Plain Hell: The St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Fire of 1950


Lucille Kalloway checked the clock. It was just before 11 p.m. The patients had been safely in their rooms since about 9 p.m., which was the normal time for them to turn in. Mentally, she ticked off her responsibilities for the end of shift.

Lucille had started working at the facility in the summer of 1949, about six months prior. Now January of 1950, and she was still going strong.

Lucille Kalloway. Courtesy of the Daily Times

St. Elizabeth’s specialized in the care of mentally ill women. Founded in 1874, it was a large, three-story brick structure with a full basement.

St. Elizabeth’s, along with its counterpart, St. John’s, a similar facility nearby specializing in the mental health care of men, sat on the sprawling two-block campus of Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa.

Mercy Hospital itself was perhaps the leading medical institution in the region in 1950. Although not the only hospital, the huge, gothic-style structure hosted several departments providing state-of-the-art health care from trained doctors and nurses. Mercy even had a nursing school for training future generations of medical professionals.

Mercy Hospital had been founded in 1869 by the Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns who specialized in providing medical care to all those who needed it. Many of those early sisters had received top-notch medical training from medical professors and doctors in Chicago. More importantly, they had been able to hone those skills through hard-won experience, treating wounded Civil War soldiers and victims of disease epidemics.

In addition to seeing to the needs of everyday people, those Sisters had also recognized a dire need for compassionate care and treatment of the mentally ill residents of the region. From the very founding of Mercy Hospital, the Sisters of Mercy took this issue very seriously and made sure that it was carried out to the best of their ability.

Their reputation in the area of mental health treatment – in addition to other areas of medicine, as well – grew over the next few years. St. Elizabeth’s and St. John’s were built out of a need for bigger facilities to house the ever-growing number of patients sent to them for mental health treatment.

By 1950, Mercy Hospital had grown into a non-profit entity that was owned, operated, and managed by the Sisters of Mercy.

St. Elizabeth’s itself was overseen by Sister Gabriel McCarthy. A deeply experienced psychiatric nurse, Sister Gabriel was responsible for the care of all of the patients at that facility. She made sure that they received the very best psychiatric care available for that time.

Lucille Kalloway was now part of that legacy. Usually she worked the night shift, but tonight she had been assigned to work second shift, which ran from 3 p.m. in the afternoon to 11 p.m. at night.

Satisfied that everything had been done, Lucille headed to the nurse’s station to talk to Anna Neal, the night shift supervisor that was relieving her.

As soon as she got there, she could already tell Neal was in a mood. While not unfriendly, Anna was acting in a manner that Lucille would later describe as “huffy.”

The 55-year-old, German-born night supervisor had asked for the night off but had been refused. While she had been told she could have the next night off, Anna’s plans were for that night. While she liked her job, she was disappointed and a little angry that she didn’t get the time off that she had asked for.

Regardless, Anna had a job to do. She was good at her job, and she took her responsibility for the patients under her care very seriously. That included getting a rundown of everything that had happened on the evening shift so that she was prepared for any issues that might come from it.

Lucille dutifully filled her in. For the most part, it had been a pretty unremarkable night. However, one patient had gotten a little upset that they had to go to their room at the appointed time and had started walking into other patient’s rooms.

This had started to upset those patients, so Lucille had been forced to lock the agitated patient in her room. They had seemingly calmed down, and everything had gone peacefully after that.

Lucille was a good worker and didn’t mind working the overnight shift. On several occasions, she had volunteered to cover it when the hospital was short-handed. She asked Anna if she wanted her to stay and at least keep her company.

Anna declined, telling Lucille that she could handle it herself. Besides, Josephine O’Toole, another nurse’s aide, was on call on the second floor of St. Elizabeth’s. She was asleep in her living quarters, and all she had to do was go and wake her up if she really needed an extra pair of hands.

Lucille stayed until 11:30 p.m., and then left the Mercy Hospital grounds and went home.

