In 2003, I completed my 306-page thesis on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. In my research, I stumbled on a little-known fact about the mayor of Baltimore during that historic conflagration, and I composed a much shorter piece (below) about his death and my pursuit of the truth about how he died. In the process, I found myself trying to understand the death of my own father, who fought fires in Baltimore for 29 years before he died.
The parallels between the death of these two men were haunting, to say the least.
Read on. All of the information is true, triple-checked in multiple published sources from 1904.
And do me a favor: Let me know if you think I should pursue this story.
by Rus VanWestervelt
The more I go, the less I know.
Will the fire still burn on my return?
Keep the path lit on the only road I know.
Honey, all I know to do is go.
~The Indigo Girls~
Wes, as my father was known in his firehouse on Greenmount and 32nd Street in the heart of Baltimore, introduced me to fire when I was six. He was taking me to my first Orioles game and decided to park behind the station, just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. When he opened the back door to the firehouse, the acrid rush of diesel suffused the air around me, in me as I stood before a magnificent and intimidating sign on the back of Truck 7.
He led me on a tour of the station, walked me up the black iron steps that spiraled tightly to the left, and offered me a chance to slide down the fire pole, which I declined. When we returned to street level, he lifted me with ease into the driver’s seat of the hook and ladder, where I stretched my arms around the steering wheel, peered over its edge to see the back of Engine 31 so close to me, and then reached up to pull a blackened cord that rang the fire bell loudly.
That illusion of being a firefighter–being just like my father Wes–ended before I could realize what was happening.
A booming voice echoed in the fire hall, dispatching both fire engines to a service call. Wes grabbed me out of Truck 7 as firefighters jumped into fire pants and boots and the firehouse gates rolled up, revealing a bustling Greenmount Avenue. One firefighter ran out with flags and stopped traffic as Wes carried me to the side of the station.
Sirens wailed, bells rang, horns blared.
From my father’s strong arms, I watched Engine 31 and Truck 7 rumble past us and out of the station.
I wanted to follow them, chase them out the door. And that was when the hunger, the passion for fire was born.
The front gate began rolling down just as Truck 7 cleared the house, and I looked over Wes’s shoulder to watch that magnificent, intimidating sign turn left and out of sight:
BEWARE: KEEP BACK 500 FEET AT ALL TIMES.
22 April 1989
Several hundred feet from where my father lies dying, I sit against painted concrete in a cold hallway at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where I watch the EKG monitor above me. Dad’s life line is erratic, jumping from zig-zagging peaks to near-flat lines that make me think the end has finally come for him. He is taking his final breaths after a medic call three years ago infected him with hepatitis. A most prolonged, agonizing death, in the line of duty.
With me in this hallway is my brother-in-law, Rob. We have spent the last 30 minutes in silence, just a fraction, though, of the 17 hours since paramedics brought Dad here.
We are outside a small room where Mom sits with some of her children.
Dad remains on a gurney through double doors and down another hall. My brother Jim, who fights fire in Baltimore County, is with him, as is our grandmother and a few other family members.
I keep my distance. I’ve already said goodbye.
My eyes return to the monitor, where the zig-zagged peaks have become frantic. I look to Rob, who has nothing but strength for me, and I rest my head against the cold concrete and close my eyes. The monotone whispers seep from Mom’s room but have no meaning. We all pass this time a little differently.
What seems like a minute passes.
I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.
13 Years Later
The screen of my lap top is black, empty. I can’t find anything to bring it back to life.
I’ve been here at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis for just over two hours looking for new information on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. My story, about the men who fought the greatest fire in Baltimore history, is going nowhere beyond the greatly publicized facts: in early February of that year, firefighters from Baltimore and neighboring states chased fire around Baltimore’s harbor for nearly 30 hours; on the evening of February 8, more than 1,500 buildings lay charred across 140 acres of commercial land; Baltimore’s entire financial district and the original colonies established in the seventeenth century had been reduced to rubble and ashes.
I push away from the table and return the three green document boxes filled with handwritten military letters to the information desk. Should I continue this blind search or call it a day? I pay no attention to the old man taking my boxes.
