side walk of Park Street. When the Messiers reached the base of the stairs, a policeman with fire orange hair blazing out from beneath his cap appeared in front of Philomene. He began to address her and was interrupted by Celine, the bolder of these two daughters. “Excuse me officer, but my mother does not speak any English.” Apologizing, he turned to Celine and began again, allowing her a moment to translate his instructions to Philomene before continuing.
Celine took her mother’s hand and explained, “Mother, this is Officer Sullivan. He will escort us through the viewing and help to identify Father.”
Officer Sullivan, removing his hat to reveal his full head of copper hair, hung his head while being introduced and offered Philomene his hand as he shared his condolences and asked for the details of Mr. Messier. “Any details of his clothing, wedding band, shoes would be of help, Madame. It will not take long as there are very few men to be identified.”
Officer Sullivan, supporting Philomene’s arm, escorted her up the stairs as they slowly awaited the opportunity to enter the building. Celine and Sophia remained closely behind. Once within the building, they waited to descend the stairs to the basement. The line moved one step at the time, the soft cries of both men and women became audible and the stench of the burned bodies entered their nostrals.
Once inside the basement, Officer Sullivan guided the women to the far section of the room, passed rows of white clothed bodies already tagged with identification. He began by slowly pulling the clothe back from the first body to expose the feet as Philomene had described Leopold’s brown, warn boots and grey, wool trousers. There would be mending along the back of the left leg of the pants where Leopold had caught his pants on a piece of machinery. Officer Sullivan gently explained that most of the victims had received terrible burns to the upper body and if she preferred, they would search for Leopold’s boots and pants. With horrific anticipation Philomene watched as each sheet was slowly withdrawn from the feet and legs of the bodies before her. At each body, she prayed for a stranger’s clothing to appear. Sophia gasped and cried before Philomene when the fifth body was exposed. It was not the pants but a small hole on the bottom of her father’s left shoe, which Sophia recognized. Having repaired the hole with an insert of newspaper, Sophia had temporarily mended the shoe for her father two nights before.
Celina crumbled into Sophia’s arms and the two fell to the ground, while Philomene remained motionless, only her finger slowly tracing the hole of the sole of Leopold’s shoe. She motioned to the officer to remove the sheet so that she could be sure of Leopold’s identity and understanding her gesture, he led her to Leopold’s side and slowly pulled back the sheet to reveal just a small portion of a charred skull. He shook his head and pulled the sheet back over the head and motioned her to back up. Philomene’s eyes filled with urgency to see his face, too look once more upon his ruddy, flushed complexion and bury her own cheek in his thick, briskly whiskers. Again, the officer shook his head, himself queasy from the stench and image of the disfigured, charred skull. Instead, he bent down to the body and sought beneath the sheet for some part of Leopold to reveal to his wanting wife. First he attended to Leopold’s right side, and then left. Here, he pulled forth Leopold’s left hand. The thumb and index figure were badly burned but the remainder of the hand, though blistered, had not disfigured.
Officer Sullivan stepped back and allowed Philomene time with her husband. Philomene gently took the hand and, though cold, warmed it with her own. She felt his thin, wedding band and twisted it until it came loose. The familiar bump of gold, where the ring had been expanded to fit his enlarged, laboring hands, assured her that this was Leopold and she placed the ring on her own hand with her matching band. She kissed his fingers gently and then placed the hand below the sheet. Leaning down to the covered face, she kissed the clean cloth, which separated her from the disfigured remains of her only love and then fell to his chest. Philomene felt her energy drain from her as she lay for the last time with her husband, wanting to fuse to him, to be absorbed by him. Her insides shattered and the warmth that Leopold’s love generated within her was no more. There was nothing left.
Officer Sullivan patiently waited, then Philomene felt his strong arms tenderly lifted her back off of Leopold with words she did not understand but the sensitivity in his tone assured her he understood.
Philomene willed herself against her desire to remain with Leopold’s body. Turning to gather her daughters, she allowed Officer Sullivan to lead them up the rear staircase and out into the street. Father Bourassa consoled family members as they retreated from the horror of the basement. Philomene turned her daughters in the opposite direction of the gathering and headed out toward the crowded street.