The Sam Houston State University professor has written the first comprehensive history of the 1930 fire that killed 320 Ohio Penitentiary inmates.

Nearly 90 years ago, the deadliest prison disaster in U.S. history occurred in Downtown Columbus. The Ohio Penitentiary, the walled fortress along Spring Street, caught fire, and within an hour, 320 inmates were dead. 

Today, Nationwide Arena and other recent developments occupy the 22 acres where the Ohio Pen once stood, and the city has largely forgotten about the correctional facility that was a central part of life in Columbus for more than 150 years. “I think that once the prison was torn down, the city lost an important reference point for teaching the city’s history,” says Mitchel P. Roth, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

In his new book, “Fire in the Big House,” published by Ohio University Press, Roth shines a light on the Ohio Penitentiary and the most tragic event in its history. His book is the first comprehensive account of the April 1930 fire, which he was surprised to learn was largely unknown among both Central Ohio residents and penal historians. “Since all the dead were convicts, relatives and survivors would rather wipe the slate clean and were not wont to pass on stories to younger generations,” Roth says.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.

The author of more than 20 books (mostly about criminal justice topics), Roth started researching the Ohio Pen tragedy in the early 2010s, relying on newspaper accounts and documents he found at the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the Ohio Historical Society, as well as more serendipitous sources, such as an unpublished interview with one of the survivors and several contacts with family members of victims.

Roth recently answered questions about his book via email.

What drew you to this topic?
I came across the fire in several books I had researched over the years and was startled that this had never been given its appropriate coverage and saw another chance to disseminate this tragic story to all Americans, as well as Ohioans. I was also perplexed why so many other less disastrous building fires with less mortality had been given book length treatments over the years but not the big house fire—events like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire (167),  the 1944 Hartford Ringling Brothers circus fire (167) and Chicago’s 1958 Ohio Lady of the Angels fire (95).

The prison was overcrowded in 1930, and you described it as "the biggest of America's big houses." What led to its growth? 
America has had a long love affair with incarceration and in 1930, crime rates had risen, people were out of work because of the Great Depression and Prohibition introduced a new crime to the penal process. Public opinion was in favor of locking up malefactors. Moreover, the elimination of good conduct time, rampant idleness and punitive sentencing that made sentences longer and took some sentencing discretion out of the hands of judges. So, it was a confluence of several challenges to law and order in 1930 and was mostly supported by Ohioans. A similar confluence of issues was taking place concomitantly in New York state as well.

When the prison caught on fire in 1930, "everything that could go wrong did go wrong," as you described in the book. Could you elaborate on that?
There was no fire-fighting equipment in the prison, corrections officers were not trained how to respond to the fire and were cowed by the administration to the extent that they would not act on their own without some type of orders from the top. Moreover, the prison had an antiquated cell-locking system, ineffective telephonic communications system, the deputy warden was off, and it occurred between shifts when no one was quite sure who was in charge inside the cellblocks. What’s more, the fire began at the only non-fireproof part of the prison: the wooden roof being replaced.

Could you tell me about the range of people who died in the fire?
Those who died came from all walks of life, but mostly were working class folks and Ohioans. One had just been imprisoned that day for nonpayment of child support. There were sets of brothers and cousins. Most were serving long sentences for serious violations. Less than 20 were African American.

What was the legacy of the fire? Did it result in any major reforms, both in Ohio and around the country?
Worldwide attention was focused on the fire and in its aftermath and a clarion call for change was in the air. But in the year following the fire, despite some small advances, not much had improved. While the prison population decreased, it was still overcrowded. Fire hazards were reduced or received more attention but were not totally removed. In the year after the fire the Ohio Legislature passed a raft of new laws that were inspired by the disaster. The size of the parole board was enhanced, indeterminate sentencing was reinstituted (chance to get out early for good behavior), the repeal of mandatory sentencing allowed judges more flexibility to sentence criminals, and an overall movement to make the penal system in Ohio less harsh and less crowded. In the wake of the fire strides were made in other parts of the country to make prisons safer and better train staff. Today, Ohio is one of the few states that requires each corrections facility to comply with American Correctional Association standards.

Was it unusual for a prison to be located in the heart of the city and did the location present problems as a result, especially as Columbus grew? 
It was not unusual for a prison to be built [in a Downtown setting] and for cities and towns to begin building homes and businesses along the walls. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, built in the 1820s, was once surrounded by cherry trees and was even called Cherry Hill Prison. Over the years it was surrounded by tenements and businesses. Columbus, like Philadelphia and other cities with large prisons, was limited on certain town development projects because the prisons became valuable property. Residents were always afraid of a mass escape or potential problems emanating from the prison. Alcatraz, which is on an island, was closed because San Franciscans were worried escapees could reach the city by swimming.

Are you disappointed that Columbus didn't do more to preserve the Ohio Pen beyond a few plaques on Spring Streets where it once stood?
I am. As a prison tourist who likes to visit historic prisons, I was disappointed and surprised it was all gone. But here in Texas the convict cowboy rodeo arena that entertained 30,000 spectators on October Sundays for over 50 years was torn down without much fanfare. What I would really like to see is a plaque commemorating the deaths of so many men on Easter Monday 1930. In Ohio, other disasters have been marked by historical signs and memorials, including the 1925 deaths of 14 victims of the Shenandoah airship crash, or the “doodle-bug” train disaster in Cuyahoga Falls that claimed 43 lives in 1940.


Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.