Mary Belle Scott Uda (1846 -1936) Or the Scott-Uda Aerial Ladder

Mary Belle was the daughter of  Dr. Henry Harrison Scott and Elizabeth M Wilkinson.  Her father was named after President Henry Harrison, because of his father’s relationship to the President, and the Harrison family.

Mary Belle was probably born in Danville, Illinois where her father had his practice.   In her obituary in the New York Times, dated Dec. 29, 1936, it was claimed she knew Abraham Lincoln, who was said to have visited her home many times when she was a child.  Another obituary in Oswego-Palladium Times, also of the same date stated, “… a cousin of Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, widow of the former President.  She (Mary Belle) recalled visits of Abraham Lincoln  in her father’s house in Danville, Ill. and said she sat on his knee as he once explained the Dred Scott decision.” Mary wrote an article for the Times detailing the events of the visits and it was published in the New York Herald Feb 7, 1916.  (At this time I am unable to obtain a copy of this article, which would prove most interesting).

Mary Belle had several careers and was often described as a “fascinating woman.”   In a book entitled “Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies …,” by J. Frank Kernan, 1885, Mary  was said to have been a music teacher in Chicago.  She went to Florence, Italy to further her education and met and married Michele Uda,  newspaper editor and opera critic.  She lived in Naples for 30 years until after his passing in 1898.  They had  one daughter Italia.  While there she wrote for several New York papers and the Century magazine.  She also wrote a book in Italian about opera and dedicated it to her husband.

She bought patents from Italians and brought these inventions back to the United States.  One was the aerial ladder for fire trucks.  Also from the book “Reminiscences…”, is this information.

“It will be remembered concerning the aerial ladder—originally in the invention of an Italian, who conveyed the right to Mrs. Uda, who at one time figured in the newspapers in connection with the notorious corrupt jobbery by which the fire Department acquired the title to the patent from the lady—that a secretary of the Department was dismissed on proof being furnished that he received $10,000 of the $25,000 which the city paid her for the patent, and that the Fire Commissioners were also mixed up in the job in a manner which created great suspicion and distrust in the public mind…”

“In the year 1872, Mrs. Mary Belle Scott-Uda applies to the Fire department to introduce her new invention of the ‘aerial ladder.’ The ladder was on four wheels, and by using a crank, the hind wheels were brought forward, each movement raising the height of the ladder.  When the two hind wheels were brought forward to the fore wheels, the height of the ladder increased to about one hundred feet, and then a ‘fly’ was added of  about twenty-five feet… When four ladders had been built and were ready for service, it was found that they were too large for the engine-houses , and therefore if the aerial ladders were to be adopted new house would have to be erected…

It appears that this aerial ladder, for which most wonderful qualities had been claimed, while many competent persons denounced it openly, had for some months been the subject of constant experiments.

The experiment on the morning of the 14th of September 1875, had also been ordered by the Chief, and the following men were detailed to ascend the ladder: William H. Nash, Chief of the Fourth Battalion; Philip Maus, of Truck No. 6; William Hughes of Engine Company No. 9; Cornelius J. Kingsley, of Engine Company No 11: Cusick, assistant foremen of the chemical engine and Jesse Patten of Engine No.15—eight in all.

There was a large crowd in attendance as early as eight o’clock. Nash, the chief of the battalion, and a very daring, reckless man, who never seemed to have thought of danger, had, by way of a previous informal experiment, already raised the ladder at six o’clock in the morning, and as­cended to the top. When the hour for holding this lit­tle exhibition arrived, the square bounded by Canal Street, East Broadway, and Rutgers Street was uncom­fortably crowded. Among the more prominent spec­tators was Mrs. Uda herself and the Secretary of the Fire Department, who little thought that they were to witness the death of three human beings by means which they had kindly provided for the city, and after having made a comfortable sum of money out of the operation. When the ladder was put together and raised to a height of ninety-eight feet, Police Captain McElwaine noticed that it would fall upon the spectators in case of an accident, and therefore ordered his men to push the crowd back, removing them all from the possibility of bodily danger. Had this not been done, and the crowd been allowed to remain within falling space, the loss of life might have been terrible, as the number of women and children was very considerable.

