The largest newspapers in Cleveland testified to the depths of sorrow experienced by victims, witnesses, and survivors, but they also implicitly distinguished between the suffering of white, The effort of newspapers to speak for sufferers, however, remains strikingly visible, whether or not reporters and publishers listened to anything that those steeped in the misery of loss had to say. native-born and black and immigrant sufferers. In the mainstream dailies, “black,” “foreign,” “Slovene,” “Greiner,” and “Hungarian” sorrow were pre-linguistic, incoherent, and sensationalized. Survivors in such families, according to the dailies, often had to be rescued from crazed and self-destructive impulses by white social workers. According to The Cleveland Press, for example, Bertha Robinson, the mother of the only two black children to die in the fire, drank carbolic acid “in a frenzy of grief,” but was saved by a doctor. Later that day, she tried to hang herself with bed linen but was found “in the nick of time” by rescuers who put her under guard. In a strikingly similar story, the Plain Dealer reported on bereaved “Greiners starv[ing] while mourning their losses.” At the home of Mary Maknic, according to the paper, social workers got no response from a knock on the door and entered to find the “crazed” mother “disheveled, with staring eyes and set face.. . . [S]he grasped the handle [of a knife] convulsively . . . then darted the point toward her heart.” The visiting social workers, according to the newspaper, prevented her suicide, as she sank into their arms “muttering incoherently in her own tongue.”
Black newspapers and foreign-language publications aimed at immigrants in Cleveland saw the sorrow of survivors very differently. The Cleveland Gazette, one of the nation’s most prominent Cleveland News, Mar 5, p9. Click image for more.African American newspapers, said absolutely nothing about the tragedy in the first weekly issue after the fire. On March 14th, ten days after the disaster, the Gazette included just a one sentence obituary for Wanita and Fern Robinson, “the only afro-americans to lose their lives in that horrible school building fire in Collinwood last week.” Rather than seeing a dark-skinned mother persistently prevented by saviors from completing her dramatic suicide attempts, the Gazette noted simply that Mr. and Mrs. John Robinson were the parents of two lost children.
Szabadság Magyar Hiradó served the Hungarian community in the Cleveland area. At the time of the fire, Budapest was the only city in the world with a larger Hungarian population than Cleveland, and Szabadság treated immigrant mourners with considerably more dignity than theCleveland Press, Mar 7, p4. Click image for more. English-language press did. Szabadság saw a town filled with moving emblems of loss, including “black and white ribbons stretched side-by-side on houses, shops, and public buildings. At the Roman Catholic Hungarian Church of Cleveland, “no eyes remained dry during the touching funeral service” for Roza and Pali Neibecker. Szabadság also noted that the American-Hungarian Federation somberly placed a wreath in Lake View Cemetery to honor the losses of the Szodoma family, whose children could not be identified. The paper, in substantial coverage over many days, never spoke of immigrant mourners saved from suicide by native-born benefactors.
Beyond granting Hungarian immigrants more diginity in their sorrow, Szabadság also expressed a kind of anger entirely absent from mainstream, English-language publications. Though many critics were outraged by the vulnerability of the school to fire and demanded architecturalThe budgets of foreign-language newspapers seldom allowed for flamboyant layouts and illustrations. In reports on the fire, though, SMH printed several illustrations and photographs that were bought or taken from the Cleveland Press. SMH. Mar 6, 1908. reforms afterwards, Szabadság cast the fire as one among many signs that the United States thought of immigrant life as disposable, as unworthy of even the most basic protection. The United States appeared to be a cold place next to their homeland. “ In America,” wrote the paper, “Gross negligence is always discovered at the cost of great losses in human life.” The dead children were “martyrs of heartless American imprudence” and “tiny, innocent victims of shameful American heartlessness.” A “sinful and profit-driven political system” murdered the children in Collinwood. Romanul, Cleveland’s Romanian-language newspaper, agreed. Speaking of Collinwood and other disasters, Romanul wrote that “American upbringing teaches that money can quelch anything, even the mourning of parents. . . . Everything would be fine if only life wasn’t so cheapThis map shows where Eastern and Southern European immigrants settled in Cleveland. Blacks made up only 1.5% of the city’s population. Collinwood lies just past the map’s Eastern edge. By 1908, Slovenian settlements were well-established in the town. In the 1920s, Italian and Black neighborhoods formed. William Paul Dillingham. Immigrants in Cities. US Government Printing Office, 1911. p. 510. in America. Here people don’t have time to think of anything but money and money.”
Did Szabadság, with its dignified treatment of immigrant mourners and impassioned editorial anger reflect the feelings of its readership? The paper probably came closer to the experience of survivors’ unutterable grief than the primitive stereotypes offered by the mainstream press. At the same time, immigrants throughout the United States enthusiastically read the English-language dailies, with their accessible vocabulary, one-penny price, and vivid illustrations. The Cleveland News published a self-congratulatory editorial claiming that local newspapers had “almost without exception” avoided “journalistic sensationalism” in their coverage of the fire, but we have no good record of what readers thought about the reporting.
The effort of newspapers to speak for sufferers, however, remains strikingly visible, whether or not reporters and publishers listened to anything that those steeped in the misery of loss had to say. Looking back from the present, we can only half-document and half-imagine the shared trauma to a community of survivors that crossed the ocean to Cleveland in search of prosperity and found instead the charred bodies of their children in the ruins of a fire.
Additional thanks to Bob Hajdu.