'First' D.C. firefighter to die on the job wasn't

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 6:57 PM

The first District firefighter to die in the line of duty was killed in 1856, but who was he?

Answer Man asks because one of the questions in his D.C. trivia quiz from a few weeks back asked readers what year the firefighter's death took place. In the answer, he said the firefighter was Benjamin Greenup. Until about a year ago, that's what any firefighter in Washington would have told you. Greenup is honored as such at the District's fire training academy at Blue Plains.

Benjamin Greenup was killed May 6, 1856. In those days, pumps were powered by hand, not steam. The equipment wasn't as heavy as later steam-powered engines and so was pulled by the firemen themselves rather than by horses. Greenup, a member of the Columbia Fire Company, was killed when the engine he was pulling down Pennsylvania Avenue on the way to a blaze collided with a lamppost, crushing him underneath the pumper's wheels. Greenup was 24 and, according to the inscription on his monument in Glenwood Cemetery in Northeast Washington, "A truer, nobler, trustier heart, more loving or more loyal, never beat within a human breast."

Greenup's large grave marker at Glenwood is carved with a detailed depiction of his death. For years it was believed that he was the first firefighter to die while serving the city. But about a year ago, retired D.C. firefighter Jimmy Lloyd came across a 1911 book by Washington Evening Star reporter James Croggon. In it, Croggon mentions a firefighter named John G. Anderson who died two months before Greenup.

The date was March 11, 1856. Answer Man checked the Star from that day and there, under the headline "Deplorable Accident," is the sad tale. Anderson was a member of the Western Hose Company, which was fighting a fire in a large house at 22nd and F streets NW. A wall started to crumble, there were shouts to pull back, but Anderson couldn't get away in time. He was struck by the bricks "and crushed and mangled in the most terrible manner." Anderson, a 38-year-old shoemaker, left his widow and four small children destitute.

Why is Benjamin Greenup remembered today but John Anderson isn't? It may have something to do with where each volunteered. James Embrey, a retired D.C. firefighter and president of the Friendship Fire Association, the organization that runs the District's fire and EMS museum on New Jersey Avenue NW, said that Anderson's firehouse was in what was then a poor neighborhood: Georgetown. Greenup came from a wealthier part of town: Capitol Hill.

"Later on, the Columbia firefighters erected a monument to Greenup," James said. "I think, because of that, people just tended to believe that he was the first to be killed."

Anderson was honored at his funeral, however. His walnut coffin was borne upon the new hose reel of the Western Hose Company, which had been "tastefully fitted up as a hearse for the occasion," wrote the Star.

Anderson's company decreed that its hose house and apparatus be draped in mourning for four months and that "we wear the usual badge of mourning on the left arm for thirty days."

That wording - "the usual badge of mourning" - suggests to Answer Man that perhaps Anderson wasn't the first firefighter killed, either. So, too, does this line from a Star story before the funeral: "as such a casualty has not occurred for a long time, there will doubtless be a general turnout of the Fire Department."

And there was. Among those marching to Holmead's burial ground in Georgetown were the Friendship Company of Alexandria, the Vigilant Fire Company of Georgetown, the American Hook and Ladder Company, and the Northern Liberties Company (Anderson's body was moved to Oak Hill in 1873, but there is no longer a marker.) As for the fact that neither Anderson nor Greenup died of burns, James Embrey said that's not unusual. Lacking the modern equipment of today's smokechasers, firefighters then - all-volunteer in the District until about 1870 - seldom ventured inside burning buildings, instead tackling them from outside.

As the events of 1856 attest, that could still be plenty dangerous. And get this: The very pumper that killed Greenup is in storage, just waiting for its wheels to be tightened so it can go on display.

Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com.


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