The house at 1427 W. Juneway Terrace is a solid-looking, attractive brick house along a pleasant tree-lined street in one of the better stretches of the far northeast Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was built in 1920 and is now mostly obscured from view from the street by a large tree growing in the sidewalk easement. It’s hard to believe, looking at the sturdy shape of the house today, that it was once the site of a devastating explosion that ripped the east wall off the house and left a woman burned to death.
Rogers Park Oil Blast Kills Wife; 1 Hurt
Mrs. Lilian Herbert, 62 years old, was burned to death yesterday afternoon by an explosion of fuel oil which blew out one wall of her home at 1427 Juneway terrace, just west of Sheridan road, in Rogers Park. Her brother, John Coleman, 60 years old, who also lived there, was severely burned in his efforts to save her.
Mrs. Herbert was the wife of William Albert Herbert, head of the wholesale lumber company bearing his name and vice president of the Marquette Box and Lumber company. He was at the Illinois Athletic club at the time of the tragedy.
Tells Story of Explosion.
Coleman was shaving in a basement lavatory, he told police from his bed in the St. Francis hospital, Evanston, where he was taken. Mrs. Herbert had gone to the basement to supervise delivery of fuel for an oil burner from a tank truck parked in front of the house.
“There was a terrific explosion which hurled me against the washroom wall, stunning me momentarily,” said Coleman. “Bricks and plaster were falling everywhere. I could smell smoke and oil fumes, and saw flames licking through the mass of debris near the oil tank.
“I heard my sister cry, ‘Jack! Jack! Help me.’ I tried to climb over the wreckage to save her, but the flames drove me back.”
Tries Again to Enter Fire.
Coleman then rushed up the basement stairs, intending to wrap his face in a towel and brave the fire again. He was on the point of racing again into the basement, by then a mass of flames, when a neighbor restrained him.
The explosion was of such force that the west wall of the story and a half house collapsed. The east wall bulged out.
The blast apparently occurred in a fifty gallon oil tank inside the basement. Two other fifty gallon tanks under the front lawn burst from the force of the explosion, raising the sod above them. The three tanks were connected as a “battery” to supply fuel to the home.
“My sister always used a measuring stick to learn how much fuel was left in the feed tank,” Coleman said. “She would light a match to read the measuring stick. Her husband and I had warned her not to do this because of the danger of igniting fumes rising from the open oil tank. Recently we strung up an electric light near the tank.”
Firemen Unable To Enter.
Firemen under Chief Raymond J. Howe, who extinguished the fire, said they found Mrs. Herbert’s charred body near the oil tank. Because they were not equipped with gas masks they were unable to enter the basement until the fire was out because of the smoke and oil fumes.
The explosions sent a puff of smoke, like a shell burst, from the chimney. Two motorists saw the smoke cloud and heard the explosion, but when they reached the scene the basement was in flames. Damage to the house was estimated at $1,000.
An inquest will be held this morning at the undertaking chapel at 929 Belmont avenue.
(Chicago Daily Tribune, February 9, 1937)
An article from February 10th gives a little follow-up, and also puts a mysterious twist on the story:
INJURY IN OIL BLAST HOLDS UP QUIZ INTO VANISHED ‘FORTUNE’
Lieut. Frank Gill of the Rogers Park police said yesterday he would question John Coleman, 50 years old, about the reported disappearance of a box containing valuable papers and “thousands of dollars” from the blast wrecked home of Coleman’s brother-in-law, William Herbert.
Herbert told of the missing box at an inquest yesterday morning into the death of his wife, Lillian, 62 years old, who was killed last Monday when a fuel oil explosion wrecked the Herbert home at 1427 Juneway terrace. Coleman, a brother of Mrs. Herbert, was severely burned in trying to enter the basement where his sister was trapped.
Lieut. Gill awaited permission of authorities at St. Francis hospital to question Coleman. The money had been cached in the wrecked basement and Lieut. Gill said Coleman might know whether there had been any change in the hiding place.
The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of accidental death as the result of the explosion of an oil fuel tank. After the inquest Herbert, a wholesale lumber dealer,vainly searched the wreckage for the box.
