Danbury News articles - Fires of 1889 - Commentary from outside Danbury regarding the "fire bug"

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Danbury News articles

Aug 14, 1889
How They View It.

Aug 17, 1889
Clippings of Local Interest.

Aug 17, 1889
The Fire-Bug Seen.

Aug 20, 1889
DANBURY FIRE ITEMS. -- Selections From the Meriden Journal's Correspondent. -- What Outsiders See.

Aug 22, 1889
That Flag.


These Danbury News articles contain excerpts from papers in the surrounding area, including New York City, that refer to Danbury and the epidemic of recent fires. The articles occur within one week, Aug 14th through Aug 20th of 1889, and were no doubt spurred by the 'Ives Court fire' of Aug 10th in which the remains of a man were found, followed by the continuation of a fire-setting spree the next night, Aug 11th, in which the J.M. Ives tin shop was set on fire and Byron Dexter Hat factory was totally destroyed. Both articles from Aug 17th suggest the use of Pinkerton detectives; one from the New York Evening World and the other from the Waterbury Republican. Our evidence shows that a Pinkerton detective did not arrive in Danbury until Jan 1891. The article that quotes the Meriden Journal suggests that it was not generally known, but that nine detectives had been employed by the city of Danbury. Of these said nine detectives, we have found no proof to confirm their existence in Danbury in 1889.



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[Danbury News – Aug 14, 1889]
How They View It.
Of course we are doing all that is possible to capture the fire bug, but we are not telling how we are doing it. In absence of this knowledge our exchanges are telling what they think of us and of the fire bug. This is interesting reading at any rate. Herewith are samples:
“The people of Danbury are to be commiserated. At such times no one rests safely, for no one can tell where the torch will be applied next. The fire fiend being abroad, it is impossible to predict when or where he will next turn in his devastating work. People sleep with one eye open.
This is a time when the police force of Danbury should wake up. That fire fiend should have been caught long ago. The citizens of the place owe it to themselves to take such measures as are necessary to strengthen the force of watchmen and detectives. It will not do to allow a man or gang of men to scatter their firebrands promiscuously in a large and thriving Connecticut city with immunity.
We hope that Danbury will exterminate the incendiary very shortly.” – Norwalk Gazette.

The outlook is bad indeed for the thriving city, and it is strange that with its reputation for enterprise it has not captured the fiends who are now known to be guilty of manslaughter as well as incendiarism. – Ansonia Sentinel.

It is not surprising that there is uncommon excitement in Danbury, Conn., over the large number of incendiary fires which have occurred recently. Thirteen fires have been reported in a week, four taking place on Monday night. Thus far no real clue to the author or authors of the fires has been discovered, though one or two arrests have been made. Under such circumstances it would seem natural for a large volunteer police force to be organized and a scrutinizing watch be kept for the incendiary. Why any one should have a spite against the town that he manifests in this way is a puzzling feature of the case. – New York Tribune.

It seems almost impossible that in a wide awake town like Danbury there should have been nearly forty incendiary fires in five months, involving serious loss of property, and even life itself, and as yet no one has been held to answer for the crime. The community ought to be sufficiently awake to the necessities of the occasion to constitute a vigilance committee large enough to prevent the repetition of these crimes. Danbury is fast acquiring an unenviable reputation in this business, and should move in the right direction as speedily as possible. – Standard. The frequency with which fires are started in Danbury, despite the vigilance of the authorities and the people generally, suggests that the incendiary is some insane person, who is as cunning as he is apparently reckless. – New Haven News.

The new city of Danbury has a duty to perform for the protection of the lives and property of its citizens which is of the highest importance. For the past five months the city has been infested with a fire bug or fire bugs, and a great deal of property has been destroyed by flames which have been undeniably set, as evidences of the work have been discovered in nearly every instance. It ought to be possible for the government of the municipality to ferret out and capture the fiend who is making life in Danbury very uncomfortable, not to say uncertain. Half way measures will not effect the capture of the villain. Detectives who are honorable and reliable in the pursuits of their calling should be put at work upon this matter and there can be little doubt that a few days would solve the problem. – Hartford Post.

