Niece of former PA Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin Seriously Burned at the Curtin Mansion
On December, 13th, 1914 Sarah Curtin Larimer, widow of Dr. John Furey Larimer and niece of former Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin, was at the Curtin Mansion as a houseguest of her nephew, Hugh Laird Curtin (Ref 1). Aunt Sadie, as she was known, was ready for bed. As she blew out the flame of the kerosene lamp on her bedtable, the lamp exploded with great force. Furniture and a rug in the room were set ablaze, and Mrs Larimer was engulfed, her night clothes set afire. As the contemporary newspaper report indicated, “she herself became a human torch”. Mr Curtin, 32 at the time, was in his own room across the hall receiving an alcohol rub. It sounded like a gunshot to him, and he knew immediately, it was said, what had happened. Bolting from his room and encountering a horrifying scene as his aunt burst into the hallway at the same time, the young man frantically wrapped her in a throw rug to extinguish the flames. The two together then dashed back into Mrs. Larimer’s room and beat down the fire before it spread to the remainder of the house.
Mrs. Larimer sustained deep burns to the right arm, as well as to the other arm and significant areas of the front and back of her trunk. Her hair was singed. In spite of the possibility that Hugh Laird Curtin had some residual, flammable rubbing alcohol on his skin or clothing, he sustained only minor burns. Dr David Dale of Bellefonte was summoned as soon as possible, although it is unknown what treatment was rendered to Mrs. Larimer. The death knell was raised immediately. Little is known about her subsequent downhill course, but she remained at the mansion and died on Dec 26 around 9 PM (Ref 2).
How Did the Accident at Curtin Mansion Happen ?
Kerosene (earlier known as coal oil) accidents were commonplace in those days. In Ohio in 1907, for example, losses from house fires started as a result of lamp and lantern mishaps totaled $168,000, a tidy sum at the time, and there were 17 deaths (Ref 3). Contributing causes of lamp explosions included allowing dirt to accumulate around the burner and collar of the burner, thereby not allowing heat to dissipate efficiently. Leaving the wick overtop the wick tube when the lamp was unlit was also a safety hazard. It could cause kerosene to wick upward and spill down the outside of the lamp, leading to overheating of the fuel-containing globe when relit. Users were cautioned not to blow down into the glass chimney (one should blow across the top), nor should the flame be extinguished while burning too high or too low. Failure to adhere to these rules could force the flame down into the fuel chamber and cause vaporized fuel collected above the liquid to explode. Improper fitting wicks --that is, too small for the tube size in the particular lamp -- could contribute to this danger. Finally, due to the production method, lower grade kerosene could contain highly flammable (explosive) impurities, most importantly, gasoline. It was reported that Sarah was blowing out the flame when the explosion occurred. Given that she was 67, it seems likely that this was her habit, and that other contributing factors led to the disaster. We don’t have further details about the type, age, and condition of the lamp, but fundamentally, kerosene lamps were potentially hazardous, and accidents caused many fires and serious injuries.
Medical Perspective on the Severity of Sarah Curtin Larimer’s Injuries:
For burn victims who are not killed immediately, the most important determinants of dying are the extent and depth of the burns; age of the victim; the presence or absence of inhalation injury. From what we know, Sadie had deep burns of her right arm and significant burns to the left arm, back, and front of her chest and abdomen. Conservatively, we could estimate a 30% body burn, but more likely 40%. She was not confined in an enclosed space for any length of time during the fire, so may not have sustained a significant inhalation injury, but this is uncertain. She was 67 years old. Using today’s risk assessment tools, she would have a predicted mortality risk of 18% to 30% – higher if there were significant inhalation injury. Over just the past 30 -40 years, however, mortality risk has decreased dramatically. Even if the injury occurred in 1980, as opposed to 1914, her risk of dying may have been 50% or more.
Consequences of Burns and Absence of Effective Treatments in 1914
Burn patients who don’t die immediately encounter a remarkably complex series of challenges. Upon arrival at the hospital, due to destruction of the skin’s protection, patients are subject to hypothermia, evaporative fluid losses, electrolyte (salt) imbalance, and kidney failure. Burns cause an outpouring of chemicals that lead to dramatic changes in metabolism (the body's processing of nutrients, utilization of energy, and the balance between protein build-up and break-down) and immunity, predisposing to nutritional deficits, muscle wasting, and vulnerability to infections, as well as revving up inflammation throughout the body to a point whereby the inflammation itself is harmful. In sum, these changes require immediate administration of intravenous fluids and early nutritional support – caloric and protein requirements can be 2 to 2 ½ times more than baseline needs. Blood pressure, urine output and kidney function, lung function, and blood electrolytes (salts) are monitored and interventions are undertaken as required. In 1914 of course, at the Curtin Mansion, nothing of the sort would have been available.
If the victim survives the first few days, the next great threat is infection of the burn wound, pneumonia or urinary infection. Burn wounds are fertile ground for staph and strep infection early on, and other more sinister bacteria and fungi predominate after five to seven days. Damaged and dead tissue also create the conditions for tetanus (lockjaw). Today’s care includes early surgery to remove dead and damaged tissue, along with skin grafting or coverage of wounds with artificial skin substitutes. Open wounds are covered with agents to inhibit bacterial growth. Powerful antibiotics are available to treat serious infections. A tetanus booster shot is given to people not up-to-date on their immunization. Neither antibiotics nor tetanus vaccines were available in 1914.
In fact, no effective interventions would have been available, and even pain control would have been challenging. That she survived the initial hurdles makes it likely that she died of infection of the burn wounds, whole body sepsis, and failure of multiple organs, kidneys and lungs most importantly. Tetanus, known commonly as lockjaw, was a possible cause, although less likely, given there is no mention of this easily recognized affliction in the available contemporary accounts. It was a serious injury, although it is very likely she would have survived if treated today in a burn intensive care unit.
1. Democratic Watchman, Dec 18,1914, p 12
2. Death certificate of Sarah Curtin Larimer, Signed Dec 28, 1914 By David Dale, MD
3. Rogers, SW The coal oil or kerosene lamp. Fire and Water Engineering, (now known as Fire Engineering) Feb 3, 1909.
Jerry is a retired general surgeon and a new Board Member of the Roland Curtin Foundation. He has Curtin roots extending back to 1831, through four previous generations.