Published on September 1, 2020.

Schoolhouse Disaster

The 1915 St. John’s Parochial School fire


On October 28, 1915, classes had just begun for the day at St. John’s Parochial School in Peabody, Massachusetts, when the Sister Superior discovered a fire. The three-story schoolhouse had two stairways on the first floor, with basement entrances located under each stairway, and flames were shooting out of both basement doorways. A nun opened front and rear exits on the first floor, and the Sister ran to the second floor to sound the alarm.

Students on the second and third floors began making their way down the stairways, while the younger children on the first floor headed for the exits. The students had regular fire drills where they had successfully exited the building in less than a minute and a half. As the smoke and flames rapidly increased, however, many students began to panic as they approached the front exit. A child fell in the front vestibule, followed by others, blocking the exit. The students behind the trapped children made their way to safety through the rear exit or by jumping out of classroom windows. Meanwhile, nuns, the janitor, and concerned neighbors desperately tried to rescue the trapped students from the front exit until the heat and smoke intensified and forced them back. 

A local fireman who lived nearby saw smoke coming from the school windows and notified the fire department before racing to help. By the time the Peabody Fire Department arrived, fire had spread throughout the building, trapping additional children. A Fire Engineering article described how a Sister rescued several children from the second floor by tossing them out of a window onto safety nets below. With the help of fire departments from neighboring towns, the blaze was brought under control in about an hour. By then, though, the school was all but destroyed, and 21 children had been killed.

George C. Neal, a local police official, said that the fire most likely started in the closet or rubbish bins in the basement but could not determine the cause. The official report indicated that the school’s exits met the requirements of the law but that additional exits should have been constructed and that the fire drills should have included imaginary fires to teach the children alternative exit strategies in response to a blocked exit. Neal warned that “the old buildings used for school purposes must be made reasonably safe if we do not wish a repetition of the Peabody disaster,” and provided 15 precautions to prevent future school fires. The school was rebuilt the following year and a memorial was erected in 2005.

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