It’s pretty near time those Danbury fire bugs were gathered in. Perhaps the Danbury police are waiting for them to apply a match to the police station. They would undoubtedly be perfectly safe in doing it. – Waterbury Democrat.

Our sister city, Danbury, deserves the sympathy of all right-minded people. She has a Jack-the-Ripper sort of a “fire bug,” whose works are all too visible, whilst he himself remains in inscrutable mystery. Fires burst out as if by magic at any time of day or night; valuable property is destroyed, lives are jeopardized, and even one was lost last week; the whole population is frenzied with alarm and indignation; the utmost vigilance is used to detect the incendiary; but all the same the fires go on with amazing frequency and destructiveness.
Let us tender this suggestion to the good people of our afflicted sister city: Offer a cash reward of $25,000 for the detection, arrest and conviction of these incendiaries, and there will bus such an influx of Pinkerton detectives and other fire bug hunters that every nook and corner of Danbury will be literally scoured bare by them. If the “bugs” continue then to ply their vocation with success and without apprehension, there would seem to be no relief from the scourge until the disease runs its natural course. – New Haven Palladium.

[Danbury News – Aug 17, 1889]

Clippings of Local Interest.
Of the Danbury incendiary The News of that city says: “It is not necessary that he should be taken alive.” This is a pretty loud call for a quiet New England town. – Hartford Post.

Perhaps London’s Jack the Ripper has escaped to Danbury and started in a new lay. – Waterbury Democrat.

The family of Jacks is growing. We have Jack, the Ripper, Jack, the Peeper, and Jack, the Fire Bug. Next! – New Haven Register.
The Danbury News tells a story, elsewhere quoted, of the alarming display of a black flag, nailed to a staff on the summit of a high hill near the city. In the local mind it was promptly associated with the long series of incendiary fires, and made a sensation on the chance day when a fire was lacking. As such flags are used in extended surveys, put up in the way so minutely described and left for indefinite periods, and , as the state survey is now going on, the flag may not be as portentous as some people supposed. – Hartford Courant.
Officer Dodds, who as a detective has a reputation far beyond Waterbury limits, thinking that the Danbury authorities are doing all that anybody could do to capture the fire bugs. No one realizes the amount of work necessary to catch them, and even if caught, it is necessary in catching them to secure enough evidence to convict them. The guilty party may be among the suspects who have been discharged for lack of evidence. Pinkerton men are undoubtedly at work on the case, and while they cannot work so easily on the case as the local men, yet it would not be surprising if the bug or bugs were captured I a few days. – Waterbury Republican.

