A narrow escape
Bob and Lily were seated
in the middle of the fourth row from the back in the
dress circle on the second floor at the Iroquois
Theater. As the fire and heat bore
down on them, Bob lifted Lily over the
seats and to the east wall of the auditorium where
were able to pass through
Door #33, clamber over bodies and jump down to a
landing. There Lily was pushed up against a
marble pillar as the crowd surged by in
its struggle to reach lobby exits from
the theater. Her spectacles were broken and
fell to the floor. "Bob was between me and
the crowd and by bracing himself partly protected
me, and swung and pushed me to the lower side of the
pillar, where progress was someone easier,"
Lillian reported in a later interview.*
Bob and Lily bios
Lily and Rob were the adult
daughter and stepson of widow Elizabeth Ann "Eliza"
Merriman Beach Howell (1837-1906). Elizabeth
had been widowed by the deaths of two husbands.
She first married Lillian's birth father, Francis E.
Beach (1844-1871), operator of a billiards parlor in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, then in 1874 married
Robert's birth father, Josiah Howell (1831-1894),
who had been widowed by the death of Robert's birth
mother, Elizabeth Clark Howell (?-1871), leaving him
with a two-year old and a six-year old. Josiah Howell met Elizabeth
Clark while participating in the
1853 Australian gold rush, marrying her in
Victoria in 1865.
Robert and his sister – Annie Howell Curtis (1865-1941)
– and two other siblings no longer surviving by 1880
– were born in
Ballarat Victoria Australia, before the family
emigrated to America and New York. Sometime
after Elizabeth Clark Howell's death in 1871, Josiah
Howell met Eliza Merriman Beach in Connecticut and
the pair merged their three offspring into a family
of five who in 1878 relocated to Dixon, Illinois
where Josiah opened a hardware store.
Lillian was thirteen then and Robert nine.
Lillian grew up to become the wife of
Edward C. Benjamin, a piano teacher and realtor
in Dixon whose father, Horace Benjamin, was an early
settler in the region. Lillian and Edward lived in
Freeport in 1902 but by 1903 were in Dixon.
Lillian's mother, Eliza Merriman, was related to
another of Dixon's founding families, the Judds.
was a man of varied interests. As a high
school senior in 1892 he'd been president of his
senior class (of nine students) and a member of the Young Republican Club.
He followed his father's footsteps into the retail
hardware business but after his father's death in
1894 seemed unable to find an occupation he could
stick to. (See right for more discussion of his
jobs.) After a failed effort to sell furnaces
in 1899, six months before the Iroquois Theater
fire he sold some of his Peoria street property in
Dixon to raise a stake with which to prospect copper
in Lewiston, Idaho. It was a venture made
to order for Robert. The copper company name - Eurika,
matched that of the historic 1850s Eurika rebellion
by gold miners in his birth city, Ballarat,
Victoria, that he'd almost certainly learned about
from his father. It might be that Bob worked as hard at playing as at working.
The Dixon newspaper captured moments of his hobbies
over the years, including billiards, horse racing,
duck hunting, intramural baseball and boating.
In the years after the fire
I did not find evidence that
Bob Howell married but he led an
interesting life. Immediately after the fire
he tried managing a Dixon office for a large
national stock brokerage, Floyd, Crawford & Co.
A month later the brokerage's license was suspended
by the Little Board, the Consolidated Stock
Exchange, when it was gutted in a utility shorting
scheme by the infamous Alfred R. Goslin. Retail
hardware was the only occupational theme for Bob,
and then only in his early years. A few years
after the fire he opened a hardware store on First
Street and Peoria in Dixon and he later worked in Chicago at
the Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett hardware store and in
1912 for Hinde Hardware in Riverside, California
(founded by a Illinois native,
Henry H. Hinde). He also tried to lease
his boat for scenic cruises on Rock River, worked
for Illinois Northern Utility and as a substitute
mailman in Dixon. He wintered in Riverside,
California in 1942 but during the last two to three
years of his life suffered health problems that
resulted in foot amputation and health problems that
left him confined in a nursing home in Dixon.
At his death his He left his property on first
street to the Dixon library.**
Her Iroquois experience did
not frighten Lily away from theaters. At the
end of her life she owned shares in a Dixon,
Illinois theater. Lily's husband, Benjamin,
died in 1913 so she spent the last thirty-seven
years of her life alone. Far from a solitary
existence, she was active on the hospital board,
traveled to spend time with friends and relatives,
entertained and seemingly sent off a notice of her
every move to the Dixon Telegraph newspaper.
Dixon remained her primary home for the rest of her
life, most of those years spent at 304 Peoria St.
While shopping and moving
about town from 1920 to 1923 Lily or Bob may have visited
the new C. C. Pitney shoe store in Dixon, managed by John
Reagan, or perhaps passed by John's son Ronnie on the
street. The Reagan family lived five blocks
from Lily's Peoria street home, in a modest rental on Hennepin St.
Nothing about it suggested it would become the
boyhood home best remembered by America's 40th
president, Ronald Reagan.
Hardware stores in Dixon
There were two Howell
families in the retail hardware business in
the little town of Dixon in the late 1890s.
One was the Alexander & Howell store on
Galena street owned by Philip Maxwell
Alexander and George L. Howell. To
confuse things a bit more, Philip Alexander
was married to his partner's sister, named
Eliza Howell Alexander. If George and
Eliza were related to Josiah, I failed to
find the connection. When George
Howell and Philip Alexander died, George
Howell's son Edward N. Howell (1863-1929)
took over the store and in 1898 changed the
name to E.N. Howell. It would later be
purchased by the Masseys and go on to become
an Ace store. Edward did much for the
development of parks in Dixon thus there
remains today a Howell Park. The other
Howell hardware store was the one owned by
the Josiah Howell in this story, located on