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(Chicago Daily Times) The ghostly handprint in 1939.

(Chicago Daily Times)
The ghostly handprint in 1939.

The Firefighter’s Fingerprint

Firefighter Francis X Leavy was washing the inside first floor  window. A hardworking man, Frank Leavy was a dedicated thirteen-year veteran. He joined the fire department after an eight-year stint in the navy, in which he had enlisted by falsifying his age; he had been fourteen.

In 1915, Leavy married Mary Pucell and by 1921, he was the father of a girl and a boy. Struggling on his $2,220 annual income, Leavy drove a cab and did odd jobs to make extra money.

Friendly, cheerful Leavy was beloved by his family neighbours and comrades in the firehouse.

One day the usually jovial fireman was uncharacteristically quiet and sullen.

His work and that of the other firefighters had been interrupted several times as the register, a stock ticker like device, tapped out signals for the fire in the stockyards that had grown to four alarm proportions.

Although the engine, hook and the Fifteenth Battalion chief buggy were not on the response card, every man knew any or all could wind up at the big fire if special alarms sounded.

As they waited for a possible call, Leavy wasn’t making much progress on the house window.

“This is my last day on the fire department,” he said to fellow firefighter Edward McKevitt.

McKevitt was surprised to hear such a remark. Just a few hours earlier. Leavy had been talking happily about his plans for the next day. McKevitt had never seen Leavy so dejected and suspected it might have something to do with Good Friday or working on Easter.

He would later recall vividly that as Leavy told him of his feeling, he placed the palm of his left hand against the window pane. Leavy’s right hand holding a soapy sponge, made circles against the glass.

The strangeness of the moment was interrupted. Box 372, a mile and a half to the east, had come across the Big Joker alarm register. Now minutes later Box 372 was being tapped out again, a special alarm, because some of the companies on the response card had been sent off to the stockyards fire. The house bell began ringing.

Leavy dropped the sponge into the bucket and made for the back step of the 1921 Ahrens-Fox pumper. Rivalry among fire companies was still rampant. It had grown during the days of horse-drawn fire apparatus, those days having ended in Chicago just a year before. rivalry even existed in the house at Thirteenth Street and Oakley Avenue.

The small red rooster carrying the chief and his driver was first out. The chain-driven pumper with its distinctive, gleaming brass pressure ball and pumping equipment mounted at the front, began rolling as the men on the back step were still donning boots, coats and helmets.

Up front in the open cab, the engineer swung the pumper into Thirteenth Street. Engine 107 was the easy winner. By the time, the much longer Truck Company 12 had been cranked up and had pulled out of the station; the pumper was almost a block away.

From Truck 12’s open cab, lieutenant Frank Frosh waved to several neighbourhood youngsters. In less than an hour Frosh and seven of his mates would be dead.

Those inside did not have a great time of it. With no breathing apparatus’, they took it in turns passing the hose before running to the windows to gulp fresh air before returning to the flames.

As the battle against the inferno was carried out, a number of people noticed some anomalies with the fire. Several witnesses watched flames run downstairs as if it were burning liquid. It had been noticed before at oil fires with the flames flowing along the combustible liquids, but there should have been none there in Curran’s Hall.

Later it would be discovered that it was arson, an insurance job perpetrated by a sporting goods and novelties business that was located on the second floor of the building. They were tried and convicted of arson and murder, however, that info, even if known at the time, would have not stopped what happened next.

The fire had sufficiently weakened the structure of the building and the roof collapsed about half an hour into the fight. Those in the building were crushed by the falling masonry. The firefighters battling the blaze from the outside were also caught as the collapsing roof pushed the front wall outwards. The falling facade crushed those manning the ladders and several of the engines.

A rescue operation was quickly under way. With the building having collapsed, the flames were quickly extinguished, and within half an hour every rescue agency in Chicago was called in to help recover the survivors and those who were not so lucky. In all nine firefighters were killed in the collapse, among them, Francis Leavy.

The day after the fire, Holy Saturday was cooler and cloudy but the sun still occasionally shone through. The large red doors of the firehouse at Thirteenth Street and Oakley Avenue were closed, and inside, the few survivors of Friday’s shift and the physically unscathed second shift spoke in hushed tones. McKevitt was telling several firefighters about the events leading up to the fatal alarm. His eyes were red, his face unshaven, his hair uncombed.

McKevitt was physically and mentally drained, and it was difficult for him to explain what had happened.

His voice broke, and tears welled up in his eyes.

As he spoke, McKevitt noticed a strange mark in the firehouse window.

He moved closer and stared at it.

“My God, it’s Leavy’s hand!” he whispered, as if to himself.

The other firefighters gathered around and stared at the apparent apparition.

On the glass was the outline of a hand placed flat, with the fingers extending upward, against the pane.

The palm and five fingers were clearly visible.

McKevitt told the others how he had seen Leavy cleaning the window and place his hand on the glass shortly before the fatal alarm.

He also told them about Leavy’s mysterious premonition of death.

“Wipe it off”, said one of firemen, disturbed by what he saw. Several other agreed. McKevitt hesitated and then took the sponge from the bucket where Leavy had left it the day before.

He began rubbing on the print, but it would not wash off.

He rubbed harder, but it was still there. Other fire-fighters tried. The day-old water was dumped in favour of hot, soapy water. It made no difference. The firemen tried ammonia. They tried to peel off the print with a razor blade. Strong liquid and powder soaps were used. One member even went outside to wipe off the print, convinced that it was on the outside and not the inside of the glass. The men were frightened and mystified.

Over the following days the pattern of the stain started to become clearer – it soon became obvious that it was a hand print.

This was quite disturbing, everything was tried from hiring window cleaners, to using chemical solvents to even trying to scratch it off, but nothing would work.

It was suggested that the station just be rid of the glass pane altogether but those working there had changed their tune, deciding it must’ve been there for a reason and it was best to not mess around with the unknown.

Was the hand print a ghostly souvenir of the dead fireman? It’s said that Leavy’s thumbprint was obtained from his personnel records, and compared with the print on the window. They matched perfectly.

And there the window pane stayed, for many years, as a reminder of Francis Leavy who knew his time was up. Decades later, on April 18, 1944, a paper boy was doing his rounds when he carelessly threw a morning edition newspaper through the window, destroying it and Francis Leavy’s hand print.

More than twenty fire-fighters were also injured and one civilian was killed during the rescue work. Funerals were held within the week with 125 Chicago fire-fighters detailed as honorary escorts for the services. The civilian, who had died, William Behr, was also honoured at his funerals, with fire-fighters acting as the pallbearers – a first in Chicago’s history.

The Handprint of Frank Leavy

Incident Summary

Francis Leavy

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