Christ Hoell & The Pompier Life-Saving Service

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Christ Hoell &
The Pompier Life-Saving Service

Much of the following information was graciously provided by
Lt. Christ Hoell's great grand-daughter, Gail Holzhausen.



A FF rescue rappel
from the manual.

Christ Hoell

The "pompier ladder" (pronounced pom-peer) is probably named for French firefighters known as "Pompier" (pronounced pom-pee-yay). It is reported as "invented" by a St. Louis Lieutenant named Christ Hoell. In some fire departments it was also known as the "Hoell Rescue Device."

It turns out that this ladder was just one part of the "Pompier Life-Saving Service". This was a system published by Christ Hoell and introduced into the St. Louis Fire Department on Dec. 19, 1877. It included not only the ladder but techniques for other rescues.

According to Lt. Hoell's great-grandaughter, the device was used in Europe before the U.S. It was when Hoell was working for the Elberfeld, Germany fire department that he became acquainted with the ladder. When he came to America he brought the design and created and marketed a training manual and ladders.

On November 4, 2008 we received a copy of the manual, compiled and published by Christ Hoell, from his great granddaughter.


The following account of the life and death of Christ Hoell, is provided by Lt. Christ Hoell's great grand-daughter, Gail Holzhausen.

Christ Hoell was born on December 7, 1849 in Hesse (Dusseldorf) Germany. He married Wilhelmina Dieterman(Deiderman) and they began a family in 1869 with the birth of their daughter, Emilie. Their second child, Alexander, died and was buried in a family plot in Germany.

Christ Hoell was a member of the Elberfeld Volunteer Fire Department in Elberfeld Germany for seven years. While there he learned and used the pompier, which was a German fire ladder developed around 1828 by Mr. Behl in Schwabischgruund, Wurthemberg, Germany. Most rapid recognition of the ladder and development of the method of its use, took place in southern Germany. It was introduced in Elberfeld around 1864.

Christ Hoell left Germany in 1873 and came to America at age 27 with his wife, Wilhelmina (age 28), daughter, Emelie (4) and son, Oscar (10 months). The came on the ship Wesser and the captain was Captain Willigerod. They traveled in steerage. Their manifest ID number was 0003340. His occupation was listed as bricklayer. They came between 1872-1873. They came to St. Louis where several cousins, the Fehls, lived. The Fehls' were tobacconists. Christ was a stone mason until he was appointed to the St. Louis Fire Department. As a stone mason, Christ worked on St. Peter and Paul Church in Soulard. Christ and Wilhelmine's family continued to grow with the births of four additional children ( Alexander, Oswald, Ottilie and Lydia).

After the Brooklyn theater and Southern Hotel fires (April 11, 1877) Christ wrote a letter to the german newspaper, the Westliche Post, suggesting the organization of a pompier corps as an auxiliary to the fire department, giving a list of the apparatus necessary and the uses to which each article in the outfit could be put. On the evening of April 19, 1877, a meeting of citizens at Central Turner's Hall at which Hoell was invited to be present and five an explanation of the system.

It was there decided to organize a volunteer company and organize a committee composed of E.D. Meier, C.H. Stiefel and Zero Marx. The committee members were appointed appointed to look after the work, with Christ Hoell appointed captain of the corps and instructor of the pompier method. The organization was effected three days latter.
The pompier company, which was composed principally of painters, roofers and men accustomed to climbing ladders, numbered twenty men divided into two sections as follows:

First Section - J. Pillman, leader. Klinge,Cremer, L. Kaufmann, William Ruetz, F. Medart, Geo. Dauber, Zebuern, Harold J. Toeusffeldt.
Second Section - H. Aschendorf leader. Scheer, Schick, Frel, Olsbausen, Fred Bruder, Wenler, Henrichs.

Not one of these men had ever put their foot on a pompier ladder expect captain Hoell and the leaders. A voluntary subscription had already been taken up and the necessary apparatus purchased, and the company at once commenced a course of lessons under Captain Hoell. On June 19, 1877 they were sufficiently advanced in pompier tactics to give a public exhibition at the Peper warehouse, corner of Twelfth and Market Streets, which was remarkably successful.

