CONFLAGRATION: THE TRAGEDY OF LAURA JAKUBOWSKI

By Deborah Large Fox

LAURA

            During the last week of July 1940, the residents of Camden NJ sweltered in a heat wave with temperatures reaching nearly 100 degrees. The sun beat down on the alleys and brick row houses of the hard-working people, who got little relief from open windows and noisy fans. The employees working at the R.M. Hollingshead plant at 9th and Market got even less respite from the heat when they clocked-in for work at the six, brick and wood, five-story buildings where they manufactured waxes, automobile greases and fluids, polishes, and other highly flammable and vaporous products. In Building 4, where the heated wax polishes were piped into cans by female workers, a 36-inch fan in a window on the third floor was the only vent for vapors. The ladies, however, worked on the bottom floor, far from the fan. The floors above them contained three-story vertical tanks filled with flammable waxes and polishes. 

            On 30 July 1940, Laura Jakubowski was one of the women filling the wax cans in Building 4. Laura, my Babcia’s sister, was the beauty of the Jakubowski family, “quite a looker,” as the men would say at the time. The youngest of five girls and one boy born to my great grandparents Stanislaw and Katarzyna (Tolpa) Jakubowski, Laura had blond hair and dreamy “bedroom eyes.” As a child, I would stare at Laura’s portrait and wonder if she had been a movie star. 

            On 30 July 1940, Laura was not at home on Jackson Street, where she was supposed to be. That morning, Laura had agreed to work her sister Katherine’s shift at the factory. Katherine was pregnant and not feeling well in the oppressive heat, so Laura took Katherine’s place besides three other women on the filling line in the basement of Building 4. 

            A few minutes after 1:00 p.m., Building 4 exploded and collapsed. 

             Laura and nine others lost their lives in the conflagration. Almost 200 people were injured. The block of factory buildings was reduced to rubble after explosions and fires that lasted for days. Thirty-two houses near the factory were destroyed; thirty-one more, damaged. Sixty automobiles were burned or destroyed. The losses totaled almost two million dollars; in 2020 dollars, this figure would amount to almost forty million. 

            The emotional toll on the Jakubowski family cannot be measured. My great grandmother, Babcia Katarzyna, suffered multiple breakdowns and had to be sedated for weeks. At one point, a doctor was called and pronounced Katarzyna to be in critical condition. My Dziadek Stanislaw and his son John spent days and nights in the hot and dangerous ruins, alongside rescue crews, searching for Laura’s remains. Stanislaw’s hair turned white overnight. 

            Laura’s funeral and burial added more heartbreak to a family already suffering from unimaginable loss. The remains of the four women working together on the wax filling station could not be individually identified, so they were placed together in a silver casket and buried at Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken. Laura was denied a Catholic, family burial because she could not be separated from the others. The devout family suffered an emotional and spiritual blow when Laura could not be buried in the family plot at the cemetery owned by the Polish parish of St. Joseph. The family members had to say goodbye to their beautiful Laura while in the public eye at a large funeral given for the four women jointly. Katarzyna was hysterical at the service, according to news reports and family accounts. 

            I visit Laura’s grave occasionally. Sometimes I see flowers left by others at the memorial erected to the four women, but as the years pass, the story of the Hollingshead fire fades from family and Camden memory. July 2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the fire and of Laura’s death.

            For detailed accounts of the fire, see http://www.dvrbs.com/fire/camdennj-hollingshead-fire.htm  A film of the fire can be seen at https://youtu.be/Bw0Kumf5Ug8

and https://youtu.be/b2bNnS7DV64

And that’s what Deb said…

Jakubowski family, about 1928: Sophie, Katherine, Stanislaw, Stella (standing behind her daughter Dorothy), Josephine (standing), Katarzyna (seated), Laura (standing), John

Uncle Bill’s Stetson Fedora

Uncle Bill and Aunt Katherine Landy visit us at 1127 N. 19th Street in Camden NJ on Christmas Eve, 1956

            My job, when company arrived, was to take the guests’ hats and coats upstairs to my parents’ bed. All the men wore fedoras. All the women’s coats smelled of Chanel No. 5 or a popular Avon scent. On winter evenings, their damp fur collars smelled of wet snowflakes. I was supposed to lay the coats and hats carefully on the bed, but mostly just tossed them. 

            “Now, handle this hat very carefully,” my godfather Uncle Bill Landy would say. “It’s a Stetson, you know.” 

            I handled that hat like it was gold. I grew up with a lifelong reverence for Stetson hats.  I once asked my cousin if her dad’s hats were, in fact, Stetsons.

            “Are you kidding?” she said, adding that her dad would never have afforded a Stetson hat. 

            A few months ago, an elderly man with a dapper hat stood in front of me in line at the supermarket. On impulse, I asked him if he was wearing a Stetson. He responded that the hat was indeed a treasured Stetson, and decades old. He was so pleased that I recognized it. 

