Sunday, November 13, 2016

Irving Avenue's awful 1906 tragedy

61 Irving Avenue is an attractive, well-maintained home on a boulevard of character century-old brick houses in this historic area of Hintonburg. But like a lot of old houses, this one has its ghosts...

Fabien Sayer was a prototypical Hintonburg resident at the turn of the century. He was a young working-class francophone labourer with a large Roman Catholic family. He and several of his brothers were professional "cabmen", taxi drivers of the earliest era, who delivered passengers via horse and buggy. Cabmen largely operated independently, in business for themselves. However, like today, they were licensed, charged annual fees for their vehicles, and there was a Cabbies' Union.

Cab on Rideau Street in 1904 (not a Sayer though).
(Source: Ottawa Archives CA-001763)

Another example of a cabman of the era, a Quebec-based
cabman with passengers in 1902
(Source: LAC MIKAN 4316447)

Fabien had been born in Ottawa in 1864, the eldest son of an early Ottawa carter (deliveryman), so clearly a career spent in a carriage behind a horse on the streets of Ottawa was in the Sayer family blood. Sayer had married in 1884 and resided in the LeBreton Flats section prior to moving to Hintonburg in 1900. The family resided briefly on Ladouceur Avenue before Fabien built a small home on Irving Avenue (then known as Sixth Avenue) in 1903.

This modest house at 61 Sixth Avenue was actually one of the first to be built on the street. It was constructed at the north-east corner of Irving and Laurel, immediately adjacent to wood dealer James Lajeunesse's house at 59 Sixth Avenue, which had stood for about five years prior. On the opposite corner (the southeast corner of Laurel) stood the old St. Mary's Separate School, which had moved to that location around 1896.

Fire Plan of the area (1895 Ottawa plan though updated to
about 1897), showing Seventh, Sixth and Fifth (Fairmont,
Irving and Spadina) around Laurel Street, which notably
originally ran west all the way to Fairmont). Dotted lines
indicate the streets did not exist in real life, only on paper.
Yellow indicates wood, pink indicates brick. The Sayer
house is not shown as it was built a few years after this plan.

Little detail is known about this house the Sayer family resided in, but it would have been wood-frame, and quite small, likely almost too small for the family which numbered nine and counting by 1903 (Fabien and his wife Mary Louise would eventually have 12 children total between 1886 and 1910). Their children included: Dianna (1886), Eva (1887), Fabien Jr (1888), Delina (1891), Adelard (1894), Oscar (1897), and Alma (1902). A son John, born in 1890 had died in infancy, while Victor (1904), Romeo (1905), Irene (1907) and Aurel (1910) would come later.

Fabien made $800 per year as a cabman (somewhere around $20,000 per year in 2016 dollars). A decent enough wage, in that the Sayers were a step above many Hintonburg residents as owners of their own home. The house however would have been little more than a shack, and amenities were few and far between. Sewers, sidewalks and paved roads were still years away.for this section of Hintonburg. Backyard privvies along creeks and dirt lanes were prominent.

Yet the family surely enjoyed their quiet spot on what was then a sparsely built-on Irving Avenue, conveniently located directly across from the school, and just a minute's walk to the relatively new St. Francois D'Assise Church and Capuchin Monastery on Wellington.

Things did not start out well for the family in their new Irving Avenue home, sadly. In April of 1904, four-year-old Victor Sayer passed away of peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdomen) and bronchial pneumonia. The newspaper noted that the death of "their bright little son Victor" garnered the family the sincere sympathy of their many friends.

* * *

The afternoon of Monday January 22nd, 1906, was not a typical winters day in the west end. The weather had been unusually warm that week. The meteorological observatory at the Experimental Farm reported the highest temperatures Ottawa had seen during the month of January dating back to 1889, as temperatures hit above 7 degrees Celsius. It was reported that the high temperatures were causing major headaches for the lumber companies, who without the snow and frozen ground to haul lumber inside the bush, and with little snowfall to keep water levels high, the log runs up the Ottawa River would no doubt suffer significantly in 1906.

At a little after 4 p.m., the eldest child of the family, daughter Diana Sayer, 20, was at home with her three youngest siblings. Her father Fabien had gone to work at the Bayview C.P.R. station at 3:30 and her mom Mary Louise had just left at 4:00 to sweep out St. Mary's School across there street, where she worked as a cleaner.

One-year old Romeo was upstairs sleeping in the room above the kitchen, in a swinging cot. Three-year old Alma was playing in the downstairs front room with her eight-year old brother Oscar.