Beginning at 4:30 P.M. on June 19,1877, the Volunteer Crops gave a public display at the Peper Tobacco Ware, at the corner of Twelfth and Market streets. Announcements having been made through the papers, an immense throng gathered about the building to witness the drill. Men, women and children struggled together under the scorching rays of the sun for an opportunity to see. Promptly at the time indicated the corps, numbering nineteen men and captained by Chris Hoell, were drawn up in line, ready to show the results of their practice. At this stage of proceedings Mr. E.D. Meier addressed the main audience briefly. The corps had been formed after the Southern Hotel fire, principally to show the utility of other equipments that those in use in the St. Louis Fire Department. The apparatus was simple but efficient, as would be demonstrated.

The exhibition closed with special salvages with a single rope by Capt. Hoell, which, in point of merit, were equal to any of the preceding display. The universal verdict was one highly commendatory of the Volunteer Life Saving Brigade, and of the efficiency of such an organization, equipped and maintained as part of the Fire Department, no sort of doubt was expressed.

The following letter from the Mayor was read:
" Dear Sir (Zero Marx), I am informed that several public-spirited citizens contemplate of organizing a voluntary company of Pompiers, for the better protection and saving of lives from burning buildings, and with a view of making a trial and exhibition of what improvements can be added to the present list of fire-saving apparatus.

I take pleasure in stating that the same meets with my hearty cooperation, and I have no doubt, should the undertaking meet with the success hoped for, that the principle would become a valuable adjunct to our Fire Department. Respectfully, Henry Overstolz, Mayor."

As a result of this exhibition, the pompier corps was organized by H. Clay Sexton, then captain of the department, in the following December, Hook and Ladder 3 and 4,, being detailed to this service and drilled by Capt. Hoell. These companies at the time were composed of the following men, all brave and tried, many of whom have since died, like heroes, in action.

No. 3 - James Tittsworth, foreman; Andy Kirk, driver, Phelim O'Toole, Tillerman, Thomas Meier, Jno. Hennessey, Patrick Conway, Barney Mc Kernan, Michal Kenoy, Christian Hoell and J.W Kuetz, truck men.

No 4- Chas. Crowley, foreman; John Schlichter, driver, Chas. Tilton, Tillerman; James Toohey, Michael McCormack, George Dauber, Julius Pillman, Joe Reed, Henery Berz, and Joseph Chambers.

After Capt. Hoell perfected the pompier ladder squads in the St. Louis Fire Department, he was granted leave of absence and went to New York City to instruct the fire officials in that city in the use of pompier and life saving work. Upon completion of their training, the fire officials offered Mr. Hoell a position in the New York Fire Department but he declined this offer and returned to St. Louis where he afterwards became fire Captain. With this simple apparatus, the St. Louis Fire Department and its imitators in other cities have done wonders and saved hundreds of lives. Hoell had been with Hook and Ladder No. 3 from the time of the organization up to 1885 when he was transferred to No. 6.
(St. Louis Republican dated August 11, 1887)

Chris Hoell was described as exceptionally active, having been a Turner in his youth, and scaled buildings with his ladder like a cat.

Hook and Ladder (Truck) Co. No. 6, St. Louis FD cir 1887.

The History of the St. Louis Fire Department, published in 1914, gives a colorful account of the "Catastrophe of 1887; Hoell Killed" in Chapter IX. The account is summarized as follows:

"Following a fire August 10, 1887, walls of the ruins of Bishop & Spear's peanut warehouse, 510 and 512 North Second street, fell and carried with them a portion of J. Alkire & Co.'s wholesale grocery house, Nos.514 and 516. In the ruins were buried a number of firemen, most of whom were taken out dead.

