Manitoba History: The Brandon Asylum Fire of 1910
by Kurtland Refvik
The Brandon Asylum for the Insane, now known as the Brandon Mental Health Centre, had a rather peculiar beginning. Originally, the site was chosen as a home for a Provincial Reformatory for boys. At a cost of about thirty-thousand dollars (a significant sum for the time), the Reformatory was constructed and in June 1890, it was ready to accommodate misguided young lads. The first Governor of the Reformatory was John W. Sifton, father of Clifford Sifton, and he was assisted by a Chief Attendant and a Matron. This trio was later nicknamed the “Mulligan Guard” in reference to their first inmate, William Mulligan. “Billy” Mulligan was a nine year old youth who had been sentenced to five years in the Reformatory for stealing mail from one of her Majesty’s Royal Mail boxes. Billy had the distinct honour of being the first and only inmate of the Brandon Reformatory. No new young “criminals” were forthcoming, and at a cost of about three-thousand dollars per year, the “Mulligan Guard” watched over their single charge.
Perhaps as a face-saving measure, the provincial government quickly sought an alternate use for the new and virtually unused facility. In the spring of 1891, an Act was passed in the Legislature transforming the Brandon Reformatory to an Asylum for the Insane. The Asylum was opened in May and was placed under the direction of Dr. Gordon Bell with the former Chief Attendant and Matron staying on as staff. Billy Mulligan continued to serve his sentence at the Asylum, at least for another year or so, although his quarters were separate from the dormitories housing the lunatics. The first mental patients, twenty-nine men and women transferred from Selkirk Asylum and the Provincial Gaol, arrived in July 1891, and the Brandon Asylum was in business.
Over the next two decades the institution grew from its modest beginning of twenty-nine patients. By 1910, the average daily patient population had exceeded six hundred individuals. The increase in patients necessitated several structural additions in the first twenty years and even with these, the overcrowding of the facility was a constant problem. Another regular source of anxiety for the staff and administrators was the water supply, which was considered inadequate to meet the daily needs of the institution, let alone that which would be required in case of an emergency such as a fire. This would be a matter of dire consequence in the latter part of 1910.
Disaster struck the Brandon Asylum on the bitterly cold and windy evening of Friday, 4 November 1910. At about twenty minutes after five o’clock the staff and patients of the Asylum, more than 700 people in all, were forced to flee the buildings into the piercing chill of the night when a fire broke out. The blaze, which started in the upper garret of the central building, was rumoured to have been set by a patient with matches. Although Asylum officials stated that the precise cause was not known, they believed it was the result of a live electrical wire in some work in the area where the blaze began. The alarm was raised in town, and the fire, which rapidly spread to the rooftop, acted like a beacon in the night. Within a short time, as many as a thousand Brandon residents had made the mile and half trek from the city by auto, carriage and foot to witness the drama and to render assistance if possible.
Apparently, the first witnesses on the scene did not think that the entire facility was doomed to go up in smoke. One person on the scene felt that they had the fire under control for a time but the gale force winds soon took control. The fire-proof doors between the buildings and the brick partitions and tile floors of the latest addition (1905) proved to be of little use as the blaze was swept along the roof-top. Within an hour and a half, the conflagration had engulfed the entire structure and the fate of the Asylum buildings was sealed. The Brandon Fire Department brought up all its equipment from both halls but was unable to get a stream on the fire for almost an hour and a half.
By a sad twist of fate, the brand new water supply system at the Asylum was nearing completion, with the hydrants installed but not hooked up. R. B. Cumming, bursar of the Asylum, was quoted as saying, “Had this happened about two days or so later, we would have been ready for it and in all probability have got the flames under control long before any damage was done.” Ironically, about two weeks after the November 4th catastrophe, the Brandon Fire Department was able to test the new water supply system and report that it was capable of providing more than a thousand gallons a minute under a pressure “which would permit of throwing streams over the big hospital buildings as they were before the fire.” In any event, the main buildings of the institution, with the exception of the powerhouse, were completely destroyed.
