© 2002-2017 Leona L. Gustafson

The Columbus Evening Dispatch
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February 1, 1879
Page 4


Serious Fire at the Court House
This Morning.

Attempt to Burn the Land Re-
cords of Franklin County.


Evidence of the Presence of Coal Oil in
the Burned Books.

A Mysterious Affair.

At 7:30 this morning David Killenbarger, janitor of the county Recorder's office and night watchman at the Treasurer's office, raised a fire alarm in the Court House. He discovered, upon entering the office, that a fire was in progress in the Recorder's vault. Recorder Cole states that the doors of the vault were closed and locked, the outer door with the combination. He was the last man in the vault the night before. “It is my custom,” says Recorder Cole, “to turn of the gas in the vault, and then close the inner doors almost shut and peep through between them to see if there is any sign of fire within. I did that last night. There was no sign of fire. I then locked the inner doors, and closed the outside door and bolted it, but did not fasten it with the combination. That has been my custom. This morning the combination had to be manipulated to open the door, showing that somebody touched it after I left. Nobody understands it except myself and my clerk, Mr. Beale E. Poste. No one has access to the office during the night except the janitor. He is nightwatchman [sic.] at the Treasurer's office, and comes here before we got to work in the morning to build the fire. When he came this morning he discovered the fire and gave the alarm.”

A great may people visited the office after the fire. Recorder Cole was greatly demoralized by it. He was asked so many questions that he scarcely knew what he was doing. The reporters pressed him closely, but, in the confusion, may ave overlooked some of the points. For example, it cannot be stated whether Mr. Cole said he opened the vault, or whether he said it was opened by Poste, or whether Kellenbarger with at the combination knob. Whoever opened it found the knob of the combination pretty warm. When he opened the door a dense smoke prevailed within. Fireman [sic.] flooded the floor and closed the doors and sent for smoke protectors. The smoke protectors arrived the previous day, and had never been used. A fireman put one on, and went into the vault, but had to retire because he had the protector on wrong. It hast to be primed with water, some way, and in getting it ready the man who fixed it didn't appear to understand how to do it.

Firemen then ascended by a short ladder to the only window that opens into the vault and raised one of the iron shutters off its hinges with a small crowbar. He was surprised to find that the shutter could be so easily removed. Like some other people, he supposed the shutter was but there not only for fire protection, but for partial protection at least against burglars. When the shutter came off the way was open to raise the window, and to take hold of and unfasten the bolts that were on the outer surface of the inner shutter. Whether he found the inner shutter fastened or not, was not ascertained. That mikes no difference. If he had found them closed it was within the power of his hands, unaided by implements of burglary, to open them. It will be well to bear this in mind. It is possible that some one may have entered through this window, and set fire to the contents of the vault, and then retired by the way he entered, fastening the shutters after him. The important fact is shown by a personal examination of the shutters, that it was possible for a person to do this.

The firemen had the flames under control by the time the smoke protector failed to protect. They were among the first to enter the vault. Their first work was to remove the damaged records, to grasp them from the consuming element. Other records were removed at greater leisure. But few were entirely destroyed. There are conflicting stories as to whether the city plat records, Nos. 1, 2, and 3, since 1850, were destroyed or not. The Recorder's clerk says they were not. Others, including some reporters who inquired diligently, say they were. The other records known to have been in that part of the vault most seriously damaged by fire, comprise all made prior to 1820. Some are entirely destroyed. Others are about half consumed. Another lot, badly smoked, and partially roasted, is sufficiently legible to be copied.

What are known as the Ross county records—those made, probably, before Franklin county was organized—were removed by the firemen from the corner where the flames were the hottest. Three records were marked “Nos. 11 and 12, Book F.” They contained records from about 1780 to 1804. The next lot removed commenced with 1804 and ended about 1820, and were marked A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

The books that were damaged were removed to Selbert & Lilly's book bindery, in the opera House block, and piled up in one of the back rooms. The County Commissioners have placed a guard over them. ONe hundred and forty-three volumes are stored in this room, and of of this number fully one-third of them will have to be transcribed. The smell of coal oil is strong in some of the books. None of the mortgage records have been damaged. Nine of ten of the books are burned so badly that the greatest possible care will have to be exercised in order that the records can be transcribed. Those burned the most are such as were partially saturated with coal oil.

The Commissioners, after a careful examination, were satisfied that coal oil had been placed on the leaves of the books for the purpose of destroying them.