The fire, which began about 1:40 A.M., left the peanut warehouse a mass of ruins. About daylight the fire was under control, and the heaviest part of the force was taken off the ruins. Ropes had been stretched in front of the building so as to keep the crowd away, and the firemen were all alone in their work of danger and death. A plug stream was being played on the burning peanuts on the third floor. Directing the management of the stream on the third floor were Barney McKernan of the No. 3 Truck and Acting Assistant Chief, and Frank Mc Donald, ladder man of No. 6 truck. From the truck was sent up a ladder to the third floor. Under the lifted ladder Chris Hoell, foreman of No. 6 truck and Jake Feldtman, also of No. 6 Truck, were carrying a small ladder northward toward Alkire's. This was the position of the firemen just before the crash came. Spectators were massed across the street blocking the doorways of Hanley & Kinsella's. The shouts of McKernan were heard on the third floor, and Hoell's orders on the ground as he dragged along the ladder, when all at once the east and west wall of Bishop & Spear's wavered and crashed. Then down came the north wall, and with it a portion of Alkire's south wall. As the middle of the north wall came down the front of the peanut warehouse fell out and the extra pressure from the side walls forced the debris out into the street. There was a great Cloud of dust and smoke from the burning peanuts. In the crash the firemen went down without a cry, so quick was the collapse.

At 10 minutes to 12, Tom Rucker, who was on the mound of debris, rolled aside a bag filled with peanuts. The act disclosed a white leather helmet. "Here he is," said Rucker, in an awed tone.

The body was not burned, but it was closely buried in the fallen debris, and a great iron beam lay upon the man. The skull was crushed, and death was probably instantaneous.

A bright-looking, neatly clad youth of 16 or 17 years, with tears streaming down his face, was recognized as the son of the dead fireman and tenderly led away that he might not be further shocked at the sight of the blackened and mangled body of his father." (the boy was Alexander Hoell)

The August 10, 1887 Globe Democrat described Chris Hoell in an article titled "INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH" as follows:

"Known to his associates as Chris Hell, he was an trainer, and acquired a skill in climbing and gymnastics generally which he retained through life. He came to this country young and combined the trades of stonemason, stonecutter and bricklayer. In 1877 after the Southern Hotel fire, he was appointed a member of the North 3rd Skinker Truck Company. There he originated the Pompier Corps and he was the inventor of their belt and seating leader on which he held letter patent. In 1874 , by request of the Fire commissioners of New York, he went on there (New York City) as instructor in the system. The men were adverse to it, and only three volunteers presented themselves. But Chris had rare energy and perseverance and he kept on. He convinced the men of the utility and feasibility of the scheme, and before he left he gave a an exhibition at French's Hotel which elicited the approval of all. Hoell was offered double the salary he was receiving in St. Louis to remain in New York as a permanent instructor but he such high ideals of loyalty to the department which had given him permission to make the trip, and he was so averse to disturbing his children's studies, that he refused and returned to his old post. In May 1885 he was transferred to the newly organized No. 6 Truck company as foreman and there, as in all the years previous, he distinguished himself by faithful application to his duties. He leaves a widow and five children."

C.W. Hacker, a telephone repairman, was an eye witness and gave this account:
" I was up on the crossbars of the telegraph pole just south of Bishop & Spears warehouse busy getting our lines across the break made by last night's fire. It was about a quarter to 9 in the Morning . I saw a party of firemen, five or six in number, standing on the third floor of the burnt building throwing out sacks of peanuts, and some of them playing with a hose into the smoldering fire in the rear. I was about as high up as they were and could see them distinctly. There was a ripping sound, and somebody called out, 'Look out boys, the walls are going." Chris Hoell was standing nearest to me. I think he had stub of a cigar in his mouth. I saw him jump behind one of the columns of the front and clasp it, and I think he jumped away from it the minute afterwards when it began to go out. Of course it couldn't have been more than a minute, but it seemed to me that the wall with the man on it took about an hour to fall. It started out slowly, swayed a little and then began to go down. When it was well started it went fast. I thought the bell was ringing for me too, for the pole I was on was only a couple of yards from the corner, and the whole front passed very close to me, and , indeed, it was not until the wall had completely down that I realized that I was safe. The crash shook the pole I was on, and we could see the buildings all around tremble. I don't know how I got off the pole, but a minute latter I was down on the street helping to get the poor fellows out."

