There’s a tiny cemetery in the yard of the hospital where I was born. A statue of Mary watches over sixteen plain stone crosses. Mary gazes down, palms outward. She is missing a finger on her right hand. Her brow is relaxed, but her mouth is folded in sorrowful indignation. She gestures to the crosses as if to say: “Look at this wretched mess.”
The sixteen died early on a frigid winter morning. Many were in the attic. They groped through the dark and thickening smoke but found only locked doors and iron bars – impediments that had been installed for safety purposes.
Twenty-five more roasted in the bowels of the women’s asylum, including a nurse who’d attempted rescue. Fresh paint and lumber from the recent remodel fueled the blaze. Hospital administrators huddled in the yard, each making a silent wish that they’d prioritized the sprinkler system.
A patient walking barefoot, shivering in her nightgown against the bitter wind, asked for help mending her bloodied hand. She’d slashed herself in her escape from the burning building.
“I did it,” she told the nurse who stitched her wound. “I wanted the police to come. My husband is being held prisoner.”
The young schizophrenic was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. She was bundled off to an out-of-state institution and never heard from again.
Of the forty-one fatalities, sixteen remain unclaimed. Their crosses quietly crumble within forty feet of plain iron fence. Every year on January 7th, a wreath appears at Mary’s feet. For a while, it looks as though she is gesturing toward the leafy honorarium: “Look at this wretched mess.”
For there is no tribute great enough to honor the loss of forty-one worlds or to exorcise the memories of that night. The women’s screams still echo, vivid and clear, through the minds of the living. Faces press up against crossed iron, struggling for air. Arms reach into icy blackness. Desperate hands grasp at nothing.
The Saint Elizabeth’s tragedy was the deadliest fire in Iowa. It’s sometimes known as the Mercy Hospital Fire, and it was the beginning of the end of Mercy’s psychiatric program.