“That’s a good story, that fire,” he tells me. He rocks back in his worn, wooden chair after taking my boxes and locks his hands behind his head–a makeshift headrest that seems comfortable.
I nod in kindness.
“The real story happened after the fire, you know.”
I tell him I did not.
“If you want a better story, find out what really happened to the mayor a few months later.”
I say nothing but shrug my shoulders, now mildly wondering what he is talking about.
“The mayor,” he says. “They say he killed himself after the fire, after just getting married.” He leans forward and looks up at me over the counter.
“That’s what they say, at least. You won’t find much about it.”
He pauses. We don’t blink.
“There’s a reason for that. There’s your real story.”
He smiles, jots down a few reference numbers for me to look through some more rolls of microfiche that I never asked for, and passes me the slip of paper.
“Good luck. Maybe you’ll figure out what really happened.”
I turn and head toward the drawers of microfiche just on the other side of the Archives building.
Figure out what really happened?
I spend weeks following the old man’s advice and research all that was written about the mayor’s death. Smith & Wesson .32 caliber handgun “of the latest pattern” used; bullet enters through the right temple and exits just above his left ear; powder burns are light, and estimates are that the pistol was fired at least 8 inches from his skull. All this happening 113 days after the Great Baltimore Fire, 16 days after his runaway marriage to Mary Van Bibber, and four minutes after leaving his new wife alone in her study, just 9 feet down the hall.
None of this matters to me, though. After reading dozens of articles written about the fire and the mayor, I feel detached from all of it. Just words on pages printed 100 years ago.
I feel nothing.
So I decide that, tomorrow, I will visit Mayor McLane’s row house at 29 West Preston Street.
* * *
From Maryland Avenue I turn right onto Preston, and there it is. So anticlimactic, I think. I have passed this place so many times on my way to downtown Baltimore, realizing now that, for every block I drive through Baltimore–anywhere, for that matter–I am passing by history. Events unknown. Unrevealed. Still locked up behind sheets of plywood and plaster walls.
I park on Preston and stand in front of the row house where McLane died. In the late 1960s, The Greek Orthodox Church converted the mayor’s home and three others into an annex for its congregation. The other houses to the right along Preston are still in their original state. Time-worn planks of plywood cover first-floor windows, but the second and third-floor windows all seem to be of original, uneven glass; some are shattered where rocks have been thrown through, while others are intact but show their age, holding decades of dirt, pollen, cobwebs. These houses sag with the weight of history; even a fresh coat of paint along the gingerbread trim that adorns the windows and the edges of the roof would not reignite their charm. They are tired, ready for demolition.
I am disappointed, as I know the chances of ever getting inside one of those boarded-up row homes is remote, at best. Still, I need to see for myself the layout of the rooms, where Mary rested, where her maid Lizzie Redchurch ran up the stairs when she heard gunfire, where Robert McLane died.
I have to do this. I have to find some way to get into one of those original row houses, just doors away from the row house that Mary Van Bibber and Robert McLane called home.
The Thursday after I stood in front of McLane’s home, I meet my friend Trina at our local YMCA for our usual cardio workout.
I tell her the fascinating story of the end of the mayor’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death.
I share my frustration in not being able to get into one of those row houses across from the Greek Orthodox Church.
She looks at me in disbelief.
“You mean the Greek Orthodox Church on Preston?”
I nod, suddenly realizing the serendipitous connection my Greek friend, Trina Kalathas, has with the same Greek Orthodox Church across the street from where McLane died.
The same Church that had turned McLane’s house into a Greek Annex.
And, as my luck has it, the same Church that owns the rest of the row houses along West Preston.
Next day: overcast, with sporadic light rain. Trina parks on West Preston, across the street from the strip of row houses, and we sit in her Hyundai as I replay the last minutes of the mayor’s life. We are here to meet Father Dean, who will unlock 41 West Preston for the first time in many years.
