Christmas tragedy and triumph in 1931 Ypsilanti house fire
Editor’s note: The following local history column is an occasional feature written by historian James Mann for AnnArbor.com
An Ypsilanti woman saved her daughter and two grandchildren in a daring rescue but lost her own life when fire broke out in their home three days before Christmas in 1931.
Fire broke out about 5 a.m. in the living room of the three-room house at 415 Campbell Ave. Dec. 22, 1931. Trapped in the rear of the house were Mrs. Seth Jacobs, who was 63; her daughter Hazel Shupe, who was recovering from giving birth to a daughter six days before; the 6-day-old child; and a 2-year-old son, Robert Shupe.
As she tried to carry her daughter through the front entrance of the house, Mrs. Jacobs suffered burns on her back, shoulders, face, neck and hair. As they were unable to escape through the front of the house, Mrs. Jacobs helped her daughter out the bedroom window. As the daughter passed out the window, the curtains and shade of the window caught fire from Mrs. Jacobs’s flaming clothes. Once her daughter was safe, Mrs. Jacobs returned to save the baby and 2-year-old Robert.
“After escaping from the house they stumbled, barefoot and in their night clothing, to the home of Arthur Alber, next door where aid was summoned. Mrs. Shupe was placed on the davenport there while Mrs. Jacobs sought to remain out of sight so Mrs. Shupe would not know how badly she was burned,” reported the Ypsilanti Daily Press of Tuesday, Dec. 22, 1931.
“Frank Palmer,” continued the account, “a neighbor, hearing the screams of the women as they were leaving the house, saw the flames and summoned the fire department. Though the house is outside the city limits and too far from the last fire hydrant to obtain water that way, use of the pressure tank, which was refilled with water from the garden hose of the house next door, made it possible to keep the fire in one room.”
Mrs. Shupe suffered burns to her face and hair and her son Robert was in a painful condition from burns to his hands and arms. The flames singed his face and hair.
The only one of the four to escape from the fire unhurt was the baby girl, who was carried out wrapped in blankets. She appeared to be unaffected, even by the smoke.
Mrs. Jacobs’ pet canary was burned in the fire. It was thought that Mrs. Jacobs tried to rescue the canary, possibly accounting for the severity of her injuries.
The fire was believed to have been caused by an overheated stove. This was most likely a heat stove in the living room used to provide warmth in the winter months. George Shupe, the husband of Hazel, had risen early and started a fire in the stove before leaving for Eloise, where he was employed. Clothing had been hung behind the stove to dry and may have caught fire.
“Overstuffed furniture, a piano, the rug, pictures and other articles in the room were destroyed and the woodwork was badly charred,” noted the account. “Smoke damaged other furniture.”
The only article at the house that was not damaged was a Christmas tree on the front porch.
Less than an hour after firefighters arrived, a physician ordered the women and children taken to Beyer Hospital, where they could receive proper care for their burns.
Mrs. Jacobs died at Beyer Hospital at 4 a.m., just 23 hours after the fire had been discovered. The cause of death was burns about her back, neck, shoulders, face and head, as well as shock and exhaustion.
The others were expected to recover.
Funeral services for Mrs. Jacobs were scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday, Dec. 24, 1931, at the J.E. Moore Funeral Home, with the Rev. Reed of the First Methodist Church officiating. Burial was in Highland Cemetery.
James Mann is a local historian, storyteller and author. His books include “Ypsilanti: A History in Pictures,” “City of Ypsilanti Fire Department 100 Years,” and “Our Heritage: Down by the Depot in Ypsilanti,” written with Tom Dodd. His most recent book, “Wicked Ann Arbor,” was published by The History Press.