Fire in Livingston
This devotion to their church may have had a greater price however. In the early morning of March 26th 1925 a fire broke out in Tom and Margaret's Livingston home. Accounts differ in some details, but it is clear that Tom , Margaret and seven of their children were trapped on the second floor.
Newark Evening News, Monday March 16 1925 [front page]
Flames Drive Family From Upper Window
Parents and Seven Children Clad in Night Clothes, Drop As Livingston Home Burns
Fire entirely destroyed the nine-room home of Thomas Dowd, member of a West Orange Grocery firm in mt. Pleasant Avenue, Livingston at 4 o'clock this morning and forced Mr. Dowd and his wife and seven children to drop from a second story window in their night clothes to escape the flames.
The home, considered one of the best in Livingston and formerly owned by Charles A. Whalen of East Orange and occupied at times by the Whalen family. A garage and outbuildings some distance from the house were not touched.
Mr. Dowd woke to find his room full of smoke and groped his way to the telephone giving the alarm to fire police Chief William Ashby. The flames had made so much progress that the floor burst into a blaze as Mr. Dowd made his way back to the second floor and forced him to gather his family at a window and drop them one by one to the chilly ground.
By the time the last of the children was being lowered from the windows neighbors had brought a ladder, which Mr. Dowd descended, Mrs. Dowd with the flames gaining, dropped the baby to her husband who caught the child by a leg, according to a witness.
Ashby, calling together his volunteer force, rushed to the home with chemical equipment and found the interior a rearing mass of flame. Handicapped by a lack of water the chief ordered his men to protect the outbuildings and the nearby home of Thomas Canon where Mr. Dowd and his scantily clad family had found protection from the cold.
The damage has not estimated although Chief Ashby believes $15,000 to be a conservative figure. The lack of water, he declares, together with the fact that Livingston has only chemical equipment handicapped his men and prevented them from fighting the fire.
Dr. George Harhen of Caldwell and Dr. George W. Davies of Verona were called by Mr. Dowd to examine his wife and children. Both declared that neither exposure nor the drop from the window had caused injury to the children although all had suffered stomach disorders from the smoke and the excitement. Mrs. Dowd was taken to Orange Memorial Hospital for treatment as a result of effects of smoke.
A school essay written years later by seventeen year old Mary Dowd gives a dramatic eyewitness account. Mary was just six years old at the time of the fire.
An Experience in My Life, by Mary Dowd
I can distinctly remember that cold, windy March day in '26 , It was Sunday and we were all at home; that is, all but Tom, who was away at school. We children went to bed early as usual. The boys slept in one large room with the exception of Jim, the baby, whom my mother Kept with her. I had my own room, How I can remember it! Mom had it done in blue, my favorite color.
It seemed as though I had been asleep but a few hours when my mother called me. The house was on fire! For a moment all seemed like a dream. Suddenly, I jumped out of bed and ran to the boy's room. What excitement there was! The first floor was blazing and the flames were creeping up the stairs. We were trapped! All of us leaned out the window, crying and screaming. Then my father dropped to the porch below us. Mom carried the children to Billy and he dropped each of us to him. The smoke became so dense that Pop had to count us to find if we were all there. I was too young and frightened to be of any assistance. When it was my turn to be dropped to my father, I clung tenaciously to the window sill. Terror had given me much strength and Bill had to slap me to loosen my grip. (That is one incident which the boys never fail to tell).
Thinking I was the last one, Bill was about to descend when my father called that someone was missing. It was Pat, and after frantically searching, my mother found him behind a cedar chest where he had crawled. We were all out but Mom. By this time some neighbors had arrived. They procured a ladder and placed it up against the building, it was too short and did not reach the window where my mother was desperately waiting. My father and Herb Canon, a neighbor, held it on their shoulders while Mom climbed down. She was burned dreadfully and collapsed when she reached the ground. Time and time again, as we afterwards learned, almost overcome by the flames, she had fallen but with the help of God gained enough strength to get up. We children were taken to a neighbor's home and my mother was rushed to the hospital.
All this happened between three and five o'clock in the morning. Later that day we children were taken to the homes of different relatives. I going to my grandmother's. Meanwhile, unknown to the boys and myself, my mother was dying, The doctor had despaired of her life, the nurses had gone, but there was one who still believed that my mother would live. That one was Sister Marie Anita, who came to the hospital, place the miraculous medal on my mother and said this simple prayer, "Dear God, please spare Mrs. Dowd to her family." You may not believe in miracles, our doctor did not either until then, but within minutes there was a change and my mother lived.
It was months after that before we were all together again. Our home had been burned to the ground. There was an old farmhouse on the adjoining property that had been built almost one hundred years ago. My father bought it. The house was remodeled, carrying out the idea of the old colonial architecture. This took months, during which time we remained at our different homes. At last we were together and oh how happy we were!