Since the foregoing was written, it has been ascertained from Recorder Cole that the original plats of Columbus, and of all the villages in the county were entirely destroyed. The discovery of coal oil upon the records is beyond the shadow of a doubt. Men have said to each other, in a joking way, and with knowing winks and leers, when talking about the “abstractors of titles” becoming numerous,


that “we would have no farther use for the old Court House some of these days.” The discovery of coal oil upon the records, the fact that the fire originated where the oldest records were kept, and several circumstances hereinafter referred to show most conclusively that a bold and systematic attempt was made to wipe out every vestige of land records in the Recorder's office of Franklin County. Chief Engineer [Fire Chief] Heinmiller and his men took books from the burning cases that have been taken out by somebody, and opened, and put back with the covers in the pigeon holes and the leaves exposed outside. Take a book and turn the covers backward, bring them together and then support it by the covers, and you will have an illustration of the method in which the pigeon holes and shelves supported these books, while the leaves, saturated with coal oil, were exposed beyond the edge of the shelf. Each book stands upright in a case made to fit volumes of a certain size.

It has been the custom for lawyers and abstractors of titles to go into the vault and handle records on a long desk, during all hours of the day. The last person in the vault before Mr. Cole closed it was Mr. Alexander W. Krumm. He retired about 5:30 P. M., Friday, when Mr. Cole said he wanted to lock up. Mr. Krumm states that he did not observe anything unusual when he left. The abstractors of titles are Brown Brothers—two, Messrs. Pres. and James Finley Brown—and William A. Poste & Co. The “Co.” of the latter firm is said, by Mr. Poste to be a myth. There is no “Co.” Mr. A. W. Krumm was, a year ago, a member of the firm Mr. Poste says he bought him out. George Morris, clerk for Post & Co., made the same statement. Beale E. Poste, clerk of Recorder Cole, is a brother of William A. Poste. The latter states that he will lose about five thousand dollars by the fire, on money and labor invested in his private record. He says he did not copy records, but indexed them. His index work on the books destroyed will constitute his loss. In some cases he will be able to trace land back to the patent. In other cases he will not. Brown Bros. copy the entire record. To make copies and indexes requires from three and four four, and, sometimes, seven or eight men running through the Recorder's and Clerk's offices all the time. They are all gentlemanly fellows, and try to make as little trouble as possible, but the County Commissioners and the county officers, and those who frequent the Court House, have been impressed with the idea for a long time that more stringent rules would be in order. It is understood, now, that the posers that be will put their feet down altogether, and make a racket that will bring a better system for transcribing records.

Records numbered 112 and 137 inclusive are said to be gone. Young's addition, Parsons & Hyde's addition, Crosly's inlots and outlots, are included in the lands platted since 1850, the plats of which are lost to the county. They are on record, however, in the city.

The outside wall of the vault is twelve inches in thickness. Next, within, is a six inch air space. Then comes a nine inch wall inside of that. The two walls are tied in the usual form. The object of the air space between is to prevent heat from coming through in case of a general conflagration outside.

Following is a diagram of the premises:

A—Kitchen. B—Recorder's vault. C—Clerk's vault. D—Cooking range. E—Stovepipe hole to flue. F—Flue. G—Ventilation passage to air chamber between walls. H—Connecting vault with air chamber between the walls, and with the flue, and which Snyder says was stopped up. I—Same as G. K—Same as H, but stopped up. L—Space between walls. M—solid walls.

The kitchen is where food is cooked for prisoners in jail. A fire was kindled there with heavy dry oak shavings from a Penitentiary shop at 5:30 A. M. Sparks passing up the flue may, possibly, have entered the Recorder's office at the passage marked H. When the vault was built, a stove was put in it to dry the plastering. The pipe entered the flue at H. City Engineer Bowen says he told Jacob Snider, when the stove was removed, to stop that hole. Mr. Snider says it was done, but can't say by whom—either by himself or one of his three workmen, Charles Burkhart, Ed Snider or Henry Bickel. Mr. Snider is willing to swear that it was done. The corresponding aperture in the Clerk's office, at K, was filled with brick and plastered over with mortar, and is in that condition yet.

If Mr. Snider stopped up the passage at H, as he says he did, then somebody has opened the hole and removed the debris from the building. The pine shelving ran up to and above the hole at H. The shelving had a pine back. All the oldest and most valuable records were on shelves reaching from H down to G.

If coal oil had not been found on the books, the theory that the shelves were set on fire by sparks, starting at D and passing through E and H, would have been settled upon. Coal oil settles it.

The removal of the brick and mortar put in by Snider opened a draft from the vault to a flue, by which, in a little time, all the records could have been burned to ashes without the light being seen by outside parties, and without damage to any other part of the Court House.


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