Earlier that morning, Diana had purchased 13 cents worth of benzene (gasoline) at Mulhall's hardware store at 806 Somerset Street (southwest corner of Booth). Her mother had recently been told that gasoline was useful for cleaning furs, and so Diana had set out to acquire some. Sometime just after 4 p.m., the Mulhall's deliveryman arrived at the home, poured a gallon of gasoline into a tin pail in the kitchen, and left. Diana wasted no time in testing out the product.

Diana picked up a fur ruff and dipped it into the gasoline. She then wrung it out using her hands, and to further dry it, she shook the ruff out. Unfortunately Diana, it would later be shown, had no idea of the dangers of gasoline in the home (keep in mind, it was still a foreign product to many, as cars were still extremely rare at this time).

Diana did this cleaning experiment over-top of the family's sheet-iron stove in which a wood fire was burning. When she shook the ruff, some of the gasoline dropped on the stove and instantly ignited. She attempted to blow it out, but it ran up to her hair, and the flames also caught her gas-soaked hands. She still held the ruff in her hand and in the excitement, put the ruff to her burning head, intensifying the flame. She threw the ruff on the floor, and her skirt came in contact with it, setting the skirt on fire as well.

She grabbed a cloak to smother the flames, but it did not work. The kitchen quickly became a blazing furnace. Diana ran screeching into the front yard, and attempted to brush the fire out of her hair with her hands.

Rev. Father Conrad of the Capuchin Monastery and a fellow priest, Rev. Father Gregoire, had by chance been walking by the house on their daily rounds of the neighbourhood to visit parishioners. Father Conrad saw Diana rush out of the house, and ran to her, urging her to "roll yourself in the snow". Diana flung herself into the snow, all the while shouting for someone to save the children still trapped inside. With Father Conrad's help, they extinguished the flames on Diana.

Eight-year old Oscar had been sitting in the front room and did not know of what was happening until he saw Diana rush outside. Before he could realize the situation, he was surrounded by fire. He broke the front window, and escaped unhurt. His sister Alma who he had been playing with, had apparently slipped away briefly, and could not be immediately saved. He ran screaming to St. Mary's School to alert his mom.

By this point, the house was engulfed in flames, the fire spreading quickly. Father Conrad attempted to enter the front door, but it would not open and the handle broke off. He smashed a window with a large stick and assisted Diana through it, who then ran to the front door and unlocked it.

Father Conrad then entered, noting later that "a misty darkness pervaded the room and little could be distinguished". He collided with a sewing machine in the dark, and spotted a cradle in the corner of the kitchen, which was empty. Diana had told him that one child was upstairs and one was in a downstairs rear bedroom. Father Conrad attempted to reach the rear bedroom through a wall of flames, but was driven back by the smoke and heat. His cap and hood were burnt, and his face severely burned. and could rescue attempt rescue no further as the flames were too strong.

Meanwhile Diana too had attempted to assist, but could not get to the kitchen, and in the frenzy grabbed some clothing and a book and came back out.

When they had reached the front door in retreat, they were met by the mother, Mrs. Mary Louise Sayer, who had just learned that her two youngest children were still trapped inside. She had frantically run from the school and across the street crying "Mes enfants! Mes enfants!"

Father Conrad and Father Gregoire fought to restrain her from entering, seeing the uselessness of trying to enter. Mrs. Sayer fell to the ground in faint.

While all this had gone on, Father Gregoire had went around back of the house and had got out Fabien Sayer's carriage. Acting quickly, the Fathers took Diana and her mom on the carriage to the convent, to await the ambulance.

Miss Florence Lajeunesse next-door had been working inside her house when she heard screams, and went on to her front verandah to check. Hearing more screams, she ran back and called on her father. James Lajeunesse, who upon seeing Father Conrad break the window, and himself seeing the flames, went into his house and returned with two pails of water, which he used to help fight the fire until the Hintonburg Fire Brigade arrived soon after.

The Hintonburg Fire Brigade responded quickly to the alarm that was raised, but were no match for the burning wooden structure. The hose wagon arrived quickly, but by the time they arrived, the house was long gone, the flames were shooting out the front window, up through the roof, and the entire house was was ablaze. Two lines or hose were laid from the hydrant across the road, and another from Seventh Avenue (Fairmont). Soon, the ceiling of the kitchen collapsed, and it was after that when the fire brigade learned that other children had been trapped inside, as those present at the start of the fire had left before they arrived. It may have briefly been considered whether the outcome could have been different had the fire brigade been aware sooner that the children were trapped inside, though all involved seemed certain the children had already died before they arrived.

