Cumberland Times-News

Local News

March 29, 2014

Looking Back 1901: Fire claims little boy’s life

It was a cold November day when John Shaffer was born in 1898 and a cold November day when he died nearly three years later. His life, though short, became a cautionary tale for parents.

Charles and Ella Shaffer lived on Elder Street in Cumberland and were raising a large family at the turn of the 20th century. Charles was a machinist who was supporting his family on what the railroad paid him. While he worked his long days, Ella tried to keep track of her six children who ranged in age from 13-year-old Julia to 8-month-old Grace.

On Nov. 10, 1901, Johnny, who would be 3 years old in less than a week, went outside to play with his friends.

The children played for a while, but then someone decided that it was cold enough out to light a fire so that they could fight off the chill. They gathered kindling and started a fire in the street. Something went wrong, though.

“The child’s dress suddenly caught fire and in an instant it was wrapped in flames,” the Evening Times reported.

Johnny screamed and rolled around trying to snuff out the flames. His frantic movements made it hard for his friends to help him. The persistent fire burned the young boy’s back, head and limbs.

The other boys got help for their friend and Johnny was carried into his house where his mother was beside herself with fear for her son’s life. Someone fetched a doctor, but it was obvious that the prognosis for the little boy was not good. The Evening Times reported that the doctor gave the boy something to ease his suffering “but the burned part of the body it is said is more than one-third and this being the case the little one is in a most critical condition.”

The Rev. T.S. Lang was summoned to baptize Johnny because no one expected him to live. Then an amazing thing happened. Johnny’s condition improved overnight. He wasn’t suddenly healed, but he didn’t seem to be in as much pain when morning came. His parents began to hope that there might be a good outcome from this horrifying experience.

However, Johnny would never reach his third birthday. He died about 7 p.m. on Nov. 11.

“The little fellow made a brave struggle for his life, but from the first the physicians had little hope of his recovery,” the newspaper reported.

His parents were devastated. “The little boy was the sunbeam of the household and was an unusually bright and lovable child,” the Evening Times reported.

Rather than bury him in Cumberland where many of the Shaffers are buried, his body was loaded onto a train and taken to Martinsburg, W.Va., on Nov. 13. He did not make this final journey alone. His family and friends accompanied him. The funeral was held there in Charles’ hometown in Green Hill Cemetery.

The Shaffers slowly recovered from the tragedy and had two more sons. John Richard Shaffer was born in 1905 and may have been named for the deceased older brother whom he would never know. Allen Jackson Shaffer was born in 1908. The boys certainly didn’t replace young Johnny, but they did bring their share of joy to their parents and prove that life did continue after a tragedy.

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