So the question becomes… Is John Coleman a heroic attempted rescuer, or a thief??? On February 11, 1937, we have our answer:
$60,000 IS FOUND IN BLAST RUINS; FATE UP TO U.S.
Payoff on Burned Bits Hinges on Analysis.
In the skilled hands of the chemists of the United States secret service lies the chance of William Herbert, a wholesale lumber dealer, to recover a fortune – believed to be $60,000 – which was lost last Monday in an explosion and fire at his home, 1427 Juneway terrace.
Charred fragments of the money were found yesterday in the wreckage of the home. The currency had been hidden in a small metal box under the basement rafters by the lumberman’s wife, Mrs. Lilian Herbert, 62 years old, who was killed in the explosion.
Policeman Finds Bills.
Policeman Michael Kelly of the Rogers Park station, who with five other police had been sifting the ruins since the tragedy, found the charred bills.
“It was all in a pile,” he said, “about three feet south of directly below the place pointed out to me as the cache where the money had been hidden. The metal box was blown apart by the explosion, and we picked it up in several sections near by.”
Capt. Charles Essig of the Rogers Park station said he had been told the fortune included twenty $1,000 bills, with the rest of the money in hundreds, twenties, tens, and fives. When he examined the fragments at the police station, he said, he saw pieces of many $100 bills and bills of smaller denomination, but no parts of any $1,000 bills.
Advised to Seek Redemption.
All the fragments were turned over to Herbert, who was advised to take them to the federal courthouse to apply for redemption of the money. Capt. Thomas J. Callaghan of the United States secret service said Herbert did not call on him, and at the fiscal agency of the federal reserve bank it was said he had not appeared there.
Herbert is staying temporarily at the Illinois Athletic club, where a friend reported last night that no efforts had been made to piece together any of the fragments.
Under federal law if a portion of a burned bill less than three-fifths the size of the original, but more than two-fifths, is tendered to the treasury department, it will be redeemed at half its face value if it is proved the rest of the bill has been destroyed.
In the Herbert case police said the serial numbers of the bills had been registered at a bank by Mrs. Herbert. Capt. Callaghan of the secret service said such registration might be accepted by the treasury department as evidence but not as proof of ownership of the money.
Candle Causes Explosion.
The explosion which caused the death of Mrs. Herbert occurred when she went to the basement carrying a lighted candle, to tend the oil furnace. Gas from an oil leak was ignited by the candle. The fire quickly exploded a can containing cleaning fluid.
Herbert told the police his wife had been hiding money under the rafters for five or six years, using funds received from the liquidation of mortgages and other securities. She did not trust banks and would not rent a safe deposit box, he said.
Oh, but just before you feel too bad about poor Herbert possibly losing his money, check out the headline after his death in 1955:
FIND $1,316,000 IN SECURITIES IN HERBERT VAULT
Stocks with an estimated value of $1,316,000 were found yesterday in the safe deposit box of the late William A. Herbert, wholesale lumber dealer, by examiners for the state treasurer’s office. Herbert died May 27 in Wesley Memorial hospital at the age of 88.
His attorney, Charles J. Morgan, said the total estate probably will be in the neighborhood of $1,500,000. A will to be filed for probate next week creates a trust benefiting friends and relatives, Morgan said.
Herbert’s wife, Lillian, perished in a fire in their home at 1427 Juneway ter. in 1937. The blaze destroyed $60,000 in currency she kept in a metal box under basement rafters. At the time, Herbert told authorities his wife distrusted banks.
(Chicago Daily Tribune, June 3, 1955)
To put these dollar amounts in 2013 perspective:
Damage to the house = $1,000 (1937) = $16,215.56 (2013)
Amount of money in the box in the basement = $60,000 (1937) = $972,933.33 (2013)
Amount of stocks in Herbert’s safe deposit box = $1,316,000 (1937) = $21,339,671.11 (2013)
Herbert’s net worth = $1,500,000 (1937) = $24,323,333.33
I can’t help but wonder why he was living in such a humble neighborhood with that kind of wealth!