At 10 minutes to 12, Tom Rucker, who was on the mound of debris, rolled aside a bag filled with peanuts. The act disclosed a white leather helmet. "Here he is," said Rucker, in an awed tone. The Capt. Hoell's body was not burned, but it was closely buried in the fallen debris, and a great iron beam lay upon the man. The skull was crushed, and death was probably instantaneous. A bright-looking, neatly clad youth of 16 or 17 years, with tears streaming down his face, was recognized as the son of the dead fireman. When Hoell's body was found, the boy cried out loud for the first time, " My poor father - what will we do now!" Christ Hoell's mangled body was put in the relief wagon and was taken to the morgue- the son (Alex) following the wagon. After the fire at the Bishop& Spears peanut warehouse it was estimated to have had over 1,300,000 lbs of peanuts in it, with buyers having come from Virginia and Tennessee, the peanut growing states, to buy from their stock. They were masters of the peanut situation. Their loss was a total one and it was believed that their insurance wouldn't come close to covering their loss. Both Bishop and
Spears were out of town when this catastrophe occurred. The five story building, Nos 510 and 512 North Second, was a total loss of $30,000; insured for $17,000. It belonged to Mrs. Julia Moffitt and C.P. Chouteau. Bishop & Spears lost every dollar's worth of machinery and stock. Their insurance was $33,700. The four story brick building Nos 514 and 516, owned by Henry Shaw and occupied by Alkire Grocery Company, lost its south wall, and the stock was badly damaged.

On August 10, the day of the fire, Chas. P. Chouteau and Julia Moffitt sent a generous donation of $1,000 with the accompanying note
to Chief Lindsey of the St. Louis Fire Dept.:

"John Lindsey, Chief St. Louis Fire Dept.:
Dear Sir,
As an expression of our appreciation of the valuable service rendered by the department on the occasion of the destruction of our building, 510 and 512 North Second St., we beg to hand the enclosed check for our thousand dollars ($1,000) the same to be applied as you may decide, either to the firemen's fund or for the benefit of the families of those unfortunate men who sacrificed their lives to the cause of duty. We are, sir, respectfully, Charles P. Chouteau and Julie Moffitt "

After some deliberation Capt. Lindsey decided to divide the donation among the families of the firemen who died in the Bishop and Spears Warehouse fire. There were other contributions made for the relief of the families of the dead firemen, the largest to which Mr. Chouteau and Ms. Moffitt was from Drummond Tobacco company, which contributed $200.00, Recorder Hobbs gave $10.00, Mechin & Pieot, $5.00; Wm Fritsch, $5.00, Fred Morrell, $1.00 and M. Summerfield, $1.00.

AUGUST 11, 1887; St. Louis Post Dispatch
"Chris Hoell's Home was at No. 835 South Eighth Street, about half a block this side of Chouteau avenue. It is a three story brick house, with a good size yard in front, which supports some large flowers. Hoell's family occupy the lower floor, renting out the other two stories. The family consists of Mrs. Hoell and six children - Amelia, aged 17, Oscar, 15, Alexander, 13,; Oswald, 11,; Ottilia, 7 and Lydia, 4. Hoell was a member of St. Paul's German protestant church of which Rev. Jacob Irion is pastor. He was a member of Washington Lodge, L.O.O.F. and of the Harugari. From these societies respectively will come to the family insurance of $700 and $500. His life was also insured in the Hartford Life Insurance Company for $1000. His wife stated today that he was awaiting the payment money from Chicago and other cities where his ladders are in use. Other than these amounts he left no property, not even owning the house in which he lived. Mrs. Hoell does not speak English, but is an intelligent woman. She had taken her bereavement without any demonstration except the sobs that broke from her when they first heard the terrible news. The remains had not been taken to the home up to 3 P.M. today, but lay at Schaefer's undertaking establishment, where they had been transferred about an hour before. They were embalmed and held awaiting the results of a consultation between Capt. Lindsey and a cousin of the deceased. The undertaker did not know but the remains would be left with him till the funeral.

