Claude Herbert, having just returned home from the Spanish-American War, desperately needed a job to care for his newly-widowed mother. Luckily, the Havens and Geddes Department Store was in need of a Santa Claus. Located on Fifth and Wabash in Terre Haute, Indiana, the store was the largest department store in Indiana and took up the entire block.
On December 19, 1898, just a few days after being hired, veteran Claude Herbert (aged 18) found himself in the middle of a raging fire. He, along with about thirty children, were in the basement of the building when a incandescent light bulb exploded in a display window. The fire quickly spread.
Claude, while still in character, was successful in leading many children outside to safety. Stories differ on how many times Claude went back into the building, but witnesses can agree on his heroic deeds. According to one account, Claude ran back into the building after a mother screamed that her three-year-old child, Nettie Welch, was still in the building. Claude found the child in Santa’s Chair and carried her out to the safety of her mother.
After saving the children, Herbert shed his Santa Claus suit before going back into the inferno to save trapped sales clerks. On his second to last trip, a bystander shouted to Claude, “Come out, come out.” Claude responded, “No, I’m going back. There’s plenty of time […] and maybe there’s someone down there.” Those he went to rescue in that final attempt had fled from another exit. He, a new employee unfamiliar with the store’s layout, was unable to find this exit before being overtaken by the flames.
Fellow soldiers of Claude’s regiment worked to find Claude in the rubble. What remained of this hero was buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery.
Three other people perished in the fire: firefighter John Osterloo, volunteer firefighter Henry Nehf, and store clerk Katie Maloney. The building was completely demolished (about $2 million in property damage) and other buildings were affected as well.
Visitors of the cemetery have reported seeing orbs around the Herbert family mausoleum, sometimes catching this supernatural phenomenon on camera. Is Claude continuing to protect the people of Terre Haute? I think so.
Hood, Ashley. Haunted Terre Haute. Haunted America, 2019.
Huntington Weekly Herald, Huntington, Indiana, 23 Dec 1898, p. 8.