[Danbury News – Aug 17, 1889]
The Fire-Bug Seen.
The New York Evening World of Friday, devoted two and a half columns to a greatly exaggerated and highly sensational articles about the recent fires in this city. After alluding to the three fires of Monday night the correspondent continues as follows:
Not satisfied with these three fires “Jack” started another one, and the fortieth of the series, about four o’clock on Tuesday morning.
Every one in town, wearied after the night’s excitement, was asleep, when a blaze lit up the stables of James S. Taylor, proprietor of the Opera House.
“Jack” had crawled under the structure and stuffed a lot of oil-soaked waste into a crevice beneath the stalls, and thus the fourth fire within seven hours was started.
The fiend’s matches must have been wet, for a number of them just singed on the ends were found about the waste, as if he had to try and try again before succeeding in firing the stuff.
This is but a slight example of the fellow’s coolness.
There were several stablemen asleep in the building at the time, and they would have undoubtedly been roasted to death but for a small dog which aroused them by whining.
They awoke to find themselves enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke, which would soon have suffocated them.
Waiting for nothing, they ran out into the open air and gave an alarm of fire, which was promptly responded to by the over worked firemen.
They put out the fire with much difficulty.
Armed guards patrolled the streets after that first daylight and business was resumed.
To say that the people are enraged is putting it mildly. Although several private detectives, in addition to the regular local men, have been on the watch for Jack for months, they have accomplished nothing.
The common council called a special meeting on Tuesday and decided to send to New York for detectives to ferret out the fire fiend.
Inspector Byrnes may be asked to loan a couple of his brightest men for the work.
If he refuses Pinkerton men will be employed.
The men who capture “Jack” will be rewarded with a competency that will keep them independent for a long time.
The business men of the town stand ready to chip I to any amount to reward the man or men who catch the rascal.
“Jack” made his presence felt here first towards the middle of March last.
A frame cottage, owned by a poor widow woman, was burned to the ground about 1 o’clock one morning.
She and her children had a narrow escape for their lives.
An investigation was made and it was found that the fire had been started intentionally and with the intention of roasting the inmates.
Rubbish soaked with oil was piled in front of the door, and each window and all were set ablaze about the same time.
The fiend’s plan would have succeeded in every respect only he overlooked a small window at the side of the house, and through this the widow and her children escaped.
“Jack” has no special hours to work in.
Any time between nightfall and daylight seems to suit.
On a Saturday night, on the busiest thoroughfare, when throngs of people were passing up and down, one of the largest business houses in town was set on fire.
The fire-bug respects neither the home of the rich or poor. He burns them all alike.
“Who can he be?” is the constant cry of the townspeople. They fear, and very naturally, too, that the time will soon come when a terrible loss of life will result from the firebug’s doings.
With one exception no one has ever seen Jack, although he has been constantly at work in their midst.
The exception is J. C. Price, who says:
“I was going home late one night, when I suddenly saw a sheet of flame burst through the windows of a house on my right.
“It was after midnight, but a bright, moonlight night.
“I saw no one but myself about until I ran forward to give an alarm, and then through an alleyway at the side of the house I saw a man skulking out.
“That man struck me as being the living semblance of Hyde, Dr. Jekyll’s evil spirit.
“The weather was cool and he wore a long kind of brown-colored coat, and was stooping like and looking behind him. He had a soft hat pulled well down over his eyes, and there was a look that was fiendish in its expression on his face.
“It was neither a laugh nor a snarl, but a combination of both, with everything else you can think. He did not seem to hear me until I was close to him.
“Then he turned and sped back through the alley with the speed of the wind. I hesitated for a moment, wondering whether to send out an alarm or follow him.
“That moment’s hesitation gave him time to escape. I felt so instantly, so I gave the alarm of fire.
“While doing so I heard two pistol shots in the rear of the building. That is Jack’s signal when he has built a good fire, and that was a good one.
“I wish now I had followed the fiend when I met him.” concluded Mr. Price.
The people believe Jack is crazy.
They say that no man in his sane senses would take the risks he does. He is bound to be captured sooner or later if he continues, and if he is caught red-handed Lord only knows what the enraged people will do with him. Rope and post are handy things in Danbury, and the Evening World reporter had heard more than one man say that hanging is too good for the wretch.
For a moment there is no response from the gaping, curious circle of visitors other than a shifting of shawls and an occasional sniffle.
One toothless woman, with withered face and palsied hands says, “We’re waiting for the child to die.” and at this announcement there is a chorus of affirmation.

[Danbury News – Aug 20, 1889]

Selections From the Meriden Journal’s Correspondent. – What Outsiders See.
The Meriden Journal sent a reporter to Danbury last week to write up the fires. Appended are a few selections:

The little city of Danbury, the largest community in western Connecticut, only nine miles removed from the New York border and lying in the midst of miles of rolling green hills and rich farms, is under the ban of a terror which stalks abroad under cover of the night and which rivals in mystery and in the degree of frenzied excitement it has produced among the people, and the appalling barbarities of recent horrors in the Whitechapel quarter of London. But while the Whitechapel monster carries a club and knife, the Danbury destroyer’s weapon is the incendiary’s torch. For three months he has kept the fledgling city, which has scarcely learned how to use its municipal wings, in a continual state of unrest and dread. In that period of time 40 fires have roused the town by their alarms at dead of night, and so apparent is it that their origin has been in incendiarism that the inhabitants have hardly dared to sleep, not knowing the hour or place when and where the skulking outlaws should next strike.


Up to the present time the property loss resulting from these fires is figured at $150,000. This is, of course, exclusive of the loss of trade, the interruption to industries and the money and time spent by the citizens to ferret out the criminals. One of the more recent fires was a funeral pyre, for in the ruins were found the incinerated remains of a man. This horror makes the crime of murder fit the fire bugs and has completed the resolve of the police and citizens to shoot them on sight.


