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Mayor's death, blaze still linked in mystery

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Robert M. McLane guided Baltimore through the Great Fire of 1904 and led a bold rebuilding effort. The 36-year-old blue-blood mayor found time, too, to sneak off and secretly marry a socialite hailed as one of the city's most beautiful women.

Then on May 30, less than four months after the flames were doused, he shared a laugh with his bride at their West Preston Street home, walked into his dressing room and, according to a coroner, shot himself in the head with a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver.

Did the fire kill McLane? A city determined to revive itself now had to struggle with the sudden loss of a promising young leader at a time it needed him.

Forever, the story of Baltimore's largest disaster and the mystery of the mayor's death will remain linked.

The devastating blaze began 100 years ago today when a cigar or cigarette fell into the basement of the John E. Hurst & Co. dry goods building near present-day 1st Mariner Arena. It was a cold and breezy Sunday, and the city was soon aflame.

The 30-hour fire transformed downtown. About 80 blocks and more than 1,500 buildings were ruins reminiscent of an earthquake's aftermath. Damage was put at more than $125 million - worth an estimated $2.5 billion today. Miraculously, just five deaths are attributed to the fire, either directly or as a result of pneumonia contracted from battling the flames.

A century later, the fire's lasting mark is clear around downtown, from a widening of Pratt Street and other roads, to edifices like the B&O; Railroad's grand Charles Street headquarters building.

Far murkier is the mystery, nearly lost to time, of McLane's demise. Is it true, as many felt then, that the outwardly happy and newly married mayor broke under the strain of the catastrophe and its tense aftermath?

No one really knows what happened to him. Some of his descendants, along with a federal bankruptcy judge, doubt he committed suicide. Their theories range from a freak accident to suspicion that his new wife, Mary Van Bibber, did the deed.

Even those who accept that he died by his own hand cannot fathom how the fire could have driven him to it.

The Baltimore of 1904 had a bright future as an economic powerhouse, thanks to its railroad, shipping and manufacturing industries. The key question seemed to be how much stronger it would emerge, and the progressive McLane was in a good position to shape that future.

"All the indications were he was going to play a strong leadership role in leading the city out of the disaster of the fire," said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist. "It's very hard to believe it's the fire that leads him to suicide. It's much easier to believe the fire invigorated him."

If answers are hard to find, a look at the fire through McLane's eyes offers a glimpse of an energetic mayor who tried - but didn't always succeed - to do what he thought was right.

"He's the tragic figure in all of this," said Peter B. Petersen, a Johns Hopkins University management professor and author of The Great Baltimore Fire. "Tremendous stress on the poor man, truly a tragic figure. A person who wanted to do the right thing. ... "

The fire began at 10:48 a.m. when an alarm sounded at the Hurst building, near Liberty and German (now Redwood) streets. At first, city residents gathered to watch the spectacle. The spreading fire soon drove them back.

The mayor, elected nine months earlier by a scant 624 votes, quickly made clear he was in charge of fighting the flames. That was especially true after the fire chief was injured and an assistant stepped in. An hour after the blaze broke out, McLane was walking the fire lines like a field general.

At 5 p.m., the mayor ordered the dynamiting of buildings in the hope of creating a firebreak. A dozen buildings were blasted along Charles, Baltimore and Lombard streets. The drastic step failed and only hastened the fire's eastward pace by blowing out windows of nearby buildings.

As time passed, the mayor became too involved for his and the city's good, said Petersen. In his book, he criticizes McLane for initially declining fire-fighting assistance from other cities, for spending so much time near the fire that he could not be found on occasion, and for going ahead with the dynamiting. "Cool under pressure and decisive, McLane seemed to be the right man at the right place," Petersen wrote. "Yet as he became more involved in choosing strategies for fighting a fire ... McLane made some disastrous decisions."

Petersen praises one decision: McLane's request for Maryland National Guard troops to help control crowds and keep order.

Overnight, as the fire marched on and the glow could be seen 50 miles away, McLane continued to lead. When the blaze seemed to weaken about 3:30 a.m. Monday, he confidently told a reporter, "I feel the conflagration shows some signs of abating."

