1900 Newark
Italian Tenement Fire


Amalgamated by Hank Przybylowicz from the New York Times articles:

At 296 Morris Avenue, at 14th Avenue, sat a three-story frame structure, which had once served as Saint Rocco’s Catholic Church. Several years prior to 1900, the building ceased being used as a church and was purchased by Rev. Felix Morello, the rector of the Catholic Church of Saint Philip De Neri, who then leased the building out to Giacomo M. Maffia.

The building had been converted into a tenement of squalid design. The first floor was converted into three stores, which fronted on 14th Avenue, and occupied by: Giacomo M. Maffia, a grocer, with his wife and two children; Paulo Mazzio, a butcher, who did not live in the building; and Alfonso Capossa, a grocer, with his wife. The second and third floors had been converted into living quarters of a most miserable character.

On either side of the four-foot-wide halls were rooms of eight-by-ten feet - plain boxes built with unpainted boards. Each family had two of these rooms in which they ate, slept and lived. These “flats” were occupied by 60 people, huddled six and eight deep in each room. It was a setting for disaster.

Earlier that night, a game of cards took place in one of the rooms of the house. There was a considerable amount of wine drank, and the game grew on into the early hours of the next day. Sometime after midnight a quarrel developed among some of the players. Vito Cradanza, around whom the quarrel was apparently centered, was heard to have said, “I’ll send the whole lot of you to hell in a few hours if you are not careful!” Shortly after Cradanza made his threat, the card game broke up.

While making deliveries a few minutes after 05:00 hours, either a milkman or a baker saw the tenement ablaze, and turned in an alarm from the firebox across the street from the flaming building.

Meanwhile, the sleeping tenants woke to a fiery nightmare. Salvatore Boldi, who lived on the third floor with his wife, son, and daughter, was awakened by the smoke and grabbed his ten-year-old son, while his wife grabbed their daughter. Making their way out to the hall, they found it filled with heavy smoke. Boldi and his son both dropped to their hands and knees, with the husband yelling to his wife to do likewise, which she did.

Upon reaching to door to safety, the boy collapsed. Boldi grabbed him by the collar threw him out of the building to safety, but lost track of his wife and daughter. Once outside, he had to be restrained with great difficulty from re-entering the flaming structure. The Maffia family escaped uninjured, and Alfonso Capossa’s wife dragged her one-legged husband to safety from their first-floor stores.

Newark’s Bravest turned out in rapid fashion but had no idea what lie ahead. The first to arrive at the scene only a minute after the alarm was turned in was Battalion Chief Joseph E. Sloan, who responded from his Bruce Street quarters with Truck 3, three blocks away. Right behind him rolled Truck 3, under the command of Captain Voight, clanging its way up 14th Avenue. They found that the fire had already gained great headway, with flames already leaping from second and third floor windows.

As the first firefighters began to approach the building, they witnessed a fear-stricken man throw a third-floor window up and dive headlong toward the street. He landed on the sidewalk, headfirst. Firefighters picked up the unconscious form of Angelo Rosso and rushed him to City Hospital, where he died a few hours later as a result of a fractured skull.

Soon after, three engines and the Salvage Corps arrived at the scene, followed by Chief Engineer Kiersted and Assistant Chief Engineer Astley. Also arriving was a platoon of police from the Fourth Precinct, under the command of Captain Edwards and Roundsman McGeehan.

Firefighters initially had no idea of what they were to find in the building. After fleeing the burning tenement, and not raising any alarm, many of its occupants were taken into neighboring houses before the arrival of firefighters. And since the chatter among the growing crowd was mainly in Italian, no one understood anything being said. Firefighters then went about the task of extinguishing the blaze.

The only entrance to the upper floors was through a door at the top of a double wooden stairway on Morris Avenue. These stairs led to a hallway on the second floor, which was only wide enough for one person to use at a time. Coming off the hallway nearby, was another narrower stairway, leading to the third floor. Like the hallways, the stairs were wide enough for only one person. It was on the stairs at the entrance to the second floor that the fire had started, and firefighters found it blocked by flames.

It was decided that a stream of water should be played on the flaming tenement from the rear, and Captain Voight quickly led a crew of men with a hose line through a narrow alleyway behind the stores. There, he found Eugenio Casillo, who had jumped from a third-floor window. He was quickly removed to the street and rushed to the hospital, where he was admitted suffering from cuts and bruises suffered in the fall.

Also taken to the hospital was Salvatore Boldi, suffering from burns to his hands. Filipe Palmisano and his wife lived on the third floor with his cousin Antonio, and his family. Filipe suffered minor burns top his hands.

By now, many of the building’s occupants began to run back out into the street from neighborhood houses looking for missing members of their families. Their cries, moans, and wails were the first indication firefighters had that there may have been people trapped in the building. Many of the missing relatives were found in neighboring houses, but many were not, and the language barrier still left firefighters in the dark as to how many people were missing.

