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Iowa History Daily: January 7 - St. Elizabeth's Fire

Iowa History Daily: On January 7, 1950 at 2:06 a.m. the first calls came in reporting one of the worst fires in Iowa’s history at the St. Elizabeth’s mental health facility on the Mercy Hospital campus in Davenport. As the flames raged, 41 women lost their lives as the structure burned.

Operated by the Sisters of Mercy, Mother Mary Borromeo Johnson started the facility in 1869. In 1893, St. Elizabeth’s opened to service mental health for Iowans. As a psychiatric treatment facility, bars on the windows and other precautions to minimize escape routes paired with recent added flammability from recent construction projects to create conditions for a tragic situation.

When a patient suffering from mental health problems lit the curtains of her room with a cigarette lighter, the fire quickly jumped to the combustible ceiling tiles used throughout the facility. The staff and patients desperately tried to escape, breaking windows which fled the roaring blaze with fresh oxygen. Three men housed at the facility escaped.

Of the 68 people in the facility at the time of the fire, 41 died. Among them 40 patients, and one nurse. The lone nurse who died managed to assist a patient clear of the danger, but died after returning to try and save others trapped inside. #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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