Yet the fire was crossing Charles Street by Lombard and charging east. Changing winds caused havoc for firefighters, who had come from five states and Washington. Gusts blew to the northeast, then east, then southeast. It wasn't until 5 p.m. Monday that a line of firefighters managed to stop the fire at the Jones Falls, answering the prayers of Little Italy residents gathered just across the narrow waterway.

The devastation was immense. In a city said to be the biggest dry goods market between New York and New Orleans, block after block was a pile of rubble. The fire zone reached Liberty Street on the west, Lexington Street on the north and the falls to the east, and it tore up the waterfront.

Architectural prizes such as the Sun Iron Building were lost, though City Hall and the Power Plant building were among those narrowly saved.

Almost immediately, the public's - and McLane's - focus turned to rebuilding. In a perverse way, said archivist Papenfuse, the fire gave McLane an opportunity to push for a municipal sewer system and other modern changes he had previously envisioned.

McLane, a Democrat, was what today's pundits might call a comer. He was 35 on Election Day, a year younger than Mayor Martin O'Malley was when voters made him mayor in 1999. Pictures show a serious-looking McLane with deep-set eyes and pursed lips.

He was born into a wealthy Baltimore family that included a governor of Maryland. McLane had a privileged upbringing of country houses, private schools and trips to Europe. In 1899, while in his early 30s, he was elected city state's attorney.

Nothing could prepare him, though, for the fire. Days after the disaster, he appointed a Citizen's Emergency Committee and named as chairman William Keyser, a businessman thought of as a progressive. The group called for the widening of many streets and for the city to buy the wharf area so modern docks and piers could be built.

McLane accepted these recommendations and appointed a Burnt District Commission to implement the multimillion-dollar rebuilding to be financed with bonds and the sale of the city's Western Maryland Railroad stock.

Some of the rebuilding ideas met with resistance among Republicans on the City Council and business owners. Merchants felt that wider streets would deprive them of valuable square footage, Petersen writes.

Col. Sherlock Swann, chairman of the Burnt District Commission, offered to resign at one point if the criticism embarrassed the mayor. McLane turned him down.

In the end, much of the work moved forward, with a few exceptions. Baltimore Street was not widened. Within two years, downtown was largely rebuilt. McLane's successor, Republican E. Clay Timanus, laid the groundwork for a modern sewer system.

The people of Baltimore were still focused on rebuilding when they got a surprise May 15: Their bachelor mayor had wed the day before in a secret ceremony in Washington.

Not even his friends knew ahead of time, The Sun reported. At 48, the dark-haired Mary Van Bibber was a dozen years older than the mayor, The Washington Post noted. She was a widow and the mother of two sons.

"She is noted for her charm of manner, her exquisite taste in dress and her many accomplishments," The Post said.

Their engagement had been rumored for more than a year, and The Sun said "it was known that the mayor was attentive to the lady."

If their story sounded romantic, there were also hints of a family rift. McLane's parents didn't approve of her or her ties to the ritzy world of Narragansett Pier, outside Newport, R.I., according to the Post. "She was a member of the smart set in society," the paper reported, "while the mayor's family are of the retiring aristocratic sort."

Because his parents refused to recognize her and wouldn't attend a wedding, McLane's mood darkened, the paper claimed.

The mayor's state of mind, whatever it was, took on great significance just 16 days later. It was Decoration Day, so City Hall was closed for the holiday. The mayor took a stroll in the morning, bumping into two acquaintances along the way. "To both he spoke in the most cheerful kind of way," The Sun reported, "and talked of matters he intended to do on the morrow."

Even his last letter hinted at no distress. Written at 11 a.m. on May 30, it was addressed to a judge who served as secretary at the University of Maryland Law School, where McLane lectured. In the letter, he told the judge he was grading papers for a commercial law class. "I am working on the rest of the books now," he wrote. "I will try to have all of the marks by the end of this week or the early part of next."

The May 31 edition of The Sun described what happened next. McLane and his wife ate lunch. Afterward, the two walked up to the third floor, "laughing about the way she had tied up a bundle."

