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Hannibal native a hero during 1893 ‘Disaster in D.C.’

Ethelbert Baier is pictured in the Boston Globe on April 16, 1911. He was a candidate for police commissioner.

This illustration shows a view of the collapse of the building known as Ford’s Theater, in Washington, D.C. on June 9, 1893. An estimated 500 men were working in the building at the time of the collapse, which was later referred to as the “Disaster in D.C.” Evening Star, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1893.


In 1891, under the conditions set out by the Civil Service Act, government jobs in Washington, D.C., were to be filled on a pro-rata representation basis, divided among the states. Also, the jobs were to be distributed on the basis of merit testing, rather than previous political spoils.

Men (and women) from every state secured positions in Washington, D.C., ranging in salary from $900 to $2,000 per year. A number of those winning these coveted jobs were Civil War veterans.

Among the organizations formed to help new Washington workers get settled was the “The Lone Star Society,” which arranged housing for Texans moving to D.C.

Among the newcomers to Washington was Ethelbert Baier, a Houston, Texas, resident who had secured a job described by the Dallas Morning News: “Ethelbert Baier of Texas has been appointed to a thousand-dollar place in the interior office in Washington, D.C.”

Baier, who was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1871, took his place among these new merit workers, going to work in a building which had been rehabbed from its former use: The Ford Theater where President Lincoln had been shot less than 30 years prior.

Among the duties assigned to the 500 workers in this building was processing Civil War records and pensions.

Baier was assigned to the third floor workspace.

The building, considered old and decrepit at the time, was without electricity. In June 1893, construction workers were excavating in the basement of the building in preparation for the installation of an electric plant. Employees in the building reportedly circulated a petition, maintaining that their workspace was unsafe.

Fears realized

Soon after the petition drive, fears came to fruition. The Evening Star of Washington, D.C., reported on June 9, 1893, about a tragedy which would later be dubbed: “Disaster in D.C.”

“It was between 9:30 and 10 o’clock this morning that the floors of the old Ford’s Theater building, on 10th street, occupied by the records and pension division of the surgeon general’s office, fell in as though they had been the cards of a card house. On each floor there were scores of men at work. Without warning they were carried down as by an awful cataract. The flood was made up of iron girders, hardly strong enough to support the wall, but heavy enough, heaven knows, to stamp out human lives; of bricks that were held together by plaster long since dried out; of wooden beams that had been in place too long. There was no escape from such a flood.”

About half of the third floor section gave way; the floors in the rear part of the building, where Ethelbert Baier was at work, remained in place. “The people who were in the back part of the building escaped serious accident; those in the front went down with the crash,” the Evening Star reported.

The day following the accident, after all survivors and 23 casualties had been accounted for, investigators determined that the cause for the collapse was centered upon the undermining of the building’s main support system during the excavation process.


Baier’s heroics in the safe rescue of his colleagues are described in an online article posted by HistoryNet, “The Curse of Ford’s Theatre.”

“In ‘one of the thrilling scenes of the whole affair,’ about a dozen frightened clerks huddled at the edge of the gaping hole at the rear of the third floor. In its agony, the building shook. Expecting the rest of it to collapse, the men were “almost frantic.’ Desperate, Ethelbert Baier groped around in the dusty haze until he found a fire hose. “Unspooling it, the group slid down the hose to safety. Baier was the first to touch ground. ‘There was no premonitory trembling or any kind of warning,’ he recalled about the collapse. ‘Just a roar and a crash, and the desk and tables seemed to rise up in the centre of the floor, and then disappear in the blinding dust.’”

A few years later, he received a settlement of $2,500 for his injuries.

Local ties

The son of the Rev. Leo Baier, who served as president of Hannibal College during the early 1870s, Ethelbert Baier would go on to demonstrate alternating bouts of sheer genius and utter scoundrel during his adulthood.

Losing his mother in 1883, when he was just 12, and his father in 1887, when he was 16, could have contributed to a sense of restlessness in the young man, who would subsequently relocate on a whim to points across the country during his own lifetime.

First marriage

He was just 22 when “Disaster in D.C.” took place. He had been married to Nannee L. Garing of Lexington, Va., for little over a year. That union would be short-lived, and childless.

In 1899, Baier married again, this time to Marie Eisinger, daughter of Ludwig T. Eisinger and Hedwig A.W. Eisinger. Three children were born to this marriage.

During this time, he supported the family by working - among other crafts - as a speaker for temperance, an inventor, and as a newspaper editor and journalist. In 1901, he was key speaker in the Tremont Temple Song and Evangelistic Temperance Service, his topic: “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.”

In 1909, Marie filed for divorce, charging her husband with desertion.

Third marriage

In 1912, Ethelbert married Teresa Flinn, and while living in Chicago, they had a son born in 1916. On April 22, 1921, while his wife was at a moving-picture theater and when their son was 5 years old, he packed the boy and their belongings and left for parts unknown.

Eight months later, authorities caught up with Ethelbert, (living under an assumed name and by now 50 years old) in Portland, Ore. The boy was located at a boarding school in Vancouver, British, Columbia, and was reunited with his mother.

News of the child’s rescue was broadcast across the wires, making newspapers in both Oregon, where Mr. Baier was located, as well as in Baltimore, Md., Mrs. Baier’s home.

Surprise reunion

While he was incarcerated in Oregon and awaiting extradition, Ethelbert Baier was in for a great surprise.

His two sons, born to Marie Baier, and now living near Portland, Ore., learned about their father’s incarceration, and came to the court hearing out of curiosity.

The Oregonian on Dec. 14, 1921, reported: “Although 18 years have elapsed since the first family separation took place, the two boys recognized their father when he walked past them. He, however, did not recognize them.”

This story ends

This is the time and place where death dates and burial locations are inserted. But today, this is not the case.

In 1921, Ethelbert returned to Maryland to face desertion charges. In April 1925, giving his address as Los Angeles, Calif., he traveled to Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, where he was once again married. While the marriage license found under is handwritten in Spanish, it does seem to indicate that Teresa (Tessie) and Ethelbert - originally married in 1912 - remarried in 1925.

Despite numerous attempts, no further information was found on either Teresa or Ethelbert Baier.

HistoryNew story:

This sketch illustrates how survivors of the “Disaster in D.C.” climbed to safety on June 9, 1893. Among the survivors was Ethelbert Baier, who was born in Hannibal, Mo., in 1871. Published in the Evening Star, Washington, D.C. June 10, 1893.

Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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