Father Dean is very busy. He is a harried-looking man who thinks first of his church, his mission, his people. He sits behind a desk in his rectory, a room filled with papers, books, and plaques on the walls. He seems eager to help, but first he has questions. Who am I? Why am I doing this research? How did the Church play a role in the story, both in the past and now? The church is celebrating its own anniversary soon, and he is concerned that some local writer spinning stories of murder in his annex will not be good for his parish.
I answer his questions and pledge a donation in appreciation for his time and for the opportunity to enter the row house.
A few minutes later, we are on West Preston Street, facing the row houses.
I shoot a few pictures of McLane’s house as well as the home a few doors down on the right. I frame the shot, and I see the row of houses return to their natural state, looking pristine. For a moment, I hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves in front of me, the bustle of citizens passing by to my left, then to my right on this holiday afternoon. Windows seem to be opened randomly along the second and third floors on this late May day.
Perhaps, I think, we will not be alone. Perhaps in the coming minutes we will discover some truth about the mayor’s death that had not been considered 100 years ago.
And if we are not alone, perhaps what we discover inside and on the third floor of 41 West Preston Street might just bring some relief, some resolution to those who join us, perhaps, in spirit.
I snap off two pictures, happy to capture this image.
I turn to Trina and the priest and nod.
Father Dean unlocks the first door, and Trina and I step into the small foyer area while we wait for the priest to unlock the second door. Fresh air mixed with rain mingles with the damp, musty smells of this tiny area. A gust of wind seems to breathe new life into these old walls.
In the low light the priest struggles to find the right key to open the main door. After several failed attempts, Father Dean smiles.
The rush of the stagnant, cool air blows through the foyer, around us, and out the front door.
Father Dean steps out of the way. Trina takes the lead.
The stairs aren’t easy to climb; bulky banisters line each rickety and narrow flight of stairs. They twist sharply, always to the left, as they spiral up to the top floor.
The weather on the morning of Monday, May 30, 1904 was cool and calm with rain showers threatening from the northwest. McLane spent the morning with his new wife, Mary. It was Memorial Day, and all city offices were closed. He had no need to go into City Hall, had no meetings scheduled, and thus spent most of the day with Mary. Early in the morning he met socially with Mr. Henry J. McGrath, who noticed that the mayor was in an excellent humor, laughing and joking.
After McGrath left, McLane spent the next hour catching up on some memos and preparing for meetings later in the week with the Burnt Fire Commission, established to handle the aftermath of the fire just three months ago.
Mid-morning, McLane and his wife took a brief walk along Preston Street. They returned home just after 11 a.m., and McLane then scratched out a memo to Judge Henry D. Harlan, informing him about a meeting he would like to have the following day regarding the status of student examination papers he was reviewing.
In the early afternoon, he enjoyed lunch with Mary and his older stepson and retired with his wife to her study in the third floor front room of their upscale row home at 29 West Preston Street.
Trina and I reach the third floor, and I cannot believe how small the rooms are. I pictured bigger rooms, longer hallways, and plenty of space to move about freely.
Instead, the hallway is only four or five steps between Mary’s study and the mayor’s dressing room, where most of his belongings were packed. We compare the layout with the published reports of Mary’s home, and the only difference we can detect is that these rooms no longer have doors.
Each room is less than 14 square feet in size. Armoires, beds, and dressing mirrors took up the majority of the space available in each room. Add a fireplace against the right wall and plenty of boxes still unpacked from the move, and the McLanes lived in one very tight space.
Father Dean seems uneasy already. He has appointments waiting for him across the street.
We mark where the pieces of furniture would have been arranged: armoire toward the back against the left side wall, tall dressing mirror in the back left corner, and a large bed against the opposite wall, with the fireplace just to its left, and a small closet tucked neatly between the fireplace and the back wall.
After we determine where the furniture would have been placed in each room, Trina assumes the role of Mary and I the role of McLane.
We are ready to reenact the mayor’s final minutes.
At 3:11 p.m., Robert McLane joked with his wife in her study about the way she had tied up a bundle of clothes, presumably to be packed away for the summer season, and he made plans to take a second walk with her later in the afternoon, before the rains came. She thought the idea of a walk was good, especially after such a big meal, and asked only that she have the chance to rest a bit in her study, alone.
