1890 Investigation of Fire Chief Morris Meyers: Subpoenas and Witness Testimonies

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Danbury News articles regarding alleged mismanagement of the fire department at the Foster Brothers' fire on Nov 16, 1890

Nov 21, 1890
THE FIRE INVESTIGATION -- Twenty Witnesses Summoned Before the Committee

Nov 22, 1890
THE INVESTIGATION. -- THE FIRE COMMITTEE IN SESSION UNTIL MIDNIGHT - The Testimony - The Witnesses Say There Was Mismanagement - Some Lively Scenes - Hisses and Applause.

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1890-11-21

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[Danbury News, November 21, 1890]

THE FIRE INVESTIGATION
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Twenty Witnesses Summoned Before the Committee
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Unless the majority of the witnesses summoned to appear before the fire committee, this evening, have changed their opinions since the night of the fire, some very interesting statements will probably be made.
Twenty witnesses have been summoned to appear at eight o’clock this evening, and they will be examined in the City court room. Mayor Hopkins will preside.
The hearing is public and any citizen may be heard upon the subject should he desire to testify.
The witnesses summoned are George R. Bevans, James H. Waggneor, L.P. Treadwell, L.K. Mansfield, C.B. Mason, B.E. Cowperthwait, Rosewell Glover, Isaac K. Leach, William Conklin, H.N. Fanton, Henry Bernd, M.W. Scott, C.S. Andrews, John Scott, Joel Foster, J.H. Schuldice, Frank Eastwood, Morris Meyers, Lucius H. Houghton and James Hauser.
The charter gives the committee full power to subpoena such witnesses as they may desire in investigations of this kind, and failure to attend is punishable as contempt of court.
The object of the investigation is to inquire into the expressions of dissatisfaction with the work of the fire department, and to satisfy the committee that there is ground for fault finding with the present department.
Mayor Hopkins in speaking on the subject, said he had heard so many complaints from all sides that he wished to [have those] people, if they were sincere in their talk, appear before the committee and state their grounds for complaint.
If it is shown that the fire was not properly managed, or at least, managed as it should have been under the circumstances, effort will be made to fix the responsibility.
[END ARTICLE]

[Danbury News, November 22, 1890]

THE INVESTIGATION
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THE FIRE COMMITTEE IN SESSION UNTIL MIDNIGHT
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The Testimony – The Witnesses Say There Was Mismanagement – Some Lively Scenes – Hisses and Applause

It was after midnight when Mayor Hopkins adjourned the fire department investigation last night, and at that time little more than half the witnesses had been examined.
More interest even than was expected was shown in the hearing, and when it was opened by the mayor, at 8 o’clock, there was not standing room anywhere in the vicinity of the court room, and a great many of the late comers, were unable to gain admittance.
The examination took place before the full committee – Scott, McPhelemy and Smith – who occupied seats with the mayor, at the judge’s desk.
Shortly after midnight, an adjournment was taken until next Tuesday evening, and at that time, the testimony showed the general opinion of the witnesses, with but one or two exceptions, to be that the fire was mismanaged.
The mayor, in opening the investigation, gave his reasons for calling the hearing, and briefly set forth the nature of the complaints which have been made against the fire department. It appeared to be the general opinion of those at the investigation, that the examinations should have been conducted by a disinterested lawyer, and not by members of the board.
The first witness called in the investigation was

ISAAC R. LEACH
Mr. Leach testified that he reached fire shortly before three o’clock, and remained until the fire was out.
Mr. Leach described at length his movements at the fire. He was in the building the greater part of the time, removing things from the office, and at one time went up stairs and opened one of the sprinklers.
He did not see the tower take fire.
“Did you see the firemen about the fire? Were they discharging their duties as they should?” were questions asked Mr. Leach.
He replied, “as far as I know they were.”
In answer to a similar question a few minutes later, Mr. Leach said that he was not sufficiently acquainted with the firemen to determine that question.
Mr. Leach said that so far as he could tell he saw no neglect of duty on the part of any fireman.
He noticed the water supply when it gave out at the steamer, and was satisfied that if the water supply had held out the factory would have been saved.
Mr. Leach said that he asked why the steamer gave out and was told that there was no water in the boiler.
In reply to a question from Mr. McPhelemy he said that when the steamer gave out, all the hydrant streams appeared to be playing nicely.