The events that occurred on the night of the big fire were as miraculous as they were catastrophic. Approximately 643 patients were evacuated from the building by the eighty or so staff members, apparently without any loss of life in the fire itself. The patients were first herded into a corral at the rear of the building where they could be kept under close guard. As the temperature had dipped to seven degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) arrangements were quickly made to turn all the livestock out of the horse and cow barns and to feed and house the inmates in these buildings which were “comfortable and warm” according to Dr. McFadden. Fortunately, a good deal of the contents of one wing of the building, blankets and bedding in particular, were removed by attendants, with the help of some of the more trustworthy patients, before the entire structure was engulfed. Unfortunately, the valuable papers and records from the offices were brought safely away from the fire only to be thrown onto the lawn and blown all over the grounds by the wind. Most were never recovered.
Records were not the only things to go astray in the confusion which attended the evacuation of more than six hundred mental patients from a burning building. Despite their best efforts, the Asylum staff could not prevent some patients from getting loose. One eye witness noticed that many inmates “seemed to be absolutely beyond control” and were running in all different directions including towards the road into the city. One inmate, “yelling aloud and waving his arms,” rushed into the burning structure and onlookers thought they had seen the last of him. To their surprise, he emerged with an armload of “goods” and was about to return to the fire when he was restrained by an attendant. The Saturday papers reported that some thirty inmates, the majority males, were thought to have escaped during the night. Not surprisingly, the city officials were besieged with calls from the local residents in the vicinity of the Asylum, North Brandon farmers in particular, asking for particulars about the fire. It was suggested that these people were ‘at all times in dread of escaped lunatics invading their homes, and with Friday’s occurrence they were filled with fear.”
Apparently, the local folks had little to fear from the escaped patients. According to one source none of the patients on the loose were considered dangerous, as the Asylum officials, “with great foresight,” took special care to “secure all the bad actors among the lunatics.” Some were taken to the jail and others to the police cells downtown. A large force of special policemen were stationed on all the approaches to the city and everyone who passed was closely scrutinized in an attempt to prevent escapees from making it to the city. Nevertheless, a number of “stragglers” were picked up in the streets of Brandon during the night. Most of the patients that were at first reported missing, however, turned up in a recount of inmates once they had settled in the barns for the night. Many of the “missing” had in fact been assisting the attendants in retrieving furniture and clothes from the west wing of the Asylum before it burned. On the day following the fire, McFadden released an official statement that only three patients were missing. Two were noted runaways who obviously seized the moment and the third was thought to be boarding with a friend. A fourth runaway, a female patient, was found on the Saturday by a party of boys on their way to skate on a small body of water on the Experimental Farm. The woman, who had apparently wandered off in the confusion and became lost, died of exposure overnight, thus becoming the only reported death in connection with the disastrous fire.
Much of the credit for the near absence of loss of life in the fire went to the staff of the Brandon Asylum. Eyewitnesses and the local press praised the male and female guards and attendants for the “splendid and orderly manner” in which they carried out the evacuation of patients. In his report of the incident, Dr. McFadden expressed his “deep debt of gratitude” to his staff. He wrote, “I cannot speak too highly of the loyalty and devotion the attendants, male and female, displayed upon that memorable night. It is due to them I think to receive all the credit for a non-loss of life (in the fire itself at least). Orders were promptly obeyed, and everything was done in as perfect a manner as possible.” Of course, no disaster story would be complete without a hero and the Asylum fire had several. Chief Attendant McRae was the last man to return to the building after he thought he saw a patient that had not been evacuated. McRae entered a four story window only to be trapped when the roof collapsed, and after fighting his way through smoke and flames, he made it to another window that had been blown out by the heat. A patient noticed McRae’s plight, alerted firemen who were working on the other side of the building, and McRae was rescued.
