Part 1 – Fire at Beckwith House
On December 3, 1880, a kerosene lamp exploded at a grand hotel called the Beckwith House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The resulting fire spread very quickly through the large building, trapping two female guests in a room on the corner of the fourth floor and trapping two hotel employees in their quarters on an upper floor in the rear of the building. The cries of “FIRE” were heard, and the fire department was dispatched to the burning hotel. One of the guests, Mrs. C.E. Harlow, leapt out of the fourth floor window at the encouragement of a group of men standing below with coats and sheets stretched out to catch her. She survived the fall with minor injuries leaving the second woman, Mrs. S.B. Paige in the burning room.
Traveling salesmen rushed in and out of the building to rescue their wares, and neighboring businesses began clearing out their inventory in the event that the fire spread to nearby buildings. The ground floor of the hotel was used for a variety of shops including Bauman’s Drug Store. The second floor was used for dining and had sample rooms set up for the use of salesmen to display their products. Crowds of onlookers, drawn by the fire bells and the smoke, gathered as close as they dared. The scene was one of chaos, smoke, and cacophony.
Mr. Simon Bailey Paige, a prominent Midwestern businessman, was staying with his wife at the Beckwith House at the time of the fire. He had decided to take a carriage ride out and around the fairgrounds a short time before the fire broke out. Mrs. Paige was invited to come along but declined because she was set to have tea in her room with some of the other ladies staying in the hotel. The fire broke out just after the first guest arrived to tea in Mrs. Paige’s fourth floor room.
Mr. Paige could hear the fire bells ringing and saw the smoke rising from the city as he returned from his ride. He was shocked when he found the hotel was an inferno and learned that Mrs. Paige was still inside. He was in a panic as the fire department arrived on the scene and was desperate to learn the fate of his wife. It was said that he offered a reward of $5000 to the man who could bring him Mrs. Paige dead or alive. That statement would later be retracted and that is how the case of Charles Reif vs S.B. Paige began.
The story continues: Part 2
This story was put together after researching my husband’s great great grandfather Johann Karl Friedrich “Charles” Reif. The story can be found primarily in the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper beginning on 3 December 1880 (although parts of the story were published in papers across the US and Canada) and continuing into the 1920s and beyond.