A Boy and a Horse Die by Fire


The Ginney Block had no play areas like apartment house complexes have today. Unless we the children of the block went to the neighborhood public school playgrounds, we used the street and the little yard space that was available in the immediate vicinity of the block as play areas. A favorite place for play was the abandoned coal yard at the far west end of the block. There we played softball on a baseball diamond that we marked off ourselves by using large stones or pieces of wood as bases, digging them into the ground. When not playing softball, we would have our own little track meets, racing one another around the Ginney Block.

My memory takes me back to a Saturday in early May of 1924. Since school was still in session the nearby school playgrounds were not open. It was the School Board's practice in those days to open the school playgrounds after the school year ended.

At about 10:00 o'clock in the morning on this particular Saturday, my brother Art and I had met Danny Monteleone, one of my friends who lived a few doors away from me in the block, with the express purpose of taking a walk across the Central Viaduct, which was one of the bridges that spanned the Cuyahoga River, and which was the quickest way to get to the lower west side, where Danny's married sister Carrie lived.




The Central Viaduct where it crosses the Cuyahoga River circa 1904.
Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress


The Central Viaduct circa 1927
Courtesy of the Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio




The day before, Danny had suggested that we go to the Jennings Road playground, where the city had a well equipped public play facility for children, which included swings, basketball and volleyball courts, wading pools, etc. Danny had told us that after playing there, we could go to visit his sister, who he said would feed us and where we would be welcome to spend the rest of the day.

I recall the day as a clear, sunny day, unusually warm for that time in May. We had a pleasant walk across the bridge, peeking through the railing at the river, hundreds of feet below as we walked. We spent about an hour at the Jennings play area, and then headed for Danny's sister house. When we got there, we were surprised to find that no one was home. By this time, we were quite hungry, so we decided to head for home.

We arrived at the Ginney Block at around 2:30 p.m. We had cut our return walk short by taking a short cut through the old Hay Market, through the alley behind the Old Bailey Company Warehouse, which brought us right into the old coal yard just in time for us to witness one of the most horrifying sights of our lives.

While we were gone, a couple of our friends, Johnny Pullella, Jimmy (Piggy) Pellegrino, and a few of the other children, had been attracted by an abandoned car, an old model T Ford, which had been left in the coal yard by some unknown person or persons some time ago.

The car had been stripped bare of many of its parts by persons unknown. All that remained were its chassis, the steering column and wheel, and the gasoline tank. For days we youngsters had enjoyed getting behind the wheel, imagining that we were driving and having a grand old time.




On this fateful day, we arrived just in time to hear an explosion, and to see huge flames of fire shooting out of the car's gas tank, on to Johnny, and on to a large white horse and wagon that belonged to Harris the junk man, which were standing near the car. We saw Johnny running and leaping high into the air completely engulfed in flames. We saw the horse also in flames, break from the post to which it was tied, run across the coal yard and plunge, wagon and all, over the edge of the bluff.

As we came closer to the scene, we saw two of our neighborhood men jump onto Johnny with blankets, wrestle him to the ground, to put out the flames. By this time, Johnny's mother, who had been notified, came screaming out of the Ginney Block, tearing at her hair and clothing. Some of the other mothers restrained her and tried to console her as the men gently finished putting out the flames that still licked at Johnny's body.

The firemen, police and the ambulance arrived simultaneously to take Johnny to the hospital and put the car fire out. All this happened between 2:30 and 3:00 p. m. Around about supper time the news came to the Ginney Block that Johnny had died at 5:30 p. m. Later we learned from Piggy Pelligrino that Johnny, who was older, had ordered him to go to his home and get some matches, that Johnny had forced him to throw a lighted match into the capless gas tank. Piggy said that he was so frightened that he ran as soon as he threw the match into the tank and so saved himself.




He said that he had yelled at Johnny, telling him to run at the same moment, that Johnny had remained near the gas tank as though hypnotized. The families of the Ginney Block mourned Johnny's untimely and tragic death for months. The experience caused me to have nightmares during many of the months that followed.