The mayor honored her wish.
“Well, I’m going over and straighten some things in my wardrobe,” he said, crossing into the hallway and leaving Mary in her study.
A click of her study door. The four steps to his dressing room in the rear on the third floor. And then, a second click, this from his dressing room door closing. Inside this room, he planned to unpack summer clothes he had brought over from his father’s residence, as well as some personal papers and letters, including a congratulatory letter he had received recently from his sister in France.
Two rooms separated by nine feet.
Silence followed for four minutes. Mary would tell authorities later that she spent those moments resting, alone, in her study.
Trina and I move to the front of the house, where Mary’s dressing room was. There, we talk and joke about bundles being tied up, taking another walk, and what we might do after dinner.
“I’m going to unpack a few things while you rest,” I say. I leave Trina in the front room, close her imaginary door, and walk the few steps down the hall to the back study, which I enter and pretend to shut the door to the hallway.
Our intention is to wait in our respective rooms for four minutes so that we can see how loud a gunshot might sound in contrast with the long silence. I don’t have a gun, of course; I plan on using the journal I brought with me and merely hit it hard against the wall.
Two minutes into the reenactment, a loud “Bang!” two flights below shatters our silence. It startles all of us out of the reenactment. Father Dean calls down the stairs to see if anyone is on the ground floor, but there is no answer.
Trina, closest to the stairs, goes down to the ground floor to see if we are no longer alone.
Breaking that silence at precisely 3:15 p.m. was a loud, sharp sound that was followed by a muffled thump, as if something had fallen. Mary later said that she was startled by the sounds, which she described as something like a shutter banging once against the back of the house, causing something to fall inside the back room on the third floor, where the mayor was unpacking.
She called Lizzie Redchurch to come upstairs to check on the mayor. Lizzie was already on the way, though, believing the noise to be more alarming.
She knocked on the mayor’s dressing room door.
Lizzie turned, took three steps to where Mary stood in the doorway to her study.
“He’s not answering, ma’am. Shall I try again?”
“Open the door, Lizzie.”
Lizzie turned, retraced those three steps to the mayor’s closed dressing room door, and turned the handle.
At first she did not see him in the small room. She panned right to left, looking first over the bed at the fireplace against the right wall, then the small closet in the corner, the closed window against the south wall, and then the dressing mirror, which stood tall in the far left corner of the room.
It was here that she saw the mayor’s reflection, a man dressed in a dark suit who did not, could not answer his maid’s persistent rapping.
Lizzie, her face now white with fear, looked over her shoulder to Mary and whispered, almost unable to speak, “Why, Mr. McLane has fallen down!”
Mary hurried to Lizzie at the other end of the short hall. Together, they entered the room and rushed to the mayor, lying on the wooden floor in front of his dressing mirror. He lay still as Lizzie kneeled to his side.
For a moment, silence returned to the room, as they thought the mayor had suffered a brief fainting spell. Lizzie put a hand on the mayor’s shoulder to wake him. But just as she leaned in to whisper his name, to nudge him a little harder, she noticed the blood that began to seep from where McLane’s head rested against the wood.
Lizzie Redchurch gasped.
“Oh, dear God.”
She backed away from the body and showed Mary the blood that was now flowing steadily from under the mayor’s head and along the floor.
Both Mary and Lizzie left the mayor and the room, screaming.
At 3:15 p.m., just four minutes following shared laughter with his new wife only steps down the hall in her study, Mayor Robert McLane lay dying.
“Just the second door slamming in the foyer. Everything’s fine.” Trina climbs the three flights of stairs and returns to Mary’s dressing room.
Trina and I try to pick up where we left off, but the noise terrified us, derailed us, and I think that Lizzie Redchurch must have been just as startled when she was on the first floor and heard the sound of a gunshot on the third floor. If that sound had been a mere four or five steps down the hall, it would have been so alarming that there would be no other possible response but one that was swift and immediate.
Father Dean looks at his watch and realizes that we have already spent more time in the house than he had planned. Back at the Church, several colleagues are waiting for him to return, and he urges us to wrap up our reenactment.