Anna lost no time in starting her rounds. The weather had been colder than usual the past week, even for January. To make matters worse, the strong wind was blowing, making the already frigid air seem even colder.

St. Elizabeth’s was very well maintained and had even gone through a remodel the year before. Still, it was an old building, and strong wind had a tendency of finding its way into even the best sealed buildings.

She checked in on each of the patients, making sure that they were warm enough and had enough blankets.

As Anna Neal was starting her shift at St. Elizabeth’s, Francis Murray had also started his shift at the main hospital nearby.

A veteran of World War I, Murray had worked in the medical field for years. These days, he worked as an overnight orderly at Mercy Hospital. Just an hour into his shift that night, the calendar turned the page onto January 7, 1950. It would soon become a date that he would never forget.

Sometime close to 2 a.m., Murray was passing by a window when something caught his eye. Frowning, he stepped closer, peering through the early-morning darkness to get a better look. The window looked over at St. Elizabeth’s. Something hadn’t seemed right.

In a moment Murray realized what it was: flames were coming through one of the windows on the first floor of the mental hospital.

Murray didn’t hesitate. One moment he was at the window, and the next he was running as fast as he could for the nearest stairwell. Taking the stairs, he hit the exit door and was sprinting across the yard toward St. Elizabeth’s.

Breath coming in frozen puffs, he ran up the wooden stairs to the main entrance of the building and went inside. The area was pitch black, but he could hear people yelling somewhere off to his right. Turning, he ran that direction.

Murray made his way through the darkness as fast as he could. Although he had a flashlight on his person, Murray didn’t think to use it. He just followed the voices screaming in the dark.

Soon he found himself in a parlor area. The area was already filling with thick, black smoke, making it hard for him to breathe. He ignored it, pushing forward. He had to find those people and get them out of there before things got too bad.

The parlor Murray was in connected to another parlor, separated by a glass partition. Later, Murray would say that he wasn’t sure if it was just a partition or a glass door. It was too dark and there was too much smoke.

In the moment, he didn’t care what it was. All he knew is that the voices he had followed there sounded like they were just beyond it. Murray heaved himself into the barrier, easily breaking through. On the other side, he could barely make out a handful of patients. As soon as they saw the hole that Murray had made, they began moving towards it.

Murray told them to follow him and proceeded to lead them back the way he had come. After a few tense moments stumbling through the dark again, they emerged back outside onto the front porch.

Murray coughed, his lungs trying to expel the smoke he had inhaled. When he had stopped, he took a couple of deep breaths, then ran back into Mercy. He ran to the closest nurse’s station and told them that St. Elizabeth’s was on fire, and they needed to call the fire department right away.

Calmly, the nurses there told him that they had already been called, and they were on their way. Other people had also seen the fire at St. Elizabeth’s from Mercy and had made the notification.

The first fire call went to Company Number 6 at approximately 2:06 a.m. Located about eight blocks away from the hospital in a straight-line due south from the campus, It took only a few minutes for the firemen to don their gear and make it to St. Elizabeth’s.

The fire engine had barely stopped when Lieutenant Alvin Koranda, the leader of Company Number 6, was on the ground and accessing the situation.

He saw that flames were coming out of one of the windows on the east side of the building, curling upwards toward the roof. Koranda and his men took one of the fire hose lines off the truck and began attaching it to a nearby hydrant.

As they did, they heard a woman screaming at them from inside of St. Elizabeth’s. She was leaning out of her window, wearing only her nightgown.

“Help me! Help me! I’m going to burn to death!” the woman yelled.

Koranda’s priorities immediately changed. While getting the fire under control was important, it was even more so to save the life of someone who was in imminent danger.

He ordered his men to grab ladders from the truck and started running towards the woman’s window. A ladder was placed, and Koranda quickly climbed up. It was covered by a steel-mesh screen and prevented the woman’s escape.

It was a very common type of screen, and Koranda easily removed it. As soon as it was gone, the firemen carefully took the woman out of the building and brought her down to the ground.

Looking around at the building, Koranda realized that they had a major problem.

