Published on November 1, 2020.

Hospital Blaze

The 1923 Dunning Hospital Fire in Dunning, Illinois


On December 26, 1923, several hundred patients were having dinner in the tuberculosis pavilion of the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Dunning, Illinois. The patients lived in five pavilion annexes that were connected to each other and to the dining hall via passageways. At 5:40 p.m., a patient in Annex 5 saw smoke and flames coming from a supply closet and began yelling “Fire!” A nurse in the dining hall notified the operator at the administration building, who alerted hospital officials. The hospital alarm was sounded, the city fire department was notified, and physicians and nurses went to aid the attendants and the patients.

Fire spread quickly through the wooden buildings. A Fire and Water Engineering article described how the guards and nurses struggled to control the panicked patients as they led them through the rain to another building. In the chaos, several patients eluded the guards and escaped, but were brought back in the following days.

The hospital’s private fire brigade was spraying streams of water onto the burning buildings when the city fire department arrived. The station was only a few miles away, but the firefighters had been delayed as a result of mud-covered roads. Police also responded to the alarm; officers assisted the guards escorting patients to safety, and also rescued three patients who had locked themselves in a lavatory in the burning dining hall.

The fire department’s efforts and a shift in the wind saved two annexes, but three buildings were destroyed and 18 people lost their lives. Among the dead were 15 patients, a caretaker, his wife, and their son. Many of the patients perished because they returned to the building to save their belongings. According to the Chicago Tribune, the caretaker and his family lived in Annex 5. When the fire started, he and his wife escorted several blind patients out of the building but returned to retrieve their son and grab their belongings.

It was not the first time the hospital had experienced a fire. A local newspaper observed that “the overcrowded frame structure known as the ‘death house’ [had] been recognized as an ever-present danger for the last eleven years, and the asylum had been saved from destruction from flames largely by luck in eight blazes since 1910.”

Investigators could not pinpoint the exact cause of the fire, but speculation focused on defective wiring or the spontaneous ignition of mops covered in paraffin wax that had been stored in a closet.

CAITLIN WALKER is a digital asset librarian at NFPA. Top photograph: International Newsreel Corporation