They turned their attention on 59 Irving, which the Citizen noted stood just two feet from the burning house. Florence Lajeunesse's family and neighbours had acted swiftly to remove as much of their furniture into the street from the house as they could. James Lajeunesse had  fought the fire in the Sayer home, before valiantly (and successfully) working to prevent the fire from spreading to his house next door. For his efforts, the entire right side of his face had been badly burned. The Journal noted the next day that "his face is a terrible sight".

The fire raged for about an hour, and after it was out, those present had the horrific task of locating the children.

It was reported that the father, Fabien Sayer, had arrived not long after the firemen, and that "his suffering was most acute". He first ran to the Convent to check on his wife and daughter, then returned and was one of the first to enter the house to search for his children.

The charred remains of the children were found at about 5:30, on the floor of the kitchen after the upstairs floor had given way. They were found only approximately four feet apart. They were carried from the house by William Post, Deputy Chief of the fire brigade, and volunteer firefighter George Faulkner. Hintonburg's own Doctor I. G. Smith examined the bodies, and quickly assessed that both likely died from suffocation. He found that Alma had severe burns and an indentation in the skull, while the infant Romeo had been burned beyond recognition. In a rather gruesome detail (as newspapers of the era were apt to publish), it was noted that Alma's feet were missing, and a careful search was conducted among the cinders and debris of the remains of the kitchen, but nothing could be found. After the children were found, Fabien was taken by cab to a friend's home.

There were no photographs taken of the house or fire, as photography was still very limited in 1906. The newspapers rarely published photos, and thus occasionally would attempt to publish an illustration to show a building or scene. Interestingly, the Journal did publish an illustration of the house, which you can see below. The black cross typically would show the location of the bodies. This view would be looking south towards Laurel, with the back of the house visible and the kitchen at the rear in the middle. I believe the portion at left is a small shed/carriage house that Fabien Sayer would have used to store his cab.

Ottawa Journal - January 23, 1906

Dr. Smith remained in charge of the site until Coroner Baptie arrived at 6 p.m., As was common in the era, when an investigation was required, a coroner's jury of local citizens would be immediately assembled to review the facts and help decide on what happened. Selected for this duty that very evening were Hintonburg Reeve James Newton, tavern-keeper James Byers, foreman William Broad, wood dealer Ruggles Birtch, labourer Herbert Clarke, fitter's helper James Dudley, labourer George Faulkner, farmer Robert Hill, barber William Post (also deputy chief of the fire brigade), grocer Dolphis Raymond, A. Raymond, labourer Cyrille Nerbonne, Hintonburg Town Clerk William A. Mason, labourer Philip Moylan and grocer William Miller made up the impressive 15-man jury. The group viewed the site in detail that evening, and adjourned until Wednesday evening.

The scene following the fire was of complete devastation. A bicycle which had been stored upstairs was a mass of twisted steel and wires on the ground. The large round stove was observed to be relatively unscathed, but all of the family's belongings,furniture and clothes, and the house itself was nothing but ashes. The house had been assessed at a value of $500, and the furniture at $100, all of which was a total loss. A large pile of wood located across the yard had been untouched, and the shed and stable had survived as well. Cedar trees in the yard had been scorched.

* * *

The Tuesday morning papers relayed the details of the horrific fire to its readers. Below is a sample of the headlines in the Journal:

Headlines in the Ottawa Journal - January 23, 1906

Diana would spend the next two weeks and more in the General Hospital on Water Street (now the site of the Bruyere Hospital) with severe burns to her face and hands, and her hair completely burned off.

While Diana remained in hospital with serious injuries, the funerals for Romeo and Emma were held at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the morning after the fire. As was common, the funerals were held in a nearby residence. The Lajeunesse family kindly hosted the funerals in their home next door at 59 Irving. The bodies were then transported to Notre Dame cemetery for burial, less than 24 hours after the fire had begun.

The children's mother, Mary Louise Sayer, would also spend time hospitalized due to the shock of the incident. The family's other young children were taken to nearby St. Mary's Convent for care over the following days.

* * *

An official inquest was held at the Town Hall on Parkdale Avenue on Wednesday evening, with the full jury present for the discussion, as well as all available witnesses. Some statements were given, however due to several key witnesses (including Diana and Mrs. Sayer) being unavailable, it was decided to postpone the hearing for two weeks, until Wednesday February 7th at 8 p.m.

At both sessions of the inquest, all key witnesses were asked to provide their account of what happened, and what their role had been. Questions were asked such as whether Father Conrad could have extinguished the flames using pails of water had he attempted (of course he could not have), rather than escorting the injured mother and daughter to the convent.