St. Elizabeth’s was a mental hospital and had housed both patients that wanted to get out of the building and others with suicidal tendencies. To prevent both issues, screens and bars had been installed over the windows.

In other circumstances, the bars were an understandable safety measure. Now, with a fire in the building, they cut off an important escape route for the patients, trapping them inside.

Some of the bars were hinged in the middle and could be opened. These were padlocked shut. When these had been installed, the staff at St. Elizabeth’s had provided the Davenport Fire Department with a set of keys that would open the locks in case of fire.

Unfortunately, only some of the bars were designed this way. The majority of them had three horizontal bars going across the vertical bars and were bolted into place. They covered the entire window and were firmly anchored into the wooden frame.

There was no easy way to get past these. The firemen had no choice but to use fire axes to hack away at the wood and brick, then leverage the axes or use crowbars to either pull the bars completely free or loosen them enough that they could tear them to one side, allowing access to the patient behind them.

Soon other fire companies started to arrive on the scene. The fire was spreading faster than anyone had expected. Several firemen, including Lieutenant Koranda, had gone inside the building but couldn’t make it very far inside because of the intense heat of the fire. This meant that the only way they could reach some of the patients further in the building was through the bar-covered windows.

Out of the 17 total fire companies in the city of Davenport, 14 were called to the St. Elizabeth’s fire. While some of the firemen ran fire hoses and started fighting the fire directly, several others went to work rescuing the trapped patients.

Some kept trying to get inside the building as far as they could, while the majority of them attacked the iron bars across the windows.

Every moment, these men knew that time was quickly slipping away. The fire was spreading, and the smoke was getting thicker by the minute. Several patients had thrown open their windows and now screamed to them, begging the firemen to help them. They pressed desperately against the bars, but it was useless. They had no choice but to wait for rescue as the fire raged behind them and their rooms filled with smoke.

St. Elizabeth’s on fire, around 2:30 a.m., January 7, 1950. Courtesy of the Daily Times.

Inside the building, Josephine O’Toole, the nurse’s aide on call to assist Anna Neal, was awakened by the sound of someone screaming.

She sat up, listening intently. From her room on the second floor, O’Toole could hear men on the grounds outside shouting something, but she couldn’t understand what. Crossing the room, she opened her window and peered outside. When she did, she could finally understand what they were saying – St. Elizabeth’s was on fire.

O’Toole moved from the window to the door, opening it. The hallway outside was filled with dark smoke that caught in her throat, making her cough. She knew that there wasn’t any time to spare. If she stayed in her room, she would quickly become trapped by the fire. It was time to go.

Throwing on her shoes and coat over her night clothes, she walked out into the hallway. Blinking against the smoke, O’Toole turned, shouting down the hallway toward the patient’s rooms. She yelled at them that the building was on fire, and that everyone had to get out.

Only one of the patients came out of the darkness toward her, a woman named Naber.

Together, they made their way down the main stairs in the center of the building to the first floor. As they did, a bright orange and yellow light shone through a door with a long glass panel. On the other side the fire raged, and the two women could hear it roar and crackle as it consumed everything in its path.

With no escape that way, O’Toole and Naber kept moving downwards into the basement. When there, they lost no time in making their way to a side door and out into the night.

In another room, 19-year-old James Stablein slept soundly along with his roommate.  While St. Elizabeth’s was for women, they would occasionally house men when necessary. James had been suffering from some mental health problems as of late and had voluntarily checked himself in to the hospital to recover.

Suddenly, James awoke with a start. His eyes darted around the room, his heart racing. He wasn’t sure why he had woken up, and maybe it took a minute for him to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming. But he wasn’t. Everything was very real, and he clearly smelled smoke.

Jumping to his feet, James opened the door to his room to see what was going on. As he did, black smoke rushed into the room, gagging him. Slamming the door, he went over and woke up his roommate, telling him that the hospital was on fire.