Nash, the Chief of the Fourth Battalion, gave the order to ascend at a quarter to eleven o’clock, the putting together of the eight sections and raising of the ladder having consumed much time. The men, however, were somewhat uneasy, and seemed to be un­willing to execute the order. “Why, there’s no danger,” exclaimed Nash, and he lightly mounted the ladder and began to ascend it with great rapidity. The others, whose names have already been given above, were sufficiently encouraged to follow him. Alas! it was the courage and pluck of the unfortunates which plunged them into destruction, for it was only the first two, who followed him quickly, and who met Nash’s cruel fate. These two were Maus and Hughes. When the latter two had passed the third section, Nash, who was a wonderfully rapid climber, was already on the top of the ladder, and calmly looking down upon the spectators from the giddy height of ninety-eight feet, and the five others were away behind below the third section.

It was just above this section of the aerial ladder that the break occurred. The spectators were admiring Nash’s coolness and skill on the top of the ladder, when, to their great horror, they suddenly noticed a dangerous swaying to and fro of the light wooden struc­ture that was standing there, ninety-eight feet high, and without any support whatever to insure the safety of the eight precious lives upon it. Several women, presumably the wives or other relatives of the men on the ladder, gave a loud shriek, and Chief Bates, taking in at a glance the perilous situ­ation, instantly shouted the order, “Come down!” The men started to execute this order, and their pale faces and trembling figures were easily discernible from the ground. But it was too late. There was suddenly a loud snap, the ladder broke at the third section, and precipitated the three men, who were still above it, down to the ground and into eternity. It was an awful spectacle, and for a moment I and hundreds of others stood aghast, almost petrified, as though we could not realize this sudden disaster. It had come so suddenly, so utterly without any warning, and everybody was so unprepared for it, that the per­fect and awful stillness which reigned for some seconds was easily to be explained.

It is stated that the two distinguished spectators, Mrs. Uda and the Secretary, immediately upon seeing the ladder fall, left the scene in great haste. While they hurried away, the terribly mangled bodies were put upon stretchers, and promptly conveyed to the Madison Street police station, followed, of course, by a large and curious crowd. What is remarkable is that the men below the third section clung with sufficient strength to the ladder to escape being thrown down, and, after some difficulty, accomplished the descent.  One or two are said to have fallen, but this does not appear to be true, for they all walked away, considerably weakened by the shock, but without any injuries. Nash and Maus died instantaneously, but Hughes still lived when the stretcher arrived at the police station. Maus had fallen on his left side, and his injuries appeared to be the worst of all. Both his arms and his left leg were broken, his nose was cut clean off, his teeth knocked through his cheeks, and his skull fractured. Hughes’s skull was also fractured, he having fallen on his head. His arms, one leg, his neck, and his collar bone were broken. He lingered at the police station, in great agony, for about fifteen minutes, and then expired.

Nash, who was the best known of the three victims, resided with his family at 149 Clinton Street. He was a tall, athletic man of forty, who bore all the indications of strong health and the promise of a long life. He was a member of the Royal Arch Masonic Order, and belonged to Ancient Chapter No. I. He served all during the war in Berden’s corps of sharpshooters, and attained the rank of assistant adjutant-general. He had been connected with the Department for seven years, and left a widow and three children.

Maus was also a fine-looking man, about thirty-six years old, a German by birth, and a carpenter by trade. He was only connected with the Department for a year, but had done good service. He left a widow and two children.

Hughes was a young man of twenty-eight, American by birth, who had been connected with the Department five years. He had only been married a few months before, and his youthful widow was perfectly distracted, tearing her hair and giving other distressing evidence of deep anguish.

The ladder was one of four which had been built at Concord N.H., by the Abbott Downing Company, for $2000 each. It was constructed out of the very lightest pine timber. For days after­ward, splinters of the ladder were carried about by people, and exhibited as a mark of the preposterous recklessness with which these ladders had been built. Chief Bates declined at the time to state the cause of the accident any further than that the strain upon the ladders was no doubt too great. He said that it had been put together properly, and that the accident was in no ways owing to carelessness on the part of the men.”

Researched by Ken Williams


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