WILLIAM CONKLING.
William Conkling told the committee that he lived close by the scene of fire. When he got out of the house the firemen were already there. The sheds on the north side were then on fire. He went to the rear of his house and remained there until the fire was under control.
Mr. Conklin[g] was asked if he saw anything which led him to believe that there was mismanagement on the part of the firemen. He replied that he could not tell what took place at the factory, as he was not there. He said that he saw no neglect of duty where he was. All he knew of the water supply was what he saw of two streams brought to the rear of his house. One of these was powerful and the other weak.
Mr. Conklin[g] was asked by Mr. McPhelemy:
“Do you think if the fire had been properly managed, Foster Brothers factory would have been saved?”
“I don’t doubt it.” replied Mr. Conkling.

H.N. FANTON
Mr. Fanton was the first witness called who was in the vicinity of the tower at the time it took fire and burned. He testified strongly against the fire department, and his testimony was received with loud applause, which was interrupted by hisses on the part of several men in the crowd. At one point the situation grew extremely interesting.
“Were you at Foster Brothers fire?” the mayor asked.
“I was. I arrived there shortly after the alarm struck.”
“Were the firemen at work when you arrived there?”
“They were.”
“Did you at any time discover any neglect of duty on the part of the firemen?”
“I couldn’t tell exactly who were the firemen – to me it was Mr. Meyers.”
“Was Mr. Meyers attending to his duty?”
“Mr. Meyers might have thought that he was attending to his duty. I don’t think he was, for a worse neglect of duty never came under my observation.[“]
“How did Mr. Meyers neglect his duty?”
“Simply because he did not know whether he stood upon his head or his feet.”
Mr. Fanton stopped at that point, and requested the audience neither to applaud [n]or hiss, as he was there prejudiced in neither way. He simply intended to tell the truth of the matter as he saw it.
Mr. Fanton was called upon to explain his statements.
He told of his arrival at the fire, and followed its progress, until he found the shop in danger of being destroyed from the neglect of the department. He said:
“I stood about until I saw that Mr. Foster needed the assistance of any one he could get. He had a factory there – that factory never ought to have burned; there was no fire around it for a long time; that fire was no larger than my hand when I first saw it on the cupola, or tower as they called it; I was there on all sides of it. I heard some one ask Mr. Meyers to bring one of the streams from the south side, to save the factory – he paid no more attention to it than he would to zephyrs blowing in the wind.”
In reply to a question, Mr. Fanton re-
Continued on Fifth Page.
[PAGE BREAK]

THE FIRE INVESTIGATION.
Continued from Fourth Page.

plied “I thought that was criminal negligence.”
The mayor asked the witness: “Have you been to a great many fires, Mr. Fanton?”
“Yes sir.” he replied.
“Do firemen generally take their orders from everybody who comes along?”
Mr. Fanton explained that he didn’t consider it an order, but more a begging request.
In answer to other questions Mr. Fanton said that he thought that streams – or at least one stream could and should have been [sprayed] from the south side of the fire to save the factory.

HENRY BERND
Henry Bernd was the next witness called. He told about leaving his home to look after his property at the rear of Delay street. He said that his house took fire and his tobacco shop was in great danger. He found Mr. Meyers and asked him to send a stream down to his property. He saw that something was wrong and asked the chief the cause of the difficulty. He told him there was not enough hose. The chief was at that time bringing up hose. When the hose arrived there was some difficulty in coupling it. If the firemen had got there five minutes earlier they would have been successful in saving his property. The chief, Mr. Bernd said, afterwards told him that he was short of water as well as hose. The chief told him at that time about a hydrant up at the depot, which could not be opened. Mr. Bernd said that at that time his property was burning, but the tower on Foster’s factory had not taken fire.
Mr. Bernd said when asked if there was anything further he wished to say, “I am a good friend of Chief Meyers, but I will say that I don’t think the chief should run around hunting up hose – it wasn’t his business – his assistants should have done that. I will say though, someone told me he was short of men and that may have been the reason.”
Mr. McPhelemy asked Mr. Bernd if Mr. Meyers “lost his head.”
“Well,” replied the witness “he appeared to be pretty excited.”
Mr. Bernd was asked several questions about the water mains in that vicinity, but he said he knew only what he had been told.
He went to the hydrant at the depot Sunday morning with Mr. Meyers, and George Allen, and through they all tried to open it, they were unable to do so. They turned it both ways.