The roommate lost all self-control and gave himself over to pure panic. Watching him, James felt a calm wash over him. He took a breath and began to think things through.

James knew that they couldn’t make it out through the hallway, so that only left the window. Walking over, he pulled up the sash only to discover what so many already had that night – the windows had bars on them.

He grabbed them, roughly pulling them and pushing them as hard as he could. They didn’t give an inch. James realized that they were trapped and needed help.

Looking outside, he could see the firemen moving around below. Reaching through the bars, he began waving his hands frantically and calling out to them for help. He quickly realized that the woman in the room next to his was at her window, doing the same thing. In the distance, he could hear other patients screaming, as well.

But all the firemen were already busy, trying their best to free so many other patients doing the same thing as he was. There was nothing to do but wait.

After almost an hour, he finally saw a fireman on a ladder outside the window. As he watched, the fireman tried desperately to get through the bars, but couldn’t. For a brief moment, James thought he was going to die.

But the moment passed, and he was more determined than ever to escape that room. Raising his voice, he asked the fireman to pass the ax through the window. If they couldn’t get at the sill very well from the outside, maybe he could from inside. Besides, James had nothing to lose at this point.

The fireman obliged and passed the ax to him through the bars.

Gripping it tightly, James swung it as hard as he could into the wooden frame of the window. He pulled it free, brought it back, and swung it again. As he did, he channeled all of his fear, frustration, and rage into each swing, chopping at the frame over and over again.

After a bit, James pushed at the bars. To his shock and relief, they came free, allowing enough room for him to escape.

Turning to his roommate, James yelled at him to go through the window first. Already panic-stricken, the other man didn’t need to be told a second time. He scrambled through the opening, almost losing his grip and falling off the ladder in his desperation to get out of the room.

James quickly followed, relieved to have escaped with his life.

As firemen went about their work, the city police department were also called to the scene. Part of the reason was to set up barricades and keep any spectators showing up at a safe distance from the fire. Another part was because the fire gave the mental patients at St. Elizabeth’s an excellent opportunity to escape into the neighborhoods beyond.

One of the first policemen to arrive at the scene was a man named Richard Fee. Seeing what the firemen were doing at the windows, he decided to join them.

Grabbing an ax, he ran over and climbed up a ladder to one of the windows. Fee immediately went to work chopping out the bars. He would stop occasionally and pull at the bars. Finally, they were loose enough to drop free to the ground below.

Fee peered through the window. Inside, he could see a group of patients standing in the room. Using the ax, he broke the window and climbed inside.

The patients barely acknowledged him. They stood there calmly, seemingly unaware of the danger that they were in. Fee knew that they were probably mentally ill, and so, gently as he could, took several of them by the hand and led them to the window.

There, firemen helped them climb down to safety. Between Fee and the firemen on the ladder, all of the people standing in the room were saved.

Firemen and police were far from the only people to respond to the scene of the fire. News had spread all over the city about what was happening, and many people were eager to help out any way that they could.

The Sisters of Mercy, both on duty at Mercy Hospital and sleeping in their convent nearby, had come over to render what aid they could. All of them were dressed in the traditional habits worn by nuns in that era. Some were dressed in the more commonly seen black and white, while others wore all white, floating ghost-like amongst the people at the scene.

In addition to rendering aid and saying prayers for victims and rescuers alike, the nuns also furnished the firemen with their sets of keys to the padlocked grates. They were willing to do anything to help the trapped patients and having those keys would hopefully aid the firemen in freeing more people faster.

Nearly all of the staff at Mercy Hospital had come out to help. This included doctors, nurses, aides, orderlies, and even the nursing students.

One of those nurse’s aides was a woman named Irene Bennett. As she helped moved some of the rescued patients into the main hospital, she kept scanning the crowd for Anna Neal.

Bennett and Neal were close friends. Anna’s adult daughter had even lived with Bennett, and the older woman served as a mother-figure to Anna’s grandchildren. Bennett knew that Neal had been working at St. Elizabeth’s that night but hadn’t seen her yet. It looked like things were getting worse in there, and she was concerned for her friend’s safety.

