She tore up burning roof shingles bare-handed to douse 1905 Berkeley fire

Mary Shaplin, who was recovering from an illness, jumped into action when the roof of her neighbor’s adjoining house in downtown Berkeley caught fire more than a century ago.

A photograph of Mary “Lutie” Shaplin and an illustration of her heroism appeared in the July 7, 1905, edition of the San Francisco Call.

In 1996 the Berkeley Historical Society gave me a two-foot-high stack of bound volumes of the Berkeley Daily Gazette, otherwise destined for the trash heap. As soon as I’d lugged the papers home, I felt compelled to crack them open.

The first story I read was an article about Mary Shaplin, who had completed school only to the fifth grade. It appeared in the July 6, 1905, edition of the paper. When I finished reading it, I wanted to run outside and yell her name in every direction over and over. I felt a sense of responsibility that people needed to know her and remember her. She was a heroine, someone who risked her life to avert a fiery disaster and save the life of a neighbor.

Mary (also known as Lucy and Lutie) Radley had a long romance with her husband-to-be, Samuel N. Shaplin. In May 1903, when Mary was 29 and Samuel 32, the couple married.

By 1905, they had moved from San Francisco into a downtown Berkeley home at 1924 Louisa St. (now called Bonita Street). That was the year Daisy, Mary Shaplin’s 10-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, graduated fifth grade at the Whittier School, then on Allston Way. Shaplin’s mother, Catherine C. Havens, also lived with them. Sam had a good and steady job with the Western Union Telegraph Company and, while relatively new to the neighborhood, Shaplin seemed to be well connected to her Berkeley neighbors.

The morning of July 5, 1905, began slowly, according to the Gazette’s account of the day’s happenings. Shaplin was still feeling punky, recovering from an illness, but got herself out of bed and dressed in a white spring dress to her ankles, as was the style in those days.

Late that afternoon, a potential catastrophe started smoldering. Shaplin’s neighbor, Mrs. Peterson, who lived across the street, saw smoke billowing from the roof of the home adjoining Shaplin’s. In the unit lived Mrs. Whitman, who had just returned from the hospital after being treated for heart failure. Her husband, Clark, a house painter, wasn’t home.

Peterson was in a quandary. As the Gazette reported it, she worried that if she told Whitman, who was then sitting on her porch, that her house was on fire, it might cause her weakened heart to give out. So she sought help from Shaplin. Shaplin and Mrs. Whitman were not just neighbors, but friends.

The Berkeley Daily Gazette, July 6, 1905.

Shaplin somehow knew instinctively just what to do, and she did not squander a moment. She quickly procured a 10-foot ladder from another neighbor and told Mrs. Peterson to grab her garden hose and bring it to her. She rushed to the rear of Whitman’s unit and slammed the ladder against the house. Then she sprang up the ladder to its highest rung but was still a few feet shy of the roof. Without a moment’s hesitation, Shaplin saw a wooden cleat nailed to the wooden siding, leaned over and grabbed it with both hands, vaulting herself to the gable roof with the strength of her arms and scrambling feet. Seeing the fire, it became immediately clear that she must quickly strip off her waist (a Victorian term for a bodice or blouse) and her long white dress, after realizing the likelihood of the clothing catching fire and engulfing her. Next, she moved on to the fire. She ably directed Peterson to pass her the garden hose — then grabbed it with one hand, walked up the slope of the roof and closed in on the flames.

Without hesitation and one-handed, she doused water on the areas where the flames were emanating and with her other bare hand she began pulling up the burning and blackened shingles. Braving the smoke and heat from a number of spots, she focused on her job —tearing up shingles to reveal the source of the flames on the rafters below them. Then she pointed the hose into the holes and started spraying. She stood there firmly for 15 minutes, hosing the fire until she was convinced it had been extinguished.

Another neighbor, Alan G. Clarke, the deputy county assessor, overheard the commotion and pulled a nearby fire alarm that the newly minted Berkeley Fire Department had recently installed. (The professional paid fire department had begun to replace Berkeley’s fabled volunteers the year before, but volunteers would still have been relied upon in 1905.)

The fire department, likely the old Marston Hose Company No. 2 at Addison Way and Shattuck Avenue, responded immediately with professional swiftness, only to find a woman, half-undressed, standing on the gable roof. Without tools or gloves, she’d already completed the firemen’s main job. Their most pressing task remaining was to help her down from the roof. They leaned a ladder against the house, but she insisted on climbing down it on her own.