The funeral services were simple and the surroundings plain. The casket reposed in the darkened parlor, where it had lain since last evening, and only the dark windows of the room, but not the windows of the soul that gave out no light. About 11:15 the preacher arrived and soon the little parlor was filled with neighbors. Besides the family there were present the nearest relatives of the deceased, his cousins who comprise the Fehl family - George, Christ and Nicholas Fehl- were their with their families, and the families of William and Henry Fehl were present. The ceremonies were performed in accordance with the custom of the church, the principal portions of which were the preacher's sermon and prayers, which were both touching. In his prayer the minister especially appealed for all firemen and that they might see the necessity of always being prepared for the dread summons of death.

During the sermon the daughter, Amelia aged 18, was overcome and fainted, but was speedily brought back to consciousness. The widow also lamented sorely over the dead and had to be removed from the casket almost by force. The remains left the house about 11:45 escorted by the following pall bearers: M. Kehoe, H. Loeser, J. F. Smith, Martin Hanlon, Fred Doer, James Warden, Julius Pillman, Sam Buchanan, who accompanied the remains to the Engine House 23, to join the other dead. The family went later, about 2:00pm, in time to join the funeral.

The scene at Engine house No 23 at 2:30 PM was thrilling. In front of the doors stood the three hearses side by side, waiting for their lifeless loads. A line of firemen facing our extended from the entrance half way across the street, where they touched the line of mounted police, which extended over the past half of Third Street, up St. Charles St., to Vine, down third St., and west on Washington Ave., the people massed there stopping traffic, so great was the overflow into the street. Within sight of the line of march business was suspended for an hour, the employees thronging to the windows and roofs to et a view of the procession.
Indoors the scene was no less animated though more subdued. The caskets were placed in the middle of the room where the apparatus usually stands. McDonald's was first, nearest the door, Hoell's next and McKernan's last. The three were in line and were lying east and west. The mourners sat in chairs which formed a half circle around the east end of the caskets. Just behind the row of chairs the floral tributes were placed. On the inside of the row, the public were rapidly passed, passing in on the south side of the caskets, and passed around the half circle and out at the north side. The dead lay facing west. The floral offerings made a beautiful barrier between the mourners and the crowd which had worked back against the horse stalls. Beginning at the right of the circle the floral offerings were as follows:

The Floral Offerings
The most striking were several graceful pompier and other ladders indicating the work of the dead. Probably the most touching tribute was that of the female help of the Mercantile Club to McKernan. The fire at the club some months ago endangered the lives of the girls who were rescued by Hook and Ladder No 3 of which McKernan was a member. This tribute of esteem and gratitude took the shape of a lovely pillow, inscribed " Rest " and a harp.

The interior of the engine house, as well as the exterior, was heavily draped, the long festoons of white and black depending from the hooks to which the apparatus is fastened. Under these swinging lines of crape, the immense crowds poured past. A little after 3 the procession formed as follows:

  • Mounted police
  • Herwig's band, seventeen pieces
  • Mayor Francis and Chief Lindsey in carriage
  • One hundred and four firemen on foot in uniform with white gloves.

The procession moved out Washington Ave. to Fifth to Olive, to Seventh to Pine, to Jefferson avenue, where the procession divided, half going with McDonald and McKernan to calvary and the other half to St. Paul's Cemetery on the Gravois road."Vera Readmon (Alexander Hoell youngest daughter) added" There's a little aftermath story- Grandmother Hoell, upon opening the casket of her husband and seeing the carried remains, turned white overnight and in turn became a sort of recluse and miser , taking all her children out of the special schools and activities they had participated in while their father lived.


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