While she was working, Bennett happened to glance up at one of the windows on the second story of St. Elizabeth’s. Inside, she could clearly see Anna, trying to move two patients toward the stairs. Then, as she watched, a sudden burst of flame forced Anna to recoil. She lost her balance and fell, swallowed up in the smoke.

Turning, Bennett ran inside the main hospital and found the nearest telephone. Picking up the receiver, she called Anna’s daughter, Mary Ann. When she answered, Bennett told her that there was a fire at St. Elizabeth’s and that her mother had been badly burned. She needed to come there as soon as she could.

That said, Bennett hung up the phone and went back outside to help.

A group of men called Second Alarmers, a support group for the fire department, had also arrived. They helped make sure the firemen stayed warm and were fed, while also helping them out with hoses and equipment whenever it was needed.

Several area restaurants were eager to help, providing the Second Alarmers meals to take back to the firemen.

There were individuals who came to help as well. One man, Noel Van Osdel, went around to local shops and petitioned the owners for gloves and socks to help keep the firemen warm. He was provided with dozens of gloves and several pairs of socks for his efforts.

The rescuers did everything in their power to get to the patients, but there were several that, despite their best efforts, could not be saved.

Bill Stegen, one of the policemen standing at the scene, was working near one of the sisters when the fire suddenly broke through the northwest corner of the roof. As they both watched, Stegen asked the nun if anyone had been on the top floor.

Sadly, she replied, “It was filled to capacity.”

Roy Porter, a member of the Second Alarmers, saw a woman desperately pushing against the bars of her window trying desperately to pry them loose from the inside. In one slow, almost frozen moment, he caught a glimpse of her face. He would never forget the look of sheer terror etched there.

And then, just a moment later, there was a loud, rushing sound and the woman disappeared into a flash of fire and smoke. Her screams were immediately silenced, leaving behind an almost eerie stillness.

This didn’t stop the rescuers from trying to save as many people as they could. Time and time again, they went into the building as far as they could, stopping only when they were repulsed by the intense heat of the fire.

Sometimes they were able to bring out the living, other times only the remains of the dead.

One of the unfortunate victims was Anna Neal. Her hair and clothes were singed, her skin blistered and black from the fire. She had been found near an area with the greatest amounts of patients. When she realized the building was on fire, Neal had moved as many patients as she could outside.

Disregarding her own safety, she had rushed back into the building to move more patients out. Neal was on this second trip inside when Irene Bennett had seen her through the second story window. That also meant that her friend had witnessed Anna’s last moments.

The bodies of the fire victims were removed to the main hospital as soon as possible. A temporary morgue was set up in one of the empty classrooms, presided over by C.H. Wildman, the county coroner.

As firemen brought in the remains, wrapped in black rubber sheets, a group of nurses took custody of them. They would have to eventually identify them, but as the fire raged it was felt to be more important to simply store them and make notes that would help in the process later.

Wildman knew that it was going to be a tough job. It was often a hard process for families to identify their loved ones, but it was even worse in this case. Many of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition.

As more and more bodies were carried in, Wildman knew that they needed to move them somewhere better. The hallways of Mercy Hospital were already jammed with nurses, doctors, volunteers, and rescuers, not to mention the families of patients at St. Elizabeth’s.

Inside Mercy Hospital the night of the fire. Courtesy of the Daily Times

Using his authority as the coroner, he placed an emergency call to several area funeral homes asking them to come to Mercy Hospital and temporarily store the remains at their facilities. Like so many people in the city that night, the funeral directors were ready to lend a hand.  Each and every one of the city’s funeral homes responded.

By morning, St. Elizabeth’s was a ruin. The firemen had worked tirelessly through the night. While they hadn’t been able to save the building, they had overcome nearly insurmountable odds to save the lives of 24 people.