McFadden also extended his heartfelt thanks and admiration to the “noble citizens of Brandon, who so promptly volunteered their services, and in every way rendered first aid to some 639 patients and to some 75 or 80 of a staff who had sacrificed their all doing their duty towards their charges.” In addition to the police and the fire department response to the emergency, the local militia was cited as being of great service. The 99th Regiment was called out shortly after the fire alarm was received and the militiamen marched up to the Asylum to render “invaluable assistance” in caring for the inmates and rounding up those who had strayed away.
Still greater assistance was forthcoming from the citizens of Brandon even as the Asylum lay in a ruin of smouldering rubble. The cattle and horse barns had served their purpose in preventing the patients from freezing to death overnight, but could hardly be considered adequate accommodation. McFadden had to face the critical problem of housing his more than six hundred charges, even in temporary quarters. The mayor of Brandon suggested that special trains could convey the inmates to Selkirk, but after discussing this possibility with the Department of Public Works on Friday night, it was determined that Selkirk was already too full and that Brandon would have to find some means to house the unfortunates. The Hon. G. R. Coldwell, acting minister for the Department of Public Works arrived in Brandon by train at 10:30 p.m. on Friday night to discuss the situation with Dr. McFadden. Fortunately, the Winter Fair Board in Brandon offered up its new building on Tenth Street in the city as a temporary shelter. On Saturday morning, with the ruins still smoking in the background, the citizens in Brandon were witness to quite a spectacle as the 640 odd patients from the Asylum were marched from the institution’s grounds, down First Street, over the bridge and on to their “temporary” home in the Winter Fair buildings.
The “noble” citizens of Brandon also rendered great assistance in the preparation of the Fair building for the reception of the Asylum patients. All sorts of “mechanics” were engaged early Saturday morning to heat up the Winter Fair Building and the Armoury and to arrange for cooking and sanitary facilities. Loads of furniture and bedding were transferred from the Asylum to the new quarters and these supplies were organized through the extensive effort of the students and teachers of Brandon College and Clarke Hall who turned up early in the morning to offer their assistance. The ladies organizations of St. Paul’s, St. Matthew’s and First Methodist churches made arrangements to take turns catering the meals for the patients and staff until suitable provision could be made for the preparation of food in the Winter Fair Building. The church ladies also provided accommodation for nurses who could not be housed at the Fair site. By Saturday noon, largely through the efforts of the volunteers, the large rooms in the upper portion of the structure had been converted into dormitories sufficient to house the entire number of patients. On Saturday evening Dr. McFadden was able to state that “With the assistance of the citizens we have been able to get everything nicely fixed up, and the patients are about as comfortable here as they were over on the hill.”
The Winter Fair Building on Tenth Street in Brandon remained a temporary home for the Asylum’s inmates for almost two years. The Selkirk Asylum was full and there was no other facility in the province large enough to house and care for so many people in one location. In the meantime, it was decided to rebuild the Brandon Asylum on the site and work began as soon as the rubble was cleared away and the weather warmed up. Despite a brief delay due to local labour problems, the new Brandon Asylum building was ready for occupation in December 1912, although some work remained to be completed. The magnificent new structure, subsequently referred to as the Main Building, and later still the Parkland Building, still stands today as the central feature of the Brandon Mental Health Centre.
This account of the origin of the Brandon Asylum and the 1910 fire is derived from a centennial history of the institution scheduled to be released this summer. The history book is prepared for the 100th anniversary celebration to be held at the institution on Saturday, 13 July 1991. Everyone is invited to attend the event which will include an Open House with tours, a pit barbeque and a dance. The centennial history book, a commemorative cookbook and other souvenirs will be on sale and the BMHC Museum will be open for viewing. For further information write: BMHC Centennial Committee, Box 420, Brandon, Manitoba R7A 5Z5.
Page revised: 26 May 2016