The volunteer firefighters and horse of the Marston Hose No. 2 at Addison Way and Shattuck Avenue in 1901. It was the same station used by the professional Berkeley Fire Department when it was formed in 1904. Some of these very men likely responded to the alarm at 1926 Louisa St. in 1905. Berkeley Fire didn’t become a fully motorized department until about 1914. Courtesy: Berkeley Firefighters Association

Poor Mrs. Whitman didn’t know of the event until it was over. When she learned of her neighbor’s exploits, “she fainted and has since suffered from the shock so poignantly that a physician’s care has been necessary,” the San Francisco Call reported two days later.

One wonders what would have happened if Shaplin had remained in bed. The determined and wild leap atop the roof could have easily cost Shaplin her life. She later told of the blisters and minor burns on her blackened hands, and the soreness in her arms, from pulling up the burning shingles.

After the fire, Shaplin became a bit of a celebrity, praised for her “rare exhibition of nerve and presence of mind in an emergency” in the San Francisco Call. Shedding her clothes was only “disconcerting for a few moments,” she told the paper, which reported: “When it became apparent that such an unusual measure was demanded by the peculiar situation she hesitated no longer and so the unique performance was rounded out with true melodramatic flavor.”

Women in the potentially flammable style of dress worn by Mary Shaplin pose on Spruce Street, the old county road. Courtesy: Penny Herns Adams

When friends came to congratulate her on her heroism, she replied (befitting of a hero) that she had not “done anything remarkable.”

The community continued to heap praise upon her. Shortly after the incident, she was named warden in the California Rebekah Lodge (a women’s auxiliary of the Odd Fellows). And early in 1906, she was elected president of the McKinley Circle No. 31 of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The site of Mary Shaplin and Mrs. Whitman’s homes, photographed in 1953, after the building was remodeled. At the time of the fire, the two homes were just one story, with no ground-floor shop. In 1907, the owner raised them to a second floor above a new commercial space. The section of the building, at right, with white paint and horizontal siding, is where Mrs. Whitman lived; the rest of the building, dark in the photo, is part of the addition. Shaplin and her husband, Samuel, moved out at the time of the remodel. Courtesy: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

In 1907, the Shaplin family moved back to San Francisco. And sometime in 1910, Shaplin’s husband, Samuel, began to act strangely in what had been an apparently happy marriage. He began to threaten her physically and insult her in front of her friends. (His wife said he didn’t ever act on his threats.) Soon he ordered her out of the house. Divorce at the time was much less common than it is today, but Mary Shaplin was granted one on Aug. 8, 1910. Samuel offered no defense.

Afterward, Shaplin lived her life in the noble and friendly way she always had, and in August 1911, Shaplin, then 36, who went as Lucy R. Shaplin and listed her profession as dressmaker, married 40-year-old Louis P. Podesta, a San Francisco butcher.

After her marriage, she and Daisy moved from 402 Grove St. in San Francisco to 514c Hayes St. Her mother remarried, living until 1935. The Podesta couple stayed together, later enjoying retirement, until her death, on Dec. 20, 1941, at age 68. She was then living in Marin County, likely at her daughter Daisy’s home. Mary Shaplin. Shout her name. The earth remembers these things.


This story is based on an article published in Richard Schwartz’s book “Berkeley 1900, Daily Life at the Turn of the Century.”

It draws from the Berkeley Daily Gazette, the San Francisco Call and many other accounts and records from the period. Schwartz offers a special thanks to Mike Flynn, a former Berkeley Fire Department historian who rehabilitated the old Berkeley Firefighters’ Association collections; to firefighter David Gabriner, current department historian for his timely input and perspective; to Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association historian Anthony Bruce, an omnipresent erudite scholar; to Freya of the San Francisco History Center at the SFPL, for her able and enthused research results; and to Berkeley Historical Society co-founder Burl Willis, whose generosity got this whole 25-year project started.

Schwartz, a Bay Area historian, is also the author of four other award-winning books: “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis,” “Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees,” “Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley” and “The Circle of Stones: An Investigation of the Circle of Stones in Stampede Valley, Sierra County, California.” You can learn more about his work on his website.