Dr. Horace Russell Allen
Ohio Biographical Sketches 1876
Founder and President of the National Surgical Institute, was born in Athens county, Ohio, October 21st, 1834. His father, Joseph Allen, was a farmer, and died when Horace was but seventeen years of age. He was at that early age remarkable for his mechanical ingenuity, having from his early boyhood manufactured and invented nearly all of the implements used on his father's farm. He could construct a wagon, plow, rake, harrow, or build houses and barns. After his father's death he resolved to educate himself and his four sisters, and support his mother. The farm aided him in this most laudable enterprise only to the extent of from two to three hundred dollars per year. The professors of the Ohio University gave him permission to sell books to the students, which, with hard labor, and profits on his speculations in government lands, furnished money for the expenses of himself and family.
About this time he spent some time in studying law, expecting to adopt the legal profession. In the winter of 1855-56 he examined personally and purchased government lands in Iowa. While on that expedition the thermometer often indicated twenty to thirty degrees below zero. He then returned to Ohio and graduated from the Cleveland Medical College in 1857. This was a disappointment to many of his friends, who desired him to be a lawyer. He then removed to Des Moines, Iowa, but soon after located in Charleston, Illinois, where he practised his profession, kept a drug store, and was President of the First National Bank, in which he had a controlling interest. At this time he concluded that counting money was not helping humanity, and therefore quit the bank and devoted himself entirely to practice. Subsequently, however, he speculated in Chicago real estate, and realized a profit of $50,000 on a single transaction. On July 1st, 1869, he removed to Indianapolis, Indiana, and at once began to improve the city by making several additions, laying out streets, building houses, etc. The establishing of the National Surgical Institute on July 24, 1869 has been the great event of his life. Like every other great philanthropic enterprise, it had its origin in sympathy for individual suffering. This can be illustrated by a little incident which occurred in 1856. While Dr. Allen was attending a course of medical lectures in one of the principal hospitals of the country, his attention was arrested by the case of a little sufferer from disease of the spine--a little girl some five years of age, who was presented for treatment to a surgeon of skill and celebrity then in charge of the hospital. Her parents were informed that she must remain in the hospital under the immediate care of the surgeon, and might be obliged for some months to lie on her back in bed.
Although the separation from their child was very trying, they were reconciled in the hope of a cure for their darling child. It is only necessary to say that the little exile from home was grieved, terrified, and being alone with strangers, was tortured with the fiery, blazing "moxa," and other modes of treatment known at that time as orthodox. Slowly the many weeks rolled on, and she became a mere skeleton. Her mother came and would never have recognized her little darling but for the eyes that grew brighter at her coming. Her wasted arms were clasped tightly and pleadingly around her neck, and her feeble cry was, "Mother, dear mother, take me home." The little victim that had been offered a sacrifice upon the altar of orthodoxy, was taken home, where, with plenty of fresh air and-food, she partially recovered from her terrible wounds, and lived for many years, but dwarfed in stature and sadly deformed. This case, with its revolting history, suggested to Dr. Allen the necessity for a humane and rational treatment of deformity and disease. From this suggestion sprang a resolution to seek a better way, and if science and reason could possibly afford relief, a life's study should be devoted to the amelioration of such and other cases. His life from that time has been almost wholly devoted to discovering and adopting every means of humane, pleasant, and effective treatment for all serious deformities and diseases which come within the range of his special practice. Some sixteen years have passed since Dr. Allen began to carry into effect plans to relieve the afflicted, and the most gratifying and assured success has rewarded the pioneer enterprise.
The institute is today a proud monument of liberality and skill, and is prominent among the most philanthropic enterprises of the age; is fulfilling its great mission of subserving to the relief of human misery every discovery, invention, and improvement within the scope of science and at the command of money. The National Surgical Institute was incorporated under the laws of the State of Indiana, with a capital of $500,000, with the avowed object of treating all cases of surgery and chronic diseases; also, engaging in the manufacture of surgical and mechanical appliances, splints, bandages, machinery, and other articles needed for the treatment of the afflicted; also, with authority to teach others the same art. The eminent success attained cannot be overestimated. The magnanimous treatment of the poor, the moderate fees demanded of the rich, and the explicit and candid manner in which all are treated, have gained for the institute the confidence and support of good people throughout the country. It has also been indorsed and sustained by all the intelligent physicians who have availed themselves of an opportunity to study its claims to merit by visiting the institute. The organization now consists of four large, complete institutions, each amply equipped with all necessary facilities. They are located in Indianapolis, Indiana; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Atlanta, Georgia; and San Francisco, California. At Indianapolis the Central Division owns and occupies a block of buildings four stories high, covering one-quarter of a square, on the corner of Illinois and Georgia streets. These buildings are provided with sleeping rooms to accommodate three hundred patients. On the lower story of the east wing are thirteen offices, which are occupied for prescription, operating, consultation, apparatus, etc.