CHARLES ANDREWS.
Charles S. Andrews testified that he was at the fire, and watched the work of the firemen. He said that with a few exceptions the firemen were doing their duty. He saw a few who were not working very hard – one man who stood a half hour he should think. He was asked to tell who the man was, but said that unless he was obliged to, he had rather not. The committee asked him to give the[m] the name in justice to the firemen, and he replied that it was Sherman Crofutt.
“May I speak?” called a voice from the rear of the room.
“I want to say that I did stand there that length of time, but it was because I was unable to work. I had been out of a sick bed only three days.”
Mr. Andrews said that the tower had been on fire some time before the steamer gave out. “I saw the fire when it started, it was very small,” continued Mr. Andrews, “the fire kept increasing and there was apparently no effort made to put it out except by private citizens.”
Mr. Andrews said that when he saw Mr. Meyers he didn’t appear to be excited.
Mr. Scott asked the witness: “Were you perfectly satisfied with the management of the fire?”
“No,” replied Mr. Andrews, “I hardly think I was satisfied. I didn’t think it right that the factory should be allowed to get such a start as it did.”

JOHN SCOTT.
John Scott was on the stand but a few moments. He said he was not at the steamer when it gave out, and could throw no light upon that point.
He said Mr. Meyers didn’t appear to be very excited.
“Do you think good judgment was exercised in controlling the fire,” was the last question asked Mr. Scott.
“In my opinion I think more could have been done to put the fire out, and if good judgment had been used the factory would have been saved.”

JOEL FOSTER.
Joel Foster testified at length to the work of the firemen, in the vicinity of the factory, and of their conduct towards him. He described the fire as it appeared when he reached it, and told how the tower took fire from some piles of lumber. He said:
“I saw that the factory was in great danger, although the fire on the tower was then very small. It didn’t appear to be larger than my hand, but it was growing so rapidly that I became alarmed. I went down in the yard where two men were playing on a pile of lumber – a mere bon fire – and said: ‘Boys, let this stuff burn – it’s of no account – and come and save the factory.’ They replied, ‘We have got our orders and we are going to stay here until the chief tells us to leave it.’”
Mr. Foster continued at length upon the subject, describing the efforts he made to find the chief and get a stream upon the factory. He told how he, with citizens, put up ladders and tried to get a line of hose to the roof, while a half dozen men in firemen’s garb stood about and made unpleasant remarks.
One man, whom he was afterwards told was a man named Warner, an officer of the hook and ladder company, said to the firemen:
“Let them fool with the ladders until they get tired, and then take them down and take them away.”
Mr. Foster said that in his judgment a stream could have been spared from the south side to put out the fire on the factory. He was of the opinion that proper judgment was not used.
He afterwards questioned as to the condition and size of the water mains. He said that as near as he could tell, a four-inch main ran through Delay street. A four-inch main connected with this also supplied the factory.

PATRICK M’GOWAN.
Patrick McGowan, an employee of the city water department, was called to testify to the condition of the hydrants and the water supply. Mr. McGowan was questioned regarding the report that the water was turned on after the fire was in progress. He said that the firemen could have had no more water at any time than they did at the onset. No more water was or could have been turned on at any time. He said that his attention was called to the fact that they hydrant at the depot couldn’t be opened. He went to the hydrant Sunday morning, and with an ordinary wrench opened it with one hand. The hydrant was in perfect order, and had not been altered or fixed since the fire.
Mr. McGowan was evidently of the opinion that the firemen had failed to open the hydrant because they didn’t know how, and he told of a similar case which occurred at some previous time. He said that the pressure of water Sunday morning was 77 to 78 pounds.

