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The Great Fire of 1896: Mount Holyoke Women
Remain Calm and Courageous

The original Seminary Building in the 1870s with the newly constructed library to its left. Courtesy MHC Archives (1)
Onlookers view the destruction of the seminary building in 1896. Courtesy MHC Archives (2)

The first major fire at Mount Holyoke College occurred September 27, 1896 when the original Seminary Building burned to the ground.

The fire began in the gymnasium and soon spread to the rest of the building, destroying all student and faculty living quarters, classrooms, exercise areas, and dining facilities. Many local and regional newspapers documented the fire. However, the most telling accounts come from students and faculty who directly experienced the fire and the aftermath it left behind.

Through examining Elizabeth Storrs Mead’s President’s Report for 1896-97 in contrast to a student’s letter , which recounts her personal experience of the fire, it appears that the reactions of the students and faculty were quite similar. The two documents, however, are each directed to a different audience. Mead was writing to the Board of Trustees, a formal and somewhat external audience. The student, whose identity is unknown, is most likely writing to a friend or family member.

Despite this, both letters share a common message. Both Mead and the student strongly state that the women of Mount Holyoke were courageous, calm, and determined in the face of tragedy. Both responses also seem to be conditioned by a negative stereotype of women during the late 1800s. Mead's report and the student's letter aim to devalue this stereotype and prove differently, that women were strong and could maintain their wits and dignity in times of destruction and upheaval.

"People may say what they like about girls loosing their wits in times of great excitement, but I never saw four hundred people behave better."(3)
Read the Student's Letter

"The utmost calmness and order prevailed among the students. They were self-possessed and heroic."(4)
Read Elizabeth Mead's President's Report

Facts About the Fire

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This page was created by Lindsay Theile '04 in History 283, Fall Semester 2003 -