Back of the main buildings and connected with them is a machine shop in which are manufactured all kinds of apparatus and machinery for the institute. In this shop, with its forty horse-power steam engine, and other machinery, are employed twenty to thirty skilled workmen, who are engaged constantly, from year to year, in manufacturing appliances for patients of the
institution. The expense of this department in labor, material, and incidentals, amounts to over $75,000 per annum. On the second floor are parlors and the dining hall, a room fifty feet square; also bath rooms, nursery, where children are placed under charge of a matron and nurses. The gymnasium, or general treatment room, is large and fitted up for the requirements of the patients. Directly connected with this apartment the Swedish movement machines and appliances--complicated, ingenious, and varied in character and number--are in full operation, driven by the engine of the shops. Here also are found electrical machines, batteries, ingenious inventions for training paralytics to walk, for straightening crooked backs, contracted or stiff joints, and for the correction of deformity and paralysis in general. No description can do justice to this department, or convey full and accurate knowledge of its great advantages and worth. The remainder of the third floor is used for sleeping rooms.
The statement of the Recording Secretary shows that there have been treated at the institute 32,821 cases, which include all kinds of deformities and diseases. If to this large number all of the charity patients were added, the number would be astonishingly large. It is impossible to itemize the hundreds of thousands of dollars which have been expended in medicines and apparatus. Thirty physicians, surgeons, and assistants, whose medical education has been according to the strictest professional code, have performed this mighty work of relieving and restoring to health suffering humanity. Dr. Allen is now but little more than forty-one years of age, yet the wonderful work he has accomplished would seem to have required at least threescore and ten years. He is a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, and is a liberal contributor to all charitable enterprises. Notwithstanding the great amount of work he daily performs at the institute, he finds time to interest himself in the welfare of the city, and is President of the street railroads and other institutions. In May, 1856, he married Harriet E. Shepard, by whom he has four children.
Shortly before midnight on Thursday, January 21, 1892, a fire alarm was sounded from Box 92 in the heart of Indianapolis’ wholesale district. A few minutes later, Box 52 at Illinois and Georgia Streets was pulled. A fireman who was working that evening later told the Indianapolis News that the fire department instantly suspected serious trouble. Box 52 was in front of the National Surgical Institute, a crowded orthopedic hospital located in old four-story hotel “which has been looked upon for years as a dangerous place.”The firemen’s worst fears were realized when they arrived at the Institute less than two minutes later to find the entire east wing ablaze and patients hanging from every window, screaming for help. By the time the smoke cleared, 19 patients had perished, including three who lept to their death to escape the flames.
On the night of the fire, more than 300 patients — many suffering from paralysis or other serious disabilities — were entrusted to the Institute’s care. As recounted in the News, “their rescue, the fight with the flames and the final discovery of the charred remains of many poor dead inmates, wrapped in each other’s withered arms, makes a story rarely paralleled in the annals of modern cities.” I’ll leave that story for others to tell. Today’s article is about what happened AFTER the fire – the blame, the shame and stain that followed the names of those associated with one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies in Indianapolis history.
First, a little background. The National Surgical Institute was established in 1858 in Charlestown, Illinois, by Dr. Horace R. Allen, an astute businessman and by all accounts a gifted and visionary physician. In 1869, Allen relocated the Institute to Indianapolis, where he purchased two four-story buildings at the southeast corner of Georgia and Illinois Streets. The enterprise flourished, and Allen soon opened branches in Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco. But the Indianapolis location remained the flagship hospital, drawing more than 10,000 people each year to the city to visit friends and family who were receiving treatment at the hospital.
Allen soon made a fortune from his orthopedic hospital chain and other business ventures, and in 1880 he and his wife purchased one of the most ostentatious homes in the city. Constructed in 1875 by Hervey Bates, Jr., the elaborate brick and stone mansion with its multiple turrets and gables was fashioned in the style of a French chateau. Some years later, Booth Tarkington would use Allen’s house as the model for Amberson Mansion in his Pulitizer-prize winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. Although Allen was a pillar of the community and well-known for the thousands of dollars of charity care he provided each year at the Institute, he was instantly villified in the aftermath of the horrific fire. The tragedy played out in much the same way as we have seen other, more recent catastrophies unwind. First the finger-pointing, then the blame shifting, and finally the belated calls for reform by indignant public officials – all reported in lurid detail by the media for curious readers who wait in breathless anticipation for each new tidbit of information.
The fire was reported shortly before midnight on Thursday. By mid-afternoon Friday, the news was reporting that the building was a known firetrap and that the proprietors, Drs. Allen and Wilson, had renewed their insurance policies just one day earlier. The fire chief told reporters that he had long since feared a fire at the Institute and more than once had called attention to the issue. He called for an immediate change to the law that would require similar institutions to be fireproof and no more than two stories high.
By Saturday, the fire continued to be the sole topic of discussion in Indianapolis. All of the bodies had been removed from the rubble at that point, but several of the injured were still clinging to life, including little Lottie Lazarus, a 7-year-old girl from Iowa whose mother plunged to death clutching the child in her arms. The Institute was decried as a house of horrors, filled with steep staircases, winding corridors, and patients strapped in their beds, unable to save themselves from the raging inferno. The coronor announced that he would launch a full investigation on Monday.
