Who Was Henry Johniken?

Who Was Henry Johniken?

A few months ago I wrote a story about the line of duty death of a young teenage fireman, Thomas Bramlett, from the City of Laurens which occurred back in 1889.  This story would have been lost to time had it not been for the research of that City’s Fire Chief and members of the department.  Well, once again, a story chronicling a fireman’s line of duty death back in 1900 has come to light which, again, would  surely have vanished from fire service history were it not for the curiosity and research of several Newberry firefighters.

According to The Newberry Observer, a barn belonging to Thomas Harmon located on Drayton Street caught fire about 3:00 A.M. on the morning of August 19, 1900.  The barn and its contents could not be saved from the flames even though the fire department responded.

Sadly, Henry Johniken, “a faithful member of The Eagle Reel Team, met death in a terrible manner at the fire.”

Excerpts from a Coroner’s inquest reveals that Henry Johniken, an African-American fireman assigned to The Eagle Reel Company of Newberry, responded to the alarm of fire at the Harmon property.  And, according to several witnesses of the incident, Fireman Johniken and two other members of the company “had hold of the hose, and he went to throw water on the wood pile after the barn had burned.” Apparently Johniken was scaling a fence to get closer to the fire and was unaware of an electric wire laying on the ground. The account of George Presley, a witness to the tragedy, states that “the wire threw two of the firemen, Henry Jackson and Robert Williams, clear off from it (the wire), and Henry Johniken was caught in it.”

Mr. Presley went on with his account by saying, Mr. Johniken hollered, “Pull me out”.  Presley stated that he tried to pull him out, but “the electricity shocked me so I had to turn him loose, and others tried to get him out, and they got shocked and had to turn him loose.  The newspaper reported that “an effort was made to have the current cut off at the power house, but it failed to be accomplished in time to save the unfortunate fireman.”  In the meantime, the Fire Chief, Otto Klettner, was successful in pulling the charged electric wire from between Fireman Johniken’s legs even though he, too, received an electrical shock.

Another Newberry fireman, Bill Watkins, stated to the inquest panel that he saw Henry Johniken get “tangled in the electric wire, and he fell on the wire and hollered, ‘pull me out’”.  Mr. Watkins further testified that “someone pulled me back and said it was electricity, and I stepped back, and when I seen him again he was dead.”  The newspaper reported that “the electric current struck the nozzle of the Eagles, being conveyed thither through the stream of water as it struck the live wire.  The firemen dropped the nozzle.”

The Coroner’s Report submitted by F. M. Lindsay (Newberry County Coroner), declared that “the said Henry Johniken came to his death from getting tangled in an electric wire being shocked thereby causing death instantly.”

A closing comment in the newspaper account appreciatively noted that “Johniken was a good fireman, and a faithful employee in the engine room of the Newberry Cotton Mills.  His funeral was largely attended by his brother firemen on Sunday afternoon.”

Interestingly, Fire Chief Klettner went on to be elected Mayor of Newberry that same year. And, with a bit of humor, it was discovered that Mayor Klettner’s tenue as Newberry’s Commander-in-Chief was briefly marred in 1902 when he was fined $1.00 “for spitting in the street.”

I don’t know about you, but these stories from our distant past are so fascinating and are filled with details that simply capture one’s imagination.  Hopefully in the next few months, the line of duty deaths of the young fireman, Thomas Bramlett, from Laurens and Henry Johniken will be appropriately honored by our Association, and the sacrifices they made to their communities will finally be given the honor they deserve.


  • Michael Parker, City of Newberry Fire Department
  • Andrew Morris, City of Newberry Fire Department
  • The Newberry Observer Archives (August 23, 1900)
  • City of Newberry Archives/Library
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