Oscar Joseph Brown was born in New Jersey
on October 21, 1879. Both parents, Samuel and Jennie, were from
Northern Ireland, with Samuel coming to the U.S. in 1845, and Jennie
As an adult, he stood 5 feet 11 inches tall, and weighed about
165 pounds. He had blue eyes, dark brown hair, and a ruddy complexion.
In 1900, he was living with his parents and siblings in a rented
flat, in a frame tenement, at 67 Newton Street, between 12th and
13th Avenues. Living there with him was: Samuel, 62, father, born
1838; Jennie, 60, mother, born 1840; Samuel, 30, brother, born 1869;
John, 22, brother, born 1877; May Bell, 21, sister, born 1878, and
Kate, 17, sister, born 1882. His parents had been married 39 years
at that point. Jennie gave birth to nine children, eight of whom
were still living. Samuel Sr. was a hatter, Samuel Jr. was a policeman,
John was a plumber, and Oscar was a hardware salesman.
In 1909, he married Jane P. He was 30 and she was 27 Jane, as well
as her parents, was born in New Jersey.
In 1910, Oscar was living with his wife, Jane, 28, and his son,
Robert, 10 months, in a rented flat, in a frame tenement, at 9 South
6th Street, between Central and 11th Avenues. Oscar was listed as
a fireman with the City of Newark, but his wife was not employed.
According to 1917 military draft records, he resided at 321 South
12th Street, opposite 13th Avenue, and was a fireman with Truck
1, on Mulberry Street. His nearest relative was listed as Jane P.
In 1920, he was still living in the frame dwelling at 321 South
12th Street, with his wife and son, was still a city fireman.
In 1930, Oscar, his wife, Jane, and his son, Robert, were living
in their own wood-frame home at 39 Pine Grove Terrace, between South
Orange Avenue and Grove Terrace, in Vailsburg, and they had a radio
set. The house was valued at $11,000, equal to $133,000 today. Oscar
was a Captain with the Newark Fire Department, Jane was a housewife,
and Robert was employed as a telephone clerk.
According to 1942 military draft records, Oscar was still living
at 39 Pine Grove Terrace, with Jane as his nearest relative, and
was a captain in Truck 12, at the Palm Street firehouse. His phone
number was Essex 2-5794.
While Oscar was registered in both military drafts, he never served
in the military.
We can safely assume that Oscar joined the Newark Fire Department
some time prior to 1908 and was still on the job some 34 years later,
in 1942, and still possibly in 1944.
On the morning of November 26, 1910, Oscar was on duty as a fireman
in Engine 4’s quarters, then located at 223-25 High Street,
between Orange Street and Boyden Place. Directly across the street
sat a four-story brick, multi-occupancy factory, which housed two
paper box companies, a machine shop, two electric lamp firms, and
a ladies undergarment manufacturer, located on the top floor.
Shortly after 9 in the morning, a flash fire broke out on the third
floor in one of the electric lamp concerns. Due to a poor past fire
record, the employees chose to fight the fire themselves rather
then alert the firefighters across the street. When it was evident
the buckets of sand were having little effect on the flames, one
of the female employees ran across to the firehouse and reported
Captain Van Volkenburg, of Engine 4, ran across the street, quickly
followed by Firefighter Oscar J. Brown, toting a hand extinguisher.
In this short time, the flames quickly spread via the oil-soaked
floors and flammable stock, and the third floor became a mass of
flames. Not being able to get past the third floor, Captain Van
Volkenburg smashed out a window, and yelled to the firefighters
across the street, “Pull the box!” At 09:26 hours, the
alarm went out from Box 4, located at Engine 4’s firehouse.
Not being able to fight the flames, Van Volkenburg and Brown turned
their efforts toward rescuing as many of the female employees as
they could, helping them to windows, the stairs, and the building’s
single, improper fire escape. What they did not know, however, was
that 116 girls, an errand boy, and a forewoman were trapped by the
rapidly spreading flames on the floor above them.
As other firefighters arrived on the scene, they were greeted by
a horrible sight. Flames and heavy black smoke were belching from
every window on the third and fourth floors, and the single fire
escape was fully crammed with panic-stricken girls trying to flee
the flames. But, the most tragic sight was watching trapped women
start to jump from the fourth floor windows. Life nets were quickly
put into operation, saving several girls who jumped, while others
were saved by hastily raised ladders. Captain Van Volkenburg and
Firefighter Brown had run through the bottom three floors of the
building evacuating women as they went, and both had to be rescued
from the third floor by way of a fire ladder.
At the end of the day, six girls and the errand boy burned to death
on the top floor, while many others were critically injured in falls
or by jumping from the flaming building. The final toll was 26 dead,
19 of whom had jumped or fallen from the building.
While it was the most tragic fire in the city’s history,
Newark’s firefighters faced their own darkness when charges
of cowardice were leveled against them. An attorney, who was a spectator
at the fire, had charged that the fireman just stood there and did
nothing. They didn’t know how to raise ladders and their life
nets were old and useless.
Such charges had never been leveled against Newark’s Bravest
ever before. Everyone was appalled, to say the least. The charges
were brought to bear and a Coroner’s Inquest was evoked to
fully investigate the tragedy.
Blame was shuffled, fingers were pointed, and in the end, no one
was ever really held accountable for the tragedy that visited Newark
that day. Archaic laws protected the people that owned and occupied
the building and had control over it. They hid behind these laws,
claiming 26 people died as a result of an “accident.”
However, 26 people died that day because they worked in a building
that was dangerous and not safe for human beings to work in.
As far as the charges of cowardice went, several eyewitnesses testified
to the fact that the attorney who leveled the charges was highly
intoxicated at the scene, and interfered several times with firefighting
As far as the ladder charge, it was not firefighters attempting
to raise the ladder in question, but rather well-intentioned men
from a nearby silver plating factory, and a meat-storage house,
who did not know how to properly raise the 50-foot ladder they took
from a ladder truck. In reference to his charges against the nets,
he was referring to one of the life nets that had been broken when
three girls jumped from a fourth floor window holding hands. Even
though the firefighters holding the net knew what was coming, they
held steady and bore the full force of the three bodies impacting
the net. They were all knocked to the ground and the net was broken.
All charges of cowardice were dropped and the department was exonerated
of all charges regarding any ill-handling of the blaze. As a matter
of fact, it was the testimony of several eyewitnesses that if it
wasn’t for the heroic efforts of the firefighters, the death
toll would’ve been much higher. It was related about how the
firefighters from Engine 4 tried to use mattresses to catch the
girls jumping from fourth floor windows until truck companies arrived
It was the one and only time in the history of the NFD that charges
of cowardice darkened their reputation.
So, Oscar was a hero that day, but he would’ve just said
he was just doin’ his job.