The Citizen reported: "It was an unhappy scene in the little room at the rear of the town hall last night. The mother, just recovered from the shock, was pale, and at each mention of her dead children the woman sobbed pitifully. At intervals during the evidence she broke down. Little Oscar, a boy of eight years, also made a statement. Miss Diana Sayer was brought from Water Street hospital where she had been under treatment ever since the fire. Her face was bandaged up as her burns from the fire have not yet healed."

The inquest also focused on the hardware store where Diana had purchased the gasoline, and possible responsibility they might have related to its provision. In fact, Fabien visited Mulhall's hardware store the evening after the fire, to investigate for himself. At the hearing, Fabien claimed they had never before used gasoline, and if he had been home at the time, he would not have allowed it to be used inside the house. William Post had visited Diana in the hospital, where she confirmed she had bought the gasoline and did not know that it was dangerous. Under questioning at the inquest, Diana confirmed that she had never before used gasoline, nor seen it used, The cleaning of furs being the only use she had ever heard of it being put to, and that she had heard it was a good method to clean furs. She had never been told that it was in any way dangerous.

Mrs. Sayer had also been aware that Diana was intending to use the gasoline to clean her furs, and claimed too to be unaware to its danger.

Robert Mulhall, owner of the hardware store, stated that he required no license to sell any of his stock, and that he knew of no class of merchants that required a license to sell explosive oils. There was also, to his knowledge, no municipal law governing the sale of them. He also believed he had no obligation to warn purchasers of the dangers, for the reason that every person was supposed to be aware of the nature of it; he stated that he was not in the habit of warning customers of the danger of gasoline, any more than of coal oil. He was also asked to explain the explosive power of gasoline, and said that he was surprised that there was no great explosion, as the air must have been charged with gasoline vapor, the room being warm and the gasoline in an open pail.

The jury was out for fifteen minutes before returning with their verdict. Their official report stated: "That Alma Sayer came to her death by fire on Monday afternoon, the 22nd day of January, 1906 at the home of her father, Fabien Sayer, situated on Sixth avenue, Hintonburg, through the burning of part of the house in which the family resided. The fire being caused by the accidental explosion within the house of a quantity of gasoline in the hands of Diana Sayer, one of the members of the family, and being used for the cleaning of furs. She was unaware of its dangerous propensities when exposed to fire. This jury would recommend that more rigid municipal by-laws be passed governing the handling and sale of gasoline and that they be enforced."

* * *

Meanwhile, a few days after the fire, a fund was set up for the Sayer family. Auguste Roy and Henri Rolland, fellow-cabmen colleagues established the local fund. Within the first two days, $101.50 had been collected, and later all of the members of the inquest jury each agreed to donate the $1.50 fee they had been paid, to the Sayer fund.

The Sayer family received many offers of residence at the homes and friends of neighbours, eventually taking up temporary residence at a friend's house on Seventh Avenue until a new home could be built.

It may be surprising to discover that the Sayer family decided to rebuild very close to the site of their fire-swept home. Choosing not to rebuild directly on the site, Fabien Sayer acquired the lot at 84 Irving, and constructed a one-and-a-half storey wood-frame house which still stands today.

84 Irving (built 1906-1907), the Sayer family's second
Irving Avenue home.

The family remained here for only about five years, before relocating to a third house on Irving, at #16 Irving. Meanwhile, #59 Irving (the Lajeunesse home) was demolished within a couple of years as well, and new houses at 59 and 61 Irving (which still exist today) were built in 1913.

The Sayers welcomed their first grandchild in July of 1910, when Fabien Jr. and his wife Rose had a baby son, who they named Romeo (sadly, the baby would not outlive infancy, passing away due to illness 13 months later). It is worth noting as well exactly one week after their grandchild was born, Mary Louise Sayer gave birth to her 12th and final child, son Aurel (he was four days shy of Mary Louise's 46th birthday).

Many members of the Sayer family continued to reside in Hintonburg and Mechanicsville for many years (and I'm sure many still do).

Though nearly 111 years have passed since this awful event in Hintonburg's early days, it is a story worth sharing and remembering. It is a story which includes many examples of the hardships of life in the early 1900s for a large family with limited means. Fires were a major concern for this area for many years; sadly, this event was far from the only one of its kind in this era (frankly it is a miracle that a neighbourhood like Mechanicsville, with its closely-cropped wood-frame houses never suffered a major fire like Hull, LeBreton and Rochesterville did in 1900). A tragic story for the Sayer family, which likely affected each family member significantly for the remainder of their lives.

61 Irving (built 1913) on the site of the Sayer house which
stood on this spot from 1903-1906.

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather (maternal) acquired this corner property and built this house. Maternal aunts and uncles grew up there. They formerly were living at 72 Ladouceur.