No figure received more press coverage than Fritz Hirter, the school’s janitor and a Swiss-German immigrant. Some early accounts blamed Hirter unequivocally for the fire, claiming that he had filled the furnace with coal before abandoning his post to do chores at his nearbyAs a working-class, immigrant man in a building otherwise filled with women and children, Hirter . . . was a ready target for suspicion in early reports. home. Other reports placed him upstairs in the school or in the schoolyard when a young girl first saw smoke coming through the basement stairway. One bereaved father went to the Hirters’ house after the fire, intending to kill him. The police then put the janitor under guard and moved him to an undisclosed location.
As a working-class, immigrant man in a building otherwise filled with women and children, Hirter, who had failed to protect those assumed to be more vulnerable, was a ready target for suspicion in early reports. Immigrants provided cheap laborASBJ. Jun 1913. This ad advises school board members on how to “deal with” difficult janitors who are “after all . . . most human.” across the expanding nation but the “foreign” presence also troubled native-born elites who routinely saw these workers as lazy, irresponsible, and unclean. Native-born laborers feared that immigrants would take their jobs.
Writers in The American School Board Journal complained routinely about “The Janitor Problem” when it came to running tidy and efficient school buildings. “Janitors,” wrote one school reformer, “are half the problem of hygiene, backward children, and school fatigue.” A school administrator in the New York City system complained that buildings were “filthy” and that janitors “perpetual[ly] . . . neglected work and “saturated the air” with vapors from cooking cabbage and onions in spaces that ought to be used for schoolrooms. The cartoon above mocks the laziness and thick Germanic accent of a scruffy janitor deflecting criticism and complaining about his wages.
Five months before her death by fire, thirteen-year-old Helena Hirter wrote this letter, most likely a school exercise. Click the image for high resolution. Bryan Smith, a great-grandson of Fritz Hirter, contributed the photo.But if Hirter fell quickly under suspicion, the newspapers evolved to make him an increasingly sympathetic figure. In photographs and illustrations, he appeared with his head wrapped in bandages and a doleful, lost expression. Three of his own children died in the blaze. He suffered repeated breakdowns when called to testify. Workers at the school and the Collinwood school board insisted that Hirter performed his duties with dedication. Hirter’s own comments and testimony on his actions were at times a bit confused and contradicted by other accounts. Hirter may or may not have had something to do with the start of the fire, but, in the end, the coroner’s inquest found no fault in his actions, and the newspapers surrendered to a portrait of his victimization rather than his sloth and irresponsibility.