Monday, April 05, 2021

Maggie Riggers' death: A curling iron misadventure?

Readers across Iowa --- the nation in fact --- learned about the tragic Easter Sunday 1901 death in Ada, Minnesota, of Miss Margaretha Riggers, a milliner in her early 30s, the next week thanks to the "patent insides" of their local newspapers.

"Patent insides" were sheets of newsprint containing pre-printed pages supplied by outfits like George Joslyn's Western Newspaper Union, founded in Des Moines but by 1901 with major branches in Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago and elsewhere. Local newspaper publishers printed their own news on blank areas of these sheets, producing newspapers that then were a mix of local, state, national and world news.

I found the story on an inside preprinted "patent" page of The Chariton Herald of April 11, 1901, under the headline, "Her Hair Caught Fire; Woman Burned to Death While Preparing to Attend Church." Here's how it reads:

"Ada, Minn., April 9 --- While Miss Maggie Riggers, a milliner, was preparing her Easter toilet yesterday morning she was burned to death. Miss Riggers lived in the rear portion of her millinery store. She was preparing to attend Easter services, and had heated a curling iron over a small gasoline stove. In some manner her hair caught fire and the flames communicated to the inflammable millinery stock, the building and its contents being destroyed. Miss Rigger's screams were heard by neighbors, but before she could be rescued she was burned to a crisp."

Maggie, eldest child of John and Anna Margaretha Riggers, had been born in Hanover, Germany, during 1867 and was eight years old when she sailed from Hamburg to America during April of 1876, alighting eventually in rural northwest Minnesota. She had not married, but instead supported herself as a milliner and dressmaker, working and living in a small building in Ada's business district. Her remains were buried in the Ada Cemetery.

I was curious to see how this sad little story had been reported in newspapers closer to home. Although the tragic result was the same, the reports there were considerably less sensational and minus a few details added (to spice the story up?) by whoever wrote the shorter syndicated version. Here's the story as reported in The Minneapolis Journal of April 8 under the headline, "Perished in Her Store; Easter Sunday Tragedy at Ada; Miss Maggie Riggers, a Popular Milliner, Incinerated by an Early Fire."

"Ada, Minn., April 8 --- Maggie Riggers, milliner and dressmaker, lost her life Sunday morning at 8:45 through the burning of her millinery establishment. The first alarm given was the muffled report of an explosion from the building occupied by Miss Riggers, which was heard by those living in adjoining buildings. A few seconds after the general alarm had been given, flames and smoke were seen coming from the building, a one-story structure, and Albert Frazze, standing across the street, heard a window smash and a shriek for help. While running across to Miss Riggers' assistance he saw a hand waving at the window and one more agonizing cry for help was heard before the hand disappeared.

"When the door was reached it was found locked and the body of Miss Riggers was lying on the floor against the door. The door was forced in and the body, with life not quite extinct, was removed. In less than 10 minutes after the first alarm the fire department had the blaze under control.

"How the fire started no one will know. The most plausible theory is that Miss Riggers, upon arising and while but partly dressed, started a fire in a heating stove, using kerosene on account of the wet condition of the wood. The stove was in the back part of the room and as soon as the explosion occurred Miss Riggers evidently tried to reach the front door. The lock had been out of order for some time and being unable to accomplish this, she made her last effort for help by smashing a light of glass.

"She was about 30 years of age and had lived in Ada nearly all her life, though well known at Red Wing and Crookston. She was very popular and her horrible death made Sunday a sad Easter for this community. The funeral services took place today under the auspices of the Rebekah lodge, of which she was a member."


There's no real lesson here, other than perhaps the continuing need to check and compare several sources when forming judgments about events not experienced personally. In Maggie's case, however, it's unlikely we'll ever know if her death resulted from too much kerosene tossed into her heating stove or an unfortunate misadventure with a curling iron.

The Easter bonnet advertisement, from The Herald of April 4, 1901, is in honor of Miss Riggers' chosen profession.

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