Hero Fund celebrates 120 years

A look back at the Hero Fund’s first years and its 120th.

The Carnegie Hero Fund turned 120 on April 15.

At 3:30 p.m. on that date in 1904, Hero Fund President Charles L. Taylor called the inaugural meeting of the Hero Fund to order. The board met to discuss the Hero Fund’s Deed of Trust, penned by Andrew Carnegie the previous month, the “rules and regulations for the efficient operation of the Hero Fund,” and each member present accepted Carnegie’s appointment of them.

Nineteen of the 21 Hero Fund members attended the meeting, held in Room 1111 in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Building, which was later torn down. Several resolutions were passed to organize the Hero Fund, but the first resolution, proposed by the Rev. Dr. W. J. Holland, thanked Carnegie for his trust in them.

“We, the trustees of the Hero Fund, desire at this, our first meeting … to express to Mr. Carnegie our appreciation of the high honor which he has conferred upon us in inviting us to administer the affairs of the trust which he has created, and thus in some measure to share with him in the pleasure of doing good,” read the Minutes of the first meeting.

Perhaps the most important business at the meeting including acceptance of the Hero Fund’s seed money, $5 million in U.S. Steel bonds from Carnegie, “upon which you can draw the interest regularly,” Carnegie wrote in a March 12 letter to Taylor.

Several more meetings were held in 1904, largely establishing the Hero Fund’s bylaws, the requirements for the Carnegie Medal, and the design of the medal itself.

By Oct. 19, 1904, the Commission had received 139 letters alleging the performance of heroic acts and seven of them had been investigated by asking those involved or who had witnessed the heroism to send in written accounts of what they saw or experienced.

“But in all cases, it is the feeling of the Executive Committee that before reaching a final decision it is desirable that the localities where the alleged acts of heroism were performed should be visited by a representative of the Commission, who may ascertain all the facts more clearly that we have been able to ascertain them through correspondence,” said Holland, chairman of the executive committee, as reported in the Oct. 19 meeting minutes.

By the following April, the Hero Fund had hired a special agent who was traveling the U.S. and Canada investigating cases, as well as the Hero Fund’s first disaster appropriation – the R. B. Grover & Company’s shoe factory fire in Brockton, Massachusetts, that left 59 people dead, 90 people seriously injured, and 126 people without a breadwinner in the family.

The Commission would not make any awards until May, when it contributed $10,000 to the relief fund established for “the relief of sufferers” affected by the shoe factory fire. It also reviewed 16 reports of heroic acts investigated by the special agent and reviewed by the Fund’s executive committee. They voted to award medals to seven men and two women, ranging in age from 17 to 44, in nine of the 16 cases: a Pittsburgh drowning and suffocation case, water rescues in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and Ontario, and an ice rescue in Iowa.

Since the first awards, 10,422 Carnegie Medals have been earned and distributed. Since the inception of the Commission, the number of yearly awards has ranged from 40 in 1945 to 174 in 1966, resulting in an average of 87 Carnegie Medal recipients each year.

In 2023, 65 individuals received the Carnegie Medal for Heroism, including a case involving a shooting at a Birmingham, Alabama, church potluck in which a 79-year-old subdued the assailant who was armed with a semi-automatic handgun and actively firing shots.

The most frequent awarded type of act in 2023 was drowning (24 cases), followed by burning building (16 cases), assault (7 cases), submerging vehicle (6 cases), and burning vehicle (5). Historically drowning cases, burning vehicles, burning buildings, suffocation, and rescues from the path of a moving vehicle comprised the top five most frequently awarded acts. During the last decade, the top five types of cases were drowning, burning vehicles, burning buildings, assault, and submerging vehicles.

Drowning cases continue to be the deadliest of acts — historically 56% of all posthumous awards are in drowning cases and 32% of all drowning cases that have resulted in a Carnegie Medal were given posthumously. In 2023, 13 of the 16 posthumously-awarded medals were for drowning. The other three were burning building, moving vehicle, and submerging vehicle cases. About 24% of the cases awarded last year were posthumous, a higher percentage than the Fund’s historical percentage of 20%.

Recipients ranged in age from 15 to 79 years old and came from 28 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, which is a typical geographical representation for the Hero Fund.