The Forgotten Tragedy of Babbs Switch

Note: The name of the town has been seen spelled in various ways: Babb Switch, Babb’s Switch, etc. but I’ve decided to go with Wikipedia’s spelling of Babbs Switch.

Everyone knows about the Great Chicago Fire. A fair number now know about the Peshtigo, (Wisconsin) wildfire that broke out the very same night as the Chicago blaze and killed many more people. Quite a few people know about the fire at Boston’s famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942.
But few know the story of the Christmas Eve fire that broke out in a one-room schoolhouse in Babbs Switch, Oklahoma in 1924. By any standard, it was a terrible tragedy.

On that Christmas Eve, the little school building was packed with students and their families enjoying a Christmas program. A teenage boy was up on the stage, dressed as Santa Claus and distributing presents. Also on stage was a Christmas tree ablaze with lit candles.
Suddenly the boy playing Santa accidentally bumped against the tree, and one of the candles was knocked loose. It immediately set the cotton trim on his Santa suit alight. After that, things spiralled out of control with frightening speed.
Flames spread quickly within the small school building. People naturally ran to the door to escape, but found it opened inward, as most doors in public buildings did. Panic set in as people began piling up at the door, preventing anyone from opening it.
Others looked to the windows for escape. But unfortunately, those windows had recently been fitted with bars, after the glass had been shattered during several severe windstorms. Some managed to break the glass and pass smaller children out to safety between the bars. Mrs. Florence Hill saved several of her students’ lives this way, but she herself perished in the flames.
In all, the fire claimed 36 lives, among them several entire families.
The Babbs Switch disaster led to stricter building codes and, along with the Cocoanut Grove fire, is widely believed to be the catalyst for modern fire precautions such as outward-opening doors.

A strange twist to the Babbs Switch story unfolded in 1957. A woman named Grace Reynolds, living in California, came forward and claimed that she was actually Mary Elizabeth Edens, who’d been presumed killed in the fire back in 1924. Mary Elizabeth had been only a toddler at the time, and her body was never identified. Reynolds’s story was that she was handed out the window by her “real” mother into the arms of a childless couple who assumed that none of her relatives survived the fire and informally adopted her and raised her as their own.
(It was never explained how this couple came to be outside a tiny school in a tiny town just as it happened to catch fire.)
Grace Reynolds became a minor celebrity, appearing on Art Linkletter’s TV show and in various newspapers and magazines. Mary Edens’s family accepted her story and were thrilled to be reunited with their long-lost daughter.

Sadly, it was all a hoax. Nobody knows why Grace Reynolds believed, or claimed to believe, that she was really Mary Edens. It’s possible she suspected that the people who raised her were not her biological family; perhaps she was adopted, and her adoptive parents told her of the fire, for reasons of their own. Then again, perhaps Reynolds was delusional, or greedy, or just bored. Or perhaps she was even inspired by the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, who at the time was widely believed to have escaped assassination in 1918 and to be alive and well; this fanciful version of history had been dramatized in the movie “Anastasia” starring Ingrid Bergman, right around the time Reynolds made her claim.

In any case, a newspaper editor uncovered the hoax for what it was, and informed Mary Edens’s biological father. The father asked that the editor not publish his findings, as he (the father) felt that his wife would not be able to cope with losing her daughter for what would have seemed like the second time. The editor, in a rare example of journalistic restraint, agreed, and his findings were not revealed until 1999.

A sad conclusion to a very sad episode of history.


4 Responses to “The Forgotten Tragedy of Babbs Switch”

  1. Michele Kerby Says:

    In 1924 my grandfather was the under-sheriff in Roger Mills County, Oklahoma. He and my grandmother knew personally at least one of the survivors of the Babbs Switch fire. According to my grandmother, this man’s entire family died except for one son who had lost his only pair of shoes and so couldn’t attend the party.

    I was raised on stories of the event. According to my grandmother, the tree was kept near the wood stove, which made it very dry. The tree was josted or knocked over, which immediately inflamed the cotton curtains on state. Almost simultaneously the whitewashed walls caught fire.

    The room was greatly overcrowded. Most of the men were standing at the back near the door to allow their wives and children to sit at the desks. When the panic started the men tried to gather their families, but several were forced out by the press of the crowd. Then the door closed forever. The fathers valiantly tried to get back in but received only burns for their troubles.

    Supposedly, as soon as the door had closed, the men tried to break out the windows. The teacher, so the story goes, threw a chair or desk through one of the windows and managed to break the bars or heavy screens. She then lifted out, or threw (!) some smaller children outside as long as she was able.

    Otherwise, the stories I heard matches what you have here. To say it was sad is an understatement, but I like to think of the kindness shown by many strangers to those who needed help.

  2. Nick Hebensperger Says:

    My grandfather Paul Hebensperger was in this fire along with his three brothers Xavier, Joe,And Albert They all survived there sister Helen died.My great uncle Joe was the last survivor and died at 99 years old on March 16th 2013.

  3. Mary Starrett Says:

    THe lost girl, Mary Elizabeth Edens was the daughter of my aunt and uncle, Lewis and Ethel Edens. The family went through a very exciting and then disappointing time with the events over the years. They stayed in my home in Culver City, California when they went to be on the Art Linkletter show, in fact, my parents and I went to the show with the Edens family. My father, Chris and Mrs Edens were brother and sister. What a tradgey it was, happy and sad. I wish we knew the real truth. How sad.

  4. TJ Says:

    I am doing babbs switch as a school project. I want to learn as much as i can. This website has helped

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: