Dr. Roth Chronicles Worst Prison Fire in US History

Morgue at the Ohio State Fairground with victims of the Ohio Penitentiary fire, 1930.
Morgue at the Ohio State Fairground with victims of the Ohio Penitentiary fire, 1930. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.

The worst prison fire in U.S. history claimed more lives than national disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City and the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, but little has been written in the last 80 years about the tragic event.

Dr. Mitchel Roth of the College of Criminal Justice is embarking on a new book project to document the 1930 Ohio Penitentiary Fire, the largest disaster in American prison history that killed 322 inmates. Over the next year, Roth hopes to use death certificates, newspaper accounts, inquest documents, novels, historic documents, and transcripts of personal interviews of survivors to reconstruct the event. He also hopes to trace lessons learned from the disaster that led to improved conditions at correctional facilities across the country.

"The basic premise is that most people are unaware of this major tragedy," said Roth. "There are a lot of books about a lot of disasters in the country, yet the prison is left out of most anthologies featuring major disasters. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because the public thought they were less worthy to document than others because they were prisoners."

On April 21, 1930, three inmates set a fire at the Ohio State Penitentiary in an attempt to escape from the institution located in Columbus, Ohio. Built in the days of the "Big House" corrections era, the facility was large and overcrowded, and each cell door had to be manually unlocked. There were few safety controls as the fire spread at night, trapping prisoners behind locked doors.

It was the height of the Depression, and many inmates were sentenced to the facility for minor offenses. By reviewing prison records, Roth discovered that the majority of inmates were white and most were married, a deviation from today’s prisons, where minorities are overrepresented in institutions and marriage is considered a stabilizing factor against criminal behavior.

"It was the height of the Depression and people had to do what they had to do," Roth said. "Essentially, they were all given the death penalty that day."

Roth already has uncovered several interesting aspects of the disaster. The Warden of the Prison fled before giving his staff orders to unlock the cells, while the Warden’s daughter raced to the main yard to aid dying prisoners. Many of the inmates became heroes that day, saving the lives of fellow prisoners and corrections officers.

There were thousands of inmates packed in the institution on the night of the tragedy, at least twice as many as the original capacity of the facility. Many died from the fire; other succumbed from the poisonous gas from the burning timber. In the aftermath of the fire, the state legislature adopted several measures, such as releasing a number of offenders to address overcrowding, but few other reforms can directly be traced to the fire, Roth said.

While overcrowding continues to plague prisons today, there has never since been an incident in an American correctional institution that has taken so many lives.

"While the event has been included in several novels, there has never been a book documenting the fire," said Roth. "It certainly deserves one."

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