Beckwith Hotel Fire

Simon Bailey Paige was born in Wentworth, New Hampshire on August 26, 1824. He married Leafy Cushing Bean. In the 1850s, they came to Oshkosh. Simon and his brother were in the whole sale grocery business, and Simon also had investments in lumber, railroads and race horses. Simon and Leafy were well-known, respected and quite wealthy. They had no children.

Simon was plagued by fire in Oshkosh. His grocery business burned EIGHT TIMES, but was luckily well-insured. In 1874, a house he owned on Jefferson Street burned completely, destroying all personal property inside. Simon may have been more unlucky than the average man in this respect, but fire was a constant threat in a city built by lumber and powered (both heat and light) by flames.

With great money and no responsibility, the couple traveled everywhere the upper class would travel between 1872 and 1878 – around the United States, Europe, Mediterranean, Middle East. By December 1880, they were settling down and took up residence at the Beckwith House on the corner of Main and Algoma in Oshkosh (today the location of New Moon Cafe).

At the time, the Beckwith House was four stories tall and was primarily a hotel – people stayed there only a few days at a time. The top floor had more long-term residents, and this is where the Paige couple lived. Basically the small town equivalent of a penthouse apartment.

On December 3, 1880, Simon took advantage of a warmer than average December day and went out horse riding. Leafy had a tea party planned, and invited over her friends, including Mrs. Mary Harlow.

On the first floor, an employee was filling the kerosene lamps. One tipped over, and there was instantly an incredible blaze – the flames spread up the stairs and through the narrow halls. Smoke was dense. Chaos reigned. Traveling salesmen panicked and threw their suitcases out the windows. Those who could ran out into the street. People outside watched and were horrified by the instant switch from calm to intense confusion.

Mrs. Harlow yelled out the fourth story window for help. Passersby stopped and pulled blankets from their carriages, urging her to jump. Scared to jump (who wouldn’t be?) she tried to climb down by hanging from the window ledge. After a while she had no choice but to let go, and fell very ungracefully. Her foot hit another ledge, twisting her ankle and causing her to flip midair. She was now hurtling down headfirst towards the pavement. The men holding out blankets for her were able to break the fall – it was a rough landing, but she survived.

Firemen were able to get a ladder up to the fourth floor after the smoke slowed down, and inside they found the burned and blackened body of Leafy Paige. A rope was tied around her and her body was lowered down, arms and legs dangling, limp and disfigured. Simon Paige returned from his ride just as the body was being recovered – not the welcome home he wanted. As he watched the men climb the ladder, he offered $5,000 to the man who brought his wife’s body out, dead or alive.

The death toll overall was luckily very small: 3. An Irish servant girl (Mary Alice Hanrahan) also passed, and a month later a black night porter named George Wood was found in the building while demolition crews were removing the rubble. Wood was allegedly a former porter on the Pullman sleeping cars between Chicago and San Francisco. The newspaper believed his family was from Philadelphia. After working for Central Pacific, he was a farmhand in Sheboygan County, then worked in a horse stable in Fond du Lac before coming to Beckwith around 1878. Mary Hanrahan had previously been caught in a fire at the Revere Hotel (Oshkosh?) and was carried out in her nightgown.

Much of the building remained standing until June 1881 (six months later), when the mayor and city council declared the walls a threat to safety – they could fall on to pedestrians at any time. William Waters, the original architect, did not feel the building was safe. Beckwith wanted it to stand and a compromise was reached. The first two floors were salvaged.

Around April 1882, Simon Paige found himself in court – Charles Reif sued him for $5,000. Reif took the credit for bringing Leafy Paige out of the hotel. Paige now said he made the offer in desperation and didn’t mean it, but numerous people testified that they heard the offer and believed it to be serious. Ultimately, none of this mattered – Judge Pulling tossed the lawsuit. He decided that because Reif was a fireman, the rescue was part of his job and any cash offer could be construed as a bribe. Therefore he had no right to such a prize.

In October 1882, the state Supreme Court reversed the decision. They argued that a fireman has a duty to rescue people if it’s possible, but they have no duty to rescue someone if it could likely cause their own death. Therefore, it was possible to argue the $5,000 was an incentive to go beyond the job requirements. They sent it back for a retrial. (I don’t know that it ever went through a second trial.)

After the tragedy, Simon moved to Davenport, Iowa where he had family. He tried to start his life over by remarrying Mary Elizabeth Libbey, a woman 27 years his junior, on January 9, 1883 in New York. Apparently, it didn’t work. He shot himself in the head only two months after the wedding on March 11, 1883.

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