But the real shocker came when Allen and Wilson announced that they planned to repair the buildings instead of razing them to the ground and erecting fireproof buildings. The News reported that on Friday, Allen had even gone so far as to obtain a
building permit. City Building Inspector Fitchey called Allen’s decision to get a permit “unchristian” and stated indignantly that he would not permit a dollar’s worth of repairs or improvement until he had thoroughly inspected the ruins. The reporter who wrote the story for the News found this latter comment to be ironic, given the fact that Fitchey had never met Allen before that morning and had never bothered to inspect the building while it was standing.
By late afternoon Saturday, a tide of negative public opinion forced Allen and Wilson to abandon their plans to rebuild. In fact, as the day wore on, Allen issued a statement to the News in which he attempted to debunk the ”rumors” that the duo planned to rebuild at the same location. According to Allen, the Georgia Street property had become too valuable and should be used for another business purpose, and that it had always been their intention to build cottages on a large piece of ground away from the business portion of the city. He also said that he was comforted by the hundreds of telegrams he had received from former patients and their families from across the country that encouraged him to continue his cherished work despite the “unkind criticism” of the people of Indianapolis.
The following day, several of the city’s more prominent pastors used their bully pulpits in an effort to quell the mob mentality that had quickly pinned the blame for the catastrophe on Allen, and to a lesser extent, the building inspector who had allowed a hospital to be operated in the old hotel and the night watchman who had been slow to report the fire. Rev. Cleveland at the Meridian Street church said that “[w]hen we permit paralyzed infants and crippled women to be shut up in the fourth floor of a building in our midst….we may be sure that God will write murder opposite our names, whether we confess to it or not.” Cleveland told his parishioners that there was ”no use in trying to evade it – you and I are to blame for the awful loss of life by burning that has taken place in our city. We consented to those poor helpless people being crowded like sardines in a box on the fourth floor of that building. I bow my head in contrition and bitter shame before God that I did not lift my voice against it.”
The coronor’s hearing began on Monday. Much of the initial testimony focused on the fire itself, with stories from survivors and their heroic rescuers. Within a few days, however, the focus shifted as several architects and builders offered expert testimony on the condition of the building. Each one of them stated in sworn testimony that the building had a sufficient number of fire escapes, there were ample chemical fire extinquishers, and that the general arrangement of the hallways and stairs was appropriate for its use as a hospital. One of the assistants to the chief fire engineer testified that even though it was an old building, the owners had made every provision for its occupants’ safety in the event of a fire.
As the days wore on, a less villianous portrait of Allen began to emerge. A local woman who had helped tend to the injured testified that the patients and their families spoke of Dr. Allen’s kindness, including the bereaved Mr. Lazarus, who had traveled to Indianapolis to recover his wife’s remains and sit at the bedside of his dying child. The fireman who had earlier told reporters that the patients were strapped to their beds now testified that he had been misquoted and that he had simply carried out a dead body strapped to a stretcher.
The downtown library was closing last Saturday just as I was reading the microfilmed reports of the last day of the hearing. I didn’t have time this week to return to the library to read the coronor’s final report, but I don’t suppose it much matters. Regardless of whether Dr. Allen was exculpated – and he apparently was, because he later reopened the Institute at a new location — he will forever be associated with the tragic fire that claimed the lives of the patients he was trying to heal.
Allen quickly rebuilt a modern, four-story facility designed by architects Hellgren & Minturn on the northwest corner of Ohio and Capitol (then Tennessee) Streets. According to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, construction costs forced Allen to dramatically raise fees. He rapidly lost patients and ran into financial trouble but his practice never rebounded from the fire. In 1897, he sold his magnificent mansion to David Parry and moved to a smaller home at 1320 Delaware. When he moved to Chicago in 1895 to start another institute, he entrusted the N. S. I. to family and friends and by November 1898 the business went bankrupt. The Institute went into receivership the following year. In 1900, Allen died of died of diabetes in Chicago, where he was working to establish a new hospital.
Fortunately, an amateur photographer named Herman List worked as a baker at the National Surgical Institute in the final years of its existence and documented the daily life of the residents and staff. List’s glass and nitrate negatives were donated to the Indiana Historical Society in 2002 and have been digitized and cataloged. After a short period as the Medical College of Indiana, the old institute building became home to the Imperial Hotel from about 1900 until 1914. Being adjacent to the State House, many legislators stayed in the 200-room hotel for extended periods. Signs promoted Turkish Baths and the Imperial Buffet. The Cave Saloon was a popular watering spot with the Airdome, described in newspapers as an amusement park, located behind it. From about 1914 until 1920, the building was known as the Hotel Metropole. For six months in 1918, soliders attending motor mechanics and gunsmithing training classes sponsored by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce were housed in the building, then known as the Metropole Barracks. City directories show that the building was razed between 1945 and 1949 when the site was simply listed as the Roosevelt Car Park. Today the site sits among a sea of parking lots and garages.