When I reached Danbury on Thursday I found the fires the topic. People were grouped on the sidewalks talking it over. They were talking about it on the trains and in the depot. All the fire department houses were open, and the men, though volunteers, were on duty ready for a call. They have been up nearly every night for weeks and do not expect to get a chance to sleep or work again until the mystery is solved.


Nobody is able to offer any theory as to who would be likely to commit these outrages. Suspicion fastens upon nobody. Even the nine New York detectives who are working day and night in the employ of the city (though it is not generally known) can formulate no clue. There has been no recent trouble among the thirty hat shops. There was a strike eight years ago which threatened open hostilities at one time, but that is all gone by.


Owing to the activity of the officials and firemen, who are constantly on the alert, most of the fires have been extinguished before they could gain much headway, and the loss has been comparatively small.


On Monday night Mr. Mallory, a wealthy hat manufacturer, spent the night guarding his factory with a double barreled shot gun. On Tuesday night, a prominent citizen was stopped six times by armed men on his way home and compelled to identify himself. Attorney McCue had a revolver put to his head on his way home. A young man going to the station to meet a relative on a late train was stopped by a gun barrel four times, and Captain Keating of the police force, a man as well-known as Captain VanNostrand is in Meriden, was held up by a pistol in the hands of a citizen while parading the fire district. A reporter of The News was also halted and a lantern flashed into his face before he was released.


This series of outrages precipitated a crisis. The firemen where worn out, their hose was bursted, their machinery out of order from continual and hard usage. Their steamer, which came only three months ago, did good service, but was inadequate to cope with more than one fire at a time.
The result was that the city has been under an embargo every night during the past week. The citizens have constituted themselves a vigilance committee, and with the regular police and fire police, the latter numbering thirty-five men, patrol the city, all armed with guns and pistols. Every man found on the streets after 10 p.m. is challenged, and it is dangerous for strangers to go abroad after dark.
Some of the citizens carry in addition to their gun, a pistol full of liquid refreshment. This adds to their excitement.
Landlord Sam Booth, of the Wooster House, said, when he heard of my errand:
“Be careful how you go around after dark to-night. It’s dangerous. If any man had been seen acting suspiciously inside the fire district after Monday night’s fire, I don’t doubt he would have been shot.”
Landlord Booth’s house is the only rival of the Turner House, which formed the grand prize of the grand prize of the famous $150,000 Danbury lottery some years ago. There was great excitement over it and armed men had to hold the ticket holders back on the day of the drawing.
Mr. Booth showed me his meerschaum pipe presented to him by Howe, the millionaire sewing machine man. It is worth $250, and Mr. Booth has spent eight years coloring it. Comrade Morgan should see it.


Under the head of “Oddities of the Town.” the following is both interesting and fresh:
Everybody in Danbury wears a good hat, no matter how antique the rest of the costume may be. Another peculiarity is that they all wear derby fur hats, not a straw hat being seen on the streets. Landlord Booth wears the only one in the city, and every time he walks out with it, a crowd of curious natives follow him.
The Danburyites never go away summers. They have nice shady residences, and the breezes blowing over the rolling hills and fields are so cool that neither fashion nor comfort compels expensive trips to the shore.

Charles Burr Todd, the famous historian, now in the employ of the government, is another prominent character seen this summer on the streets of Danbury.
The fire excitement has almost entirely displaced talk about the big fair, which is the principal event of the season there. There is talk about placing the city under martial law if the incendiarism continues much longer.

[Danbury News – Aug 22, 1889]

That Flag.
A black flag, “five feet long and three feet wide” was discovered fluttering from a rude stick near the top of a rough hill know[n] as Terre Haute, Danbury, a few days ago, and immediately the public mind associated the gloomy rag with the fire-bug. As a matter of fact the black flag was nailed there by Sam Lynes, of Norwalk, who, while visiting his uncle, B.C. Lynes, made a tour of exploration with one of Mr. Lynes’ children and to please the child he tacked the black rag on the cliff to mark the height of their ascent. The rag was about 18 inches long and probably a foot wide. Danbury is very nervous. – Norwalk Gazette.




“Danbury News articles - Fires of 1889 - Commentary from outside Danbury regarding the "fire bug".” WCSU Archives, 9 July 2019. Accessed on the Web: 23 Sep. 2019.


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