J.H. SHULDICE.
J.H. Shuldice told of his arrival at the fire, and of subsequent facts.
“I don’t think,” said he, “that Mr. Meyers was excited – in my opinion he wasn’t as excited as he should have been under the circumstances.”
Mr. Shuldice testified to facts connected with the burning of the tower, and his statements in the main, corroborated those already made.
He said, “I saw some members of the fire department, who struck me as being very slow. They were standing between the furnace factory and the main building, and for a long time didn’t appear to be doing any thing.
That was about the time we were trying to get the ladders up to the roof. I also heard them make some remarks which were not quite the thing. One man, whom some one told me was foreman of the truck – Warner they said his name was – said to the firemen who were standing there – when they get through fooling with those ladders take them down and bring them away.”
Mr. Shuldice also testified to being about the steamer at the time it gave out. He was told that the engineers were unable to get water in the boiler.
Mr. Shuldice was one of those who watched the progress of the fire about the tower and he was closely examined upon that point.
Mr. Scott asked him: “In your opinion, was there as good judgment used in the management of the fire, as there should have been?”
Mr. Shuldice replied, “There was not.”

SERGEANT WAGGNEOR.
Police Sergeant Waggneor, who assisted the firemen in their work, testified very briefly. He told about lying a line of hose from Main street to save Mr. Bernd’s property. He said that Chief Meyers was very cool during the fire and that in his opinion the firemen exercised the best judgment and did everything they could to save the property from destruction.

MORRIS MEYERS.
Chief engineer Meyers was next called. He was asked to give any explanation he could of the conduct of himself and men at the fire. Mr. Meyers stated that he used every means in his power, and made every effort to extinguish the fire. At a critical moment, the chief said, the water supply and the steamer failed him. He entered into details regarding how he was informed of the steamer’s trouble, and of what he said to the engineers. He said that the engineer told him he had no water in the boiler, and was unable to get any there. There was no water in the hydrant.
The chief, in speaking of the water supply, said that he sent a policeman to telephone the water department, and word came that he would receive more water in a short time. The water, his men told him, appeared to come from some source. That was after the steam stopped.
Mr. Meyers also told about trying to open the hydrant at the depot, but without success. He said he was willing to swear that the hydrant could not be opened. He tried it both ways.
Alderman Peck took a hand in the examination at that point, and many of his questions were aimed more directly at the subject than those of the committee. Mr. Peck asked for the explanation of many minor details, all of which were of more or less importance. The matters he brought are too lengthy to be given here in detail, but they were not all satisfactorily explained.
Mr. Peck severely criticized the chief in his action in keeping so many streams upon the one hydrant, to which the steamer was attached, when the engineer was complaining that there was no water.
Mr. Peck also questioned the chief closely about leaving the fire at the most critical moment to go to fire alarm box 82, at the corner of Liberty and Main streets. He was of the opinion that some one else should have been sent.
Mr. Peck also brought out the fact that Hose company No. 3 did not get to the fire because none of its members heard the alarm, and he also showed that the company did not have the necessary appliances. Mr. Peck said that the only wrench the company had was given them by himself.

FRANK EASTWOOD.
Frank Eastwood, the engineer of the steamer, told about his portion of the work at the fire. He said that he found the water getting low in the boiler, and made every endeavor to replenish it, but without the least success.
He found that he was endangering his engine, and he sent word to Mr. Meyers. The word came from the chief – “Don’t shut down; put on more steam.”
He tried to have some of the streams taken off the hydrant, but he was not successful in that endeavor. As a last resort he stopped the engine and drew his fire.
Alderman Peck and Councilman Scott are both practical engineers, and they cross-examined Mr. Eastwood at great length.
It was clearly the opinion of both Mr. Peck and Mr. Scott that the engineer did wrong, and Mr. Scott told him so, when he finished the examination.

CHARLES MASON.
Superintendent Mason of the Water department testified briefly as it was after midnight when he was called.
He said that the full pressure of water was on the mains when the fire broke out, and no more pressure was, or could be added by any one. He also said that the hydrant in dispute, was to his knowledge, in perfect order, and easily opened by any one who knew how.
It was then so late that Mayor Hopkins adjourned the hearing until Tuesday evening next.
[END ARTICLE]

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“1890 Investigation of Fire Chief Morris Meyers: Subpoenas and Witness Testimonies.” WCSU Archives, 9 July 2019. Accessed on the Web: 16 July 2019.

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