Essay: Remembering that tragic day in Palmyra
Each year at the Palmyra Historical Museum, we are reminded of a tragedy which had its 46th anniversary. You already know that it is a tragedy, so it is not something that we look forward to each year, but a happening we dread.
It was a cold and windy December night in the village of Palmyra when flames were noticed as they shot up from a small house at 132 Market St. Mother Anna and the six Breeden children were all soundly sleeping when the smoke billowed through the entire house. The time was about 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1964, and the flames were so hot and high that there was no way of escape. The fire alarm sounded, and all the firemen from Palmyra, Macedon and Marion came to help.
It was called a flash fire that instantaneously spread to two other houses. The fire departments had hoses and ladders set on the two houses to the north while wetting down the house to the south. From a distance, this inferno lit the night with a bright orange glow. Hundreds had woken with the trucks and sirens sounding. The villagers came to see where the fire was as they stood horrified on the streets watching the fire burn. Sibyl Phelps woke from a sound sleep and looked out her parlor window. As she gasped in horror, she realized which houses were burning. All three buildings were single-family apartment houses.
The tenant house at 138 Market St. was all wood and the fear was that it would also go up in flames. By early morning, the smoldering, soaked wood smelled of leftover burn. All that the families owned was mixed with the remnants of the partial frames of two houses to the north. Although the houses were beyond repair, those families escaped death and injury.
The house at 132 Market St., home of the Breeden family, mother Anna, children Marion Edward, Dennis Wayne, Mitchell, Sharon, Susan and Samuel were not so fortunate, as onlookers saw there was nothing left. The entire family, with the exception of the father Paul, died that night in the fiery inferno. Nothing remained but the fireplace standing amidst a pile of rubble that once was called home by the Breeden family.
That morning the father, Paul Breeden, who said he was not home or in town when the fire was at its peak, finally showed up after he had watched the fire from a Main Street apartment. He remarked on the soft falling snow and the quiet of the night. His story was simply a trail of unbelievable excuses and happenings that to anyone would seem far-fetched and unreasonable. He stated that he was coming home from a trip to Illinois, where he was looking for work.
The firemen and police sifted through the still hot coals looking for any evidence of the victims. Near what was the kitchen, they found the mom and four children huddled together for a futile safety. Two were missing and in a search of digging through the rubble of a caved-in house, a small mattress was spotted. A policeman began to lift up the small crib-like mattress and shouted to the fire chief in charge, “Over here, I found something, looks like two dolls under a mattress.“ The fire chief hustled over to see for himself, just putting his head down with a solemn look; we’ve found the oldest boy, Marion Edward (called Eddie), and his little 2-year-old brother Sammy. Let’s get this done, finally there were enough pieces to take to the funeral home and prepare for shipment to the father’s family’s state of Tennessee.
Dec. 20 was the day of the worst, most deadly fire in Wayne County to date. By Dec. 23 or 24, Paul Breeden had transported his family back to their home state for burial.
Writing this memory from one of the most precious times of the year when this small village of Palmyra comes to celebrate the birth of Jesus, there looms a shadow over the festivities. Saying a special prayer for the six young children and their mom who met the holy child in heaven that night.
The fire officials and the police had little to no evidence left; the fire had been so hot and damaging there was nothing to examine. Mr. Breeden was questioned, which didn’t last long. Although many theories and assumptions were made, there was no one to blame for the fire.
Mr. Breeden never came back to Palmyra, and remained out of sight and out of the area for about eight years before he surfaced once again. Questions always arise about the circumstances of the fire, the way it began and what was the motive.
In 1964, that year just happened to be the year Urban Renewal began throughout our state. The lot was left vacant for 12 years. There was no rebuild of the houses on Market Street and the empty lot was covered with leaves and grass, leaving no signs of any houses.
In 1976, the Urban Removal project was attempting to remove many old buildings on Main Street. Historic Palmyra was working to save the old St. James Hotel on William Street and moved it to 132 Market St. at the site of the old Breeden home. $8,000 and many volunteers made the move for the Palmyra Historical Museum.
In 1976, the transformation of the village of Palmyra began with very little removal, smart moving, repairs, painting and some clean up. It was a time of renewal with the old historic buildings. Keeping our 1789 community original and vibrant with three historic museums from the Market Street Phelps Restoration, the Riffenburg is now the Palmyra Historical Museum.
We have the stockings up for the children that have stayed to welcome the visitors. How can that be, you may ask? We aren’t sure, but the pitter-patter of little feet as they run down the hall, the toys that move, the blocks that fall off the shelves and the light touch on your hand we attribute to the children from the Breeden family. We have spoken to mother Anna, the six children and Anna’s grandmother-in-law.
The trees are decorated with care, and there are at least four trees between the upstairs and downstairs. Out of love and respect for the family, we hold this day very near to our hearts and think of them every year as Dec. 20 approaches again.