As firefighters fought the blaze, and police tried to gather information about the fire, Police Officer John Murphy overheard a conversation between two Italian men identified as De Prula and Joseph Firrigino, in which De Prula stated that if there was any money in it he could tell who was responsible for the fire. It was the first inkling anyone had that the fire may have been deliberately set. Both men were taken into custody by Murphy and questioned. They related the story about the card game and the threat made by Vito Cradanza. They also told of how just before the fire was discovered, Cradanza was seen leaving the building with his wife and two children, all fully dressed.

About 90 minutes after the arrival of Newark’s Bravest, the fire was sufficiently knocked down to allow firefighters to enter the charred and gutted structure. It was only then that the true scope of the tragedy began to unfold.

Firefighter Bleyhl, of Truck 3, discovered the first dead body in the second-floor hallway. It was badly charred and proved to be the remains of Mrs. Nunziata Boldi, 45, the wife of Salvatore. With her were the remains of her seven-year-old daughter, Teresa. Firefighters also found $146 in her clothing. Lieutenant Smith and Firefighter McCabe, also of Truck 3, carried their bodies out of the building.

In addition to Mrs. Boldi, firefighters found four more bodies on the second floor. Making their way to the third floor, they were shocked to find seven more. In all, a man, four women, and eight children were killed in the blaze. The death toll rose to 14 when Angelo Rosso died later in the hospital after jumping from the third floor. One whole family and most of another were wiped out by the fire.

In addition to the Boldis and Rosso, the others killed were: Angela Casillo, 25, wife of Eugenio, and their four children, Antonio, 9, Bevinito, 4, Frank, 2-1/2, and Carmino, 1-year-old; Antonio Palmisano, 35, his wife, Sebastiana, and their two children, Giuseppa, 7, and Nunziata, 1-year-old; and Gaetana Palmisano, 35, the wife of Filiipe. She was found with $95 on her body.

The unidentified body of a boy about four-years old, was also found, and believed to be a member of the Palmisano family. Angela Casillo was found with two of her children in her arms. Frank was clutched to her breast, while Carmino was placed under her nightgown in an apparent attempt to shield her from the smoke.

After all the bodies had been removed, and police were keeping the crowds back, Murphy returned to the scene to find Cradanza. Before he even knew a police officer was near, Cradanza was grabbed by the neck from behind by Murphy, who then began to frisk him for a weapon. He was then placed under arrest for suspicion of arson. This announcement sent the crowd into an irate frenzy, seeking to wreak vengeance upon the suspect.

Murphy immediately found himself and his prisoner surrounded by hostile crown of Italians and called for help. Other police officers arrived and formed a protective circle around the two men, protecting them from the crowd. Cradanza was then placed into a patrol wagon and taken to the precinct, where he was locked up. He was later arraigned before Judge Schalk and held for examination. If convicted, Cradanza faced the gallows, even if he had no intention of killing anyone. The fact was that death resulted from a fire he was suspected of setting.

Having extinguished and overhauled the fire, and removed the bodies, firefighters boarded up the entrance of the ruins and returned to quarters. As the day and night wore on, family members and neighbors still could not account for missing children. Having this information relayed to them, firefighters were induced to return to the scene to search the rubble once again the next day.

As the men sifted through the charred debris, two additional bodies were found under some timbers hanging from the third floor. The bodies had apparently dropped when the floor collapsed during the fire, getting caught up under the timbers. One of the bodies was identified as two-year-old Lucila Casillo. The other could not be identified, but was a child of about the same age. The discovery of these two bodies brought the death toll to 16. There were reports that six people were still missing, but after a prolonged search, no other bodies were found.

Later than night, representatives of the city’s Italian societies met at Prospect Hall to take steps toward a decent burial for the fire victims, all of whom were poor immigrants. Meanwhile, Joseph Firrigino was paroled as a witness, but police still held Mr. De Prula. Cradanza was still being held in custody and was scheduled for another hearing the next day. It was expressed, however, that if no further evidence tying him to the blaze was forthcoming, he might be released, or paroled for a Grand Jury.

On March 15, the Grand Jury began an investigation to determine who was responsible for the alterations made to the building that led to the tragic deaths of 16 people. The Building Inspector’s office records showed that the only permit ever issued was for raising the frame portion of the structure and building a ten-foot brick basement. This was issued in 1896, approved by E.M. Van Duzer, then Superintendent of Buildings, and granted by the Common Council Fire Department Committee. The remodeling plans were missing from the files, and no records appeared regarding the conversion of the church into living quarters.

On March 16, the funeral for the 16 fire victims took place from Saint Peter’s Church. The crowds were huge and the church was packed to the doors. A high mass was celebrated at 10:00 hours, and after the service, the procession moved to the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, where the burials took place. Every Italian society was represented in the procession, which was headed by a squad of police officers and a military band. This fire ranks as the second-worst fire tragedy in the city’s history.