Our family has passed down conflicting versions of the tragic story of Gwendolyn Reece Boyer’s untimely death in a late 1800’s fire in Philadelphia. When exactly was the fire? Who died in the fire? Was it just Gwendolyn, or were one or more of the children also killed? Contributing to the confusion are death records of two girls in the family who died young… were they victims of the fire, or did they die of other causes? A recently discovered article from The Philadelphia Inquirer published on 11 Feb, 1897 clears it up:
February 11, 1897
Mrs. Gwendoline Boyer, of Olney, was so badly burned on Monday night that she died. Her baby, which was in her arms, was saved by her husband, who leaped from a sick bed to try to save both.Enveloped in flames that leaped from her oil-soaked garments, Mrs. Gwendoline Boyer, aged 37 years, met a horrible death at her home in Olney. Miraculously, almost, her infant, which she was holding at the time her clothing took fire, escaped without injury, but her husband, George Boyer, and Emil Wireman, a farm laborer, were both severely burned in their efforts to put out the fire.
The Boyers live in a three-story stone house on Maple avenue near Old Second street turnpike, and have carried on prosperous trucking business on the few acres which surround the dwelling. Some time ago Mrs. Boyer was taken sick and her illness developed into a severe case of grip. Her husband, too, became ill and was confined in his bed. Last of all the baby was attacked by the same malady, and with a ll the family down things were decidely gloomy.
BEFORE THE ACCIDENTSlowly the parents improved, but the baby grew worse. So critical was its condition on Monday that hope was about given up, and it was then decided to have it christened at once. Rev. Dr. Upjohn, of Germantown was sent for and performed the ceremony in the presence of the sick parents and Miss Ruth Ingram, their nurse. Toward night the baby rallied somewhat, and when at 10 o’clock preparations for retiring were made the babe was carefully disrobed while lying in its mother’s arms.
Mrs. Boyer sat near a washstand on which was a good-sized kerosene lamp and in reaching for some clothing for the baby the lamp was overturned. It crashed against the marble-top of the stand, the burning oil spreading all over the baby and Mrs. Boyer. In a twinkling the mother’s clothing was a mass of flames.
THE HUSBAND’S BRAVERYFrom his sick bed the husband leaped to aid his wife and child. He succeeded in taking the baby unharmed from the mother’s arms and he quickly laid it on the bed. The he rushed to his wife’s rescue. Meanwhile the screams of the woman had brought Wireman and another farm hand to the rescue and the three men worked like mad to save her. They beat at the flames and finding that this did no good they carried the victim to a window and literally tore off the burning garments strip by strip. They threw the burning rags outside. Finally the carpet was torn from the floor and with this the men managed to smother the flames. When this was done the woman was burned from head to foot.
Dr. Rush was called and hurried to the house. he saw Mrs. Boyer was fatally hurt, but with morphine he managed to alleviate in a measure her awful pain. The poor woman lingered until morning when she died.
The shock, excitement and burns have caused Mr. Boyer to take to his bed again and he is pronounced seriously ill. Wireman is badly burned about the hands and arms, but is not seriously hurt. Quite recently Mrs. Boyer had come into posession of a considerable sum which was left to her by a relative. With this the couple had intended building a home in the city and quitting the truck business.
George and Gwendolen Boyer had four children. The baby mentioned in the article was Wilbur Russell Boyer, Sr. born 7 Dec 1896 – he was barely 2 months old at the time of the fire. Wilbur’s brother, George Washington Boyer, Jr. was 4 at the time of the fire, and the boys’ older sister, Mabel G. Boyer was 7. Mabel died a few years later, at age 11 in Dec of 1900 from diptheria, unrelated to the fire. The family’s first child, Edith, died an infant in October 1888, eight years prior to the fire.
The article mentions that the Boyer’s “have carried on prosperous trucking business..” – the meaning is not that they owned motorized vehicles, but that they were vegetable farmers. According to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, the term ‘truck farmer’ was in use long before autos and trucks existed. The root of the word ‘truck’ in this instance comes from ‘troque’, the Old French word for ‘barter’.