Trials by Fire

Trials by Fire

Arson is among the most destructive and deadly crimes. On Christmas Day 2019, an arsonist set fire to the historic Walter Camp house on Chapel Street, destroying its third floor and damaging the rest. Earlier that year, a fire set at the Diyanet Mosque on Middletown Avenue was also determined to have been set intentionally.

But local arson can be traced almost as far back as New Haven records go. In his book The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials from the New Haven Colony, 1639–1663 (2015), New Haven author and Connecticut Superior Court judge Jon C. Blue writes of three colonial arson cases, all of them involving suspects who were children. The first, logged in 1656, involved a 14-year-old servant named John Frost, who confessed to setting a fire in his employer’s barn. On a Sunday in March, “e went to a haystack near the barn and on purpose kindled some hay, with the intent to burn both hay and barn. He left the hay smoking and went to the meetinghouse without any endeavor to put it out,” Blue recounts. Along with the hay and the barn, the fire also burned down the house of Frost’s employer, William Gibbard. “When Frost saw what had happened,” Blue writes, “he repented and was sorry for what he had done.” His motivation, he told the court, was that his master had hit him and whipped him on several occasions, which Gibbard agreed was true: “e thought boys sometimes deserve this punishment.”

“Given Frost’s full and free confession, the court seriously considered what God called for in this case,” Blue writes. Frost was also young and “‘somewhat childish in his way.’” His life was spared, but his sentence was heavy: He was to remain in servitude for 21 years; “the profits of Frost’s servitude” would be given to those who sustained losses in the fire; and he was to be whipped “severely.” Further, he was to “‘wear a halter about his neck and a small light lock upon his leg,’” and he was also ordered to stand in the stocks. If he left the area, he could be executed. Frost remained in the colony and made another unfortunate appearance before the court six years later, in 1662, charged with “serious sexual crimes against children,” Blue writes. He was, by then, “a well-known offender in the town.”

The court’s treatment of Frost was not unusual. Indeed, New Haven’s handling of its youthful offenders seems as criminal at times as the crimes themselves. A 12-year-old servant named Jacobus Loper was accused of setting fire to two houses within one week in 1660, burning the first one to the ground. He switched up his story each time he was interrogated, sometimes blaming “seamen” who had come to the door, sometimes taking the blame himself. The motivation he gave for setting fire to both homes was the fact that he’d been accused of stealing plums by the owner of the first house and beaten for the crime by his master, the owner of the second house. Loper also told the court that in burning down his master’s house, he’d hoped he might be freed and sent home to his mother. He was punished with a whipping and required to repay double the cost of what he had destroyed. “If Loper or others on his behalf did not satisfy this amount,” Blue writes, “he was to be ‘sold for a servant.’” The boy owned only a blanket and a pillow. What ultimately became of him is untold. A third child, who committed arson by burning down her master’s barn, was dealt with equally harshly in 1663.

As the city moved forward, arson kept pace. An 1880 case had familiar notes of vengeance. According to an account in the New Haven Evening Register, Michael C. Doherty and Thomas Reilly were accused of setting fire to the Orchard Street home of William Wrinn in December of 1878. “he accused had been employed by Wrinn, who was boss of the finishing shop of the Mathushek Piano company in West Haven,” the paper reported. “They were discharged and followed Wrinn about one evening, having words with him in a Congress Avenue saloon and at his home. They went off vowing vengeance.” The men were accused of setting a fire in Wrinn’s wood bin and another on his front portico kindled with shavings from the pickets of his own fence. Wrinn’s wife woke up, and the fire was extinguished, doing little damage. The accused were released on $1,000 bond each and make no further appearance in the paper.

Perhaps the city’s most tragic case of arson occurred on May 7, 1974, when “ight people, including a pregnant woman and two infants, were killed in a blaze at a four-story duplex apartment at 30 Castle Street,” according to the book New Haven Firefighters (2005), published by Images of America. “Eight people leaped from the building in the fast-spreading fire that was fueled by gasoline from an arsonist. Firefighters arrived on the scene to screams of ‘Fuego! Fuego!’” The New York Times reported, “Several children were saved when they were tossed to bystanders in the street.”

A January 1984 four-alarm fire at the vacant U.S. Steel plant on Fairmont Avenue, also set intentionally, claimed the life of a New Haven firefighter. “One building was left a burned-out shell and two others suffered some damage at the 34.5-acre complex before fighters were able to bring the blaze under control,” New Haven Firefighters recounts. “Efforts by firefighters were severely hampered by the winds, deep snow, and long distance from street hydrants to the location of the main fire at Building No. 8.”

Naturally, the city has been the site of attempts to track and prevent this deadly crime. In the early 1980s, New Haven fire chief John P. Reardon created a computerized system to help predict where arson might occur. Named the Arson Warning and Prevention Strategy (AWPS), it was picked up and used by other municipalities. In the fall of 1994, the authorities themselves set fire to a house and filmed it “in hopes of learning how to improve arson investigations,” as reported in National Underwriter magazine.

According to the US Fire Administration, between 2009 and 2018, 4.2% of residential fires and 9.8% of nonresidential fires in the nation were intentionally set. Recent arson attempts here, from a pair of Molotov cocktails aimed at two police substations last June to the more damaging fires at the Camp house and the mosque, show this age-old crime isn’t yet local history.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image by fluke samed/Shutterstock.

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