Amazingly, they had even found one survivor. A woman had managed to get to safety on a balcony. She had been drenched by the water from the fire hoses, and was freezing and shivering, but she was alive. Carefully, the rescuers brought her down and took her for treatment at Mercy Hospital.

Sadly, many more had lost their lives. By the morning hours of January 7, 1950, Coroner Wildman had counted 37 bodies. Most of them were patients, with Anna Neal being the only member of staff to lose their life.

As the firemen carefully sifted through the rubble of St. Elizabeth’s, Wildman expected to find more.

Now that the danger was over and the fire was put out, everyone began to return to their regular lives and routines. Doctors and nurses who had treated patients through the night carried on through the day, checking up on their regular patients and conducting their normal rounds.

Several people had shown up to the scene to get a first-hand look at what was left of St. Elizabeth’s. Barricades were put up to hold them back, and several policemen remained on the scene to keep the onlookers from getting a closer look as the firemen continued to search for victims.

Any of the firemen who were no longer needed for the search were dismissed. The ordeal from the night before was just a bad memory now, and there would soon be other fires to deal with, other people to save.

The ruins of St. Elizabeth’s after the fire. Courtesy of the Daily Times

For Lester Schick, the city fire marshal and the chief of the Davenport Fire Department, and Coroner C.H. Wildman, the case had just begun. St. Elizabeth’s Hospital fire was easily the worst fire in the city’s history.

At least 37 people had lost their lives, possibly more. They needed to know how the fire had started, and why.

As they started their investigation, they would very soon hear a rumor about the fire’s origins, something so disturbing that it made their blood run cold.

It was something that would change the already tragic events of the night before into something much darker, and would leave a scar on the city, the state, and even the nation itself for years to come.




Amy D. The St. Elizabeth’s Tragedy: Part I of II. Blog, Davenport Public Library. 1/14/2015

Anna Neal. State Historical Society of Iowa; Des Moines, Iowa; Iowa Death Records, 1888-1904

Past Weather, January 7,1950. National Weather

Clear and Warmer Weather Forecast for Quad-City Area. The Democrat and Leader, 1/6/1950

Screams Awakened Nurse Aid. The Daily Times, 1/7/1950

Lorenzen, Ron. Early Scenes at Fire Pure Horror Says Eyewitness. The Daily Times, 1/7/1950

Patient is Found Safe; Tears Flow at Reunion Scene. The Daily Times, 1/7/1950

Youth Chops Out of Burning Hospital. The Daily Times, 1/7/1950.

Bills, Fred. Davenport Meets Emergency of Worst Tragedy. The Daily Times, 1/7/1950

37 Bodies Taken from Fire Ruins. The Democrat and Leader, 1/8/1950

Nurse’s Aide Saw Best Friend Die in St. Elizabeth’s Fire; Says Mrs. Neal Had Patients. The Daily Times, 1/11/1950

Evidence Presented to Board of Inquiry Probing Hospital Fire Supports Mrs. Epperly’s Confession. The Democrat and Leader, 1/25/1950

Murray Francis Rites Are Set in East Moline. The Rock Island Argus, 5/14/1971

The National Archives at St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri; World War Ii Draft Cards (Fourth Registration), For the State of Illinois; Record Group Title: Records of the Selective Service System; Record Group Number: 147; Series Number: M2097

United States of America, Bureau of the Census; Washington, D.C.; Seventeenth Census of the United States, 1950; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790-2007; Record Group Number: 29; Residence Date: 1950; Home in 1950: Davenport, Scott, Iowa; Roll: 1928; Sheet Number: 6; Enumeration District: 101-92

Condon, Sister Mary Brigid. From Simplicity to Elegance: The Story of Mercy Hospital, Davenport: 1869-1994. Davenport; Genesis Health System.

Loewy, Tom. IA Firefighter Still Haunted by Grisly 1950 Hospital Blaze. Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, 1/7/2020.

Richard J. “Dick” Fee.

St. Elizabeth Hospital Fire Inquest – Microfilm 977.769 Cor . The Inquest took place on February 2 and 3, 1950.



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