The Curious Case of Charles Reif vs SB Paige

Part 4 – The Suit

The Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper published a brief article detailing three suits brought against Simon Bailey Paige on May 2, 1881. Mr. Paige was preparing to move to Davenport, Iowa and the suits were served before his departure. Former first assistant Charles Reif of the Oshkosh fire department was suing Mr. Paige over a $5000 reward that was promised to the man who could bring Mr. Paige’s wife out of the burning Beckwith House on the evening of December 3, 1880 in Oshkosh. Mr. Reif, who was a fireman at the time, ascended a ladder into the burning fourth floor room where Mrs. Paige was known to have been. Mr. Reif found Mrs. Paige deceased and removed her body from the building. Mr. Paige had refuted making such an offer and the matter was taken to court.

from Oshkosh Northwestern, Oshkosh, WI
27 April 1882, Thursday, page 4

News of the suit was printed in papers in New York, Boston, Chicago, Omaha, and Quebec among others.  A year later on April 27, 1882, Judge Pulling handed down his verdict after hearing testimony from numerous witnesses including firemen who were at the scene that day. Some witnesses said that Reif was not alone in rescuing the body of Mrs. Paige, others stated that Mr. Paige never made any offer of reward for her return, and still others stated Reif climbed up alone to retrieve her with no prior knowledge of a reward offered. The defense attorney claimed that Mrs. Paige was retrieved in the line of duty of a fireman and so Reif would not be eligible for reward because he was being paid a wage for his work as a fire fighter. The prosecution held that there was a difference between performing the duty of a fire fighter – putting out fires and preserving property – and that a deceased body was not property and the rescue attempt was beyond the scope of Reif’s duty as a fireman. Judge Pulling ruled that a corpse was personal property under the law and therefore it was the duty of the firemen to retrieve it and further that no reward should be given to any public servant for the performance of their duty.

from Green Bay Press-Gazette, Green Bay, WI
13 October 1882, Friday, page 4

Charles Reif took his case to the circuit court on Oshkosh on June 5, 1882 to move for a new trial. The motion was denied. Reif then took his case to the state supreme court. On October 13, 1882, Judge Lyons wrote the decision for the court stating that the lower court’s ruling would be set aside and ordered that Reif had the right to a new trial. The court held that a fireman’s duty is to rescue life and property –but not at the risk of the fire fighter’s life. Soldiers contract to risk their lives in the service of their duty but firemen do not. Lyons wrote that “As Reif performed the act of hazarding his life, solely for the incentive of reward, and he has the right to prove it was offered and sue for it.”

from Appleton Crescent, Appleton, WI
13 January 1883, Saturday, page 3

Reif had won the right to pursue his case against the wealthy lumberman, Simon Bailey Paige. Meanwhile, Paige had moved out of Wisconsin and on January 13, 1883, word reached Oshkosh that he had married a wealthy widow named Mary Elizabeth Fagin in New York. She was nearly 30 years his junior. The new Mrs. Paige was not all that she appeared and the marriage marked the beginning of the end for Simon Bailey Paige.

The story continues –Part 5

The story begins – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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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