Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

On the Web Since 1994

Podcasting Since January 2008

Fight! – Shiloh Baptist Church Disaster – Podcast #8

The following is an excerpt from my second book, Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart: More Stories From The Flip Side of History.

I’m sure that you remember that wise rule that they taught you when you were growing up: don’t ever scream “FIRE!” in a crowd.  History has certainly shown time and time again that death can occur if this rule is ignored.

I bet, however, that no one ever told you that you shouldn’t scream “FIGHT” in a crowded room. 

Why?

The answer is quite simple: the Shiloh Baptist Church disaster provides all the proof ever needed.

Shiloh Baptist Church, c.1902
Shiloh Baptist Church, c.1902. Wikipedia image.

To find out what happened during this disaster, we must set our timepieces back to September 19, 1902, and make a visit to this brand-new church located in Birmingham, Alabama.

The church was packed to capacity.  Over 2000 people had gathered for the National Convention of Negro Baptists to hear the famous Booker T. Washington give his address.  Just as Mr. Washington finished his speech, a Baltimore lawyer named Judge Billou started an argument with the church’s choir leader over an unoccupied seat.  One of the choir members screamed “A FIGHT!” to the crowd.

This was a big mistake.  A really BIG mistake.

It seems that the crowd misinterpreted the word “Fight” as “Fire”.

In one mad rush, the congregation ran for the door.  Unfortunately, 2,000 people cannot fit through one door at the same time.  People were trampled to death as they fell to the floor.  Others suffocated because of the massive wall of people pushing against the church’s outer wall.

In an effort to calm the crowd down, one of the ministers went to the lectern and pleaded for people to be quiet.  Again, the crowd thought that he said “Fire”.

The floor of the church was approximately fifteen feet above street level.  A set of long steps dropped from the church lobby to the sidewalk below.  Unfortunately, the steps were flanked by large brick walls on either side.

You can see where this story is going…

The people running out of the church pushed others down the steps.  The staircase subsequently trapped all of the bodies within its confining walls.  Bodies began to pile up and many suffocated under the mad rush.  Others were luckier (if you can call it that) and only suffered from broken limbs and internal injuries.  In the end, 115 people were trampled or suffocated to death.

So, the next time you are about to scream “A Fight!” think twice about what the consequences could be.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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