I feel that we need at least another hour to play out several scenarios of how the gun might have been fired, who else might have fired it, and how it eventually ended up under McLane’s body before he fell to the ground.
Begrudgingly, I finish the roll of film, taking pictures of every angle of every room. Father Dean waits for us downstairs, in the foyer.
Much like the speed with which flames consumed six full blocks within the first hour of the Great Baltimore Fire, news of a single gunshot in the mayor’s dressing room spread quickly.
Soon after leaving the room, Mary composed herself surprisingly well and immediately gave orders to everyone in the house. She called her son, Ralph, to the third floor and sent him to alert Dr. A. Trego Shertzer, a physician who lived just two doors down on the corner of Preston and Maryland Avenue, and bring him immediately to help the mayor.
Mary then sent Lizzie to the home of Mrs. Elliott Schenck, a long-time friend of hers who lived just a few blocks away for help.
Within one minute of the events that had begun to unfold, Mary was alone with Robert McLane as he lay dying.
Ralph ran into Dr. Shertzer’s front office and screamed for help. The terror that filled Ralph’s voice startled Dr. Shertzer enough that he wasted no time asking questions. He grabbed his hat, ran past the young Van Bibber, and hurried to 29 West Preston. Within three minutes, Dr. Shertzer was by the mayor’s side.
When he reached the room, he found the mayor lying on his face upon the floor. His head was twisted toward his left shoulder and rested in a pool of blood that flowed from a “horrible wound” through the right temple.
He turned to Mary, who seemed to be paralyzed with fear.
“Mary, listen carefully. I need you to send out a summons at once to all of the physicians who can be reached.”
But instead, Mary did not move. “Good heavens! Why did he do it?”
Dr. Shertzer repeated the need for her to assemble as many physicians as possible, but only with stern encouragement did Mary eventually leave the room with Shertzer’s words of hope that, perhaps, more physicians would help the mayor’s chances for survival.
But that was not Dr. Shertzer’s intention at all. In fact, he sent Mary out of the room to occupy her, to make her feel as if she could do something of importance to help her dying husband. Later that night, Shertzer would explain to a Baltimore Sun reporter, “The moment I examined the wound I saw that the mayor could not possibly live, and I did not want to have the responsibility of being the only physician with him when he died.”
While he waited for other physicians to arrive, he placed pillows under the mayor’s head and body to bring some comfort, if any.
It was then that Dr. Shertzer first saw the gun underneath McLane’s body. He picked it up and examined it closely. The gun was fully loaded, with the exception of one cartridge, which he assumed had just been fired.
* * *
As Shertzer tried to comfort the mayor and examine the weapon, Lizzie Redchurch had reached the home of Mary’s friend, Mrs. Elliott Schenck.
Schenck wasted no time in sending Robert Kempf, a servant, to be with Mary. On his way to Mary’s row house on West Preston, Kempf stopped by the Central District police station to tell two officers on duty of the mayor’s condition. Both men had already heard the commotion on West Preston, however, and were preparing to go to the house to see what was the matter.
Kempf, Redchurch, and the two officers raced toward 29 West Preston Street.
* * *
Just moments after Dr. Shertzer discovered the pistol and returned it underneath the mayor’s body, Dr. Nathan R. Gorter arrived at the scene and was horrified by the mayor’s wound. He looked around the room, desperate to help in any way possible.
Dr. Gorter hurried to the only window in the room, just inches from the mayor, and opened it. A rush of cool, humid air filled the room.
Gorter encouraged Shertzer to move the mayor closer to the window, where he hoped the mayor would be more comfortable.
Dr. Shertzer hesitated. He wasn’t convinced that moving the mayor a few inches was going to make a difference in his condition. But Gorter ignored Shertzer’s concern and started to move McLane’s body across the floor, dragging the revolver still under his body.