She went into her room to rest before a planned walk with her husband. He went to his dressing room to straighten up a few things. Four minutes later, a bullet went through his right temple and out the left side of his head.

Mary McLane told police she heard what sounded like a shutter falling and dispatched a maid, Lizzie Redchurch, to investigate. The maid soon called for her. McLane lay slumped on the floor bleeding profusely.

"Good heavens!" his wife was said to have exclaimed. "Why did he do it?"

It was 3:15. By 5 o'clock, he was dead.

Claude Van Bibber, Mary's former brother-in-law, insisted the shooting had to be a horrible accident. Coroner Benjamin F. Hayden, forgoing a formal inquest, quickly disagreed.

"As much as I regret to so state, I am obliged to give my official opinion that Mayor McLane committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver," Hayden announced. "The powder marks on his head show that he pressed the revolver close to his head and pulled the trigger."

But why would he do it? No note was found. And while some people said McLane seemed gloomy, most people, his wife included, said he appeared cheerful.

A doctor named Nathan Gorter reached the conclusion many did: "Only one explanation seems plausible - that he was overwrought at the great worry brought upon him by the fire and the subsequent hard work and that the strain was too great."

The official cause of death, as listed on his death certificate, was a self-inflicted wound "while suffering from temporary dementia."

Because of the coroner's conclusion that the death was a suicide, McLane's funeral was not allowed to take place at the family's Episcopal church. It was held at the McLane family home at 903 Cathedral St. He was buried in Green Mount Cemetery. A simple gravestone marks the spot, not mentioning he was once mayor of Baltimore.

The McLane mystery has receded from public memory, popping up briefly from time to time. In a 1986 column for The Sun, Theo Lippman Jr. wrote that McLane is the only Baltimore mayor "of whom it can be asked: Who murdered him?"

Not that Lippman offered evidence of a homicide. What he cited was a 1956 letter to the editor from a Melbourne Hart of Easton, who wrote that "many of us feel confident that we know that he was murdered and also who the murderer was and also the motive for that crime."

Hart, alas, did not elaborate.

More recently, the puzzle has captivated the chief judge of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore. Judge James F. Schneider said he knew McLane supposedly killed himself but decided to look into the story while preparing a talk last fall to a group of lawyers. Schneider read old newspaper articles, visited the gravesite and drove to the block of West Preston Street where McLane died.

"None of it has ever made sense," Schneider said recently. "I have no basis to say he was murdered, but I just don't think it was suicide. Seems like an accident of some kind. It's so bizarre to me."

The McLane family scattered in the decades after the mayor's death. But McLane's grand-niece, Catherine Hoffman, lives in Owings Mills. Now 84, she says her mother - McLane's niece - did not say much about the mayor's death. "They never wanted to talk about it, which always made me suspicious about what happened," Hoffman said.

The mayor's brother, Allan, lived until 1940, and Hoffman often visited her great-uncle at his Green Spring Valley home. "He would take us into his study and talk about history," she said, but "I don't ever remember him talking about his brother or his brother's demise."

Hoffman doubts it was a suicide but says it is "sort of a gut feeling."

Another family member, Stephen Bolton, goes further. Not only does he dismiss suicide, he points a finger at McLane's widow. Bolton, the great-grand-nephew of the mayor, concedes he cannot prove his case but says it is the only explanation that makes sense.

"There is nothing in his life that suggests he's a depressed person or going to be a sudden suicide risk," said Bolton, a 47-year-old nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "He was riding the crest of the wave - a young mayor, performed well in the fire.

"I, of course, suspect the wife."

Not much is known about the wife, Mary Van Bibber, whom McLane left $10,000 in his will. She departed from Baltimore and lived past 90, dying in 1949. She apparently never remarried, because her obituary in The New York Times gives her name as McLane and lists her as the widow of Robert McLane.

Bolton is resigned to living with his suspicions. He doesn't expect an answer to emerge 100 years after a tumultuous period in his family's history that began with the Great Fire of 1904 and ended with a mayor dead in his dressing room.

"Everybody's dead now who could say anything," Bolton said.

Sun staff researchers Paul McCardell and Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.

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