90 years ago this year, Champaign-Urbana was allegedly on the brink of collapse from the threat of communist arsonists roaming Central Illinois. Churches were burned to the ground, schools were armed with guards, and sheriffs were on high alert. Smoke and fear wafted through the air placing anyone in the twin cities in danger’s path. That’s at least the story that the media tried spinning for everyone. Images captured by Bernard Strauch the morning after the University Place Church Fire uncovered a story of two red scares– flames and commies alike –in March 1932.
Monday March 7th, 1932, the Urbana Daily Courier broke the story “University Place Church Burns” describing a massive blaze that had engulfed the University Place Church on the corner of Springfield Avenue and South Wright Street. The news report tells a harrowing tale of the building’s caretaker Walter Garland, and his wife who lived in the basement apartment of the church. After catching the smell of smoke late Saturday night, both rushed from the building and barely escaped as a fireball swallowed the building and collapsed the roof in. Fire departments arrived immediately to put out the blaze, but it was too late. The building had been completely destroyed in a matter of minutes, so they took to watering down the exteriors of adjacent buildings to prevent a spread of damage. Early reports Sunday morning listed the damages at $100,000, but by Wednesday the estimates were upwards of $150,000.
The Champaign News-Gazette quoted the fire-chief on the matter, and the facts seemed relatively cut-and-dry: An aging boiler had started leaking and helped ignite the furnace and the resulting explosion started the fire. Everyone should be on alert to avoid leaving exposed flames near their boilers because it was a serious risk. However, the Champaign-Urbana newspapers didn’t find the story the police reports gave to be that simple. On one side, the news reported a revitalization of unity within the community. Students and community members rallied behind Reverend Fisher and found new spaces for the congregation to gather. There was even a reported increase in religious service attendance in the following months. A June 1932 article notes that the church had fully rebuilt its parishioner index card list larger than it ever had been. A March 12th Daily Illini article reports that university classes on religion were quickly relocated to the University High auditorium, and student prayer was held in Smith Hall at 10:30 AM on Sundays. However, on the other side of the matter was a skeptical media that amplified the voices that inspired panic and quieted the voices of those trying to calm the public down.
On a report from the confidant of a friend of the postmaster (Urbana’s local anti-communist leader), The News-Gazette reported there were two supposed communist “incendiarists” that had been ravaging Central Illinois for weeks. So, pretty much “a friend of a friend” assured him there were commies on the loose. The Urbana Daily Courier and The Daily Illini ran almost daily stories about updates from fires in nearby Bloomington and Lincoln Illinois. Their stories had started to feed into one another creating an almost feedback loop of anxiety over the matter. By chance, the third ransom note in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case had been published the same day as the fire, so the newspaper oozed conspiracy and crimes all over the incendiarist worries.
The powder keg of public worry blew when the mayor announced a ‘shoot to kill order’ following a tip from the Urbana Postmaster John Gray. He had, on his authority, “shown” that the communists were involved in this alleged scheme. John Gray, just one day before the fire, issued a report that communists were not threatening Champaign-Urbana. Organized labor was “against communism because the wages they now receive are enough that they can afford the luxuries of life that would be unavailable under a communistic [sic] system”. 48 hours later, an “informant” reported to John Gray that two communists fled the scene of the church fire. In response, the city placed armed guards inside all public schools in the area. Despite all the chaos, the University’s supervising architect, James White, refused to post guards in university buildings. He denied any communist conspiracy and trusted a March 13th report that each fire was an accident.
It was not until Tuesday March 22nd that state-deputy-fire-marshal [sic] Thomas Abrams declared that each fire from Bloomington to Champaign was “not of incendiary nature” and were each a product of a “likely overheated boiler”. The story of the two arsonists faded into nothingness overnight! Strauch’s images of the church at University Place along with images before its destruction are displayed in this post. We still face the same issues of mass panic, media frenzies on inaccurate information, and fear of terrorism. It’s interesting how just a few snapshots of one church can reveal so much about how history doesn’t just repeat, but it tends to rhyme