Within minutes, three more doctors joined Shertzer and Gorter. William Greene, William T. Watson, and Joseph Baborg all entered the bedroom in equal horror at the mayor’s condition. The last physician to join the others was Dr. Claude Van Bibber, the brother of Mary’s first husband. Dr. Van Bibber had remained close to his sister-in-law in the years that followed his brother’s suicide. In direct contrast with the other five physicians surrounding the mayor, Mary’s brother-in-law seemed surprisingly composed and in charge, taking such actions as meeting with friends and members of the press outside to offer that, although there was no doubt that the mayor had shot himself, it looked almost certainly that the shooting was accidental.
In the mayor’s final moments, nine men surrounded Robert McLane, including Adjutant General Clinton L. Riggs, who had led his men courageously during and immediately after the Baltimore fire in February. He had heard the news of the mayor’s condition and rushed to his friend’s room, understanding the inevitable, yet wanting to be with him in his last minutes.
No reports documented the whereabouts of Mary in the mayor’s final moments.
Back on Preston Street, Father Dean looks for keys as Trina stands nearby.
Closer to the mayor’s home, I lean against the cold brick building in the light rain and stare up at the brick façade.
All is still.
Precisely at 4:55 p.m., one hour and forty minutes after the bullet had passed through the mayor’s brain, Dr. Claude Van Bibber made his way through the crowd, found a Baltimore City police officer on the edge of West Preston Street, and informed him officially that the mayor was dead.
It was only at this time that the police were involved in any capacity in the shooting, and now the death, of Baltimore’s mayor.
A death that, within 24 hours, would be declared a suicide, a “pistol-shot wound in the head from hand of deceased while suffering with mental dementia. Contributory cause of death is shock and cerebral hemorrhage.”
Father Dean pulls the door closed, turns the lock, and gives the knob an extra twist.
He hurries back to the Greek Orthodox Church, and Trina and I head back to her Hyundai. We drive along West Preston and pass row home 29, then 41. Trina turns right on to Howard Street, and West Preston disappears.
I should be grateful of what we have already learned, but I want more. Being there, acting out some of the reports of Mayor McLane’s death, was not enough.
We inch our way through the city, crawling past buildings scarred by fires–some from long ago, some only hours old, still standing in outright defiance. They hold the reminders of how vulnerable we will always be to fire.
Trina turns on Charles Street. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the windshield wipers scraping across the front glass window. I want nothing but for it all to leave me, dry up, go away. But I see orange. And red.
I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.
“Do you understand what has just happened?” my brother-in-law asks.
Jim, my brother, comes through the double doors. Enters the small room where Mom waits. One whisper heard now as he tells Mom that Dad is dead. She stands up, leaves the room, collapses in Jim’s arms, then disappears behind the double doors that open and close now as routinely as the chambers of a heart, allowing the stream of family members to come and go, come and go.
At a red light on Charles Street, I hear the wails of a fire engine approaching the intersection just ahead of us. A hook and ladder turns left onto Charles, and the KEEP BACK 500 FEET sign fades from my view as the truck weaves its way through snarled traffic before turning right and disappearing down a side street.
Wipers sporadically clear the light mist from the windshield.
Gas fumes mixed with rain find their way into the car. Swirl around me.
Trina asks what our next move is.
I wonder how significant it is that Mary’s first husband died as mysteriously, why the Baltimore Police weren’t more involved between the time the gun was fired and when the mayor drew his last breath, and how a town, still reeling from the devastation of the fire that burned down its city, dropped this story within hours of the mayor’s graveside service.
Was it just as ridiculous for me to chase it, especially when the likes of H. L. Mencken scratched out only a few sentences about the mayor’s death decades later, alluding to McLane’s inability to handle the stress brought on by the aftermath of the fire?
I’m no Mencken, but I can’t let this one go. My research on Mary ends in New Jersey in the form of a postcard-sized picture of her, decked out in burlesque clothing and, from what I can gather, married again.
“I think our next move is to head north. See what Mary was up to after she left Baltimore. Up for the chase?”
Trina nods, the light turns green, and we go with the whish of the wipers clearing the rain.
“Fire and rain,” she says, and I laugh.
“Yeah, Fire and rain.” I add, as we drive north, suddenly in silence.
# # # #