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Danbury's "Firebug" of the 1880s-1890s

 

Danbury, Connecticut in January 1891 had endured most of the preceding three years plagued by arson. Danburians of that period were on the one hand proud of their hometown’s new status as a City which had just been chartered in April 1889, but on the other hand apprehensive; the old familiar streets were more crowded and the political establishment was in an unprecedented state of upheaval. The population had nearly doubled over the preceding decade and the new city was in dire need of sidewalks, roads and sewers. There was also substantial municipal debt. It is amidst the upheaval or even perhaps as a result of it that some person or persons determined that setting fires, among the largest the area had seen up to that point, would influence the course of the City. Blame for the fires was pinned on a person or persons the Press referred to as the "Firebug," but after three years and seemingly no closer to catching the "Firebug," in 1891, authorities resorted to hiring at great expense an operative from Pinkerton's National Detective Agency to help. The preponderance of correlations between the political atmosphere and the rise and fall in the number of fires, while not direct evidence of a politically motivated “Firebug,” are at least worth noting. For example, the number of fires increased around the deliberations over the City Charter, elections, firemen’s wage negotiations, the change to a paid fire department, and the naming of the City’s first Fire Chief. If there was a “Firebug” agenda, support for that agenda in some quarters may explain why there were no real arrests and why the “Firebug” ceased in 1893. Research also unearthed a long-forgotten figure in Danbury’s history and perhaps the real hero of this story, Chief Engineer Morris Meyers of the Danbury Fire Department.

 

The "Firebug" from 1888 to 1893 caused the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in damage around Danbury and in such close proximity were many of the fires that there was an area dubbed to be the "Firebug District." The total number of fires is nearly impossible to determine but the number of probable "Firebug" fires and attempts were at least between 70 and 75.

The “Firebug's” most common method for setting the fires was the use of kerosene or waste oil as an accelerant. This was either applied directly on a structure or soaked into rags or trash which would be stuffed into some part of a structure. The targets were mostly barns, factories and industrial areas; however, there were also a couple instances of tenement houses being targeted with the apparent intent of having as high a death toll as possible.

The transition from volunteer to paid fire departments in other parts of the U.S. had caused violent reactions and paid firemen were often regarded by some of their volunteer counterparts as less manly and "lager-beer Germans." Even the introduction of steam engines and horse drawn fire apparatus were seen by some supporters of the volunteer system as crutches the inferior paid departments needed to supplant the volunteer system. According to Bailey, Danbury purchased its first steam engine in 1889. However, it appears that the volunteer-to-paid transition was not the only significant upheaval among Danbury firemen.

c. 2012-13, Brian Stevens WCSU Archives

Credits

Research conducted by Brian Stevens, Mary Rieke, Gillette de Bary, and Theodore Billett with assistance from Kait O'Brien and Christina Mastriani.