Ohio Penitentiary Fire
Morgue at the Ohio State Fairground with victims of the Ohio Penitentiary fire, 1930.
On April 21, 1930, the Ohio Penitentiary experienced the worst disaster in its history. A terrible fire broke out in the early evening, eventually killing 322 inmates. Not only was the state penitentiary fire the worst fire in Ohio's history, it was also the worst fire in U.S. prison history.
There was little debate about the source of the fire. Apparently, a candle ignited some oily rags left on the roof of the West Block, also known as the Big Block, of the penitentiary. The fire became noticeable just after prisoners were locked into their cells for the evening. Although many inmates died from the flames, others perished after breathing poisonous smoke from some burning lumber.
The reasons why someone started the fire and why it turned into such a tragedy have been more heavily disputed. Prison officials claimed that three prisoners, hoping to start a diversion so that they could escape, had started the fire intentionally. Two of the three accused inmates died by suicide in the months following the fire, seemingly substantiating that claim. Other observers believed that the fire had been a tragic accident. They felt that prison officials had accused the inmates as a means of diverting attention from the administration's poor handling of the emergency.
Regardless of the cause, conditions within the penitentiary had been ripe for a disaster for years. There had been concern about crowded conditions within the Ohio Penitentiary for more than twenty years. By 1930, the prison held an inmate population that was twice as large as its original capacity. Responding to this problem after the fire, prison administrators transferred several hundred inmates to a prison farm in London, Ohio. This move did not solve the greater problems that Ohio's prison systems faced.
In the aftermath of the fire, the state legislature created measures to address the overcrowding. The General Assembly established the Ohio Parole Board in 1931, leading to the eventual release of thousands of prisoners.