On September 8, 1908, a fire broke out on the second floor of Denver’s Belmont Hotel, claiming as many as fifteen lives and injuring several others in one of the city’s deadliest fires. After the fire, authorities suspected that theft may have been a motive for arson, as valuables had gone missing during the fire and the hotel was near some of the poorer areas of the city. The perceived connection between criminals and arson contributed to several Progressive Era reforms designed in part to reduce arson by eliminating potential motivating factors such as alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.
A Death Trap
The Belmont Hotel, a three-story boardinghouse located at 1723 Stout Street, was built in 1893, just across the street from the Albany Hotel. The Belmont had a reputation as a low-class boardinghouse, and its proximity to the crime and vice of Larimer and Market Streets placed it in what Denver’s upper class considered the “seamy” side of town. Shortly before four o’clock on the morning of September 8, 1908, a fire broke out in a second-floor linen closet. Within minutes, flames blocked all stairways and exits, trapping at least one hundred residents inside. The few first-floor residents who managed to escape fled across the street and were sheltered at the Albany Hotel.
The residents trapped inside the Belmont flocked to the windows of their rooms. Residents of the Albany Hotel as well as spectators in the street pleaded with them not to jump. Some listened and waited to be rescued by the fire department, but several others jumped. One guest at the Belmont, Patrick Treadwell, was a member of the Cripple Creek Fire Department and managed to save at least ten lives by helping victims swing to safety in neighboring buildings.
The fire department arrived soon after the alarm was raised, but the fire kept burning for at least two hours before it was extinguished. Among the victims were George D. Ott, George W. Bodle, and J. B. Moore, all of whom died of injuries sustained from jumping. A fourth victim, John J. Kane, was found dead in his room, a victim of suffocation due to smoke inhalation, and a fifth victim, William E. Lewis, was badly burned and later died in the hospital. In addition, ten of the hotel’s 100 known guests were unaccounted for after the fire and were also presumed dead. This brought the total number of fatalities to fifteen, making the Belmont Hotel fire one of the deadliest in Denver since the Gumry Hotel explosion in 1895. Six other guests were taken to the hospital with burns and other injuries sustained from jumping.
A lack of clearly marked and easily accessible fire exits contributed to the high number of deaths at the Belmont Hotel. There was only one fire exit at the back of the Belmont, and it was not clearly advertised to residents. It was also almost completely inaccessible from the hotel windows, and the escape ladder itself stopped at a point twenty feet above the ground, making it dangerous to use. Investigation into the fire proved that none of the victims knew that the fire exit existed. Even those who knew of it, such as landlady Nettie Rahn and her three sons, chose not to risk the long drop to the ground.
The Work of Thieves
While the fire department initially blamed the blaze on faulty wiring—a common cause of fires at the time—further police investigation unearthed evidence of arson. One of the first facts that troubled investigators was the lack of wires or lights in the second-floor linen closet that could have started the fire. Investigators also discovered traces of gasoline in the debris around the linen closet, which could have been used as an accelerant, explaining the fire’s quick spread. However, the gasoline was ambiguous evidence because several Belmont residents reported seeing the landlady sprinkling gasoline in the hallways to exterminate bugs in the weeks before the fire.
The clearest clue pointing to arson was the fact that up to $3,000 of diamonds, jewelry, and other valuables were missing after the blaze, probably stolen from rooms while residents were distracted by the fire. Nettie Rahn was missing $325 from under her mattress as well as a diamond sunburst, a gold watch, and other jewelry; Lulu Guyer was missing $30 from her stocking; Mabel Williams was missing a gold watch; and F. H. McConnell was missing a bag of clothes, some jewelry, and an unspecified amount of cash. John Kane’s family reported that his effects were missing $600 and a gold watch. The items stolen from long-term residents were frequently the only valuable possessions those people had, while guests visiting Denver would have had relatively large sums of cash, even at a down-market hotel such as the Belmont.
Arson and Poverty
The losses at the Belmont Hotel were high enough to suggest robbery as a strong motive for arson. In fact, several nearby fires in the previous three months were also suspected to be arsons for the purpose of robbery. Police suspected the Belmont fire was the work of the same group of criminals, but investigators never discovered who the arsonists were and never fully confirmed that arsonists were to blame. Nevertheless, historians today have agreed that arson is the most likely explanation for the fires as well as the thefts.
Like other lower-class hotels that were set on fire and robbed, the Belmont was probably targeted by arsonists because law enforcement was scarce in those neighborhoods, reducing the likelihood of being caught. Most such robberies resulted in losses of only a few hundred dollars, suggesting that the arsonists were poor people stealing out of desperation. Rather than choosing targets such as the Brown Palace Hotel, where their efforts would have been more lucrative, these arsonists stuck to less luxurious establishments where criminal activity would draw less attention.
The proximity of many suspected arsons to Market and Larimer Streets also sheds light on the motivations behind the fires and the methods local reformers used to curb them. Market and Larimer were notorious during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for having the highest concentration of saloons, brothels, and gambling halls in Denver. Investigators suspected that money from the robberies may have been used to pay off gambling debts or for drinking money. The response of city officials and Denver citizens during the Progressive Era was a crusade to minimize criminal activity in Denver, which reformers believed would also reduce arson attacks against businesses. Progressive efforts to outlaw gambling and prostitution, increase law enforcement in poor neighborhoods, and enact alcohol prohibition aimed to improve the city’s morals and eliminate motivations for arson.