The Ohio Penitentiary Fire

Content/Trigger Warnings: This blog post contains material of a highly sensitive nature including abuse, death or dying, suicide, torture, and violence that may be triggering for some individuals.

View of the fire at the Ohio Penitentiary fire on April, 21 1930. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

Halloween is a time dedicated to sharing tales of the macabre and remembering the dead. Writers delight in crafting stories that frighten the masses and their brilliant imaginations bring these horrors to life. However, it is often real life events that are scarier than fiction.

America is host to some of the most gruesome events in human history. The following is the true story [chronicled within Ohio Memory] of one of the worst prison disasters in United States history and it took place in our home state of Ohio.

Rescuers carrying bodies, from the Ohio Penitentiary, during the fire. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

The Ohio Penitentiary was built in Columbus, Ohio, in 1834. The prison was known to have a poor reputation. From overcrowding to cholera epidemics, the penitentiary was no stranger to death or horrible living conditions. On April 21, 1930, a fire broke out in the Ohio Penitentiary that would claim the lives of 322 inmates.

The source of the fire came from a candle that was ignited on some oily rags, left on the roof of the West Block of the penitentiary. The cell block, adjacent to the start of the fire, housed 800 prisoners, most of whom were already locked in for the night. The inmates begged to be let out, but guards refused to unlock their cells, in fear of a mass prison break. The fire soon spread to the roof, which endangered the lives of the inmates on the Prison’s upper level. Approximately 50 inmates made it out of their cells, before the heavy smoke stopped the unplanned evacuation. The roof then caved in on the upper cells burning 160 prisoners to death. By the time the fire was controlled, 322 people were dead and another 130 were seriously injured.

Photograph of the makeshift morgue at the Ohio State Fairgrounds filled with victims of the Ohio Penitentiary fire. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

Investigations took place, after the tragedy, and the event was condemned by the press, as preventable. The reasons why someone started the fire has been heavily disputed. Prison officials claimed that three prisoners, carrying out an escape attempt, had intentionally lit the fire. Two of the three accused inmates died by suicide in the months following the fire, which helped to support these claims. Others believe that the fire had been an accident and that the prison officials accused the inmates to divert attention away from the administrations poor handling of the emergency.

Regardless of the cause, conditions within the prison had been abysmal for years and action needed to be taken. In the aftermath of the fire, the state legislature created measures to address overcrowding. The General Assembly established the Ohio Parole Board in 1931, leading to the eventual release of thousands of prisoners.

The fire remains the single most tragic fire in any prison in the United States. If you would like to find more information about the victims of the Ohio Penitentiary Fire, you can read a list of the victims and view their death certificates. You can also visit some of the victim’s graves at the old State of Ohio Asylum for the Insane and Penal Cemetery.

An unidentified woman being sworn in to testify at the Ohio Penitentiary fire investigation, in January 1935. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

If this true story has left you longing for a palette cleaner, be sure to visit Ohio History Connection’s All Hallows’ Eve program, for a night of family fun and the retelling of the Legend of Sleepy Hallow.

Additional Links:
Ohio Memory Ohio Penitentiary Fire Search Results:!Ohio%20Penitentiary%20(Columbus,%20Ohio)/field/subjec!subjec/mode/exact!exact/conn/and!and/order/nosort

List of Victims of the Ohio Penitentiary Fire:

State of Ohio Asylum for the Insane Cemetery Map Link:

Ohio History Connection’s All Hallows Eve Program:

Thank you to Aimee Truitt, Catalog & Metadata Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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