By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — After years of searching for a mass grave in the IOOF Cemetery where 38 fire victims from the 1918 Oklahoma State Hospital fire were buried, the hunt has finally ended. There were 40 deaths, but two victims were identified and buried separately.
A meeting was hosted Tuesday night at Griffin Memorial Hospital, formerly Oklahoma State Hospital, to discuss the search and how individuals determined what is believed to be the 13-by-16-foot grave where the victims were laid to rest.
“You can’t really be sure without excavation,” said Scott Hammerstedt, a member of the research faculty at the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at University of Oklahoma. “I’m about as confident as I can be at this point.”
Hammerstedt has been at OU for seven years and the project was brought to his attention about six years ago, but at the time, they did not have the equipment to search for the grave, he said. About two years ago, OU’s College of Arts and Sciences purchased equipment and the surveying began.
Two different types of equipment were used to survey the IOOF Cemetery to locate the grave. After surveying five grids, the sixth grid led to what they believed to be the correct location.
The survey data, plus the recollection of a local man who remembered his father saying that was where the grave was located, convinced Hammerstedt the grave was there, but it couldn’t be proven without excavation.
While there was some discussion about augering, Hammerstedt said his worry would be that they would auger too deep and come up with human remains, which he wants to avoid. For now, the area will remain flagged until a grave marker, monument or some kind of memorial is placed there.
Director of Griffin Memorial Hospital Larry Gross said they are reviewing hospital records, trying to determine exact ages of people and doing genealogical research to try and get in touch with any living family members of the fire victims.
A fund at the hospital already has been set up for those who would like to donate money for the memorial. Gross said they welcome any ideas of what type of monument should be set up and what it should say.
If any living relatives are contacted, Gross said they will bring them in and discuss the memorial. Donations can be sent to Griffin Memorial Hospital, P.O. Box 151, Norman, OK 73070. The memo should note that it is for the fire memorial.
History of the fire: The fire is the largest fatality fire in Oklahoma history, Deputy Fire Chief Jim Bailey said. The Oklahoma State Hospital has since been renamed Griffin Memorial Hospital.
Archives from The Norman Transcript, which was The Daily Transcript at the time, tell the story of the fatal fire that occurred at 3:35 a.m. April 13, 1918. The fire was first discovered by the night watchman in the linen room of Ward 14, which was near the center of the building.
Ward 10, which stood directly west of the building that caught fire, seemed doomed and staff began immediately evacuating patients. All 80 patients in that ward were accounted for, archives state.
“Many of these patients were violent and in the general excitement became more so and fought the attendants and officials viciously as they were being taken from the building,” the article states.
The fire then spread to a building containing Wards 13 and 16. All 80 patients were evacuated and safely removed, as well.
Defective wiring was thought to have been the cause of the fire, but there were no electric lights installed in the linen closest in which the fire was supposed to have originated, Gross said. No cause was ever determined.
Bailey said 39 people lost their lives in Ward 14 and one in Ward 15. According to newspaper accounts, only two victims were identified and laid to rest separately. The 38 unidentified victims were each placed in their own coffins and “given every kindly consideration possible,” archives state.
The two identified victims were Ona Havill, approximately 30 years old, who was identified by his brother, and “Maxwell,” who was identified by a Dr. Thurlow as a young man from Noble County. The archives state all others were burned beyond hope of identification, with only the trunks of their bodies remaining.
Bailey said his experience has led him to believe the victims were likely children. A child’s bones are not as hard and, therefore, are more likely to be consumed; an adult’s bones are hard to be consumed, even during cremation, he said.
Another likely possibility of the 38 victims not being identified could be due to families not being notified of the fire until weeks later, or longer, because of the mail system at that time, Gross said.
“The burial took place very soon after the fire,” he said.
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