“I know a Stetson when I see one because my Uncle Bill always wore one,” I told him. 

COFFEE TIME WITH SISTER WILHELMINA

     “Child, what are you drinking?”

     Usually, we could hear a nun approaching behind us. Those clacking rosaries and heavy footsteps gave children advance warning before the wrath of heaven descended upon their misdeeds. I must have been extra tired that day because I heard nothing, not even the rustling of the voluminous black habit Sister Wilhelmina wore. I was in the last seat near the back door of the classroom. Sister must have slipped into the hall and attacked from behind.

     Sister Wilhelmena was the oldest nun at St. John School, and the most petite. She was not my regular second grade teacher, but was the room monitor for First Friday breakfast period. Every first Friday of the month, the students attended Mass before classes began and were allowed a small breakfast afterwards at their desks. I brought my usual breakfast that morning, coffee and a Tastycake treat.

     Yes, I was a seven-year-old sugar and caffeine addict. 

     I remember drinking coffee as a toddler. By elementary school, I had a two cup a day habit. I drank the strong stuff, percolated, with a splash of milk. I’ve often wondered if I was self-medicating with the caffeine because coffee often averted my cluster migraine attacks when I was young. I’ve also wondered why my mother allowed me to drink coffee at such a young age, but times were different then, I suppose. 

     I had to admit it to Sister. She was looming behind me and staring at the open thermos. Our corner of the classroom was beginning to smell like a coffee shop.

     “Coffee, sister,” I whispered with my head down.

     No ruler descended. No ear was grabbed. 

     “My mother allows me to drink it,” I said, daring a glance at the nun.

     Sister Wilhelmena instructed me to wait a minute before I took another sip, then she slipped away. I sat frozen for an eternity. I didn’t look up, just sat staring at my cursed thermos. As if summoned by magic, a tiny porcelain teacup with pink roses appeared on my desk.  

     “Would you share just a cup, child?” Sister Wilhelmena whispered.

     My shaky hand poured the coffee into her teacup. Sister Wilhelmina savored each sip with her eyes closed, surely sending a prayer of gratitude to heaven. 

Philip Large. Detective, POW, and Newsboy

“Are you a praying man?” Detective Phil Large said as he hoisted the suspect by the collar and belt, then hung him, head-first, out of the third story window.

              “If you are, you better start praying now.” 

            According to the story told to me by a veteran detective in the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, the suspect confessed immediately. I was surprised, not that Phil might have dangled a man out the window, but that the suspect didn’t confess as soon as he entered the same room with my uncle. Philip Large, at six foot four, towered over everyone. His thick dark hair and “five o’clock” shadow added to his law and order mien. 

            I was scared of him! One of my earliest memories is my trying to crawl from one chair to another at my grandmother’s house without drawing the giant’s attention. (Yes, I said crawl, so I must have been a baby or a toddler at the time). The giant saw me and scooped me up into his arms with a great roar and a belly-tickle! I don’t have many memories of Uncle Phil because he died in 1964 after the degenerative disease ALS slowly and methodically paralyzed him. Seeing such a huge, tough legend-of-a-man rendered immobile in a wheelchair was more terrifying to me than were those belly-tickles. 

         The doctors thought that Phil’s years in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II might have triggered his disease. Phil was captured in Tunisia early in the war and was not released until his camp was liberated. His beloved father William died of appendicitis during Phil’s captivity, and the news devastated Phil.  When Phil arrived back in Camden, his own sister Irma walked past him on the street. She did not recognize her own brother because Phil had lost so much weight and looked so haggard. Irma told me that Phil, so gregarious and outgoing before the war, stayed inside the house with the shades drawn for weeks. 

            About ten years ago, I received a telephone call from an unknown woman. She found me through a newspaper interview I had given to a Courier Post reporter about World War II prisoners of war. The woman claimed that her late husband was captured in Tunisia with Uncle Phil. The husband had been seriously wounded, and Phil saved his life by carrying him across Tunisia, then Italy, then through German lines to POW Camp 3B near Stuttgart, Germany. 

            A few months later, I received a packet from a newspaper reporter filled with articles about Phil’s career. As a Camden City police officer and a Camden County detective, Phil cracked many cases and made notable arrests. My favorite story is an interview Uncle Phil gave to a reporter when he was sixteen. Phil had been selling newspapers on the corner of 3rdand Federal Streets in Camden since he was eight years old. According to the article, young Phil considered himself an entrepreneur and intended to carve out a career in the newspaper business. 

            The reporter noted that teenaged Phil was a keen observer of human nature. His mind was a mental notebook of hundreds of incidents and experiences. Phil had sage advice for the reporter and for us all:

“If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see that something is going on every minute, and there’s nothing that goes on but what you can learn a thing from it.”

. . . that’s what Phil said.