By this time a new baby had arrived and he was the sweetest child. He was baptized Bernard. I always felt differently towards him. It is not that I love him more than the rest, because each and every one of my brothers means the world to me, but perhaps it is because he is so sweet!
A headline "Mrs Thomas Dowd Critically Ill" in the Newark Evening News two days later confirms the seriousness of Margaret's injuries. Unfortunately, the reference comes from an index and this section of the paper hasn't been preserved. Mary's essay remains the most reliable account of Margaret's condition. Members of the family recount that Margaret's throat had been so badly burned by the smoke that she was unable to speak for months after the fire. A newspaper article several years later reported that, as a result of the fire, Margaret suffered a nervous shock that her system never recovered from. Although she did later suffer serious depression and nerve paralysis, Margaret recovered from the immediate injuries of the fire. Her baby Bernard was born healthy four months later and Margaret went on to have two more sons in 1927 and 1929.
None of these accounts give a cause of the fire, but members of the family believed that the fire was set intentionally by the local Ku Klux Klan. The KKK, founded after the Civil War by Confederate war veterans, had a revival in the 1920s spreading across most of the United States. A new anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Jew stance along with the traditional hatred of blacks led to acts of intimidation and violence against these groups. By 1925 the Klan registered four million members nation-wide and in New Jersey was strong enough to have successfully backed a candidate to the U.S. congress. While African-Americans were the most brutally victimized group, Catholics took the brunt of the Klan's religious antagonism. A local headquarters of the Klan was organized in Livingston in the 1920s at a farm off of Sycamore Avenue with John Shrugg as Grand Titan. The local papers reported at least one cross-burning incident at the home of a family on Cedar Street who had advertised their house to a black family. On the night of April 8, 1929 "a fire of unknown origin" destroyed the Catholic Chapel of The Church of Our Lady of Sorrows. The $60,000 chapel had been built by a local Catholic Itlaian, Achilles D'Mato, as a thanksgiving for the safe return of his son from the World War. It was generally believed that the D'Mato church fire was also set by the "Ku Klux".
With their large home on Mt Pleasant Avenue and their financial support of the local parish, the Dowds were a visible target, perhaps too much of a temptation for the Klan. One account recalls that on a morning before the fire, the family discovered a "KKK" painted across the road in the front of the house. At least one of the children later remembered a cross-burning in the front yard. Another story which occurred a couple of years after the fire, whether true or not, demonstrates at least Margaret's devotion to the church and her spunkiness. Concerned with Klan activity, Margaret and her friends would patrol the construction site of St. Philomena's Chapel, parking in their cars through the night to ward off any attacks on the church. While disturbing, the existence of the KKK in Livingston should not be taken to mean a problem existed between all Protestant and Catholics. On the contrary, Protestant neighbors in Livingston were among those who contributed donations to the building fund drive of St. Philomena's Catholic church in 1927.
Another account in the family suggests that a tenant dairy farmer, renting the old farmhouse on the property, was involved in the fire, possibly providing information to the KKK. As the story goes, Tom was so incensed with his tenant that he immediately contacted a large Newark slaughterhouse to drive up and remove the tenant farmer's dairy cows. He then ordered the tenant and his family off the property.
Being in the real estate and insurance business himself, it is likely that Tom at least had insurance coverage on his large Livingston home. However, rather than rebuild, he collected his children from the different relatives and moved them into the newly vacated farmhouse. Over the next few years Tom and Margaret would be continually remodeling and making additions to better accommodate the family. Two hundred yards up the hill, the old house lay in ashes with only the shell of the fireplace remaining. Icicles of glass melted by the intense heat were also among the rubble. Margaret and the children would go "treasure hunting" here, sifting through the soot and dirt for valuables that may have survived. Some believed that Margaret had lost her mind and was obsessed with searching through the ashes. She had the last laugh however when on at least one occasion she found pieces of precious jewelry buried in the soot.
The fire was a traumatic experience for all the family and dramatic stories of the fire are still retold today, even by Foley and Cloughssey cousins as far away as Oxford and Paterson. For his role in the rescue, young Billy Dowd was presented a special gift by his father and his heroics were featured in an article in the local paper.
After examinations by Doctors Harhen and Davies, the children were sent to stay with different relatives. A few of them went to stay at their Aunt Marie's home on Burnett Street. They were a sorry sight, in their dirty pajamas, still coughing and sick from the smoke. Grandmother Sarah Dowd was there too, probably helping to organize sleeping arrangements and comforting the children. Once the kids were settled, she and Marie were probably most concerned for Margaret who was still struggling in the hospital.