Photo by David Tharp

(1898–1936)

Very early on a winter morning in 1936, half-clothed occupants of Mrs. Brown’s boarding house staggered from their rooms and hurried outside to escape smoke emanating from a second-story blaze. Luckily for them, it was a balmy 60 degrees in Dallas.

The mostly male boarders at 1714 N. Harwood included an attendant at Bob’s Service Station, a railroad worker, Virgil the hat maker, and J.C. Davenport, occupation unknown. Two men were mechanics; the one named Curly had a wife. The only other woman on the premises was Susan Brown, the widow whose boarding house was in flames.

The Dallas Morning News reported that a lighted cigarette butt sparked the fire. Damage to the boarding house was assessed at $1,000, with an additional $600 loss in contents. Mrs. Brown also claimed that, sometime during the emergency, $80 in cash and three rings worth $100 were stolen.

More significantly, one life was lost. The boarder who worked for the MKT, or “Katy” railroad, died as a consequence of injuries he suffered in the fire, according to both the Dallas newspaper and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

That lone victim presumably was the smoker whose carelessness led to his own demise. His actions also threatened Mrs. Brown’s livelihood, as well as the safety of her roomers and the firemen who responded to the alarm.

Fred Criger, however, was more than the circumstances of his death. He was a son, a husband, a worker and possibly, because of his effort to help another at the most regrettable moment in his life, a hero.

In 1898, after six years of marriage, Morgan and Emma Criger of Webster County, Missouri, welcomed the only child they would ever have — a blue-eyed, red-haired boy they named Frederich Robert Criger. After the arrival of little Freddy, Morgan abandoned farm labor for a job with the MKT railroad in Hannibal. At 22, Fred joined his father, hiring on as a car clerk.

By 1924, the little family had moved to Dallas, finding a home on North Harwood. Within a year, Fred was employed as a clerk for the St. Louis & Southwestern Railway. He and his father also opened Criger Grocery & Market at 2122 N. St. Paul, which they operated until 1929, when the country spiraled into the Depression.

Both men soon returned to the Katy railroad, Morgan as a yard foreman, Fred as an elevator operator and, later, a car cleaner. The family continued to live at 1720 N. Harwood until about 1933, when the Dallas city directory shows Fred residing apart from his parents but still close by — in Mrs. Brown’s boarding house. With him was his wife, Mae.

Mae wasn’t Fred’s first wife: He married Geneva Edmonds, 19, in Durant, Oklahoma, in July 1931. Almost exactly one year later, he and Mae Haggerty, 28, made the trip to Durant. By January 1936, both marriages had been dissolved, both women had married other men.

In the early hours of Monday, February 24 — about seven weeks after Mae Criger remarried — Fred was in his bed at Mrs. Brown’s boarding house, possibly in the room he and his wife had shared, when the smell of smoke sent his fellow boarders fleeing into the street.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s same-day story about the Dallas fire reported that Fred Criger was “burned slightly” while dragging to safety an “older man” named J.C. Davenport, 54, who was overcome by smoke. Was it the reporter — or Fred himself — who underestimated the seriousness of Fred’s injuries?

In The Dallas Morning News’ Tuesday follow-up, doctors gave a Fred a “fair chance to live,” adding that he had been “trapped by flames that enveloped the bed in which he was lying.” Firemen rescued him and “another tenant,” who was treated and released the same day from Parkland Hospital.

Did an already badly burned Fred escape his room only to encounter the older man struggling in the hallway or on the stairs? Were the two making their way out of the smoke-filled house — the other tenants clustered together outside — when firemen arrived?

Fred Criger, 37, died February 29, five days after the fire, having suffered second-degree burns on his face, arms and hands. His death certificate refers to an “explosion” that contributed to his injuries, though news reports do not mention an explosion.

On March 2, Fred was buried at Oakland Cemetery. His interment card — safeguarded for decades by the cemetery, and more recently by the Dallas Public Library’s history and archives division — states that Fred took a lighted cigarette to bed…burned the 2-story rooming house where he staid…plus the ones inside the house.

Plus the ones inside the house overstates the consequences of Fred’s carelessness. Davenport sustained minor injuries. Fred was the only fatality.

Morgan and Emma Criger, of course, lost their only child. Morgan died at 64 a little over a year after his son’s death. Fred’s widowed mother, Emma, found lodging on Metropolitan Street with two other widows. She died at 72. They are buried near their son at Oakland Cemetery.

Photo by Tom White
  • Fred Criger, section 35, tier 16, grave 18
  • Morgan Criger, section 35, tier 16, grave 19
  • Emma Criger, section 34, lot 7 S1/4, grave 3

The former newspaper reporter and English teacher is the author of the book, The Woman in the Well and Other Ancestories.