The Curious Case of Charles Reif vs SB Paige

Part 2 – The Rescue of Mrs Harlow and the Death of Mrs Paige

Beckwith House 4 December 1880
from Discover Historic Oshkosh

The fire at the Beckwith House was raging as the fire department arrived on the scene on the evening of December 3, 1880. Mrs. C.E. Harlow had just leapt from the fourth floor window into the blankets and coats of onlookers below. Mrs. Harlow had reported that Mrs. S.B. Paige was still in the room when she jumped, but was unlikely to still be alive due to the amount of smoke and heat in the room.  The day after the fire, Mrs. Harlow would recount her tale of the moments before she jumped for her life.

Mrs. Harlow was the first to arrive for tea at the room of Mrs. Paige. She had not yet taken off her coat when the commotion outside the room caused them to open the door to investigate. Thick black smoke was rolling up the stairway. The ladies quickly shut the door and ran to open the window and called for help to the people on the street below. Realizing they could not be helped by the onlookers, they once again tried the door to the hall. They were surprised by flames when they opened the door for the second time. Both women were burned from trying to beat back the fire to make an escape to the stairs. Having no other choice, Mrs. Harlow and Mrs. Paige returned again to the hotel room which was now filled with smoke and heat. The only chance to survive was to jump out the window sixty feet above the pavement. Mrs. Harlow went first and lost sight of Mrs. Paige in the smoky room as she made her escape. Mrs. Harlow, burned on the face and hands, was rushed off site to a doctor where she was sedated and made to rest and begin her recovery. Mrs. Paige was not seen at the window again.

From Oshkosh Northwestern 4 December 1880, Saturday, Page 4

When the hook and ladder truck arrived, ladders were run up to the fourth floor window immediately.  Fireman Robert Brauer ran up the ladder and looked inside the window. Upon not seeing or hearing anyone through the smoke and flames, he quickly descended, and the ladders were moved to other areas of the hotel to aid in the fire fighting.  Mr. S.B. Paige spent the next several minutes pleading with firemen to try again to find his wife in the fourth floor room where she was last seen. According to some witnesses (and refuted by others), a reward of $5000 was offered by Mr. Paige to any man who could bring Mrs. Paige out of the hotel and deliver her – dead or alive –to him.

First assistant engineer, Charles Reif heard the pleas of Mr. Paige and ordered a ladder to be sent once again to the fourth floor window. Mr. Reif ran up the ladder and entered the room returning quickly to the window with the exclamation, “She is here!” Ropes were sent up the ladder with Brauer and tied around the waist of Mrs. Paige. She was carried to the window by Reif who hung out the window to adjust the rope on the top of the ladder while other firemen grasped the end of the rope from the ground in order to lower Mrs. Paige to the ground.

Mrs. Paige was limp and lifeless as she was lowered to the ground. Her limbs became caught on the rungs of the ladder more than once on the way to the ground causing the process to be very slow and awkward. When Mrs. Paige finally reached the ground, she was rushed to the home of J.A. Paige, a brother of her husband S.B. Paige, where a physician was standing by. It was a surprise to no one when the doctor pronounced her deceased. As Mrs. Paige was lowered, it was noted that the exposed skin of her hands and face was badly burned along her left side.

S.B. Paige was removed from the scene once the cry that Mrs. Paige was found reached his ears. It was said that he was in such a state of distress that he nearly collapsed and was taken to the nearby home of his brother. When news was given to Mr. Paige that Mrs. Paige was deceased, he was in such anguish that it was several minutes before he could compose himself enough to speak. He did not wish to see her body but preferred to remember her as she was before he left her that afternoon.

The funeral for Mrs. S. B. Paige, born Leafy Bean Cushing, was on December 5, 1880, at Trinity Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Originally planned to be conducted from the J.A. Paige home, the decision was made to move the service to the church due large public interest.  The church was filled with flowers, the singing of the choir, and as many mourners as the building could hold. The weather had turned brutally cold, and so there were few mourners outside the church and fewer that made the journey with the casket over to Riverside Cemetery for the burial.

The Beckwith House fire took three lives. Mrs. SB Paige was the most well- known of the victims, but it should be said that two hotel employees, the head dining room girl, Mary Alice “Mollie” Hanrahan, and the night watchman, George Wood, were also killed in the fire. 

Mollie escaped the fire initially, but ran back into the burning building to rescue her trunk where she had stored the money she had earned while working at the hotel. She was found near her trunk in the ruins of the fire three days after the incident.

George Wood was presumed dead immediately following the blaze. His room was on the fourth floor in the rear of the hotel and it was his schedule to sleep during the day because he was on duty overnight. His body wasn’t found until January 18, 1881 by workmen clearing the debris. His body was found near the door to Mrs. Paige’s room and it is thought that he heard the screams for help and died trying to come to her aid.

The story continues – Part 3

The story begins – Part 1

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.

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