On my grandmother Ellen Francis Duffy’s 10th birthday, May 3, 1884, fire destroyed her family’s home. In the house were the parents, John and Margaret McLaughlin Duffy, and six children. Four older children were away from home.
Two sisters died. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie turned back to get the baby, not knowing her father had already carried the child to safety. Lizzie’s charred remains were found the next day. Six-year-old Rose was severely burned and died on May 20.
My great-grandmother, Margaret McLaughlin Duffy, was said to be a beautiful woman. Her face was permanently disfigured, and she never again went out in public without wearing a veil. We have no pictures of Margaret.
My grandmother never spoke of the fire. She never spoke of her two sisters who died in the fire. But, while visiting us in the 1950’s, neighbors heard her screams when she discovered a six-year-old grandchild scorching the kitchen linoleum with lighted matches.
Years later we understood why. A Duffy family genealogist found our branch and forwarded a packet of family history. Included were newspaper reports of the fire. When my family gathered that Christmas – 120 years after the 1884 event– the Duffy family fire was our main topic of conversation.
From May 7, 1884 through May 29, 1884, the Duffy family fire was also a topic of conversation for northeast Iowa newspaper subscribers. Articles detailing the fire and its grisly aftermath appeared in the Waterloo Iowa Courier, The Iowa State Reporter, and the Independence Iowa Bulletin Journal.
Human nature hasn’t changed. We are irresistibly drawn to details of catastrophic events. Today’s reporters capture the aftermath of disasters in video. Yesterday’s reporters did it with words. In 1884 photojournalism was in its infancy. Newspaper reporters used the material at hand –colorful language. Besides the article reproduced above [Waterloo Iowa Courier, May 7, 1884] , here some examples from other accounts of the fire:
“She [Lizzie] was never seen again until her charred and blackened remains were found next day in the ruins of the building.” Waterloo Iowa Courier May 7, 1884
“The little girl [Rose] so badly burned in the fire at John Duffy’s died from its injuries and was buried Thursday. It was a great relief to hear of its death as one of the eyes had previously dropped out and its sufferings were intense.” Waterloo Iowa Courier, May 28, 1884
Genealogy: Stories of the fire told us (1) that Lizzie and Rose had lived; and (2) how they died. Surviving family photographs [taken three or four years after the fire] show the eight children we always thought comprised the family.
Eventually we would have found Lizzie and Rose on the 1880 census. Since they were not identified in the photograph, we would have concluded they died, but we wouldn’t have known how or when.
Another genealogical nugget was embedded in reports of the fire: Margaret McLaughlin Duffy’s obituary details her immigrating from Ireland alone when she was 16 years old, spending five years in Boston [likely an indentured servant working off her passage], and then coming to Independence Iowa. Why did 21-year-old Margaret travel from Boston to Independence Iowa? We didn’t know.
The Independence Iowa Bulletin Journal covered the story with the heading “Terrible Calamity to a Family Near Fairbank.” Embedded in the newspaper articles were names.
“Robert Burke, of this city, is a relative of the afflicted family, as is Mr. Greeley living north of town.”
This sentence was our first clue to Margaret McLaughlin’s relatives in Independence Iowa. Later we found out that Robert Burke and Mr. Greeley married McLaughlin women. Still later another Duffy researcher proved these women to be Margaret’s sisters.
These newspaper articles chronicle a horrific family tragedy. It seems insensitive to label them a genealogy gold mine. But 130 years later, the label fits.