Monday, April 21, 2008

April 21

Uncommemorated and forgotten, the charred and unidentified remains of scores of prisoners are buried in mass graves at Evergreen, Eastlawn and Harper-McKinley cemeteries in Columbus, Ohio. Monuments to the worst prison fire in American history, these anonymous grave sites hold most of the inmates who died on 21 April 1930, when a candle ignited a pile of oily rags on the roof of West Block at the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Prison officials scrambled in vain to locate a master key; abandoned as the fire spread, the prisoners suffered unimaginable deaths, as 322 were asphyxiated and barbecued in their cells. Among the dead that day was 31-year-old Wilbur "Fats" Young, a World War I veteran serving a sentence at Columbia for bigamy. Young's hometown paper, the Deshler Flag, carried his obituary on 24 April 1930:
[F]ate was not kind to Wilbur Young and he lost his life, while still a young man, within the gray walls of the institution in a most horrible manner. Trapped in his cell like a wild beast with no hope of release he could see the flames, smoke and heat creep closer and closer while all he could do was to wait and do nothing but still wait. Convict though he was, and the rest may be or rather may have been, yet withal there beat in his breast a human heart with human feelings and a heart that could love those near and dear to him and be loved in turn and it casts a pall of gloom and sorrow over those who knew him to think of the awful manner of his ending.

Mr. Young and Funeral director Rader took the ambulance to Columbus on Tuesday afternoon with the expectation of bringing the body back but were informed that no bodies would be released until 9 o'clock on Wednesday morning. They were also told that the body would be furnished with a shroud, color and tie and a coffin, and that transportation charges would be prepaid to its destination.
Prison officials blamed the fire on a botched escape plan, but the fire drew increased attention to the miserable conditions at the Columbus facility, which was operating at twice its intended capacity. Meager efforts were made to improve Ohio's prison system over the next several years; none succeeded, and the Ohio Penitentiary was the site of three major riots in the decades after World War II. The facility was ordered closed in 1979. From 1897-1963, it had been the site of 315 executions -- seven fewer than the number killed on this date in 1930.